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Strain Hunting in India’s Cannabis Heartland

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  • Photos: Ashish Shashidharan

India, traditional heartland of cannabis, has a story to tell. For thousands of years, it’s been home to a stunning diversity of landrace strains, providing the global cannabis community with the parent stock for some of the most prized varieties available today.

We’ve come to India to meet with Irrazin and Shree from the Indian Landrace Exchange. The two will lead us from the metropolis of Delhi to the remote mountain village of Malana to explore local cannabis customs and learn about the abundant diversity of landraces in the area, as well as to discuss their long-term plans and ambitions for cannabis in India.

Our group comprises myself and my fiancé, Jaco; Irrazin, key member of the Indian Landrace Exchange and holder of deep, abundant cannabis wisdom; Shree, a bright, dynamic young grower, charras enthusiast, and all-round hustler; Ashish, photographer, grindcore vocalist and expert imitator of accents; and Krishna, AKA Edwin Dimitri, an accountant with a sparkling wit and a love of all things science.

Dank in Delhi

We begin in Delhi, where we are taken to a small, clandestine indoor grow op—one of a small but rising number. The crew, led by Shree and his partner, Deepak, are testing cultivars they hope will make it in the extreme heat of India, using a harsh—but effective—method.

Mama-ji's Fields
Mama-ji’s Fields

To “weed out” the weak plants with insufficient heat resistance, the crew discontinues the ventilation and AC for three straight days during the vegetative period, exposing the young plants to the full force of the Delhi summertime heat. By the end of this period, most of the plants in the room will be dead—but the few survivors will be grown out and used as the basis for breeding more heat-resistant varieties.

This brutal effort is a necessary means of future-proofing Shree’s crops, and maybe cannabis worldwide. Many expect Delhi’s already extreme temperatures to increase as climate change continues to exert its already-tangible effects. The majority of breeders in the world focus on cannabinoid and terpene content; only a small, farsighted minority, including Shree, recognize the need for heat and drought-resistant varieties that can be grown without vast energy expenditure.

Climate change is a present-day reality, not a future fear, one that that makes itself known many times during our expedition. Later that day, our departure for Himachal Pradesh is delayed by the mother of all thunderstorms—“just a little pre-monsoon rain,” Irrazin says with irony. The early arrival of monsoon weather is yet another sign of the changing climate, and is already affecting crop cycles throughout the region.

What Is the Indian Landrace Exchange?

Irrazin first conceptualized the Indian Landrace Exchange in 2015, when he began to frequent Internet message boards dedicated to cannabis breeding. He formed relationships with breeders from across the world, although mostly concentrated in the USA, who impressed on him the importance of Indian cannabis stock.

“I knew that these Indian landrace seeds were important,” Irrazin shares. “I knew that they were the backbone of some of the world’s most famous cultivars—but at the time, I didn’t quite grasp the full potential . . . How far we could go, how much we could give back to the villagers.” He refers to the denizens of Malana, who cultivate these important plants in extreme isolation from the rest of the world.

In this rich, loamy clay soil, cannabis grows unhindered with minimal human intervention, free to reproduce and express whatever traits work best in its environment.

Irrazin devised an idea to build up an inventory of landrace seeds collected from local farmers, exchange them with breeders throughout the world, and distribute the profits back to those farmers. He then created a Facebook page for the new concept: the Indian Landrace Exchange.

“The idea was to create an unbroken chain of resources for both parties,” describes Irrazin. “The breeders get seeds that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to, and the villagers get goods that they don’t have access to.”

Hash Oil
Hash Oil

The Indian Landrace Exchange began to develop a reputation in the industry, mobilizing contacts in Manipur, Rajasthan, South India and Kashmir for the purpose of seed collection and inventory building. By December 2017, the team designed an official logo and started distributing packaged, labeled seeds in an organized manner.

“We began to build up a clientele and make some money,” Irrazin explains. “Of course, we keep some for our travel expenses, to make sure everybody’s taken care of. Then, we give back a certain amount to the farmers that supply the seed, either cash or goods that they can’t otherwise get hold of.”

 

The Cannabis Plants of Malana

After a rough journey into the Himachal Pradesh region, including a bus, a taxi and a two-hour hike, we reach Malana. Here, lush fields carpet the slopes; a diverse abundance of plants occupy all available space. It’s obvious that cannabis is a real part of the ecosystem—unlike Morocco, where, outside of cultivated fields, cannabis does not grow, save for a few escapees. Cannabis lines the sides of every path and road, vying for space with a profusion of wild mint and oregano, clovers, docks, plantains, thistles and nettles—vegetation that, were it not for the cannabis, would resemble any upland or northern part of Europe.

The mountain’s paths shimmer as if sprinkled with silver—schist rocks rich in quartz, mica and graphite, eroded into tiny, glittering particles, one of many ingredients in the soil’s mineral-rich sediment. This sparkling soil is highly prized for making chillums, the ubiquitous, ancient Indian pipe still employed by most charras smokers in India today. For centuries, villagers have augmented the already rich soil with abundant organic matter. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers are not welcome in and around Malana.

In this rich, loamy clay soil, cannabis grows unhindered with minimal human intervention, free to reproduce and express whatever traits work best in its environment. Due to this ecosystem, the sheer diversity and variation found in Malana’s cannabis population may be unrivaled anywhere else on the planet.

. . . the sheer diversity and variation found in Malana’s cannabis population may be unrivaled anywhere else on the planet.

Most of these crops are self-maintaining—one patch was planted twenty years ago and has been left to its own devices ever since. It is full of lush, deep-green plants already three to four feet in height, with large, medium-wide leaves, gargantuan, hollow stems, long internodes, and already-obvious terpene production.

