As I was beginning to write this article, media outlets were reporting that the Himachali village of Malana, a name you are most likely to have heard in relation to some very high quality Mary Jane, has banned tourists. Contrary to what the headlines reported the ban is actually the closure of all guest houses and restaurants in the village, so it wasn’t confirmed as I posted this article if day trips are also prohibited, and the ‘village ban’ is actually an ‘order’ from their presiding deity Jamlu, who wants ‘to protect’ local culture from the onslaught of external influence. This new ban follows an earlier one prohibiting photography.
Photo by Unlisted Sightings
Despite having stayed in Himachal Pradesh for a number of years, I know very few people who have been to Malana. Mainly because there are so many strange stories about the place among the locals, some possibly true, some obviously made up. Of course, these very stories add to this place’s mystery and semi-mythical nature, attracting hordes of travelers every year, even those who are not just looking to smoke up. This village remains one of the few destinations in India that has managed to keep itself a relative secret, and hence is a very desirable place to visit for the most adventurous traveler.
The village of between 1500-2000 residents is by all accounts an ancient one, located 8,700 ft above sea level in the Parvati Valley, about 45 km from Kullu. Not just its height, but the location on a remote plateau beside a torrential river has kept it comfortably isolated from outside influences for centuries. Much of the village’s antecedents are unclear. The village deity, Jamlu Devta, is believed to have been worshipped since pre-Aryan times, while some myths cite him as the sage Jamdagni, Parashuram’s father. The most popular story about the community’s origins is that they are descendants of soldiers left behind from Alexander’s army from around 320 BCE. The physical features of many residents seem to support this claim, but no genetic proof has been able to corroborate it.
Photo Courtesy Akriti Chauhan
Recent genetic typing has actually just found that the geographical and linguistic isolation, along with a highly endogamous culture, contributed to the development of a distinct culture among these people of Indo-Aryan origin.
Distinct Features of the Community
Governing System – It has had its own democratic governing system for a long time – some even call it the oldest democracy in India – where council members are chosen by the villagers, who decide on important matters, with their orders treated as coming directly from their deity. The ‘parliament’ has a lower house, Kanishthang, and an upper house, Jayeshthang, with the unanimous decisions of the former referred to the higher body for final verdict. A villager requiring police or government involvement in a matter has to pay a monetary fine to the council. The common punishments meted by the council are either monetary or in the form of exile from the valley.
Photo by travelling slacker
Architecture – Houses are built of stone and timber, with mud-plastered inner walls and wooden outer walls. Two or three storied-houses are the norm. The lowest one – khudang – acts as cattle shed as well as store for firewood and fodder. The first floor is the gaying, used to store eatables, wood and wool. The top floor, with an overhanging balcony, is called pati, and is meant for actual living.
Language – One of the most interesting aspects of Malana is the unique language called Kanashi, which is a mix of Sanskritic and Tibetan elements. As a result, none of the residents of surrounding areas, who normally speak Indo-Aryan languages, or from areas like Lahaul-Spiti, who speak Tibetan dialects, can understand it.
Customs – The villagers have very extreme standards of purity, which require outsiders to not touch them, their belongings or even the walls of the houses. Food/water served to outsiders is placed on the table or the ground. These rules are even more stringent when it comes to the Jamdagni Temple, where entry of outsiders isn’t allowed.
Photo by Vadgama
The people are also very conscious of respecting their ecological heritage. Fixing nails on a tree, fire-burning inside the forest (wildfires are a major hazard in Himachal Pradesh), and using anything but already broken and dried out branches as firewood are prohibited, as is hunting, unless specifically permitted by the village council. Marriage is a very simple affair without any priest or rituals – known as rakshasi marriage, which is not to be confused with the rakshasa marriage (marriage by abduction) in Hinduism. Divorcees and widows can remarry; polygamy is allowed for men. Even the last rites after a resident’s death are very simple.
The villagers consider themselves largely of Rajput origin. The Dhamyani and the Dhurani Rajputs reside in Upper Malana (Dhar Beda), while the Nagvani and Pachani Rajputs stay in Lower Malana (Sor Beda), though the hierarchy is not strictly enforced, with inter-sub-caste marriages common.
Photo Courtesy Seerat Sethi
Festivals – If you time your visit right, you can be in the village during either of their two major festivals – Badoh mela in August, and Fagdi mela in February. These are the only times when the villagers are very open in their interaction with their neighbours, communal dances are organized, and everyone has good fun.
This is not to say that the villagers aren’t friendly to tourists. The village is an extremely poor one, with low standards of education and hygiene, and with very few resources for earning money. Tourists (and, unfortunately, buyers of their main product) bring in much-needed cash, and despite occasional instructions from Jamlu Devta, they appreciate the presence of tourists, as long as it doesn’t affect their normal pace of living.
Photo by travelling slacker
Kullu is the nearest large town, which is about 500 km by road from Delhi and 270 km from Chandigarh. Kullu’s Bhuntar airport does not have regular service, so these two cities are the best bets if you are flying down. Three mountain passes connect Kullu to Malana. While you could try the 3180 m Rashol Pass via the Parbati Valley or the 3600 m Chanderkhani Pass via Naggar, the easiest option is from Jari, which is a 23 km picturesque trek to the village.
Jari is located at a 2 hour drive from Kullu, at the confluence of the Malana and Manikaran nallahs, which join to form the Parbati River. About 1.5 km from Jari is the Malana powerhouse, where visitors have to get their names registered before entering the valley. A 10 km trek from the powerhouse will take you to the dam, from where it is a 7 km uneven and treacherously uphill trek to Malana, via a hamlet called Chowki. The trek is not for everyone, but the lush greenery and beautiful waterfalls and streams can be extremely rewarding for those who try.
There are some basic arrangements for stay in the village, but given that these may or may not be open now for outsiders, you could stay in Kullu or Manali, or try some less crowded areas nearby like Kasol or Naggar.
Featured Photo by morisius cosmonaut