On our way to Malana, at one of the several places where the roads get blocked with dusty flocks of sheep, we contemplate buying a lamb. In the Himachali village, known more for its famous product, the Malana Cream, as well as for being thousands of years old, lambs play an important role in Malana. They act as fines for any transgression (usually made by visitors), leading to our consideration of buying one.
For years, the village had been shielded from external influences due to its secluded location, a complex ritualised system of worship that allowed the villagers little mingling with outsiders (the mountain it was located on, what is believed to be, protected by their venerated but jealous chief deity Jamblu Devta), its own language (claimed, by superstitious folk, to be the language of rakshasas), and a unique set of customs. But the biggest draw to the village is still the cream of its crop. Literally.
More than six years ago, when a massive fire broke out (allegedly cursed for their growing commerce with outsiders), destroying half the village, several sacred structures and a majority of marijuana plants, it proved ruinous to the livelihood of the families there as well as distressing their clientele. Spurious claims to the Malana brand flooded the market and prices skyrocketed. Today, the situation has improved. The road to Malana, or rather the beginning of the journey to the village, begins from the Malana Hydro Power Plant, located in the village of Jari. It was the construction of the dam and the mammoth steel tunnel that cuts through both rock and verdure down the side of the mountains, which brought the village of Malana into closer contact with the outside world around 15 years ago. The road cuts its way through, finally giving up and reverting to a crushed stone path that barely squeezes past precipices and craggy hills. The vehicle literally grinds to a halt at the last motorable spot. Stretching one’s legs, you first encounter a green metal arch welcoming you to Malana. Beyond that, across a panorama of peaks, on a wedge seemingly carved out by some potent but benevolent deity, is the flat ground upon which lies the ancient village of Malana.
A broad but steep staircase that leads you down the side of the town is flanked by low buildings. It is surrounded by gardens. Offers of seating, refreshment and anything else you might get from your eventual destination is offered too, at discounted rates (“Why climb up the all the way” is the cheerfully repeated question, frequently accompanied by a wink). As tempting as this sounds, we steel our limbs and, crossing a final bridge, begin the ascent. A large number of families and groups pass by us, which is surprising given the desolation of the roads thus far. On our way up, enterprising locals straddle rocks and inhabit crannies, offering a smile and refreshment of the spiritual but pungent kind. Occasional muleteers and their charges do much the same (the former, obviously), though they refuse to give us a lift.
Finally crossing over a bridge with a stream rushing across the path itself, we come across the first cluster of houses. While the ruined hulks of burned houses have been removed, damage is still visible. The homes are high, with ornate carved wooden roofs; wood is a common feature, both in structure as well as the piles of firewood surrounding them, coming almost to the eaves on some instances.
As we discover, cultivation and retailing of the crop is literally a cottage industry in Malana, where each man is his own farmer and seller. A stone path cuts through the lanes and alleys, and the houses are centred around a large courtyard. Flagged by three temples, the courtyard is made of stone platforms (present in other parts of the village too), where the menfolk recline and sell their wares. Structures such as these stone platforms, the temples and certain houses are sacrosanct, prohibited to be touched and photographed. The price of a sacrificial lamb as penance has been replaced with the more prosaic monetary amount of Rs 2,500.
While the rest of the world might consider the conduct of these transactions to be done with at least a modicum of discretion, the villagers here have no such qualms. Rates are called out along with jokes disparaging each others’ produce, while fat black tubes, disks and a bewildering array of other shapes gleam inchoately in the sunlight. The rates are uniformly high, a reflection of the summer season as well as the need to recuperate from the fire, with the sole provision of any lowering of price in case of bulk buying.
Leaving behind the calls of the courtyard, we wander around the village. Occasional groups of villagers sit on their stoops and speak amongst themselves, calling out a greeting or a warning against wandering down a particular path, apart from the ubiquitous offer of sale. Some paths are steeped in silence, while others echo with the ringing of hammers and the slithering of cement on brick. The traditional wooden houses, which proved so much kindling to the flames, are being replaced by more fire-resistant building materials.
After completing a rough circle around the village, we end our visit with the shrine of Jamblu Devta. The largest of the temples, untouched by the fire, it stands in splendid isolation. While its doors are barred, the entrance and the wall is covered with skulls of goats, cows and other ungulates, polished and, in some cases, intricately carved. As you stand in front of the temple, swathed as it is in peace, you can’t help but feel a certain primal je ne sais quoi. It’s impossible to say what is there, but there is unquestionably something.
Our reverie is broken by the voice of a passing elderly woman, asking whether this is our first visit to the village. Smiling at our affirmation, she gently cautions us against going further down the path and then goes on her way. Then she turns around, smiles and holds out a familiar block, saying, “If you’re interested….”