When Welsh anthropologist Colin Rosser came to Malana in 1952 and wrote his seminal paper on the hermit village, it was virtually inaccessible. He had to walk 45 km from Nagar through the pass between the Chanderkhani and Deotibba peaks after the snow had melted.
Today, the distance has shrunk. From Kasol, Malana is about 21 km. A jeep carries you over the first 18 km, and then you trek uphill. But the climb up the frost-hardened slopes is still tough. At 8,700 feet, Malana is located on a narrow plateau, high on one side of a wild and remote glen that abuts the river Parvati in the Kullu valley of Himachal Pradesh. The Malana Nullah, which flows through the valley, comes from Deotibba, the 20,000 feet, snow-covered peak that overhangs the glen and the village.
Even today, in winters and during the rains, reaching the village across snow and slush is a formidable task. Rock falls and loose boulders hurtling down are commonplace, and reinforce the isolation imposed by geography and geology.
This overwhelming sense of seclusion is important to how the Malana community has evolved, shunning the outside world. A lonely existence in a tangle of high mountains meant that Malana once had total freedom, even from government. For very long, its villagers didn’t mingle with other Kullu villages; its village council didn’t recognise the role of the Indian state; it resisted all external influence.
For centuries, Malana clung to its seclusion jealously, running its affairs itself. Until slowly, the government began to impinge upon it. First, tangentially, by way of revenue officials and development administration; then more directly, when the first power plant came up in 2001. The final blow was possibly dealt by a devastating fire in 2008 that destroyed many of Malana’s beautiful wooden Kath Kuni buildings, temples and artefacts, giving way to brick, mortar and tin sheets.
And just as surely, the once de facto non-state space began to be absorbed into the mainland.
A lone black drongo calls from a leafless poplar. Deodhars rise in stately contrast against the dark grey mountains. The wind is placid but the cold is sharp. We are told it is six degrees below zero at Malana. The vegetation in Parvati Valley is sparse, the giant hillsides mostly bare. Except for a short summer spell, the valley is sunless and sombre. Parvati flows along a deep chasm over rocks and fallen boulders.
The road is steep, testing our vehicle. It was built by Malana Power Company in 2003 to carry men and material to where a second hydro-electric project is coming up in these hills. Malana Nullah is no more the torrent it once was. It’s been dammed up, tamed, and now feeds electricity to the northern power grid. It was the power companies that tamed Malana too, with their technicians, jobs, salaries and ancillary incomes.
I’ve been longing to see how much Malana has changed since Rosser’s visit in 1952. And now I am almost there, but my excitement is tinged with anxiety — I am slightly asthmatic; will I be able to make the final trek? It’s hard on the lungs, but I use the inhaler liberally, and when I reach the village, it is worth every gasp.
The more than 200 villages in Kullu valley share a certain affinity and cultural cohesion. But Malana has always stood apart. Perched on the valley’s far end, Malana never conformed, and, as Rosser says, it was known as the home of a different people. The villagers always claimed to have descended from Alexander the Great’s soldiers, although genetic typing hasn’t substantiated this.
Malanis speak Kanashi, their own autochthonous language, which has no script. The rest of the Kullu valley speaks Kuluhi. Malanis know Kuluhi, and use it to communicate with other villagers, but outsiders don’t understand Kanashi. This is possibly the most important identifier, grouping all non-Malanis as alien, making for a barrier higher than the encircling mountain range. Today, though, only 500-odd Malanis speak Kanashi, and the barriers are fast crumbling.
I am standing on the narrow ledge that rims the village. In front of me are the village dwelling units, divided and organised along the two elongated sides, with a raised platform in the middle. That platform can’t be touched by outsiders. I am cautioned not to go near it. A little away is a smaller platform. The larger platform is where the village council meets, the smaller is where the villagers sit and listen. In winters, when the platforms are blanketed under snow, council meetings are held in a multipurpose panchayat building that’s come up lately, with a red corrugated roof.
The middle space, on which the platform stands, is called Harchar. The dwellings on either side are called Dhara Behr and Sara Behr, respectively. Next to the platform is a fenced garden of tiny flowers, also taboo for outsiders, which faces Jamlu’s temple.
Jamlu. He is all-important in Malana. He is their fierce and forbidding god, from whom all power and authority has flowed for centuries, and his word is conveyed through the village council. Jamlu still rules, and the council still sits.
Malanis point to their age-old election system to prove they are among the oldest democracies in the world. And it’s true. Of the council’s 11 members, three hold hereditary office, but the remaining eight have always been elected. The elected members are jestas or elders and the permanent three are mundie or leaders. The mundie deal directly with functions relating to the omnipotent Jamlu and are addressed as karmisht , pujara and gur — god’s manager, priest and mouthpiece, respectively.
Whenever a problem comes up, the council congregates, and all villagers attend. All council meetings are thus public hearings, and all decisions have to be approved by a majority of villagers. Jamlu, however, has always been the final arbiter.
Now, however, Malana also has a village panchayat. Bhagi Ram, the sarpanch, was travelling when I visited. The secular state has slowly but surely displaced the deity, and even intra-village disputes have moved outside Jamlu’s domain. Malanis say they are beginning to approach the police even for assault cases and brawls.
Jamlu’s power, though, is not all gone. The feared deity continues to reign over the more limited domain of social and religious matters. For instance, Jamlu doesn’t allow outsiders to stay in the village overnight; they must leave before sunset.
I stayed in Kasol, downhill; some tourists stay in the new guest houses on the Malana plateau. Only administration officials have been gingerly allowed to stay in that new red-roofed building, which is also to house an Ayurvedic dispensary, say villagers.
