Why I regret my trip to Malana, and maybe you should too.
I was roughly woken up one morning by three of my closest friends. With excitement in their bloodshot eyes, in a rush of a breath, they said one word: Malana.
Malana, or what I knew of it then, was a small village in the Parvati valley whose mere mention could get stoners worldwide frothing at the mouth. The high altitude and untouched soil was said to produce some of the best hash in the whole world. My friends wanted to go for obvious reasons but I smoked neither weed nor hash (I promise, ma). Making a trip all the way to this tiny village just for drugs made me very apprehensive. I shook my head wildly, refusing flat out. At first. But my friends, being my friends, knew just how to convince me. "Why not?" they prodded "You're always looking to write about something exciting. Well, here it is. The whole village is cut off from the rest of India and is visited only by tourists. Oh, and the villagers are said to be descendants of Alexander the Great and his army during their campaign in India."
I perked up. The few articles I found online echoed their words and cinched my interest in Malana. A day later, I sheepishly approached my friends and let them know I had changed my mind.
The long and winding road to Malana
We set out for Malana by hiring a local taxi from the foothills of Jari. Our driver Kumar was a chatty old local man, with a bright smile and a great tolerance for my constant stream of questions. He had lived his entire life in the region and made his income by driving tourists between Jari, Manali, Kasol, Malana and other nearby hippie hotspots. Along the dusty, bumpy path cut out of the mountain, we ascended into the clouds.
The car would only take us only so far; we would need to trek the remainder of the way up to the village. Although the month of July meant most of India basked in warm sunshine, there in Parvati valley, in the cold winds and relentless drizzle, we shivered through our multiple sweaters. Seeing how we clearly had no idea what we were in for, Kumar agreed to guide us all the way into Malana. Just before we began the trek, he grabbed an empty water bottle from his car. "For the spring near Malana. The purest, most sacred water! It will cure any cancer!" Politely nodding, I swallowed my cynicism and continued with the trek.
The charging stream that locals consider sacred
Rock after rock, we heaved ourselves up, taking in the jaw dropping scenery in the moments we spent waiting for the last of us to catch up. Layer upon layer of green mountains as far as the eye could see. In the drizzle, everything around us had a sheen. A sweet, earthy aroma drifted in the breeze. All around us, long-stemmed Marijuana plants danced.
Cannabis grows naturally and wildly in Malana. Image source: 365hops.com
Kumar told us about the people of Malana, a group isolated from the rest of India not merely by altitude but also culturally and linguistically. Malana was considered one of the oldest democracies in the world. "So disputes and disagreements are not sorted out by the regular Indian judicial system?" I asked. "No, all matters are resolved internally. They very rarely seek help from the outside world." "What about the difficult matters of guilt and innocence? Who decides that?"
"Goats" he answered simply.
"Yes, the two arguing parties each bring forward a goat. Both the goats are poisoned. The goat that dies first belongs to the guilty party."
This answer bewildered me. To play dice when it came to justice? "What about incredibly heinous crimes? What is the equivalent of a life sentence?" I asked. Kumar thought carefully. "I haven't heard of such cases recently. But I remember rumors that they just strap the person onto a rock and push them off the mountain."
I shuddered and made a mental note not to offend the villagers even in the slightest way. We had now trekked high enough to see the village of Malana rising before us. A clump of houses grew visible through the mist in the distance.
Malana women wearing their traditional costumes. Image source: corneredzone.com
Ahead of us, Kumar turned around and said solemnly "I would advise that you don't talk directly to the people. Nor should you ever touch them."
"Alright, we won’t. But why not?"
"It is condemned for them to make contact with outsiders. Any kind of outsiders."
With this information, we hauled ourselves up the last stretch of the trek.
A young boy about 7 or 8 years old, peered at us between thickets of trees on our left. He let out a shrill whistle and darted swiftly towards the village. Soon, we spotted a few more. Like the first, they whistled and ran back into the village.
