Dhyana -- meditation or deep reflection -- is an ancient exercise in India for achieving spiritual progress. Indian mythology, the oldest scriptures (such as the Vedas), and many ancient tales tell of gods, goddesses and sages immersed in dhyana, reflecting on the riddles of life, formulating the best ways to spend our time on earth, and finding the purpose of it all. Often, to improve concentration, those who meditate have been known to partake of cannabis in any of its three popular forms here: bhang (which is made from the flowers and leaves), ganja (the dried leaves and plant tops) or charas (hashish made from the resin).

With time, however, cannabis came to assume other roles. These days, besides its concentration-enhancing and pain-relieving qualities, it has become one of the most popular recreational substances in the world. With all of this in mind, I traveled to Manali, an idyllic Himalayan town in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, which is home to some of the best natural cannabis in the world. Here, charas -- as the plant is known locally -- grows wild and relentless; although I came a tad before season, I still found young charas plants lining the sidewalks, growing in the fields, even poking through walls by the roadside. Some say the plant is as ancient as Manu, the first man to have ever lived on earth, who appeared in the very lap of Manali. (In fact, this place was initially called Manu Alaya, which gradually morphed into “Manali.”) There’s a very famous Manu temple in upper Manali, which remains a significant spot of pilgrimage for those on a religious tour.

For generations, cannabis has been a vital resource for the thousands of people living in the valley who harness different parts of the plant to make a living. For instance, the stem of the plant is used to make hemp, which then becomes the rope, shoes and clothing that are sold to tourists and natives alike. (They are some of the most organic and comfortable pieces of apparel I have ever worn.) Aside from that, the plant is sold for its most well-known use -- charas or hashish. Though cannabis as a recreational drug is illegal in the country, it’s an open secret that Manali is heaven for smokers. The backdrop of snowcapped Himalayan peaks, the air as fresh as dew, the friendly -- sometimes overbearingly so -- people always ready to offer you tea and conversation, the remarkably juicy food: All of these contribute to a vibe so content that it makes you wonder if there really is anything else to life.

“A lot of people who come here from different countries keep postponing their parting from Manali till the time they have no money left, except enough to take a train to the nearest town,” a local resident told me. “For example, look at that man there -- he’s from France. I gave him some charas to smoke yesterday, and since then he’s been stationed outside my house trying to draw a painting of it. This is a very noble plant, you see: It’s like giving goodness to people, and in return they give goodness back.”

“This is the best stuff I’ve ever smoked,” a young tourist from Italy assured me. “Italians are known to smoke a lot, but what the Manali charas does is something else. It doesn’t get straight to your mind but gently frees you. What you get in Italy or elsewhere in Europe comes mostly from Morocco in Africa, and it is not very good -- it’s very dry, not smooth and creamy like this.

But it can sometimes be hard to find the right source here, because a lot of people try to sell you mixed, adulterated stuff for very high prices.”

The Italian was right -- because, while almost anyone here is ready to sell you some charas or weed, it’s not always of the best quality. Ever since the locals started seeing the influx of cannabis tourists as a business opportunity, some have taken to mixing pure charas with other substances to make a quick profit. I could tell the difference just by looking at one lot being offered by the owner of a local handicrafts store versus another by a village boy who was a shepherd’s son. The first batch looked more manure-ish and seemed to have traces of grass in it, while the second was pure black cream.

“This used to be a recreational plant that locals would enjoy smoking in the bitter winter; it warms you up and alleviates pain,” the owner of a well-known guesthouse in Manali told me. “Now it’s become a disease among locals and foreigners alike. I myself have seen many families get ruined because of the addiction to charas. It makes a person mentally and eventually physically incapable of doing anything. He loses the strength and the desire to act and just sits there waiting for his next fix. And unlike cha- ras, food is not free here.”

Many others besides the guesthouse owner are against cannabis being legalized in India. They say that thousands of people are already hooked on it, so legalizing it would send the country spinning into a riot of cannabis addiction. Others feel that we’re still a long way from realizing the importance of using cannabis responsibly as a recreational (let alone spiritual) drug. However, those with a different viewpoint suggest that if, like the Netherlands, cannabis is made legal here, it would offer a great source of income to the locals as well as the government. Many locals have been upset with the recent police crackdowns on the wild fields of cannabis and see it as a significant threat to their livelihood -- especially those who live in Malana, a nearby tribal village that is considered the oldest democracy in the world, whose sustenance depends primarily on products made from the cannabis plant.

To India, cannabis is as ancient and familiar as the tales of Shiva, who was known to partake of it so religiously that, right up to the present day, devotees make offerings of the plant at Shiva temples all over the world. Countless sadhus were smoking charas from clay chillums on the banks of the River Ganges for eons before their pictures became iconic images of Indian culture.

The plant is as revered here as it is relished. “Legal or not, everyone loves to smoke and fly once in a while,” the village boy advised me. And though some might object to the rapid expansion of restaurants and cafés and the growing influx of tourists, “no one can deny anybody this piece of heaven,” he adds. “I have been selling charas for the last four years without ever having smoked a drag myself. But I can tell the effect it has on people.”

I also met a local DJ who plays at the Manali rave parties. “Ten years ago, you’d find people just sitting around and smoking everywhere -- there was no fear, no cops, no formality; it was the thing to do,” he said. “But this stuff is so powerful, it is always going to attract people from everywhere. Look at my example: Though I haven’t ventured out of Manali much, I have friends from Delhi, Chandigarh, Bangalore, Japan, Russia, Italy and Germany. This is full power.”

Manali is also popular with Israelis, who come here after their compulsory military training. The fresh, pure charas, plus a few nonregimented weeks of pleasure in the untainted mountain air, lends them a new lease on life. “For us, it doesn’t get any better,” one Israeli told me. “After three years of every second of our lives being regulated, this is the closest we get to complete freedom. Smoking Malana cream and then dancing in the sun and moonlight at rave parties in the forests, sometimes for three days on end -- it’s like flying without wings. You never feel like leaving.”