Malana: When Globalization Comes Knocking

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Malana: The way life used to be

In 2008, we visited a small village nestled in the Himalayan foothills called Malana. According to the approximately 2000 people who live there, they are the descendants of one of Alexander the Great’s disbanded armies that have been living peacefully in the remote Malana Valley for over 2000 years.

Malana: The way life used to be
Malana: The way life used to be
All photos by the Veverka Bros.

Until recently, reaching the village took weeks of trekking through forested mountains and swift moving rivers. This trek was documented in a 1972 book by Penelope Chetwode called Kullu: The End of the Habitable World, a fitting name for a place that had nothing but the dry steppes and high plateaus of Tibet beyond it.

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Malana was known for many things: its extreme manifestation of the Hindu caste system wherein lowly outsiders were not allowed to touch anything (not even the stone walls along its paths); its charras, or hashish, dubbed “Malana Cream” and considered by many marijuanaphiles to be some of the best in the world-used in traditional Malanese religious rites and medicine-and the village’s unique system of popular democracy, perhaps brought with Alexander from the Greeks two millennia ago.

A Malanese woman returns with foraged firewood
A Malanese woman returns with foraged firewood.

But Malana’s unique history and culture is not what caught the attention of the globalists and their multinational corporations. The Malana Valley is also home to a river capable of generating hundreds of megawatts of hydro-electric power, and this is what brought modernity knocking on this ancient valley’s doorstep.

It all started in the late 1990s as plans were made for a series of massive dams along the river. As roads were carved through the once pristine valley and the trek of weeks turned to days, and days turned to hours, and eventually hours turned to minutes, globalization and its values, philosophies and practicalities washed over the village like a tidal wave.

In 2006, Jeremy Veverka visited the village for the first time and began documenting some of these changes while the road was under construction and reaching Malana still required several hours of uphill climb. However, when we returned in 2008 to film our documentary short, Malana: Globalization of a Himalayan Village (Dark Hollow Films), the road had reached the riverbank just opposite the village and locals and experienced trekkers could make the journey in just 30 minutes.

Many Malanese said they enjoyed the changes. They could now get inexpensive Chinese-made clothes rather than having to spend months making their own. They could get packaged snacks and soft drinks. Whiskey made by multinational conglomerates now flowed freely in the village. Mass-produced cigarettes were in ample supply. Satellite dishes popped up and TV programming packed with commercials helped villagers pass the slow days of winter. Goods came wrapped in plastic so they wouldn’t deteriorate in the damp climate. And now villagers dissatisfied with the dictates of the hakum, or traditional village court, could easily go down the valley to fetch the police and have an officer of the Indian nation-state intervene in a dispute.

Thousands of trees were culled to make way for the road.
Thousands of trees were culled to make way for the road.
The Malana II hydro-electric dam
The Malana II hydro-electric dam
A basket loaded with imported food traverses the Malana Valley on a zipline.
A basket loaded with imported food traverses the Malana Valley on a zipline.

The globalists were happy too. They got their hydroelectric generation. They got a new market for their products, they gained easy access to enforce the UN’s cannabis eradication policies, and perhaps most importantly, but least obvious, it was a victory for globalism over a people who had been fiercely independent from the outside world for thousands of years; this once independent de facto nation-village is now firmly in the grasp of the Indian government and globalized world.

Now 2013, we have returned five years later to see how life continues to change.

I write this from Malana, on my MacBook Pro, powered by electricity from the lowlands of India, transmitted by electric lines strung along the valley. My communications are handled by a personal hotspot on my iPhone that picks up a signal from the local cell tower in the village. The villagers have also installed two motorized zip-line systems across the valley that make importing loads of heavy goods an easy task.

Yes, modernity has come to Malana.

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Garbage now litters the paths of Malana.
Garbage now litters the paths of Malana.
ModernBuildings_CFR
Malanese houses are now made from concrete.

