The ‘last Indian Village’ of Mana each year nearly becomes ‘the lost Indian village’ – a life on the edge that Chandra Singh routinely deals with in three decades as owner of ‘India’s Last Tea Shop’ close to the India-China border. He represents the existential struggle of a people bridging the normal and abnormal, mundane and supra mundane.
Each November, Chandra Singh leaves Mana village and his much photographed tearoom to live in the lower altitude town of Gopeshwar. Each December, Mana becomes buried in snow. And each following May, he and fellow villagers trudge back hoping their ancestral homes have survived the winter snowfall so severe that only the Indo Tibetan Border Police remain in Himalayas around the temple town of Badrinath, 3,100 meters (10,170 feet) altitude.
From November 17, this beautiful Himalayan region becomes exclusive residential address to the Indian army and celestial guardians in the ‘Land of the Gods’ – the official tagline of Uttarakhand state to which Mana belongs.
At the edge of the world’s two most populous countries, Mana is the last recognized dwelling at frontier of India and China. Beyond Mana, only soldiers can pass. A solitary sage whom locals call a “mahatma” is the sole civilian permitted to live here beyond November 17.
I visited Chandra Singh late afternoon on November 4, noticing the extra weight of prosperity he has put on since our last meeting three years ago. Besides his expanded waist line, ‘India’s Last Tea Shop’ owns a newly expanded sitting area offering dazzling views of snowy peaks and mountain meadows aglow in the pale winter sunshine.
“I will be last to leave on November 17”, Chandra Singh said after brewing a glass of his celebrated ‘tulsi tea’ – milk tea with basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) leaf. His wife and son are already in Gopeshwar, and so too most of the 300 families inhabiting Mana village.
This unique hamlet above the mystical River Saraswati in the central Himalayas is impermanent home to the last generation of the Bhotiya tribe, a semi-nomadic people of Indo-Tibetan ancestry. Mana’s clean, quaint, narrow alleys seem like avenues of time-travel back to centuries of trade through high mountain passes between Indian and China. Traders crossed Mana Pass, also called Mana La or Dungri La, from Badrinath to Guge province in Tibet.
Circa 2015, Mana merges high-altitude agriculture and hand-spun woolen goods with satellite TV, two helipads, tourists and Nescafe vending machines – all due to shut down on November 17, after festivities of Diwali.
Then the relentless heavy snowfall takes over, the vanilla white messengers of death and life – the deadly glacier-ed snow that feeds India’s great rivers and hundreds of millions of lives in the Gangetic plains.
As Uttarakhand’s most famous village, Mana becomes a neighborhood of convergence for hermetic beings and thousands of weekly visitors from faraway megacities like Mumbai.
Mana seems a micro version of Rishikesh, the gateway town to the Himalayas 290 km away. As a unique cultural melting place for yogis and white water rafters, meditators and momo makers, Rishikesh exists as the edge of urban and ascetic life – the last address for Dominos pizzas, Baskin Robbins, Café Day and the last railway station near National Highway 58 connecting New Delhi to the Himalayas at Mana.
Rishikesh’s most famous 20th century visitors who tried life on the renunciation edge were the Beatles who came here in February 1968. But instead of going beyond fame and fortune, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr spun out about 30 songs, a chunk of which appeared in their ‘White Album’.
Legacy of the Beatles in Rishikesh lingers through the abandoned ‘Beatles Ashram’ and the friendly Beatles Café (also called Café Delmar or 60’s Café). Overlooking the Ganges in Laxman Jhula, the Beatles Café serves non-stop 1960’s hits and the best coffee I have had in Rishikesh.
Like Rishikesh, Mana maintains its special identity despite the tourist hordes. In the age of space crafts to Moon and Mars, vehicles cannot enter Mana, not even bicycles. Dark-robed women with downcast eyes sit in small courtyards outside medieval cottages spinning wool or pounding jhambu (Allium auriculatum), a rare herbal seasoning that Mana villagers sell to tourists in sachets costing Rs 10 (15 US cents). The last of the Jhambu sellers were packing up for their annual exodus.
After the exodus with deadline this year of November 17, the hardy men of the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) are cut off for months from the rest of the world, family and friends. Sometimes under three metres of snow, the ITBP hunkers down to its job of protecting India’s border with China 24 kms away.
Winter life at the edge of human habitation in the Himalayas becomes relatively easier these days with a vehicular road to the Indo-China frontier, and cell phone calls to families at Rs 6 per minute.
A veteran ITBP officer I met on the 4 km walkway to Mana from Badrinath told me of decades long gone when border patrols trudged the 24 kms to the frontier through waist deep snow. It took them two overnight halts. “Letters from family came once in about two months”, he said, “and we would read the letters many times over again and again.”
Few letters or post cards come to hermits living in seclusion like the most hospitable elderly yogi whom I met in passing the night I arrived in Badrinath. His tin-roofed hermitage in the mountains beyond Badrinath became life saving shelter at night, with wintry dew so heavy that clothes became soaked even under cover.
Two weeks before this Himalayan region shuts down to civilians, the November nights hinted what December could be like – more so for this chronicler with his near fatal habit of wearing handloom cottons in the mountains, owing to his aversion to carrying heavy baggage in life. It means doing without necessary warm jackets and woolens.
So practising Vipassana meditation through the night of November 2 in the Himalayas outside Badrinath became again nearly a replay of my night four years ago in the high altitude desert of Ladakh, in the northern Indian state of Kashmir – of the body going through some difficulties and the mind unconcernedly registering the thought: “so this is what it feels like to die of cold”.
Precious equanimity through Vipassana training helps, for fear of death dissolves and realization grows of life being a continuing journey. Even if there is suffering, there is less fear. And so perhaps courtesy protection from less visible beings, again this continuously changing mind-matter phenomenon called “I” survived to see the morning light.
In Ladakh, after having seemingly crossed the edge of life and death, nature welcomed an apparently another life next morning with unseasonable snowfall. In Badrinath, nature’s gift of survival each day is the well-known hot water springs – an ancient pool with hot water at an incredibly right warm temperature for bathing. An adjacent stone wall near this bathing pool springs forth steaming water in tap-like torrents that are too hot for bathing but just right enough for laundry.
Nature supplying both heavy snowfall and luxurious hot water is a balance of extremes in this sacred region of the Himalayas. Existence at the last of postal addresses becomes a test of trust in Mother Nature. And the Mother takes good care of those surrendering with experiential faith in Dhamma or laws of nature –the law of cause and effect.
If the volition is strong to serve across endless time, one realizes through experience how there is nothing to fear whether living in crowded cities or lonely mountains.
Like many other long-term dwellers in the Himalayas, Chandra Singh did not seem too worried as he readied for winter hibernation his ‘Last Tea Shop in India’, which after November 17 he could potentially lose forever. People truly belonging here know how nature compensates with blessings in disguise.
Writing for the Statesman since 1990 and Asia Times since 2003 – and earlier for publications like Times of India, Economic Times, Elle and Wisden.com – Raja Murthy shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas