Malana's 'devta' permits vaccination but residents still reluctant

Malana's 'devta' permits vaccination but residents still reluctant

Malana's 'devta' permits vaccination but residents still reluctant

The curious case of a devta who saved Malana from the coronavirus, but opposed vaccination. 

Shimla: The people of Malana have unshakeable faith in their devta.

Perched on an 8,300-foot-high mountain face in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh, this village of more than 2,100 people is known for Malana Cream, a variety of top-quality charas which has for long fuelled drug tourism not just in the village, but in Kasol and Manali.

Since last year though, Malana has come to be known for something else: not reporting a single case of COVID-19. Locals hail their devta (local deity), Jamadagni Rishi, for this feat  a week before the nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 25 last year, he ordered them through a 'gur' (an oracle who is a bridge between the deity and the council of villagers) to not allow anyone into the hamlet.

As the devta’s word is considered final on any matter, the village complied with the order and the virus never entered the village. While last year’s order came as a relief for health authorities, a new message by the deity earlier this year left them scurrying for a solution.

When the state rolled out a vaccination drive against COVID-19 at the start of 2021, Jamadagni Rishi, who is locally called Jamlu Devta, asked villagers not to get vaccinated. Like always, the locals complied. The health authorities, however, started panicking.

The lone ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) worker who looks after Malana, Nirma Devi, tried to convince locals, but in vain. “They do not want to hear anything which does not comply with the orders of devta. I was fed up, but I did not give up,” said Devi.

Kullu MLA Sunder Thakur, under whose assembly seat the village falls, described the people of Malana as “very simple” and said the issue had to be dealt with sensitively. “They believe in their deity and we did not want to hurt their sentiments, but at same time we tried to persuade them and tell them the benefits of vaccines,” he said.

As far as the villagers are concerned, the deity saved them from COVID-19. When the devta asked them to not let anyone enter, villagers started guarding all entries to stop tourists. Even now, no outsider is allowed in the village.

A govt. appeal to the divine saviour

The interaction between the deity and the people is complicated. Only a select group of people, an 11-member council of villagers, is allowed to communicate with the deity through the gur. After the gur speaks, the message is conveyed to the people through the council.

A member of the council, Chetram, said the deity initially ordered that no one should go in for vaccination and that he was going to protect them. “But government officials and other influential people persuaded the council to request the deity to allow vaccination. After long prayers and fasting, the deity was once again asked about vaccination and the deity told the gur that we have his blessings for vaccination,” he said.

The village is considered the oldest democracy in the world as, just like the Indian Parliament, it has two houses for decision making: Kanishthang (lower house) and Jayeshthang (upper house). When there is no headway in a decision, villagers consult the deity, whose word is final.

Village sarpanch Raju Ram said in spite of the deity finally allowing vaccination, people were still hesitant. He said he was looking forward to the village panchayat meeting and was hopeful that he would be able to convince people to shun their reluctance.

Former BJP MP Maheshwar Singh, a descendant of the royal family of Kullu, said he too had tried to persuade the locals . “I told them that I believed in devta too, but vaccination was important as it would save everyone,” he said. While Singh is not from Malana, the royal family of Kullu is revered in most villages in the district.

He said people were scared of angering their devta. Even after the devta’s go-ahead, the rate of vaccination has been slow in Kullu. While the deity had allowed them to get the vaccine on May 19, only 36 people from Malana had been administered the first dose till June 6.

(Inset) Nirma Devi, the lone ASHA worker in Malana, has a uphill task convincing villagers to take the vaccine (left and cover image by Saurabh Chatterjee/Flickr)

Devi said she had started educating people about the benefits of vaccination as soon as the deity gave the nod. Ram said he had gotten the jab. Devi said she was earlier planning to quit her job as people were reluctant in getting the vaccine, but the devta’s change of heart pushed her to continue working. Ram credited Devi for ceaselessly persuading people to get the vaccine. However, Devi said she was only doing her job. “I will not consider it complete till everyone in this village is vaccinated,” she said.

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