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“Are you Rajput?”… asked the old man.
We were barely half way through. Our city bred and pollution-fed constitutions were on the verge of breaking down. After three hours through steep wilderness and gradual realization of the folly of not carrying a water bottle, we’d finally located a wooden house with a living person at the doorstep. I personally expected the usual hospitality I often find in the hills. But all he was bothered about was whether the travellers belonged to the same caste as him. Although none of us were, Hilly said yes, went in and had water. I preferred to be less pragmatic and choose to wait for other options.
Myths, Rumours and things that must not be named:
Let me just go back in time a bit and reach a more conventional starting point. I was in the Parvati Valley with Hilly, who came to visit the hills all the way from Bombay (OK OK Mumbai!). The idea was to relax for a few days, mingle with the hippies and look for certain materials that this region is known for (but which must not be named). We were planning to use Kasol as the base but even before reaching there, we decided to do away with the Malana trek first. It seemed the more hectic part and so after this we expected to catch some well-deserved break at Kasol.
Now, there are many stories surrounding Malana. Some of them may be real and some others mere myths. According to the most popular myth, they were the remnants of Greeks who came with Alexander, just like the Kalash. I have not seen any conclusive studies proving the same. The people out there did have some hints of exotic genes in their looks, but I did not really notice any significant traits. Besides, they generally claim to be Rajputs.
The other popular story here is that of Malana being one of the oldest “democracies”. This is a more convincing one. Basically it used to be a secluded village until recently. They were never a part of any kingdom and never paid taxes even to the Brits. From what I understood, modern amenities have also reached the village fairly recently. New roads have made the approach a bit easier but it still takes several hours of trekking. Are they living fossils giving us a glimpse of the ancient pre-Mauryan republics? I do not know.
As for the stuff that must not be named, Malana is well known for cultivating the same. From random shepherds on the trek to village children higher up, everybody offered to sell us the same.
Choosing the Longer Path:
We were told that there are two approaches to the village. Buses are not yet available here but you get shared cars from Jari, a small settlement 10 kms before Kasol. We spent the night at an ancient wooden building turned a budget guesthouse at Jari. In the morning we found a car whose driver was already rolling a joint at 7 in the morning! Anyways, he gave us two options. The nearer entry point costs INR 300 per head but the trek from there are much longer and difficult. The other option would cost INR 500 per head but leave us at a point from where the trek is much shorter and well-marked with no obstacles. We chose the more difficult option. Whether it was due to our hard working nature or our poverty is anybody’s guess.
Not quite the spring:
The driver lit the rolled joint and started the car. He was generous enough to share. The car as well as its passengers achieved various altitudes as we moved on. After around 30 minutes of driving, he suddenly stopped and pointed out to a narrow and steep path on the left side of the road. Some villagers had just descended through the same path. They told us that it will take around an hour. They seriously overestimated us!
It was March and the lower valleys were blooming with spring colours. But slightly higher reaches leading up to Malana were still dry and sleepy. We crossed the streams whose banks were lined with naked trees and grey rocks. Initial steep climb led to a flatter portion which again led to a steeper stretch. After around two hours, we met the aforementioned person. I thought we can quickly climb up the rest of the hill and get refreshments. But I was wrong!
The end of the road… almost!
As we climbed higher, traces of snow became visible. Winter was firmly on here. After some difficult climbing, we reached a spot where there was no path remaining. There was a stretch of very soft and slippery slope with thick snow (in fact it was brittle ice). It is in fact the same stream we had crossed earlier. At that height, the surface was not only frozen but almost vertically inclined. We could see the trail on the other side and a safer option was to climb down, cross the stream at a safer location and climb up again. But we were too tired for all that. We saw sheep and goats walk down those slopes effortlessly but weren’t sure if we could do the same. We hesitated and for some moments even considered giving up. But finally we just decided to take the risk. We had to literally crawl to avoid slipping and fall off several feet below. It was the riskiest 15 feets of our lives but we managed it!
After that crossing the path was clear. We met a few local women carrying (most probably) firewood. They pointed towards a transmission tower at the top and asked us to keep walking towards that. After a while, we finally reached the top and found that it was a completely different world. While we had seen scattered stretches of snow along the trek, the village was completely covered in thick snow altogether.