Inside Malana, every villager is considered equal, irrespective of profession, but outsiders can’t touch Malanis, their temples or sacred platforms. Jamlu decrees leather taboo inside the village, and also forbids poultry, although mutton is allowed. These rules are strictly enforced.
Like Jamlu, other Kullu villages have their gods and goddesses. The most important of these is Raghunath, who is honoured in October during Kullu Dussehra. From time immemorial, the Kullu rajas have invited the valley’s gods and goddesses to participate in Raghunath’s celebrations to mark the Kullu king’s suzerainty. Today, of course, it’s the Kullu Deputy Commissioner who extends the invitations, and more than 200 villages and their gods still attend.
But not Malana and not Jamlu. Jamlu has traditionally refused to pay obeisance to Raghunath. Finally, a few years ago, in a compromise formula, Jamlu deigned to descend from his remote mountain fastness, but he stays on the opposite banks of the Beas, observing the proceedings but not crossing the river.
What is Malana today? Has it changed from Rosser’s days? Malana is much closer to the world now than it ever was. All the houses have television antennae and satellite dishes. Solar panels light up the common areas. There are plenty of mobile phones in sight. Twice a day, State transport buses come to the foot of the mountain, just across Malana Nullah. Taxis ferry tourists, some of them owned by Malanis. On the slopes, I see women still carrying heavy headloads of firewood, but young men in jeans and sneakers are running down the hillside to Jari, 4,000 feet below.
Escape to Jari
The tiny town of Jari has Malana’s nearest police chowki, but it is also where Malanis buy everyday goods and make bank transactions. They eat at the restaurants here, and drink in the bars. Jamlu doesn’t allow alcohol inside the village, so Jari, with its thriving tourist economy, is where Malanis let their hair down.
According to the 2011 census, Malana’s population is 1,722, with 888 men and 834 women. Today, this has grown to roughly 2,500, says Bhagirath, the village postmaster. He runs the post office for three hours a day, and is a farmer for the rest, growing maize and buckwheat. The post office disburses 450 social security pensions to the Malanis, and Bhagirath uses a handheld wireless device to transmit daily accounts to the main office in Jari.
Big government has come to Malana, and its mythical isolation is perilous as a very proposition. The village is now under the revenue administration of Bhuntar Tehsil, and it’s the Deputy Commissioner of Kullu whose writ runs large. The village gets government funding and one sees solar lights, cement pathways, drainage systems, and water tanks. Most important, there’s a government school, with 300 students. And a new private school with 80 students. Teachers who come from outside Malana have been allowed to rent homes in the village, a dramatic concession from Jamlu.
The village has always been strictly endogamous. Women, especially, have never married non-Malani men, although there are rare instances of Malani men marrying girls from the Rashol valley. But, last year alone, three girls left Malana to marry outsiders. Two youngsters are studying in colleges in Kullu. Some have taken up jobs outside — as revenue patwaris , forest guards, or panchayat secretaries.
The biggest catalyst of change in Malana, however, has been grass. Not what the goats eat, but the cannabis that blows smoke rings around the valley. In Rosser’s days, Malanis bartered ghee, wool, honey and game birds with the other Kullu villages for salt, food and tools. Today, nobody barters because a thriving illegal cannabis trade has made the villagers cash rich.
The wet weather in Parvati Valley is excellent for cannabis cultivation. Rosser doesn’t mention it, but cannabis was possibly always known to villagers, as a native drug used for medicinal purposes. Baskets, ropes and slippers made of hemp had always brought in income. Then, at some point in the 70s, the commercial cultivation of cannabis was introduced.
Malanis tell the story of Glenu, an Italian who stayed in the village and taught them to make charas using the ‘hand-rubbed’ technique. The high quality cannabis so produced, known internationally as Malana Cream, fetched fabulous prices. In fact, in 1995, Malana Cream was adjudged one of the finest hashish smokes at Cannabis Cup, Amsterdam. As its fame grew, Malana soon became a famed centre for recreational drug tourism, with Israelis flooding the valley, as they continue to do today.
Earlier, wandering around, I had asked why there were so few men to be seen. I was told they were busy preparing the fields for the cannabis crop, to be harvested in September-October. Only one crop is raised in a year, but it has become the all-important one. Cannabis traders and backpacker stoners have changed the village forever. The outside world has permanently elbowed itself into this once veritable Shangri-La.
Cash and culture
If Rosser were to revisit Malana today, he would find the changes radical. He’d find a fairly modern village where he can watch BBC and check email. There are still some wooden houses in Kath Kuni style, and Jamlu’s temple, but modernisation has arrived with a vengeance.
Malana is prosperous, but it has lost its pristine socio-anthropological innocence. The sudden, value-free explosion of wealth has led to skewed development. In 2015, anthropologist Richard Axelby noted that Malana’s erstwhile counter-culture is now a counter-economy. The hermit village now engages selectively with the outside world. Inevitable, probably, since a non-state space has no place in the modern republic.
Suddenly, nimbus clouds cover the sun, the light fades, and a chilly wind blows in with a light drizzle. I hasten down the steep incline, with two of Malana’s teachers, Ranbir Singh and Vinod Sharma, offering to walk with me for a bit. They like their job; they find their wards bright and studious, and say this generation will turn out different.
Halfway down, we meet a portly man in traditional Malani attire and hemp footwear trudging uphill. He is Suraj Mani, Jamlu’s pujara or priest, and speaks only Kanashi and Kuluhi. We greet each other politely and go on. Soon the teachers too take leave.
By the time I cross the rickety footbridge over the Nullah, the rain is steadier and colder. I turn back one last time to look at the mountain. The village can’t be seen easily through the rain. There’s a haze. And it’s getting dark quickly.
The writer spends time pretending to read and write. His other interests are photography and Western classical music.