Getting to Malana was no easy feat. An overnight local bus from Rishikesh, a night spent in a small mountain village hotel (sick from the bus ride I had just taken), another few hour local bus ride deeper into the mountains, a couple hour taxi along sketchy dirt mountain roads and finally a couple hour hike got me to the foot of the village. I hiked to the base of the village in a state of euphoria. As I hiked, I could see it towering high above on its remote plateau overlooking the valley. I had to stop a few times to sit, look around and take it all in.
Before reaching the village entrance, I passed by a group of locals bathing under a glacier waterfall. My gaze was met for a brief moment by a couple of eyes before being quickly retracted. Upon entering the village and seeing people up close, I realized that their features were more fair than from those in neighboring villages.
The village consisted of a network of dirt and stone paths winding through three story homes. People and animals alike went about their daily lives. Groups of kids played and laughed while doing back flips off of one another’s backs with ease. Women sat along the stone fences discussing the daily gossip. Men stood in in groups around little fires. Everyone was dressed in traditional attire. My senses were overwhelmed with the smells, colors and sounds of my surroundings.
In my time spent in Malana, I learned that it is home to approximately 3500 residents and that the language spoken is Kanashi. Kanashi is unique to Malana. The origin of the language is disputed as is the origin of their race. Local legend tells that they are descendants of Alexander the Great’s Greek soldiers that had taken refuge in the valley; however, because there is no actual written history, their origins can only be hypothesized. One thing is for certain though: it is not customary to mix with outsiders. This was evident because as an outsider, I was forbidden to touch certain buildings and people for fear of impurity. Violation of these regulations subjected a person to a healthy fine.
It is the women of the village that complete the more physical work of the household while the men take care of the business of the house. As I walked through the winding stone paths, I would see women hard at work using hoes to upturn the soil in preparation for one of the few plants that can survive the harsh Himalayen winters: cannabis. This indigenous multipurpose plant has been cultivated in these areas far longer then for how long the plant has been illegal and is considered the only cash crop.
Interestingly, Malana has its own unique political system separate from the rest of India. Locals claim that it is the world’s oldest democracy, however the true history remains a mystery. What is evident is that they have found a system that works. Malana is an example of a community of people living together in harmony. They have done so for many years and certainly if they continue this way, for many years to come. For this reason, maybe the world has a thing or two to learn from this isolated mountain village.
Malana has remained fiercely independent throughout history, however the construction of a nearby dam and road up the Malana valley has changed this. What once took multiple days to reach hiking is now a few hour hike from the closest road. With this comes more opportunity for development and exposure to the world outside. I did not spend enough time in Malana to attest to how its residents are embracing the winds of change. What I can say is that despite this exposure, tradition certainly remains a very important part of their culture and identity.
I left Malana with a new sense of wonder. Curiosity of this isolated village still gnaws at my mind on a daily basis and as soon as the the time is right, I hope to return to explore and furthur my understanding of this unique culture.
Disclaimer: Much of this information was passed on to me through word of mouth from a respected local. Please personal message me if there is any misleading information.