Weird stuff in an ancient Himalayan village
It’s easy to describe the trek to Malana. The first half is horizontal, the second half vertical — a gentle walk through a pine-forested valley, followed by a breathless struggle up a sheer mountainside in the glaring sun. You crest at the village, a collection of castle-like stone and timber houses clinging to a hillside of brooding beauty. Grubby-faced children with striking grey eyes and apple-blossom skin play marbles in the dirt, but won’t come within a yard of an outsider. Neither will their parents.
A few minutes more and you come to a temple, its walls striped with heavy weather-beaten timbers, its façade festooned with animal skulls. Get too close and the village priest, a walnut-faced old man dressed in homespun wool, will howl at you to move away. I was just savouring this experience when a voice called out “Bom!” A man in a dirty coat was beckoning me to inspect some small brown disks that looked like ancient coins. “You want cream?”
Remember Asterix the Gaul, the feisty little guy who kept the Roman Empire at bay with the help of magic potion, an oversized friend called Obelix and a dog called Dogmatix? Well, Asterix and his band of indomitable Gauls could probably relate to this village perched on a remote mountainside in Himachal’s Parvati Valley.
The folks of Malana have been keeping the rest of the world at bay for a long time. How long? Nobody knows, but according to some fanciful souls, since the day they deserted Alexander’s army and decided to settle here. They even have their own magic potion, of a sort. It is, believe it or not, the drug charas, more usually associated with sending people to sleep than with super-human strength. The people of Malana aren’t using it to improve their fighting prowess, of course. They’re using it to buy time.
“Caste is very important. They have one strong notion, that is purity versus pollution. They consider outsiders to be impure,” says Sonia Thakur, who studied Malana for her doctorate in sociology. “But the most interesting thing is that they believe their deity speaks to them. The role of religion is very strong. They won’t change because their deity won’t permit it.”
That was pretty much the pattern in these mountains centuries ago, when tiny village republics dotted the western Himalayas, each one ostensibly ruled by a devta whose wishes were translated by an oracle. All but one were long ago absorbed into bigger states.
Protected by the sawtooth mountains that surround it, Malana has somehow survived largely unchanged into the 21st century. Its people place absolute faith in their deity, Jamlu Devta. Traditionally, disputes are resolved when a tongue-baring, eye-rolling oracle known as the gur delivers the judgement of the god, although the last gur died 20 years ago and the next one has not yet appeared — a sign of degenerate times, according to some villagers. Smaller arguments are hammered out for days by a complex system of village councils which some say is the oldest form of democracy in the world. It’s a tradition the villagers are fiercely proud of. “No policeman can come into this village,” says Chande Ram, an elder. “God will punish them. They know that, and they are afraid.”
The district Superintendent of Police, N Venu Gopal, who has made his name by cracking down on Kullu’s rampant drugs trade, admits that policing the area is a problem. “Malana is not such a place that it is outside the laws of India. The laws apply there and we are very firm on this. But there are practical problems. This place is very remote,” he says.
Go to Malana in the autumn harvest season, and just about everyone is busy with what’s known as the rub, collecting resin from cannabis plants. The result is known locally as maal. Aficionados call it ‘cream’, and it’s supposed to be the best in the world. In Malana it goes for Rs 25,000 a kilo. In the cafés of Amsterdam, it retails for 12.5 euros a gram. “This is the only thing that will grow there that will sell,” says Jitendra Thakur, a lawyer in the district capital, Kullu, who has defended a number of drug cases for clients in Malana. “If they develop orchards or some other industry, that means roads. And that means outsiders.”
Cream does attract outsiders, of course, in limited numbers. In my guest house, run by one of the few low-caste families, my fellow guests were a German, a Frenchman and a Londoner with a syncopated East London accent. The German stumbled in and out of his room followed by a brownish haze as he obsessed over the best way to avoid the police as he left the village. The Frenchman had decided to come to Malana after reading a newspaper article that said the village was run by European mafia. The Englishman sat in a corner and giggled.
The mafia proved as elusive as the gur. All I could find the next morning were three bleary-eyed Italians who said they had come to Malana to participate in the harvest, in exchange for half of what they rubbed. Yet there were no gleaming four-wheel drives in Malana, no forests of TV antennas — only a ramshackle clinic and a thinly attended school. Half of the houses aren’t connected to the electricity supply because it is believed the lines are impure.
According to Jitendra Thakur, each family earns two to three lakhs a year from the drug trade. Most of the profits go towards new houses, maintaining the temple, or into tin trunks. Stories of ripoffs abound — one villager was reportedly pickpocketed of Rs 80,000 during a visit to nearby Manali. The only thing that cream has really bought for the villagers is a few more years of solitude.
But time, it seems, is running out for Malana. Warmer weather and diminishing rainfall meant that last year’s cream harvest was half that of 2001. There’s also talk of a road being built, which many villagers oppose. “A road will bring mafia, traffic, big hotels like Manali. The traditions will disappear. We should develop, like everywhere else, but slower is better,” says Bey Ram, a former headman.
A road built last year to service a nearby hydroelectric dam has already reduced walking time to Malana from 8 hours to 2, and a second barrage, just downhill from the village, is on the drawing board. The villagers will probably veto a road entering the village, but the dam site is so close it won’t matter.
“We’ve been giving them their independence, as per the anthropological requirements. But once the road comes, it will go right in and it will usher in all the evils of development,” says Kullu Deputy Commissioner RD Nazim with a wry smile. A young man sitting with his friends on a rock in the middle of Malana has a different perspective. “It all depends on god,” he says. “If god doesn’t like the road, then it won’t be built.”
This article first appeared in Outlook Traveller in 2003, and was reprinted in the anniversary edition, Ten Years of Great Travel Writing, in 2011