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Malana, Himachal Pradesh – On May 22, a team of health workers trekked for about 5km (3.1 miles) on foot to set up a coronavirus vaccination camp in Malana, a remote Himalayan village in northern India’s Himachal Pradesh state.
Only 36 people turned up to take the shot in the village with more than 2,200 residents. But even this meagre turnout was a huge victory.
Residents of Malana were reluctant to take the vaccine for months because the village council, a religious authority, had stonewalled the inoculation drive claiming the local deity, known as Jagadamani Rishi, had not agreed to it.
According to the villagers, it took about five months of rituals, prayers and petitions for the deity to “convey its assent” to the council for vaccination, the divine permission coming in mid-May when India was undergoing a ferocious second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite the deity’s “permission”, only 1.8 percent of the village’s population showed up for vaccination as villagers claimed Jagadamani Rishi spoke to them directly through a woman he had “possessed” two days before the May 22 camp.
The deity, through her, told them to shun vaccines as he would “protect” the village through “his divine powers”.
Superstition, misinformation and vaccine hesitancy are not limited to Malana. Experts say the trend is prevalent in many parts of rural India.
In the western state of Maharashtra, tribespeople in Palghar believe they cannot be infected because they work in the sun.
The Potraj community in India’s Western Ghats have said their goddess Kadak Lakshmi told them they do not need to take the COVID vaccine.
And in Rajasthan’s Sirohi district, tribespeople living in the Aravali ranges have refused to take the shot.
In the eastern state of Jharkhand – also mostly tribal – some people refused the vaccine and instead performed a “havan” (sacred ritual) to keep infection away.
India started its coronavirus vaccination drive in January, starting with senior citizens. After ravaging India’s cities, a devastating second wave of the virus is now sweeping across 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 is alarming.
“Currently, India does not have enough vaccines. Even if it somehow manages the stock, the immunisation drive will be unsuccessful if these gaps are not plugged. These are one of the most vulnerable communities,” he said, referring to residents in remote areas, mostly rural.
‘We are blessed by Jamlu Devta’
Malana is fairly well known for “Malana cream” – counted among the world’s most expensive cannabis – making the village a centre of recreational drug tourism in Himachal Pradesh.
Located on a narrow plateau at 2,650 metres (8,700 feet) and nestled between Parvati and Kullu valleys, the village is hemmed in by wild cannabis on one side and a brook that flows on another. With no paved roads reaching the village, residents make their way through snow in winters and slush during the rains.
The isolation imposed on Malana by its geography has, over time, evolved into self-imposed seclusion as the village shunned the outside world, including the local administration, and believed in the rule of Jagadamani Rishi.
Only Hindus of the more privileged castes are allowed inside the village, while Dalits (formerly referred to as “the untouchables”), Muslims and Christians are not “permitted to even touch a wall” in Malana, or else they will be fined, according to residents.
Al Jazeera met Namo Devi, her daughter Jiti Devi and daughter-in-law Balma Devi as they were trekking to the village. They said none of them was vaccinated.
“When for over a year there was no case of coronavirus in Malana, why should they get vaccinated now?” asked Namo Devi.
Sabheya Devi, another villager, firmly believes 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).
‘I, too, fear Jamlu Devta’
Often, unflinching faith in the local deity has collided with modern science, with villagers staunchly believing modern medicine is against their culture.
In 2015, Nirma Devi became Malana’s only public health worker. She describes how a vaccination drive for children against polio and other diseases was met with a lukewarm response in the village.
“During the first vaccination camp, only two children turned up. Parents would never agree to vaccinate their kids. I then decided to visit each house in the village to convince their parents. A month later, only 10 kids turned up,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Whenever I encourage them to get vaccinated, take iron or vitamin tablets, or deliver their children at the hospital, they ask me: ‘What will Jamlu Devta say?’” Nirma said.
Nirma also believes in the local deity. “I don’t think it is superstition. I, too, fear Jamlu Devta,” she said.
“If you do not agree to Jamlu Devta’s will, he will either wreck your fields or something will happen to your family or you will fall sick. No one can say no to him. Bad fortune would come to those who would speak ill of him.”
Since she became a health worker, Nirma says she has oscillated between modern science and superstition. Last year, she felt she had to seek Jamlu Devta’s permission to go to a hospital for the treatment of a family member.
“It is mostly the elderly and the women who have vaccine hesitancy in Malana. They believe the vaccines contain cow blood and if they consume it, they would become impure and unholy. It is a sin,” said Nirma.
“They have read it on WhatsApp and YouTube.”
In spite of this, Nirma believes the situation in 2021 is better than in 2015.
“In 2015, people used to shame me for prescribing medical science. Now at least the village council is supportive,” she said, adding that the first COVID vaccine dose in the village was taken by the council head, Raju Ram.
“Now all the kids in the village are vaccinated under the universal immunisation programme,” Nirma said. “But only Jamlu Devta knows how I have convinced their families. I often wonder how things were before I joined.”
After the second COVID wave struck in early April, Nirma and Raju Ram doubled their efforts to “convince” Jamlu Devta to allow vaccination in the village. They communicated multiple times with the deity through a “gur”, a person who is possessed by the deity and acts as his mouthpiece.
But Jamlu Devta said no each time.
“This is a place of god. There can be no coronavirus in this holy land,” Chetram, caretaker of the deity’s temple, told Al Jazeera between puffs of cannabis.
The matter 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 coronavirus. It is a lethal disease. Please allow us to take the vaccines. Then the deity told us that we have his blessings for vaccination,” said Budhram, one of the council members.
After the deity’s “approval” in mid-May, the medical team visited Malana and vaccinated 36 villagers on May 22 and 28 more on May 28.
“However, in that week, two women, Bhudhi Devi and Kesri Devi, were possessed by Jamlu Devta and the god warned villagers against vaccination through them,” Nirma said.
When Al Jazeera met Bhudhi Devi at her house, she refused to talk, repeating the same words over and over: “Devta said no to us. We only have our devta. He dislikes vaccines.”
Her daughter-in-law Doli Devi said she will also say no to vaccination. “Devta has said no to it. How can I go against his wishes?” she told Al Jazeera.
Many villagers are still not convinced, believing their deity is against vaccines.
Balram is one of the few to get vaccinated in the village. “I am old and I don’t want to die. That is why I took the vaccine. I hope others will see this soon,” he said.