Although clearly leaning more to the sativa side of the cannabis spectrum, these plants also have some indica traits, as evidenced by the width of their leaves. It’s likely that outside genetics have been introduced over the years, so these plants may in fact be hybridized to some extent; however, this region of the planet is part of a continuum of different cannabis biotypes, stretching all the way from Kazakhstan to Thailand. It’s important to make an effort to preserve and catalog these landraces—they are the backbone of many of the world’s best-known and loved cultivars. There are potentially infinite variations to be found here, many of which may contain cannabinoid profiles useful in treating a range of diseases and ailments.

What the ILE Can Do for Malana

“As far as the future is concerned, the first priority is to conduct open-pollination programs on certain good specimens we’ve found, increase the stock, and get the stock to places like the USA, where the gene pool is really just a poly-hybrid circus,” details Irrazin, explaining what the Indian Landrace Exchange has to offer growers worldwide. “Everyone’s getting tired of the same old flavors. They want something new, and I think that’s where we come in. Not just for the funk and the flavor, but also for the potential of cannabinoid combinations that could be useful for some kind of ailment.”

“The next leap is to set up a physical location, at the epicenter of charras, which of course must be Malana. So we’re working directly with the villagers to build a guesthouse in Waychen Valley. The elder Mama-ji will handle the money from the guests, the food and so on; we’ll bring guests every so often, and just maintain a small office space there.”

Malana is still ruled by strict traditional beliefs. Outsiders may not rub the plants that grow there to make charras. Chacha-ji will not pass his learning on to anyone other than his fellow natives of Malana.

Additionally, the team hopes to help set up a kiosk selling a selection of local landrace seeds as souvenirs. These seeds will come directly from the village, and the money will go straight to the village elders, who will distribute it in the form of social projects.

The Indian Landrace Exchange plans to enter Spannabis next year with a sample of top-quality local charras, hoping to put India on the modern global cannabis community map. The sample will no doubt be made by the expert hands of the elder Mama-ji, whose product is revered throughout the Malana area.

Mama-ji is one of Malana’s best charras makers, a handsome man in his thirties with tightly-curled hair and an irrepressible smile. He produces cannabis cream of such high quality that it resembles bubble hash, with a clear appearance and smooth, fresh taste.

Chacha-ji, Maker of Medicinal Oils

Later, we are honored to meet another elder of great esteem, Chacha-ji (a name of respect, meaning “father’s brother”; his true name remains a mystery), owner of his own house and fields, and maker of medicinal cannabis oils according to ancient techniques. Chacha-ji subjects fresh cannabis to heat and pressure until the oil separates from the plant matter. It is then further heated and filtered to remove the plant matter, leaving behind a rich, red oil that has little remaining trace of terpenes, but a powerful kick of cannabinoids when tasted.

Irrazin enjoying a break
Irrazin enjoying a break

Chacha-ji supplies these oils to medical patients sent to him by Ayurvedic doctors in Delhi. Cannabis is a powerful tool in the Ayurvedic tradition of medicine, although it cannot be officially dispensed. Doctors instead send patients to Chacha-ji in Malana, where they receive some of the cleanest, most potent cannabis preparations found in the country.

These patients include sufferers of cancer, epilepsy and migraines, among other ailments. Records are impossible to maintain, but Chacha-ji has received multiple positive reports from patients and the doctors who sent them. Patients pay for his services, as they would for any other medicine, but if they cannot, he donates to those in need.

Chacha-ji continues his legacy by passing on his wisdom to a select handful of initiates from the village who will expand the number of patients he can treat and, in time, hopefully form a thriving network of medicinal oil makers. To facilitate his work, the Indian Landrace Exchange plans to supply him with a rosin press.

Malana is still ruled by strict traditional beliefs. Outsiders may not rub the plants that grow there to make charras. Chacha-ji will not pass his learning on to anyone other than his fellow natives of Malana.

A Trip to Waychen Valley

Later we are guided up a steep mountain path by the elder Baba, a gentle, quiet man who exudes an air of wisdom and serenity. As a sadhu, he dresses austerely in a turban and long kirtle, which does not impede his agile, mountain-adapted gait.

Baba is leading us to a small summer settlement in the Waychen Valley. In summer, a handful of families inhabit the valley, along with their cows, chickens and goats, and decamp back to Malana in winter. In springtime, as soon as the snows melt, the villagers climb these hillsides and plant millions of cannabis seeds along the terraced slopes. In June, these plants are little over twelve inches tall and carpet the hills; between them grow clovers and mosses, which the cows happily eat while studiously avoiding every cannabis plant.

I ask Irrazin if cows ever eat cannabis, to which he replies: “No, but the goats and sheep love it—they need to be kept away, or they can eat their way through an entire field in a few minutes!”

In springtime, as soon as the snows melt, the villagers climb these hillsides and plant millions of cannabis seeds along the terraced slopes.

Little stands in the Waychen Valley settlement, save for a handful of traditional wooden houses and a cluster of tents, one of which is to be our home for the night. As the light fades, we build a fire and wait for dinner, a delicious kidney bean dal with rice and eggs.

We pass multiple chillums around the circle in an almost unbroken chain. The heady effect gradually builds up to a sense of otherworldly lightness, a euphoric feeling heightened by the dramatic outlines of the mountains that surround us and the feelings of awe they inspire.

That evening, the sounds of psychedelic trance music echoes through the valley, emanating from a dozen different sound systems. This, too, is a relatively recent phenomenon; a reminder that even in the most remote reaches of the Himalayas, the modern world is never far.

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