An Anthropologist in the ‘hermit village’ of Malana

In the decade after 1947 the study of rural India became the backbone for the sociological understanding of the newly independent country. Taking the village as their unit of analysis, a network of scholars chose to conduct field-studies on a number of interrelated themes. Brought together in collections such as Srinivas’ India’s Villages (1955) and McKim Marriot’s Village India (1955), these accounts highlighted the everyday workings of caste hierarchies, the complex interplay of social, political and economic relations, and the sheer diversity of possibilities that existed across the country.

Of the first wave of village study ethnographers, it was arguably Colin Rosser who chose the most physically and psychologically challenging location to undertake fieldwork. After graduating from the Faculty of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge, Rosser joined the newly created Dept of Cultural Anthropology at SOAS in 1950. Rosser and his wife Tessa left London in 1951 taking with them the two bottles of brandy that Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf suggested as essential medical supplies. They headed for Kullu District in what is now the state of Himachal Pradesh. The next two years would be spent living in the Himalayas.

The village that Rosser chose to study is located in a remote tributary of the main Kullu valley. A day’s walk from its closest neighbour, Malanais perched, at an altitude of just under 9000 feet above sea level, on a narrow shelf high on one side of a wild and isolated glen surrounded by formidable mountain ranges’.

The severe physical isolation of Malana village was matched by the social isolation of its inhabitants. The Malani people considered themselves different from those living in the villages of the Kullu valley. They spoke a separate language and did not marry outside of the village. Perhaps most strikingly, the Malanis saw physical contact with outsiders as highly polluting. Visitors to the village were forbidden from touching people, possessions or buildings. In the past, the Rajas of Kullu had avoided interfering in the affairs of Malana and recognised it as a place of sanctuary for criminals and offenders bent on escaping punishment. Malana had its own system of village government, its own court for settling disputes, and a measure of village autonomy quite distinct from that of other Kullu villages. Malana’s political isolation continued under British colonial rule. It was, according to the title of the single published article Rosser wrote about Malana, ‘a hermit village’.

Knowing it was impossible to obtain the use of a house in Malana, Rosser devised a plan to build a small hut on the edge of the village. After negotiating with the Malani council, Rosser succeeded in obtaining a plot of land. This site was levelled with the aid of local workers and three trees cut down and turned into planks. At this point the plan failed. The Gur – an influential figure who acted as the mouthpiece of the village god – decided that the Rossers were not welcome: no-one should speak to the Rossers or provide them with supplies. Realising that any attempt to settle in Malana could only succeed ‘at the cost of alienating at least half the village’, Colin and Tessa spent the worst of the winter in Jari – a village at the foot of the valley. Eventually, a compromise was reached: the Rossers could stay on the edge of the village in a tent they had purchased from a mountaineering expedition. In return they would provide medicine for those that needed it.

The Rossers spent 18 months living in this unique community. During this time Colin managed to gather data for his PhD thesis that remains perhaps the most complete account of the political and social organisation of Malana (it was never published but can be found in the SOAS library). Tessa kept busy by teaching herself to type and helping Colin by running the camp, cooking and looking after the village dogs. She was very fond of an 11 year old boy called Sangat Ram who belonged to a dalit family – the only people in the village the Rossers were permitted to touch.

Colin Rosser’s connection to Malana did not extend beyond his doctoral fieldwork. He taught at the University College of Swansea (now Swansea University) and University College London before establishing a successful parallel career as a consultant in development and urban planning. Colin Rosser died in 2012 aged 86. Aside from a short visit in the late 1990s he never again returned to the remote hermit village where he had begun his academic career. But his richly detailed PhD thesis (University of London 1956) establishes a valuable baseline against which change in Malana can be measured.

Over the last sixty or seventy years return visits and restudies to sites first described in the 1950s have provided a long-term perspectives on political, social and economic changes in Indian village life. These restudies can open windows onto the intellectual and disciplinary history of anthropology and sociology by suggesting insights into an earlier generation of anthropologists’ methodological approaches, and how these contribute to particular understandings. Rosser and his depiction of Malana seems a good way to explore and examine ideas about tradition and modernity both in rural India and in the discipline of anthropology.

When I visited Malana in September 2013 it was no long necessary to walk from Jari ; a rough road carved into the walls of the Malana nallah comes to within a short stroll of the village. This road was built to support a series of hydro-power projects constructed along the Malana river. A primary school has been built in the village and satellite dishes hang from the eaves of the houses. Many of the old wooden houses apparent in Rosser’s photographs are now gone; walls are now concrete; slate roofs are tin. Today’s visitors no longer need to request permission to enter Malana and nor are they required to remove leather shoes and belts at the edge of the village. However the strict pollution taboos remain in evidence: a series of signs posted on the the Temple warn that attempting enter or photograph the building will result in a 2500rs fine. Physically touching the residents of Malana or any of their possessions is similarly to be avoided.

I’ve written about the political underpinnings of Malana’s agricultural ecology here. My return visit allowed me to hand out prints of the photographs that Colin Rosser had taken nearly 70 years previously. The black and whites are his; the colour ones are mine. Sangat Ram died a few years ago. His family now run a guest house at the edge of the village.

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