Mounds of plastic garbage now litter the paths and hillsides of Malana. Villagers are building houses out of concrete because the Indian forestry service, in the name of environmental protection, forbids these 2000 people from cutting the lumber they have culled for thousands of years while big industry continues to hack down trees across the globe for wood, paper, and palm oil plantations.

Police come in droves to destroy the cannabis fields that once provided Malana’s traditional medicine, while big pharma plies its alternatives. Alcoholism is rife.

Pesticide-laden food is imported while the amount of local, fully organic produce dwindles. Television, cell phones, and games occupy the youth while they fail to learn Malana’s rich traditions, such as the intricate wood-carving that is a hallmark of Malanese houses.

The house of the local "panchayat" - the real seat of power in Malana
The house of the local “panchayat”:
the real seat of power in Malana

And while the hakum still exists, the Indian state now rules supreme through the panchayat, or local government official, who lives in a giant house, ostentatiously painted orange as if to show that this is where the real authority in Malana now lies.

We spoke to old and young alike, and there is dissatisfaction. Villagers are upset that the power company that built the road has failed to provide the village with many of the modern conveniences, such as proper drainage, working toilets, schools and free electricity that it promised in exchange for taking Malana’s independence.

The proud Malanese are pained to see that access to their once-remote kingdom has become so easy that tourists from all over the world make mere day trips, touching things they shouldn’t and disturbing the traditional lifestyle while contributing almost nothing to the local economy. Elders speak of the days of shanti, or peace, before the road came, but know that it cannot be undone.

Reactionism has taken hold. While we were there we witnessed a meeting of the local hakum. The traditional court declared that consumption of alcohol was forbidden, that gaming and gambling must stop and that outsiders, such as Nepali laborers and shopkeepers who have come to the village must leave. But reactionism never works, and today, the only binding decisions are made by the panchayat and police.

Globalists will say they brought economic development. Activists will say they are helping the children escape child labor. Anti-drug crusaders will say they are saving the world from the evils of cannabis and the State will say it has extended the rule of law.

But all I see is a loss of independence and the death of a rich, self-sustaining, peaceful culture that had existed for thousands of years.

Hurray for Globalization.

Look forward to seeing this story on screen in Veverka Bros. new documentary short Return to Malana in 2014.

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Trained as an aerospace engineer, writer/director Jesse Veverka was a financial analyst on Wall Street before co-founding his own media production company, Veverka Bros. Productions LLC, with his brother Jeremy. He has worked and lived throughout Asia, including Japan, Korea, Indonesia and China, where he has produced a number of award-winning films. His articles have appeared in various publications including CNN Travel, Japan’s Metropolis Magazine and China’s Global Times. He was born in Ithaca, NY.

Jeremy Veverka is a media professional with specialties in documentary filmmaking, photojournalism, cinematography, sound design, and commercial work. His award-winning films, including the feature documentary China: The Rebirth of an Empire, cover a range of geopolitical issues and have been screened at dozens of film festivals worldwide. With a degree in English from Cornell University and extensive travel experience throughout Asia and the Middle East, Jeremy brings his background in storytelling and international journalism to each of his projects and strives to give a voice to historically underrepresented groups. To learn more, visit www.jeremyveverka.com or follow Jeremy on Twitter: @JeremyVeverka.

  • scot

    Sounds like another country I know. Looking forward to the film.

  • Joy Veverka

    Ever since I saw “Malana: Globalization of a Himalayan Village”, filmed in 2008 and completed for distribution in 2010, I’ve been curious about the young bubble-gum blowing little girl carrying her brother on her back. I’ve wondered about her and worried about her family and culture and the impact that access from the outside world would have. I’ve always hoped for the best that could come from globalization, but now I’m saddened to see that cigarettes have taken the place of the natural herb growing along the hillsides and there’s a reliance on mass produced materials to replace handmade traditional clothing and carved wooden homes and buildings. Why should I be surprised about the difficulty of maintaining tradition and culture while being bombarded by the good and bad and knowing how to distinguish between the two?
    I’m glad that the Veverka Bros. share the same curiosity and the need to record and share Malana’s story.