Unwanted visitors

Elsewhere I’ve written about Colin Rosser’s ethnographic fieldwork in the ‘hermit village’ of Malana. Though the Rossers were the first Europeans to take up residence in Malana, the village has a long history of attracting foreign visitors. In his account of the ‘Himalayan Districts of Kulu, Lahoul and Spiti’, AFP Harcourt writes

‘the village of Malanna… is perhaps one of the greatest curiosities in Kooloo, as the inhabitants keep entirely to themselves, neither eating nor intermarrying with the people of any other village, and speak a language which no one but they themselves can comprehend’ (1874: 94).

Harcourt goes on to describe the people of Malana as ‘densely ignorant… no-one in the place being able to read or write’. He is rudely dismissive of their physical appearance:

‘the physiognomy of the inhabitants is also not a little peculiar; the eyes have a startled and frightened look, and the nose projects over the vacillating mouth, which, with the narrow chin, gives a character of feeblesness to the entire face’ (1874: 95).

European travellers who wrote accounts of visiting Malana include the mountaineer C.G. Bruce in 1914, and administrators such Assistant commissioner Henry Lee Shuttleworth in 1922 and Hugh Whistler (1924) of the Indian Imperial Police. The Irish travel writer and cyclist Dervla Murphy spent Christmas in Malana less than a decade after the Rossers had lived there. All these accounts describe the power of Jamlu – the ‘supreme lord of everything in Malana – of the people, animals, the land and its produce’ (Shuttleworth 1922: 247). The following tale about the Moghul Emperor Akbar is told in various forms to illustrate Jamlu’s power and reach

‘The story runs that Akbar was stricken with leprosy as his tax-gathers took from a sadhu two pice, which had come from the treasury of Jamlu at Malana.  These two pice were then found stuck together in Akbar’s treasury, and the Emperor was told that his vicarious sin could not be expiated nor the disease cured until he in person returned the money to Malana and begged forgiveness of Deota Jamlu. It was pointed out, however, to the representatives of the god that so great and so sick a prince could hardly go in person to that distant valley, and the god very reasonably agreed to be satisfied if the pice were returned by deputy, together with a statue of Akbar in gold and of his horses and elephants in silver. This was done, and Deota Jamlu graciously withdrew the leprosy from the Emperor’ (Whistler 1924: 209).

Penelope Chetwode blamed Jamlu for the severe storms that prevented her from reaching Malana in 1963.

It was also common for Europeans to refer to Malana’s system of democracy (Shuttleworth 1922: 247), often connecting it to tales of the people being Greek descendants of Alexander the Great. In his settlement report of 1874, James Broadwood Lyall summarized the official position of the colonial government:

‘The Malana-people rarely appear in our courts, in fact never, I believe, if they can help it; they have a way of settling their own cases by a meeting held in the temple conducted with certain forms…. They are not liked, but dreaded to some extent as uncanny by the other Kulu-people.  Our Government has diminished the superstitious respect in which they were held and lessened their conceit… They are an idle set of course, and to some extent disaffected’ (1874: 157).

The most commented on feature of the people of Malana, however, was their social isolation and the efforts they made to avoid the ritual pollution of the outside world. The people of Malana ‘are very jealous of any strangers coming near them’ (Murray-Aynsley, 1882: 24). Without irony, the travelling sportsman Enriques noted during his visit that the people of Malana ‘will do all that is in their power to keep their secluded valley to themselves, and do not encourage travellers or sportsmen to visit it’ (1915: 46).

‘They scrupulously avoid physical contact with all outsiders… No leather of any kind (shoes, belts, watch-straps etc.) is permitted within the village, and an outsider, of any caste, is only allowed to walk along certain paths in the village (a rule that was relaxed in my case after the first few months)’ (Rosser 1956: 49).

Lyall recalls that there had been several occasions when the people of Malana ‘mobbed or abused European travellers who have visited Malana and gone anywhere near the temple with boots on’. The ‘semi-independent’ attitude of the Malana people was so marked Whistler notes that ‘as late as 1883 a mountain-battery was detailed to march through the glen and spend some days in the village as a hint to the people to curb their insolence’ (1924: 208). This event, and improvement to the path to the village, made the Malanese ‘much more amenable to authority’ (Diack 1897: 52).

The longstanding draw of Malana to foreign tourists might be though of as a sort of ‘hermit paradox’. Those that want to be left in isolation, by doing so, bring extra attention on themselves. The image of a mystical Himalayan Shangri-La has long been a popular one in the Western imagination. In more recent decades foreign travellers have been drawn to Malana by another attraction. The southern foothills of the Himalayas specialise in the ‘hand-rubbed’ technique of producing charas; the cannabis grown in the Malana valley is of particularly high quality. In outsiders’ tales of Malana there is a complex interplay of ideas about the village – ideas about isolation, purity, independence, heritage and indigeneity. The marketing of Malana Cream to international Charasi draws on claims to indigenous tradition and authenticity that its producers convey. Yet the commercial production of cannabis was only introduced in the 1970s by an Italian who the Malanese call ‘Glenu’.


Bruce, C.G., 1914. Kulu and Lahoul. London: Edward Arnold

Chetwode, Penelope, 1972. Kulu: the end of the habitable world. London : John Murray,

Diack, A.H. (ed.), 1897.  Gazetteer of the Kangra District. Parts II-IV: Kulu, Lahaul and Spiti.  Lahore: Civil and Military Gazette Press

Enriques, C.M. 1915. The Realm of the Gods; a tale of travel in Kangra, Mandi, Kulu, Chamba, Kishtwar, Kashmir, Ladakh and Baltistan.  Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & Co.

Harcourt, A.F.P., 1874. The Himalayan Districts of Kooloo, Lahoul, and Spiti.  Lahore: Government Civil Secretariat Press

Lyall, J.B, 1874.  Report of the Land Revenue Settlement of the Kangra District, Panjab, 1865-72.  Lahore: Central Jail Press

Murphy, Dervla, 1966. Tibetan Foothold 1966. London: John Murray

Murray-Aynsley, Mrs. J.C., 1882. An Account of a Three Month’s Tour from Simla through Bussahir, Kunowar and Spiti, to Lahoul. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink and Co.

Rosser, Colin, 1956. The Political System of a Himalayan Community. unpublished dissertation presented for the degree of Ph.D. in Anthropology in the University of London (School of Oriental and African Studies) February 1956.

Shuttleworth, H. Lee, 1922. ‘Border Countries of the Punjab Himalaya’ in The Geographical Journal, Vol.60, No.4 (Oct., 1922) pp241-263

Whistler, Hugh, 1924. In the high Himalayas: sport and travel in the Rhotang and Baralacha, with some notes on the natural history of that area. London: H.F&G. Witherby

[The sketch that features at the start of this piece is by AFP Harcourt and is held in the British Library].

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