At a dinner a few months ago, I announced to friends that I was off on a secular pilgrimage to Malana, the mountaintop village near Parvati Valley in Himachal Pradesh. Hundreds from around the world make the trek every year, drawn not by the hamlet’s spectacular Himalayan setting, but for something more notorious — Malana Cream, the world’s best quality hashish. Since the 1960s, when hippies first came here from their bliss-filled abode in Manali, it has been deemed the ultimate destination for potheads. Cannabis, or marijuana, abounds here both as wild growth and in cultivated fields. And despite the fact that under the 1985 Narcotics Act possession of charas is punishable by up to a year in the slammer, it is believed that the Kullu region alone produces upwards of 10 tonnes of the substance every year, much of which makes its way to Europe and America.

“Holy smoke,” my hostess exclaimed, “Why would you want to engage in a two-hour struggle up sheer mountainside to arrive at a village in the middle of nowhere, with no hotel accommodation, no television and poor network coverage? Besides, with all that cannabis floating about, it’s bound to be unsafe.”136-137-Malana-2

I pack my rucksack, and with two friends — Krish and Reyansh — fly from New Delhi to the Bhuntar airport in the stunning Kullu Valley in Himachal Pradesh. Our first destination is Kasol, a village around 33 km away, along the Parvati Valley which over the years has become overrun by Israeli backpackers. The drive through the green valley and the apple orchards is stunning. Kasol, as predicted, has Israel written all over it including Hebrew signboards and food. But a few days here and you get a feel of Malana instantly, even if you are miles away. There is pot everywhere. The best that I enjoyed was on brightly-coloured rugs strewn across the welcoming interiors of the numerous Israeli restaurants. Apart from taking in the tranquil surroundings there isn’t much to do here.

A 20-minute drive out of Kasol is Jari, a busy little village straddling the highway. This is the starting point for our trek into Malana. The guidebook instructs us to turn off at the Malana Power Project and drive a few kilometres onward till we reach the end of the constructed road. From here, following the row of small huts populated by shepherds rearing their sheep and a gushing river, it is a three-hour uphill trek to the village which lies at a height of nearly 10,000 feet.

Our climb is through a pine-forested valley, up sheer mountain slopes, looking for the natives who live somewhere in this never never land. The mountain is a place of wisdom but few words. It knows a great deal about life and death, cares not about wealth or status, and is unforgiving of careless mistakes. Malanese folk know these lessons only too well as they toil three hours up and three hours down the mountain face, bundles of wood strapped to shoulders that are desiccated by the sun into tough leather.

Once you get into the trek you can’t stop. Every track has a plot, each dry twig that crackles underfoot tells a story. I am reminded of an online article I read about Malanese preserving their ecological heritage and how the villagers prohibit hammering nails into trees and lighting fires in forests. Faces of the Malanese that could well have come off limestone reliefs from a thousand years ago, crease into smiles when they see me stumble over rubble and rock. The natives are as tough as the land, while I feel as fragile as a computer keypad.

136-137-Malana-4 We’ve been climbing for close to two hours now. A village is spied in the distance but the journey is far from over. A wishbone thin man pounces at us from behind a rock. “Why coming here?” he cries, thumping his chest impressively in true Tarzan fashion. “Just looking,” we say. He whistles piercingly. A whistle echoes in response. We are allowed to continue our uphill struggle in the glaring sun. The homes of the villagers look battered and clawed at, like rotten teeth in receding gums. I’m reminded of the words of dream-shooters who said before I left, “Oh Malana is spoiled by the poverty, the dirt, the fire that destroyed the ancient homes…With warmer weather and diminishing rainfall even the cannabis harvest does not quite measure up to what it used to be…” To me the idea of a bygone golden age doesn’t seem a good enough reason not to visit a place. And truth be told, Malana has intriguing depth and complexity. Once you look beyond the flotsam.

This tiny village, which considers itself a republic of its own, is supposedly ruled by a devta and has its own complex system of parliament and caste. It has been keeping the rest of the world at bay for what seems like forever. Legend has it that the villagers are descendants of Greek soldiers who found refuge here after deserting and escaping from Alexander’s army.

A woman with half the world mapped into the lines on her face and several whirlpools piercing each ear, poses for my camera — but takes care to stay a yard away from me. I attempt to show her the images captured in my viewfinder, but she shies away like a terrified lamb. According to local belief, I’m the impure one until I’ve established credible descent. Ideas of caste and pollution by outside contact are strongly ingrained in the village. Perhaps some wise man once called the tribesmen together and cautioned them thus, “In time to come, strange persons from the city and white people from abroad will arrive wearing jeans and sunglasses. They can’t be trusted. They are greedy for the marijuana you cultivate in abundance. Safeguard yourselves, your identity and your crop, my people.”138-139-Malana-1

A one-armed dwarf of a man in a shirt that is just grubby ribbons calls from the balcony of a house built of alternate bands of timber and stone, “The police are afraid to come to the village. They know the consequences from God, our Jamlu Devta, if they try.” But in the same instant, he gives us a conspiratorial wink and offers to roll me a joint. We climb to the top floor above the khudang or shed, where the firewood and fodder for the sheep is stored, and seat ourselves on the floor around a smoking cauldron, by a shabby cot, next to an open veranda that looks out over the village, overrun with gorgeously grubby apple-cheeked babies. We sit in companionable silence, smoking a shared pipe.

What moves my pen, my heart, my joint is the generosity of the man with the taut parchment skin and ribs like the cracks in a baked road. Not only does he appear more than happy to share his pipe with us, he also urges us to stay until the evening for the Fagdi Mela which occurs, he tells us, every February. “Since you can’t remain here until the next one — the Badoh Mela in August — stay till the evening,” he says. Friendship dissolves caste hierarchy before my eyes. Even the dictat of the oracles that prohibit over-familiarity with strangers is set aside for the moment. Reading between the joints, the Malanese aren’t as averse to outsiders as they’re made out to be, they’re just a people who appear subconsciously aware of the acute need to preserve their own identity.