[Reprinted with permission from Tibetan Foothold by Dervla Murphy, published by John Murray]


MALANA is an autonomous community of some 600 people who live on a 9,000-foot plateau, independent of'1 all outside influences, and one of the many remarkable things about them is their language. Some philologists claim to find definite links between Malani, Magyar and Finnish; it is also allied—more understandably—to Pharsi. Archaeologists and anthropologists estimate that the Malanis have been living on this remote plateau for about. 5,000 years, and their religion, a primitive form of Hinduism, consists in the worship of the god Jamdagnishri—also known, more pronounceably, as Jamlu. Jamlu is believed to be a sort of demon-spirit and, like the Malanis, he has an independent nature and does not pay homage even to Raghunathjee, the principal god of the Kulu Valley, to whom most other local gods do reverence. All the cultivated lands around Malana are regarded as Jamlu s property, the Malanis being merely his tenants. The village treasure is also his property, and the treasure-house is rumoured to contain uncountable quantities of cash, jewels, gold and silver ornaments and the silver images of a horse which are the customary offering to this particular god.

To the Malanis their territory is known as the Valley of Refugeand unsubstantiated oral tradition says that the original inhabitants fled there during some long-forgotten crisis. Now, out of gratitude to Jamlu, who protected their ancestors, these people unquestioningly offer refuge to anyone fleeing from any sort of trouble—though only caste Hindus are permitted to enter the village itself. This provision of sanctuary is occasionally of use to local criminals, who know that the villagers won't hand them over to the police.

The Malanis have never had anything to do with any ruling power and they take no part in the life of the nation. A committee of 11 eiders governs the community, and when the Government of India insisted on opening a village school 12 - years ago the elders forbade anyone to attend it—though for the past five years it has had one pupil. When anyone falls ill they are taken to the chief, who asks them what moral wrong they have done to cause the illness (5,000-year-old psychology !) and gives them a magic brew of herbs. If they die despite this brew the wrong done is presumed to have been too heinous for reparation in this life and they are then cremated, after the orthodox Hindu fashion, on the banks of the little Malana Nullah. On the death of the head of a household his goods are divided equally among all his children, who are expected to contribute a share each to keep their mother in the state to which she is accustomed. Marriages are arranged on the usual Hindu basis, but divorces may be had simply by paying Rs.20 (about £1 10s.)2 to the wife— an unusual deviation, since throughout India proper they are very difficult to obtain. Theft is unknown in this community and any crinic is rare, but if there is a question of one of two people being guilty both parties bring a lamb to the chief, who slits the animals’ throats and inserts an identical quantity of cyanide into each slit— and the owner of the lamb which dies first is regarded as the guilty party.


  1. Exchange values before devaluation of the rupee and the sterling— current value is £1 = Rs.18.—Ed.


The Malanis collect the roots of a plant used to make incense and many medicinal herbs which they sell or barter, but most of their cash comes from hunting the musk-deer. This animal abounds here—though being very fast and elusive it is extremely difficult to shoot. I was told today that one musk is worth Rs. 1,000 (£75) and that so far this season the Malanis have shot VS male deer. These figures sound almost incredible ; if they are true then the Malanis' austere mode of life is from choice, not necessity ! Or, does most of this cash have to go into Jamlu's, treasure-house ?

The 14 miles from Bhuntar to Jari were all uphill, through yet another indescribably lovely valley—and it was yet another perfect day of clear, deep blue skies and warm, golden sunshine, with the- air so pure that merely to breathe was a joy. It's not surprising that the Kulu Valley and its side valleys were chosen by sages and saints in Vedic times for meditation and prayer—I'd choose them, too, if I were given to either meditation or prayer ! And Mr Nehru, a regular visitor to Manali to get away from it all, is avidently in agreement with me. Each of these valleys, and each hamlet in each valley, has its own tutelary deity, and as the region has been virtually untouched by modern development of Hinduism the local religion remains strongly tinged with animism. Throughout all India's history the Kulu Valley (known as Kiu-lu-To in the days when it was at the southern boundary of Kubla Khan's empire) was never conquered or occupied till the British came ; in recent times the area was called the State of Rupi and had its own rajah (usually a pretty degenerate type) until the line faded out in the 1920s.

