Malana is a two thousand year old village in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, whose people trace their lineage back to soldiers of the Macedonian army of Alexander the Great, left behind after his invasion of north India in 326 BCE.
This solitary village in a side valley of the precipitous Parvati Valley is almost completely isolated from the rest of the world. Two Himalayan peaks shadow the village, which is situated on a remote plateau by the side of the torrential Malana river, over 3,000 metres above sea level. In this perilous setting, villagers place their faith their powerful deity, Jamlu Devta, who controls the village council. The council governs the village in the name of the deity and his (their) decision is final in any dispute.
People in Malana consider outsiders to be inferior and consequently untouchable. Visitors to the village must stick to prescribed paths and not touch any of the walls, houses or people. If this happens, they are expected to pay a fine that will cover the sacrificial slaughter of a lamb in order purify the object that has been made impure. Malani people may touch impure people or houses as long as they follow the prescribed purification ritual before they enter their own house or before they eat. But Malanis may never accept food cooked by a non-Malani, unless they are out of the valley (in which case the deity can’t see them).
The highest quality hashish in India comes from cannabis grown in the mountains. The variety from Himachal Pradesh is considered to be excellent and “Malana cream” – a form of charas or hashish – is much sought after. Very little apart from cannabis is produced in Malana, thanks to the popularity of the hashish and the village’s inaccessibility. Residents and mules carry bare essentials to the village on an hour’s hike through narrow hill tracts to the nearest road that can be used by cars.
In 1975 the English adventurer and writer Patrick Leigh Fermor visited Malana, where he encountered the same aversion to outsiders. As they entered the village, “Men averted their gaze, children ran off as though ogres were coming down the street and the women at the spring … stood transfixed, and after a long disbelieving glance, turned away in a rictus of bewilderment and pain … and even along the permitted ways a flutter of anxious hands herded us innocuously into the middle” (“Paradox in the Himalayas”, in the London Magazine 1979).
But it seems that the villagers and its god can be appeased. “The holiest spot in the village was an open space, where a slab of stone lay embedded in the grass. One of the villagers, a kind man called Sangat, had made himself their guide and mentor. Under his direction the party made offerings, joined their hands in prayer and prostrated themselves before the stone. ‘Our pious homage to Jamlu had made a good impression, it seemed; and here, bit by bit, linguistic curiosity began to break the ice’” (Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper, 2012).
Malana may no longer be the Shangri-La it once was. In 2006 the villagers (and the deity) decided to allow people to throw open their houses to tourists for food and lodging. And in 2011 police destroyed over 6,000 square metres of marijuana crops and staked out the village to try to catch drug traffickers. Jamlu did not seem too put out: the crop grew back the following year.