"They are signaling that foreigners have arrived." Kumar explained. It was a strange moment, to be considered a foreigner in my own country.
The village of Malana in the background. Image source: fountainink.in
The entire village of Malana could be covered by foot in less than an hour. The houses were built low, with shingled roofs and carved out wooden structures. The population was no more than 4500. Many of the structures we walked past were forbidden from being touched by outsiders like us. Kumar, true to his role as a guide, pointed out the significance of different buildings we crossed.
"That, there, is the school" he pointed to a square concrete structure with a yard lush with cannabis plants. "I wish I studied there", my friend joked. Children chased each other in the yard, indifferent to my stoner friends salivating over the marijuana.
"That building is the temple where they worship" Kumar motioned at a grand wooden structure.
"Which God do they worship? Is their religion a sect of Hinduism?"
"No" replied Kumar. "They worship their own deity, Jamlu. He is only worshipped here in Malana and communicates with them through a chosen oracle."
What fascinating information I thought to myself. Even in a land isolated from the rest of the country, and even without the influence of religious norms practised elsewhere, they had their own deity and religion. A fire in 2008 wiped out many structures in Malana, however Lord Jamlu’s temple still remains.
A fire in 2008 wiped out many structures in Malana, however Lord Jamlu’s temple still remains. Image source: travelseewrite.com
It had started to rain heavily. Shivering through our wet sweaters and jackets, we took shelter under a small shack at the edge of the mountain. A tall, thin man with an unsmiling face approached Kumar. After a brief conversation, Kumar turned to us and said "He wanted to know who you are and what you want. I said you are here to visit. He wants to know if you would like to buy hash from him."
We looked at each other uncertainly. "Uh. Sure. Uh, yes. Yes, please." The ganja man (I call him this because that is who he was to us; he gave us ganja and nothing more, not even his name) looked around shiftily as we completed the transaction. On the side, Kumar explained that not everyone in the village was allowed to sell hash to tourists and they could face trouble from the other villagers if they were caught. Perhaps this was to regulate the sale of Malana cream and ensure prices aren't decided by naive bargaining.
It is not taboo for children to join in making hashish. Image source: fountainink.in
Although we were outsiders, ganja man still extended his hospitality towards us. Still unsmiling, he asked us (through Kumar) if we cared for some pakodas. With our muscles aching and our bellies rumbling, we nodded eagerly. There, amidst the mist and the mountains, we ravenously ate piping hot pakodas from a paper plate, served with a helping of what was, and still is, the most delicious chutney I have ever had. "This is incredible!" I gushed.
"That chutney is made from the seeds and leaves of the cannabis plant," he told me.
While we ate, the ganja man took out a long OCB and casually rolled a joint with one hand, with an ease that most people only have while tying their shoelaces. With a flick of his tongue along the paper and another flick of a match, it was lit. It was hard to keep the wonder and awe off our faces as we stole glances at him, this wonderful, mysterious man who so lazily blew smoke rings into the still air. Half way through the joint, he passed it our way. Like the smoke, my thoughts swirled, branched out and broke away at their edges. I lost all concept of time. For what could have been eternity, I found myself at absolute peace, lost in the drifting clouds.
The cannabis crop is the main source of income for the Malana people. Image source: moonpeak.files.wordpress.com
When the haze of the hash had passed, I walked around, observing the mountains of Malana. I came across a mountainside where all the plants were hacked down to the earth. The destruction lay ugly and in plain view. It was a heartbreaking sight. I asked Kumar and the ganja man about this. "Of course," said ganja man to Kumar with bitterness in his voice "Nobody knows anything about Malana except Malana hash! Governments have been fighting for the destruction of these crops as they see it destroying culture. Even the US government has asked us to stop production. They have offered to compensate for the money we will lose from profits."
