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The World’s Oldest Democracy - Malana

These isolated Greek-like people live by their own code of consensus developed centuries ago and shun contact with outsiders

Malana is somewhere up there behind those mountains, our guide pointed. I contemplated the narrow, irregular road on the opposite side of the river, zig-zagging straight through the clouds up into the sky. Whenever I have been out on a trek, all roads have lost every other perspective, save this — is it uphill or downhill. Very often I have lost sight of all the wonderful bounty of nature strewn on both the sides, so completely engrossed I had been in the act of getting the miles behind me. I bravely flicked my twenty odd kilogram heavy rugsack that seemed to be weighing much more than that, over my shoulders, already weary from carrying the blasted thing for the last seven days, and dragged my feet over the boulder strewn river bed of Malana Nala. It was peak summer time and the river was running full-throated and wild. It would eventually pour into Parvati river which was an important tributary of the mighty Beas. The Government was planning a Hydel project over the Malana river to tap its wanton energy. A number of such projects designed to generate hydroelectricity were getting executed all over in Himachal Pradesh, intended to render the state surplus in power. But we were not there to marvel at such technological wonders but in fact a political one, a sociological puzzle if you please. We were there to see for ourselves, the oldest democracy in the world and we were very near our goal. Malana village at the end of that day’s trek would reveal it all to us. The sound of the roaring river drowned the thump of our foot steps. At several places, narrower and steeper paths branched out from the track and very often we would get seduced into following a braided thread of trails used by herdsmen and local people. Most often I have regretted my decision to stray from the beaten track and have been left wondering at the sure-footedness and amazing lung capacities of these local people. Our guide, a local from the nearby village of Jari, overtook us. He pointed to the wild bushes on both sides. “Know what it is?” He winked. I could guess – charas plants, the source of the fabled “Malana hash”! “ But are these wild or cultivated?” I inquired. He shrugged and hastened away. He found it tiresome to keep pace with us being used to walking much faster in these mountainous countrysides, and preferred to move ahead and wait for us somewhere further up.

Three hours later, the village emerged out of the clouds, literally. Aligned vertically, the houses cascaded down in steps along the sloping mountainside. They looked top heavy as if leaning over the edge. As we entered the village, the ornate carving on the wooden walls and pillars showed up. Our guide pointed to a few robed soldiers on a panel. These images have been posing perplexing questions to anthropologists and sociologists alike. For some, it is evidence to support a theory that Alexander the Great came as far as here at the time of his Indian conquest and that some of his men stayed back to marry local lasses and settle down. Certainly their fierce “Greek” facial features and penetrating glances required some explaining! But others believe that people from the neighbouring valleys migrated here many centuries ago as represented in the eight distinct clans residing in the village today. For a community with no recorded history, without a script and speaking a dialect that is a confusing mix of Sanskrit, Bhotti and Kinnauri, reconstructing their past remains a challenge.

What is easier to decipher for an out-sider though is their administration or the governing “Malanan Parliament” which comprises of upper and lower houses. The Upper House has three permanent members and eight elected members, one from each of the eight clans. The Lower House comprises of all adults or heads of families of Malana. Any issue, big or small is endlessly debated by this Government called “Kameti” until a consensus is reached. If not, it is left to their guardian deity Jamlu Devta to decide. The system has endured the test of time; divorce as well as crimes like rape, murder and kidnapping are unknown in Malana and not a single case of dispute has been appealed to outside authorities. They, in fact do not acknowledge the authority of our bigger nation, India.

Their Jamlu Devta also seems to be imbued with this same independent spirit. Our guide narrated his escapades. One of them goes back to the famous Dusshera festival of Kullu. The most striking feature of Dussehra as observed in the Kullu valley is the absence of a dramatisation or retelling of the Ramayana. Nor are there any effigy burning rituals observed. In fact it is celebrated to commemorate the arrival, from a temple in Ayodhya, of the ashtadhatu idol of Raghunathji at Sultanpur, the then capital of the principality of Kullu. This was done in an attempt to embrace Vaishnavism by the then king Jagat Singh. When the idol arrived at Sultanpur the king organized the devtas and devis of all the villages of Kullu valley to congregate at a certain point where they were required to give cognisance to Raghunath’s sovereignty. With the exception of two, all arrived promptly and in order of protocol.

Among the two to revolt was Hadimba the wife of Bhima of Mahabharata. She was appeased with promises of retaining her overlordship under the new dispensation. To this day, Hadimba is the last to join the assembly at Dhalpur. But Jamlu, the tribal devta of Malana refused altogether to submit to an “alien”. His absence has been observed for centuries. He arrives at the river but does not cross it. Apprehensive of the outcome of the conclave presided over by an alien, Jamlu camps on the left bank of Beas, opposite the Dhalpur site of the assembly for as long as the conclave lasts and returns to Malana without paying homage to Raghunathji. Sociologists explain this as an expression of the apprehensions of the tribals over the introduction of Vaishnavism in Kullu raj and the treatment accorded to it by the raja in preference to animism that was prevalent then. This represents tribal non-violent resistance to organized religion. The people of Malana stay away from the rath pulling ceremony as well.

Ultimately, we’re all outsiders

We were not allowed to enter the temple of Jamlu Devta. The doorway was arched over with huge skulls and horns of buffaloes, they were mementoes of the sacrifices made to their Devta. We strolled around freely in other parts of the village. The men and women alike looked unwashed and untidy. It seems they never bathed! Some of them had a vacant expression and a little “doped” air about them. Liberal intake of charas or weakened genes as a result of what biologists would call “close inbreeding” over prolonged time? Both polygamy as well as polyandry was prevalent here. For a marriage partner, they looked no further than Rasol, the next village barely 10 km away. The rest of the world comprised of “untouchables”. In fact, this aspect came to us as a revelation when we tried to pay at a tea shop in the evening. The shopkeeper recoiled from my outstretched hands mumbling something incomprehensible. At first, I thought he was appalled at the idea of money payment for an act of generosity he had indulged in by serving us tea. But our guide arrived just then to solve the mystery. He would never accept anything from “outsiders” directly, lest he should get contaminated! It was however all right to lay down the money on the table from where he could collect it. We were truly jolted to get this dose of untouchability from the other side! Everything in the life of this minuscule community ensconced deep in Parvati valley of Himachal, appeared to me as a part of a bigger scheme to keep away outside influence and lead self-reliant, secluded lives. At a height of 2652 m, life for the residents of Malana was certainly not easy and there were tale-tell signs of poverty all around. But they obviously thought it was a very small price to pay for an able and just judiciary combined with an even and free environment, the fruits of democracy. There are no perfect democracies, you argue, but if democracy is to be defined as a form of “government by discussion,” in which groups of people having common interests make decisions that affect their lives through debate, consultation, and voting, Malana truly qualifies. I hereby cast my vote in its favour!


Malana (2652 m) is a village in the Kullu valley of Himachal Pradesh, 30 km from Katrain. It falls en-route the Chandrakhani trek organized every year by Youth Hostels Association of India from June to October

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