“Can’t you see the pointed noses?” asked the very excited, rather gullible friend I’d gone on the trek with. I stared at the fair-skinned locals for a while. The women were gorgeous, as they are everywhere in the mountains. The men looked lean and fit, as they do elsewhere in the Himalayas. “I’m sorry,” I turned to my friend, “but how can we be sure they have Greek genes? And how exactly did Alexander’s army manage to skip every other village on its way here and then after?”
If there was anything odd about the Malanis, as they are called, it was the lack of openness to strangers that I’ve come to love on my trips to the mountains. Another unnerving aspect of this purportedly ‘democratic’ village was the traveller scene itself: there was sheer pride in the faces of the motley bunch gathered there, comparing chillum sizes and doling out imaginary, connoisseur-like verdicts on the quality of the stuff on sale.
Over the years, Malana has received a great deal of attention, in direct contrast to the seclusion and smoky pleasures it is famed for. Apart from its inhabitants who claim to be direct descendants of Alexander the Great and its peculiar system of administration, the village is particularly known for its high-quality marijuana plants and ‘cream’ which has also been a 1994 and 1996 Cannabis Cup Winner in Amsterdam.
I first visited Malana in 2010. Even back then, its no-touching-villagers rule was prevalent, and the few guesthouses were on the highest ridge, far away from the main village into which tourists weren’t very welcome. I went with a group of Israeli tourists (now dear old friends) who obviously knew a lot more about how to have fun than the average Indian.
The trek was a royal pain, and despite its scenic views, the village itself was just another dusty, strange place where shopkeepers placed your goods on the counter and accepted your money the same way. There were many whacked-out locals even back then, high as a kite, and ever ready to sell some maal to anybody walking in their direction.
In 2008, a fire destroyed more than half the buildings and structures in Malana. I think this was also the time when the village started getting more attention from the press, and soon enough everyone and their aunty knew about its infamous goings-on. Shimla-based director Vivek Mohan made an award-winning documentary called Malana – In Search Of before the fire, and in 2011 there was Bom by Amlan Datta. There have been other films inspired by Malana in recent years – like Charas – A Joint Effort and M Cream – both pretentious and embarrassingly off the mark.
The number of people who make this hazy pilgrimage today is astounding. There are few things in the backpacking world as boring as to watch new waves of travellers gush over the weed plants everywhere. In fact, some of the people who are now trekking up – a much shorter climb than back in the day – have never even smoked a doob. Instead, their inner detective is driven to the top by curiosity; the sheer mystery of Malana attracts idiots by the dozen.
Of late the disgruntled village reappeared in the news with some surprising twists in the story. In February earlier this year it banned all narcotic trade even internally. This wasn’t the odd part though, the unexpected bit was banning photography and documentation of the place in order to avoid ‘negative publicity’. Finally, in July they banned guesthouses and restaurants altogether as per the command of local presiding deity Jemlu Devta. Just as well too, perhaps the next time it opens up we can expect something friendlier than shrewd salesmanship from locals and joint-rolling competitions from visitors!
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