‘Go away if you aren’t going to buy any charas,’ said the guesthouse owner and frowned upon us. We were quite stunned to hear that in this 2000 year old hamlet.
For years I had read about the famous (or infamous) Parvati Valley and had never ventured there alone. This time I found a travel partner in Manali and we instantly decided to explore a little bit of this paradise. We are able to hitch a ride till Kullu in a little pickup vehicle and absolutely love the breezy ride.
It is a lucky day and we get a bus ride to Bhuntar, the point where we leave the highway and enter the mysterious environs of the Parvati Valley. Bhuntar is also the place where the confluence of the Beas & Parvati river is seen, just beneath the bridge from where the road diverges. The tricky road keeps going up and I can’t help but admire the driving skills of these people.
The air is fresh and carries a distinct fresh aroma of nature. Snow melt of the glaciers has decreased, it is already November and the water in the river below is a shade of beautiful green. It is a narrow road and the bus sways from side to side giving us some scary yet unforgettable moments. The bus carries us in the nondescript town of Jari on the main road and we try to hitch another ride to the road head to Malana.
It is one-thirty in the afternoon and we realise that very few vehicles ply on the recently built road to Malana. Earlier a difficult trek meant five hours were required to reach Malana; it is only a two hour trek now. Lunch is had at one of the cleaner dhabas in Jari. We have left our bags in Manali and are carrying only daypacks with water bottles. There is a bus to Malana that leaves from Jari at 4:30 in the afternoon, we are told. After that it is two hours of walking, the villagers tell us.
There are dangerous looking people on the bus. Work on a power project on the roaring Malana river has resulted in a road being built in the village famously known as the oldest democracy in the world. Lonely Planet had written described vacations in Parvati Valley as deadly – lending it a notorious feel. That prejudiced bent of mind had meant we were wary of the locals even before reaching Malana.
The bus climbs precariously on steep turns and is manoeuvred with skilful deftness. The road ends abruptly and we are asked to get down along with the two other people remaining on the bus. It is already dark when we start walking. The trail first descends to a bridge for us to cross the roaring waters of the Malana river. The gentleman and his kid are also going to Malana.
He tries to scare my partner ‘Never come to Malana in the dark. People fall in the river and their bodies are never found.’ We have heard of these talks on the internet and don’t know what to make of it. I try and keep walking at a faster pace than him. As soon as the ascent starts, my partner is tired and that ensures more awkward conversations with the cunning faced middle-aged guy.
Just in the nick of time when the talk is getting gruff and my partner is losing her patience, a phone rings – Its her mom and that calms everything down. I ask the man to speak less and tell him that we will talk less so that we can gather our breath and reach early. My partner tells him that our friends had called and they are on their way tomorrow to Malana and the Dragon Guest House guys have already been informed of our arrival.
We have a spring in our step even though the arduous climb slows down my partner. It is a pleasant surprise when we see two village kids walk down, say hello to us and make instant friendship. They are happy to carry her bag and guide us to their village.
We try to give him 50 Rupees for the kind gesture but he refuses. An attempt to shake his hand and thank makes him run, we are untouchables in the land of the pure. The stories we had heard were true; the villagers didn’t let anybody touch them. Fittingly, the guest houses are all located on top of the village. They don’t want outsiders meddling with their daily affairs.
The night feels pretty cold at the altitude of 3000m where Malana is located. Our room for 200 Rupees has bare minimum necessities but is without a bathroom. We go down to have food and are ushered into a closed room with psychedelic paintings and neon lights. There are six other people there and it resembles a smoking den.
The smell of charas is making me high and intoxicated. ‘Boom’, they utter before lighting up and gently touch the chillum on their forehead as a mark of reverence to Lord Shiva. There are 4 Indian Canadian guys & girls, and two middle aged Spanish men who are all engrossed in the meticulous process of cleaning the stone in the chillum. They explain to us the ins and outs of marijuana and its benefits. Enormous amounts of charas known as Malana Ice and Malana Cream is being smoked. A happy sounding genre of trance plays. Everybody looks at each other and laughs in oblivion.
Dinner is half cooked vegetables floating in boiled water for the princely sum of 300 rupees for 2 people. We are told that the Malana charas is some of the best in the world and is known the world over, even in the legal weed-capital-of-the-world Amsterdam. Malana Cream’s high oil content commands a high price in the market.
We call it a night and go upstairs to our room to gaze at the moon that is shining on this ancient village, overlooking the snowy mountains in the far distance. In a freak accident in 2008 a fire had broken out and majority of houses in Malana were burnt and the architecture was totally destroyed. The night is chilly and we sleep somehow with the promise of hearing stories the next day.
We wake up and are amazed to see the smoking gang still going strong in the same room. The whole village is lazing around the open courtyard in front of Temple Jamlu (The deity of Malana). A board hangs ‘Do not touch’ among the horns of wild animals. We buy some candies from a shop and are asked to keep the money on the floor for him to collect. The Malanis consider all non-Malanis to be inferior and therefore untouchable.
The locals claim Malana to be the oldest democracy in the world and they didn’t recognise the constitution of India till very recently. They have their own laws and the village constitution solved all disputes in their own unique and mysterious way. Nowadays they have a mobile network and kids are increasingly being sent to the government school to study.
We hear stories of many legends in this village nestled high among inaccessible valleys. The green eyes and sharp features of the locals lay claim to being descendants of the Aryan army of ‘Alexander – The great’ of Greece fame. In 4th Century BC, some soldiers while returning to their homeland liked Malana so much that they decided to settle down here. This is also supported by the local folklore of some old wooden houses having soldiers carved on them.
Another legend narrated by an elder villager goes that – Emperor Akbar’s tax gatherers charged tax from a man in Delhi who had been given the gold piece from Jamlu’s treasury in Malana. Akbar was immediately struck with leprosy, he sent his men with the piece of gold and many images presented in gold and silver. Thereupon Jamlu Devta was pleased and Akbar was cured. Akbar never collected any tax from the village of Malana thereafter. Every year this incident is enacted at Malana in the festival of Fagli and the images are brought out from inside Jamlu Devta’s temple.
The Malanese speak a language that has no script. Hardly 1000 odd people understand the language of Kanashi which supposedly has Tibetan roots. Upon interaction with the people of Malana, I show them pictures of the rumoured Aryans of Ladakh from the villages of Dah, Biamah, Garkhun & Darchiks. They exclaim that those people may be the related and perhaps they could understand each other’s languages.
The village is an enigmatic as we had heard. Everyone smokes cannabis openly and it grows everywhere in wild abandon. Little kids try to sell it to us on our way back. We encounter herds of goat and sheep and the women accompanying them are wearing bright green nail paint. They happily wave to us; away from the village without the rules that forbid them to interact with outsiders.
For people interested in knowing more about Malana – I strongly recommend watching these two documentaries.
1. Malana: Globalization of a Himalayan Village and 2. Malana : A Lost Identity
The recent developments of The Malana Hydro Power Plant have brought development to the region but also a loss of culture. Maybe it is a ploy to keep the name going and bring the riches of the cannabis cultivation to themselves.
We shall never know.