Looking at history, the people of Malana used to legally cultivate and sell cannabis and its products until 1985, when heavy international pressure pushed the Indian government to pass the drug law. Under this law, marijuana became an illegal substance, the possession of which could result in an imprisonment sentence of more than 10 years. Even today in the valley, police wield machetes and execute orders to hack all the marijuana plants that are within their physical capability. All in order to dissuade the locals from cultivating the crop. However, the main profits and source of income for the village is the thriving cultivation of cannabis. The harsh weather and geological conditions make it difficult for the people of Malana to grow any other cash crop. Without this, they have little to turn to.
More signs of influence from the outside world showed up as we walked. Decades of exposure to tourists and external food supplies led to the sight of a long river of empty packets of Lays, Kurkure, Dark Magic, Coca Cola that lay crushed in the black slushy water of what once used to be a clear stream. I asked Kumar if this water also cures cancer. Kumar laughed. There was no effective way of disposing or recycling non-biodegradable materials. What we were seeing was years and years of accumulated rubbish, most of which was consumed not by tourists but by the youth of the village. As we walked, I noticed a mother yank her child away from our path. With continuous exposure to the fast life through tourists, children are enchanted by the perceived glamour of the outside world. It has become a struggle to pass on their rich culture to the younger generation. Whereas once only handloom was worn by all the people of Malana, today the youth of Malana can be spotted wearing jeans, much to the elder's chagrin.
A river of junk. Image source: yespahari.in
The fame generated from the marvellous Malana cream is a double-edged sword. On one hand it creates the demand for hash that helps sustain the village when nothing else can. But on the other, it subjects them to relentless streams of tourists and hippies that clamour up their hills to claim their off beat experience. My initial gusto to write an inspirational travel piece had gone. In its place was a heavy sadness and shame. I abandoned all ideas to write the article I had planned. The less people feel like coming to this place, the better.
This July, Lord Jamlu spoke to the villagers of Malana through an oracle. Lord Jamlu it seems, was displeased by the corruption of the traditional way of Malana life and culture. By his decree, all villagers must shut down restaurants and guesthouses (which have increased exponentially over the last few years, most being leased to outsiders) lest they want to face Lord Jamlu's wrath. The villagers are in agreement and Malana is now declared off-limits to tourists.
While my trip to Malana was an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience (well, more so now because of the ban), seeing how just a few visits could help corrupt a rich untouched culture made me regret the trip.
What most people don't realise (including myself when I visited Malana) is the effect of our presence in lands that were previously isolated. In Malana, it is the slow death of their culture in front of their eyes when they allow us in. It is the river of plastic that snakes behind their houses and grows larger and larger until one day the whole village may drown in it. It is the petrified mothers who cling to their children with their gaze averted upon sighting us. It is the reduction of their existence to merely our touristic experience.
Today, the people of Malana have collectively agreed they no longer want tourism to infiltrate their sacred culture. Yet even with this knowledge, you will still find sulking tourists, annoyed that Lord Jamlu has taken away their God-given right to take selfies with the villagers. #travellers #blessed
Perhaps now, the people of Malana can cultivate their culture peacefully. Image source: fountainink.in
This clown-show is the reality of what tourism most often is. People rush to buy flight tickets and new clothes and bikinis, and in their excitement always forget to bring along sensitivity. Throngs of entitled people barge into new territories and pristine nature with their shiny new cameras and packets of chips trailing behind (in case you ever get lost, just follow the trail of crushed chips packets. It will take you back to where you belong).
Perhaps now the people of Malana can cultivate their culture peacefully without our intrusion. Perhaps now their culture will not be a trade off for their livelihood. There is no denying that we can learn a great deal by studying indigenous cultures and tribes, but it is imperative to ask ourselves - at what cost did we gain our experience? And who is paying the price?
Note to all the weeping stoners: While Lord Jamlu has forbidden guesthouses from continuing in Malana, there has been no ban on the villagers leaving the village to sell hash for their livelihood. So don't be too dejected. From the information gleaned, this does not seem to be the end of Malana cream for the rest of the world. Just the end of blatant tourism in Malana.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com
By Rebecca George
Photographs by Rebecca George