More importantly, we’d arrived from the wrong direction. Main village was on the other side of the plane and we still had to traverse some uncomfortable yards. I slipped several times and then finally stepped on some soft ice and started downing like one does in quicksand. Finally when I stopped, I was buried till my waist. I pulled myself out with my bare hands and the palms pained due to sheer connection with sub-zero material. Thankfully that sensation did not last long. It took half an hour just to cover those final yards and enter the village, only to find children asking whether we need “stuff”.
I gulped some of the ice flakes out of thirst. After meandering through the village for a while, one person asked what we were looking for (As it turned out he was also hoping to sell his “stuff”). But we were too exhausted, famished and thirsty for such fancy things and so asked him if there was any restaurant available.
The man took us to a wooden hut that was completely buried in snow. A narrow hole was cut through several feet thick ice to uncover the door and enable people to enter. Inside it was mostly dark but there was Harish Thakur, our saviour of the day. He told us stories about his long tenure as a guide in the mountains. He is now settled here and runs this little shop. He made parathas with pickles and raw tomato chutney that I have encountered only in this region. We finally found proper drinking water too and of course there was thick milk tea to go with. We sat there for more than an hour replenishing ourselves.
After the food, we felt better but it was time to leave. So we decided to take a short stroll around the village. The main deity here seemed to be Jamlu Rishi or Jamadagni, Parashuram’s father. Architecture of the wooden houses seemed unique but I lack the expertise to comment too much on the same. The temple however seemed newly constructed. We also noticed the famed signboards warning visitors against touching the villagers or photographing them. But I guess they are mostly lenient about these rules now.
We took the other route for our descent. There were no roadblocks here. Some other trekkers were coming towards the village, so it seemed to be the more popular route. It did not take much time and effort and at the end there was a shop by the side of the motorable road, further indicating that it was the main entrance used by travellers. We joined some other people on shared a car, thus paying only INR 200 per head and reached Jari before dark. We’d evacuated our rooms in the morning but had left our luggage at the guest house. So we collected the same and then took an evening bus to Kasol, which was 10 kms further up the valley. I’ll be back with that story in a day or two.
PS: Photos that feature me were clicked by Hilly.
Malana Traveller FAQs:
What and where on Earth is Malana?
It is a secluded village situated somewhere in the Parvati Valley of Himachal Pradesh. Nearest major towns are Bhuntar and Kasol. Altitude is around 2600 meters according to my map and even 3000 meters according to some other sources.
Why is it famous?
Its secluded nature is the reason for its fame. There are various myths regarding the origin of the people and they remained a secluded society for a long time without paying taxes to any of the rulers of India. They have unique language, culture, traditions and even unique genes if some myths are to be believed. More importantly the villagers cultivate a certain cash crop that producers certain unmentionable product that I have already mentioned before! Everyone in the village tries to sell the same to visitors. Mail me for details of the same.
How to Reach Malana?
There are two main entry points that you can reach on shared cars. You can get these cars at Jari, a small town between Bhuntar and Kasol. From there you can star trekking. The longer route is more exciting and will take anything from 2-5 hours depending on your fitness levels. Shorter route should not take more than an hour.
How difficult is the Malana trek?
The shorter route is pretty easy. Longer one is of moderate difficulty and at some points the path may be broken. Carry some water with you.
Where to Stay in Malana?
There are some basic accommodations in Malana although we did not stay there. You can stay at Jari and go for the trek in the morning. We stayed at a small guesthouse in Jari. The room was decent but the bathroom was in a different floor. They charged only INR 300 for the night (shared by two).
Are there any restaurants in Malana?
Yes, there are some basic eateries where you can rejuvenate yourself after the trek.
What is the best season for Malana?
It can be done all the time. It was March but was still under several feet deep snow. So, I guess summers and post monsoon seasons will be nice.
What to keep in mind in Malana?
Be careful. Do not touch the local people. Also be careful while photographing. You can click landscapes but ask permission before clicking people or temples.
What else can one do at Malana?
One can go to something called “Magic Valley”, which is another pristine meadow a few KMs ahead of Malana. If you have time, you can also trek over the Chadrakhani Pass and move over to the other side and reach Naggar. But you will need guides and equipment for the trek. It is also possible to trek to Rashol, another high village in the valley. But we trekked to Rashol separately from Kasol a couple of days later.