At 11 a.m. we reached Jari, which was just what I had expected it to be—an impoverished huddle of disintegrating mud and wood hovels where milk was scarce and fruit, eggs and sugar were unobtainable, but where the surrounding beauty was so exhilarating that to a non-resident nothing else matters. Going straight to the forest rest-house I received the chowkidar's permission to leave Roz there for the night and then asked him to show me where the path to Malana began. The poor man obviously thought me off my head (now I know why!) and said, 'Malana ne! You go Manikand—yes ?' (Manikand3 is famous for its hot springs and is approached from Jari by a seven-mile bridle-path). I was shaking my head and firmly repeating ' Malana—I go Malana', when such a fantastic coincidence occurred that I can only regard it as a Christmas present from Jari's tutelary deity.


  1. The correct spelling is Manikaran—Ed.


Two constables of the Punjab Armed Police suddenly materialized beside me to enquire into my presence in a restricted zone, and having sorted that one out I enquired into their presence, since tiny hamlets don't normally have resident policemen. In reply they explained that they were about to conduct an election agent to Malana, as the three-yearly Punjabi State elections are now in progress. At that point we were joined by the election agent, a plainsman from Chandigarh, who was shivering besides layers 'of woollen garments and what felt to me like hot sun. His present duties were evidently not suiting him in any way and he wore a distinctly martyred expression—which temporarily changed to one of astonishment when he saw me talking to his bodyguard. On discovering my destination he looked rather startled and said 'But why are you going there ? I answered, 'Because I want to', which seemed to me a flawless reason ; yet it obviously struck my companion as hopelessly inadequate, if not actually insane The agent then pointed out, in words of syllable, that people only went to Malana under compulsion. 'The Malanis are dirty savages', he concluded, 'and the way is very tedious.' I discounted both these statements, realizing that by Hindu standards I, too, was a dirty savage, not having washed for a week. In reply to my query as to why a Punjabi election agent had to visit this autonomous community I was told that the Malanis are new citizens of Asia's biggest democracy and have to be given the opportunity to vote. I next asked what happens when the election party reaches the village and the agent said that they put up a notice (which no one can read), improvise a polling-booth (which is pointedly ignored by the villagers) and then spend two nights and one day gambling mildly together before returning to Jari ! We were now joined by a friend of the agent, who was accompanying the party to make a four at cards and dice ; to me the whole thing was enchantingly Gilbertian and I happily received their reluctant consent to my accompanying the expedition.

One of the most pleasing features of life here is that for a trek like this people simply stand up and go, minus the tiresome paraphernalia of picnic-baskets, cameras, binoculars, night-clothes, first-aid kits, etc., with which Westerners would fussily encumber themselves in similar circumstances. But there was one important preparation to be made for this particular expedition. It is a urcivous offence against the Malanis' religion to bring leather into their territory, so we had to remove all leather objects from our persons. The police took off their belts and replaced their rifle- sirups with ropes, the agent's friend grumpily exchanged his leather fur-lined cap for a woollen balaclava and the agent himself almost tearfully abandoned his long leather gauntlets. My boots were of rubber and canvas so when I had pronounced myself 'clean' we set off.

From jari the path descended to river-level, through dark pine- forests where unmelted snow made the steep path treacherous to our rubber boots. Then we crossed the wide, rapid nullah, by a nonchalant bridge of frost-slippery planks and were again in sun- hiue, at the point where the Parvati Nullah is joined by the more turbulent Malana Nullah, which we were now going to follow up its narrow ravine.

This stage—a gradual five—mile climb-provided such a remarkable concentration of hazards that the business of avoiding death occupied 90 per cent of my attention and the beauties of the ravine impressed me only during our rest halts. The agent, on his third visit to Malana, was our leader—if so decisive a title may be bestowed on a man who viewed the whole performance with frank horror. As we struggled upwards I admitted to myself that the Jari chowkidar had been right. Guidance was indeed necessary for this track—to prove the human animal capable of following it rather than to show the way, which in most places could be lost only by falling into the nullah or of scaling a 2,000-foot cliff. Among the more stimulating diversion was a cow-hair rope hand-bridge which made me feel like a trapeze artiste without the net, as the torrent thundered hungrily down its bed of boulders beneath my dangling feet. After this came a brief respite-some hundred yards of firm silver sand on which we walked five abreast beside a shallow, more subdued nullah, where the clear green water was like a liquid jewel.

