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Jamadagni's Temple: The Real Full Moon Festival

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Suitcase Magazine: https://suitcasemag.com/articles/jamadagnis-temple-himalayas-full-moon-festival

 

This is an account of my journey to Malana, an ancient, solitary village tucked away in the upper reaches of the Himalayas, in the Parvati valley of Himachal Pradesh in India. To reach Malana, my Indian crew and I trekked across narrow, precipitous trails with breathtaking views. Our objective was to photograph the festival of Malana Shaun which is held every August 15th. Malana is a rich storehouse of fables, myths and legends. The holy mountains echo with music during this festival, as the men begin to dance and draw out their chillums to smoke the potent Malana cream.

When I discovered the hidden beautiful lush mountains that led me to Malana village I had no idea what an extraordinary spectacle I was about to witness on a mountaintop 8,700 feet above sea, far away from all civilization. The air is crisp and pure, the honey like golden nectar, and the unforgettable smell of the best and most sought after marijuana is cultivated here, complete with holy water. I came with the intention to observe and learn about this deeply cultured village, only to discover I was documenting an important spiritual pilgrimage where Malanese people connect with outsiders, if only in union and spirit once per year to worship the same God, Jamadagni Rishi (Jamlu rishi).

The Shaun Festival runs for three days from August 15th    every year and is an important time to worship Jamadagni Rishi the God who lives in the main temple in the village. Many people from as far away as Kullu and surrounding villages such as Rashol, Manikaran, Manali, Katagla, Kalga, Pulga, Tulga and Jana all venture to the festival to worship Jamadagni Rishi. Some drive up along the rocky mountain roads through the peaks and valleys, others trek their way for miles on foot and stay for the duration. The Malanese people offer their spiritual seekers refuge for a few days including generous offerings of food, Malana cream, drinks and to take part in their native activities and rituals which have been celebrated for many years.

The festival begins with some locals conducting formal duties by dressing up in their traditional attire of clothing called ‘pattu’ which is made from sheep wool. The priest in the village known as ‘Pujari’ recognizable by his distinguished clothing, (a white turban and white and grey clothes) brought a tree to the middle of the ground in in front of the temple of Jamadagni Rishi which is where the festival takes place. Pujari is in charge of the spiritual part of the festival he speaks his own mantras and performs puja and gives blessings. Men gradually gathered into a large group, a man chopped wood with an axe beside the crowds to add kindling to the tree Pujari stood beside, and the tree was set on fire. This is thought to be to aid air purification prior to giving Jamadagni Rishi offerings. A sheep was tied up at the entrance of the temple in preparation for its inevitable demise as part of the ritual. The locals surround the burning fire playing instruments (dhol, ranasingah and nagada) while performing their local dance called ‘Nati’ which is popular within the state of Himachal Pradesh. Later on the sheep is sacrificed in front of the mounting crowd of which its soul and blood is then offered to Jamadagni Rishi, which is like another cleansing process. The men in the village drink alcohol and smoke Malana cream for the duration of the festival and dance and play music into the night, but the women don’t participate in any of this although they are allowed to watch.

Malana is steeped in history and its people are said to be descendants of Alexander the Great’s army. They believe themselves to be pure Aryan.  The language spoken ‘Kanashi’ is a mixture of Sanskrit and Tibetan dialects and as a result the people have their own language that only people there understand, although they are able to speak Hindi as well. I was fortunate to know someone in the village through a crew member named Parshu Ram, so he was able to translate for me. I stayed in a guesthouse called Muzic Café in Upper Malana where I met Gaurav the owner; he told me the old tale that there was a devil that used to live in Malana and he left the language to the Malanese people as a memento after the devil was made to leave. Despite Malana’s rich heritage and deep rooted culture, I wondered how long it would be before these people became more educated and developed. I could already see that the children and younger generations were wearing westernized clothing and had mobile phones and noticeable satellite dishes on the wooden houses. I was urged to not touch any walls or buildings especially the ancient temples which can accrue fines if found guilty of touching.

There is a public school where children are taught about India and its history but mostly they are taught values that are solely within Malanas traditions. The Malanese people also have a rule they are not allowed to touch outsiders, so they give as much room as possible to passersby. The children of the village are most fearful because of the beliefs their parents and elders have passed onto them about ‘outsiders’ being impure. They believe if they touch outsiders that negative energies will be passed onto them. If any of these rules are broken by any outsiders then Malanese people promise to sacrifice a sheep to regain purity in the village. Although this remains to be true, they only do so to keep their heritage and do not aim to harm anybody, they are protective of their beliefs passed on by many generations.

Gaurav told me people think differently now, ever since the new road was built six years ago. This road took them all the way to Kullu which many people in Malana have a history with going back to the older generations. When it comes to marriage, women marry young, between the ages of 15-20. Part of the custom of attracting men is to get a lot of ear and nose piercings as Rami Devi told me, “It was essential to get a good husband as there was a lot of competition, but younger generations of women do not have as many.” She explained that she would trek for days to Kullu to have her piercings done. She said though it looks nice it’s very heavy to wear.

In a medical emergency such as kidney stones, Leela told me she was carried by her husband, relatives and neighbors to the nearest town Kullu, which took them several days. Although now because of the new dam built it means the journey takes only as little as four hours by foot. Leela who was currently heavily pregnant told me she has 6 children, most families have around 5-8 children minimum. Her husband is allowed to be present at birth but afterwards only women are allowed to visit after a 15 day period of isolation inside a tent. She told me “It’s a very difficult time, I don’t want more babies but if my husband wants them I must obey.” There are no hospitals nearby so no use of pain relief is available. The intriguing rules and traditions don’t stop there; the newborn child must undergo a brutal test to become a new member of the village, on about the 2nd full moon after the birth, whom will be showered in ice cold water at night directly under the moon. This is particularly difficult for a baby and many will not make it and die, they will then be buried. If they do make it then they are declared as strong enough for the climate and are celebrated by being given life and strength to live there. The only people that belong to the Malana tribe are survivors of this newborn custom.

When it comes to work life in the village the women do all of the work, they cut wood in the forest and bring it home for the men and family. They also still perform their duties at home such as cook and clean. While this may be considered an old custom to western visitors there is much to admire about this village who are trying to preserve their traditions. And perhaps outsiders should be cautious about marching into such a pure tribe, so diverse and deeply enriched in their cultural ways that carefully guard their Gods regular commandments. As of 2017, Jamadagni Rishi ordered that no more visitors are welcome to stay overnight in the village. The Malanese people know when they have hit a boundary within their civilization; they protect their heritage with stubborn rules and beliefs which prevent them from merging into an ever growing homogeneous India and World. This makes Malana Village a rare treasure. The new road may well have helped the Malanese people in many ways and allowed more tourists in turn to discover them but what they most desire is to live their life, their way under their moon.