Malana, Himachal Pradesh – On May 22, a team of health workers walked about 5 km to set up a coronavirus vaccination camp in Malana, a remote Himalayan village in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh. ‘India.
Only 36 people showed up to take the picture in the village of more than 2,200 inhabitants. But even this low turnout was a huge victory.
Residents of Malana have been reluctant to be vaccinated for months because the village council, a religious authority, blocked the vaccination campaign, saying the local deity, known as Jagadamani Rishi, was not there. consented.
According to villagers, it took about five months of rituals, prayers and petitions to the deity to “express assent” to the vaccination council, with divine permission coming in mid-May as India underwent a second. fierce wave of coronavirus. pandemic.
Despite the deity’s “permission”, only 1.8% of the village population showed up for the vaccination, with villagers claiming that Jagadamani Rishi spoke to them directly through a woman he had ” possessed ”two days before the May 22 camp.
The divinity, through her, told them to flee the vaccines because he would “protect” the village thanks to “his divine powers”.
Superstition, misinformation and vaccine hesitancy aren’t limited to Malana. Experts say the trend is widespread in many parts of rural India.
In the western state of Maharashtra, members of the Palghar tribes believe they cannot be infected because they work in the sun.
The Potraj community in the Western Ghats of India has mentionned their goddess Kadak Lakshmi told them that they did not need to take the COVID vaccine.
And in the Sirohi district of Rajasthan, the tribes living in the Aravali Ranges refused to shoot.
In the eastern state of Jharkhand – also predominantly tribal – some people refused the vaccine and instead performed a “havan” (sacred ritual) to ward off the infection.
India began its coronavirus vaccination campaign in January, starting with the elderly. After devastating Indian cities, a second devastating wave of the virus is now sweeping through its villages, which have almost non-existent health infrastructure.
Anant Bhan, a researcher who studies global health, bioethics and health policy, told Al Jazeera the situation was alarming.
“Currently India does not have enough vaccines. Even if it somehow manages the stock, the vaccination campaign will fail if these gaps are not addressed. It is one of the most vulnerable communities, ”he said, referring to people in remote, mostly rural areas.
“We are blessed by Jamlu Devta”
Malana is quite well known for the “cream of Malana” – which is one of the most expensive cannabis in the world – making the village a center for recreational drug tourism in Himachal Pradesh.
Situated on a narrow plateau at 2,650 meters (8,700 feet) and nestled between the Parvati and Kullu valleys, the village is surrounded by wild cannabis on one side and a flowing stream on the other. With no paved roads reaching the village, residents force their way through snow in winter and slush during rains.
The isolation imposed on Malana by its geography over time evolved into self-imposed isolation as the village shunned the outside world, including the local administration, and believed in the reign of Jagadamani Rishi.
Only Hindus from the most privileged castes are allowed inside the village, while Dalits (formerly called “the untouchables”), Muslims and Christians are not “even allowed to touch a wall” in Malana, otherwise they will be fined, according to residents.
Al Jazeera met Namo Devi, his daughter Jiti Devi and his daughter-in-law Balma Devi on their way to the village. They said none of them were vaccinated.
“When for over a year there have been no cases of the coronavirus in Malana, why should they get vaccinated now? Namo Devi asked.
Sabheya Devi, another villager, firmly believes that their deity will protect them. “We are blessed by Jamlu Devta,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to the other name by which the deity is called in the village.
According to Hindu mythology, Jagadamani Rishi is one of the seven great sages, together called Saptarishi (in Sanskrit, sapt means seven and rishi is a sage).
“Me too, I’m afraid of Jamlu Devta”
Often, the unwavering faith in the local deity has clashed with modern science, with villagers firmly believing that modern medicine is against their culture.
In 2015, Nirma Devi became the only public health worker in Malana. She describes how a campaign to immunize children against polio and other diseases met with mixed reception in the village.
“During the first vaccination camp, only two children showed up. Parents would never agree to vaccinate their children. I then decided to visit each house in the village to convince their parents. A month later, only 10 children showed up, ”she told Al Jazeera.
“Every time I encourage them to get vaccinated, to take iron or vitamin pills, or to deliver their babies in the hospital, they ask me, ‘What will Jamlu Devta say?’ Nirma said.
Nirma also believes in the local divinity. “I don’t think it’s superstition. I too am afraid of Jamlu Devta, ”she said.
“If you do not accept Jamlu Devta’s will, he will either destroy your fields or something will happen to your family or you will get sick.” No one can say no to him. Bad luck would come to those who spoke badly of him.
Since becoming a health worker, Nirma says she has oscillated between modern science and superstition. Last year, she felt that she should seek permission from Jamlu Devta to go to the hospital for treatment of a family member.
“It is mainly the elderly and women who are reluctant to be vaccinated in Malana. They believe that vaccines contain cow blood and if they consume it, they would become unclean and ungodly. It’s a sin, ”Nirma said.
“They read it on WhatsApp and YouTube.”
Despite this, Nirma believes that the situation in 2021 is better than in 2015.
“In 2015, people made me ashamed of prescribing medical science. Now at least the village council is supportive, ”she said, adding that the first dose of COVID vaccine in the village was taken by the council head, Raju Ram.
“Now all the children in the village are immunized as part of the universal immunization program,” Nirma said. “But only Jamlu Devta knows how I convinced their families. I often wonder how things were before I joined.
After the second wave of COVID struck in early April, Nirma and Raju Ram redoubled their efforts to “convince” Jamlu Devta to allow vaccination in the village. They communicated with the deity several times through a “gur”, a person possessed by the deity and who serves as its spokesperson.
But Jamlu Devta has said no every time.
“It is a place of god. There can be no coronavirus in this holy land,” Chetram, guardian of the temple of the deity, told Al Jazeera between puffs of cannabis.
The case reached Himachal Pradesh’s health department in May, which asked the village council to help persuade the deity to allow vaccination.
“We told Jamlu Devta that vaccines are the only way to protect us from the coronavirus. It is a fatal disease. Please allow us to take the vaccines. Then the deity told us that we had his blessings for the vaccination, ”said Budhram, one of the council members.
After “approval” from the deity in mid-May, the medical team went to Malana and vaccinated 36 villagers on May 22 and 28 others on May 28.
“However, that week two women, Bhudhi Devi and Kesri Devi, were possessed by Jamlu Devta and the god warned the villagers against vaccination through them,” Nirma said.
When Al Jazeera met Bhudhi Devi at her home, she refused to speak, repeating the same words over and over again: “Devta told us no. We only have our devta. He doesn’t like vaccines.
Her daughter-in-law Doli Devi said she would also say no to the vaccination. “Devta said no. How can I go against his wishes? she told Al Jazeera.
Many villagers are still not convinced, believing that their god is against vaccines.
Balram is one of the few to be vaccinated in the village. “I am old and I don’t want to die. That’s why I took the vaccine. I hope others will see it soon, ”he said.