Here one could relax and appreciate the vividly coloured, densely forested slopes of the ravine, where the rest of the party nervously imagined leopards and bears lurking behind every second tree. But this carefree phase did not last long. Soon we had climbed again and were edging our way along a path hardly 18 inches wide: in places it had crumbled away completely and been casually replaced by a few branches. The nullah was now 300 feet below us, and from this path looked very easy of access by accident. After about half a mile we descended again to find another test of acrobatic skill; a giant pine trunk had been laid against the cliff, where the path ended, to serve as a ladder down to river-level. The ' steps' once hacked in the wood had long since been worn away and, as this part of the ravine is permanently shadowed, the whole trunk was covered in ice. To us it seemed a suicidal contraption; looking down I wondered whether my imminent death would come from a broken neck on the rocks or through drowning m the nullah. Then I went over gallantly, following the agent and hoping for drowning. But of course instinct took charge where intelligence had failed and I found myself sensibly sliding down the trunk, with arms and legs wrapped firmly around it, so that within seconds I was comparatively safe on a vast slab of rock that sloped steeply towards the water. The police followed, their complexions perceptibly ashen, and on landing beside me the elder one promptly vomited in reaction. I hadn't gone to quite this extreme myself but I couldn't have agreed more !

After 30 minutes' rest the agent rose to his feet and said succinctly- ‘Here we go up.' And so we did. We went up every yard of that sheer 3,000-foot precipice-on which the Malams have carved a stairway in the rock-and before we had got half-way the ache of my legs and lungs was torture; I almost wept with relief when we came to a ledge where there was space for all of us to collapse speechlessly for another rest. By now my clothes were saturated with sweat and I avidly ate the snow which lay within reach and rubbed its delicious hard coldness on my face and neck-to the wonder of my companions, who were still feeling chilly. Soon we set off again, pulling ourselves up and up and up. Then we saw our first Malanis- three young women, carrying loads as big as themselves, who effortlessly overtook us and disappeared ahead. Their swift agility made me feel like something left out too long in the rain, as I fought for the breath and the energy to drag one foot in front of the other. (I realize that the descent tomorrow, when I intend to return to Jari, will be even more difficult, as it will involve constantly looking down at that unspeakable drop into the nullah.) At 4.15 p.m. we finally crawled over the edge of a little plateau astride the mountain top and threw ourselves full length on the close-cropped grass.

Now the temperature had dropped so sharply that I was shivering all over in my sweat-soaked clothes. The village of Malana was still invisible behind a forest of towering pines-it became dark as night when we walked through them-and everywhere on this northern side of the mountain snow lay at least a foot deep. By 5 p.m., we had reached the outskirts of the village, having crossed a tricky little glacier, and I saw a collection of some 150 houses straggling up and down the slope. The majority are two- or three-storey dwellings, securely built of colossal stone slabs and great tree trunks, and the combination of these elemental, unsubdued materials with a distinctive, compact design creates a curiously stark beauty. But it was the wooden balconies outside the first-floor rooms which really astonished me. The sureness and sensitivity of their carvings-as fine as anything Germany produced in the Golden Age of Reimenschneider-seem in this superficially uncouth and completely isolated community almost as puzzling as the language. And the physical appearance of the people increases the mystery, for they look like any other local peasants, though inbreeding has obviously dulled their intelligence.

I had known that as a non-Hindu I would be ‘untouchable' to the Malanis (a very salutary experience for a European !), but I had not realized that this means being confined to the untouchables' path, which skirts the ‘caste houses and of course the temple. However, Malana is so tiny that even from this path I could examine most of the buildings and observe that outwardly Jamlu's treasure-house looks much the same as the family dwellings and is quite unlike the crudely elaborate temples seen in most Hindu villages. Yet in one respect it is quite unique: the only entrance to this tall, doorless building is through a hole in the roof. When the Malanis require money for any communal expense the gur-as they call their priest-climbs on to the roof, descends into the pitch-dark chamber and emerges with an armful of whatever comes to hand. Obviously the value of the treasure thus collected varies from visit to visit and the Malanis believe that Jamlu wishes them to spend no more on any particular project than the gur chances to find in his blind gropings.

Unlike the average Hindu god Jamlu is not represented by any image or idol, but by a slab of stone which lies in the centre of a small grassy plot at the edge of the village. This stone, measuring approximately three feet by two across and 18 inches high, looks so exactly like millions of other slabs scattered around the region that if I hadn't known about it I would never have guessed its significance. On it animals are sacrificed to Jamlu in the course of religious ceremonies and no one but the gur is allowed to touch it. (Some people morbidly maintain that not only animals are sacrificed; certainly the population of Malana has been very successfully kept at six or seven hundred for thousands of years, though migration is unknown among those people. And the cultivatable land around the village could support no more than this number.)

It was nearly dark when my untouchable host came to guide me to his home on the far side of the village.

This household consists of a young couple and their two children—a nine-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son. The girl is Malana School's sole pupil, which seems logical enough; as untouchables these people have nothing to lose and possibly something to gain by disobeying the chief's orders and allowing their children to receive some education. (Though when I met the teacher—a pleasant but inconceivably moronic youth from Kulu town—I realized that the child would be better occupied herding flocks instead of attending his lessons.) My hostess is one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen, both in features and expression, and as I watched her from my side of the fire— her face glowing against the darkness beyond—I was irresistibly reminded of the brave, sad innocence of Rembrandt's 6 Titus'. Her husband is also exceptionally handsome, and both children have inherited their parents' good looks.

Most Malani houses are stables and granaries as well as dwellings, and hay is stored on the side balconies, where it protects the living-room from the bitter winds. But the untouchables' house is merely a one-roomed cottage, for they have neither livestock nor grain. Their only possessions are two battered brass cooking-pots, an earthenware mug, an axe, a bedding-roll and the garments they stand up in; this empty room makes a Tibetan tent look overfurnished. A stone fireplace about four feet in circumference lies in the middle of the mud floor, where an unintentional Yule-log some three yards long—the most spectacular I'm ever likely to enjoy !—is now burning merrily with the aid of handfuls of twigs. There is a twelve-inch opening, between the roof of slab stones and the wall, through which the smoke escapes and through which icy currents of air from the glaciers sweep in on the assembled company. Everyone squats around the fire while talking, cooking and eating. (Or, in the present case, writing, i'm three-quarters blind after these hours of writing by flickering fire-light.)

Our supper consisted of chappattis and potatoes sliced and simmered in ghee. There were plenty of the latter, so I'm not complaining about my Christmas dinner—what more could a good Irishwoman ask than platefuls of murphies ! The Malanis do not normally use tea, sugar or any other non-local product—for very obvious reasons.

A slight crisis occurred while supper was being prepared. As my hostess was making the chappattis her husband began to peel potatoes clumsily with his axe (!), because the household possesses no knife, and after watching this process for a few moments I could stand the sight no longer—partly for the poor man's sake and partly for my own, since I had eaten nothing all day. So I produced my own knife, having drawn it from its leather sheath. Suddenly everyone was motionless and in the tense little silence that followed I became guiltily aware of my faux pas. Fortunately, I knew enough about Malani customs to react correctly; making the appropriate gestures of remorse I at once produced Rs.10—the price of the lamb which must be sacrificed tomorrow to placate the insulted Jamlu. And though cynics may here accuse me of being too naive, no one who had once sensed the Malani atmosphere could doubt the use to which those rupees will be put: this family couldn't possibly consider going happily on with the daily round until their god has been propitiated for such an outrage on his territory.

After supper we had another slight crisis, when the election agent nobly tore himself away from the gambling to ensure that I was comfortable for the night. Admittedly the question of bedding did pose a minor problem; the family had none to spare and any blankets lent me from a 6 caste' house would be so contaminated by my body that their owners could never use them again. Yet the solution seemed simple to me—a heap of hay in the corner—and the real complication was caused by my host's indignation at the idea of his guest being bedded down like an animal. However, he was at last induced to agree to this scheme by my emphatic assurances that all the Irish people habitually sleep in hay.

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