'Last Indian village' embraces lost
Tibetan link By Raja Murthy
MANA, Uttarakhand, India - "I remember
merchants from Tibet coming on horseback to Mana,"
76-year-old Swajan Singh tells me as I walk up the
mountain road from the revered Himalayan temple of
Badrinath to Mana, near the Tibetan border. "It
all changed after the 1962 India-China war."
Life has not changed much, though, for the
crinkly-eyed Swajan. He looks like a Nepali sherpa
(mountain guide), and like generations before him,
earns a living tending to horses grazing in last
of the pastures, amid the last of the vehicular
roads in this part of India, at an altitude of
about 3,500 meters.
Mana, 43 kilometers
from the border and 540km north-northeast of the
capital New Delhi, is the last civilian habitation
Himalayan regions where people are not officially
permitted to stay the night.
kilometers below Mana blooms the Valley of
Flowers, an Indian Shangri-La believed to be a
playground for celestial maidens after sunset. And
so it may be. With the setting sun lighting up a
bank of white clouds in a surreal glow, the
mountains around Mana seem an unearthly paradise.
"Last village in India," proclaims the
overhead governmental road sign as I reach the
outskirts of Mana, 3km up the road from Badrinath.
A historian might happily add: "The oldest living
link to India-China trade."
hamlet, perched above the mystical River Saraswati
in the central Himalayas, is the ancient home to
the last generation of the Bhotiya tribe, a
semi-nomadic people of Indo-Tibetan ancestry.
The 300 Bhotiya families in Mana resemble
time capsules retaining signs of centuries of
trade through high mountain passes, decades of
high-altitude agriculture and hand-spun woolen
goods, with invading 21st-century changes of
satellite TV, two nearby helipads and torrents of
Nescafe vending machine and a Coca-Cola cooler
symbolize such changes at the "Himalayan Cafe"
inside Mana village.
"The last cafe in
India," declares the signboard, with the cafeteria
continuing its originality in the menu offering
"chaumin" (which we hope is chow mein) and "Brad
Bater" (maybe bread and butter).
owner of the Himalayan Cafe, earns his bread
largely from tourism, unlike his forefathers who
had a career serving traders from Tibet.
Those traders who entered India through
mountain passes now live only in memories of
veteran inhabitants like old Swajan Singh. Mana
itself is of uncertain age.
Just as the
exact source of the Saraswati below Mana remains a
mystery - the river vanishes underground soon
after Mana and Badrinath - the date of birth of
Mana is not known either.
though, is closely linked with the ancient Indian
epic Mahabharata.  Mana may be one of
the oldest inhabited places on Earth.
"This cave is 5,111 years old as of 2003,"
says a painted sign above the entrance to the cave
in Mana where sage Veda Vyas is said to have
But no official Archeology
Survey of India sign confirms it, as one does
outside the more than 2,000-year-old Kanheri Caves
in Mumbai. In which case, the "5,111 years" may
comfortably belong in the same boat as Noah's Ark.
The belief, though, is that Sage Vyas
dictated the Mahabharata here in Mana to
Ganesha, the hugely popular god of adventure and
enterprise, in the nearby "Ganesh Cave".
The 11-day "Ganesh Chaturthi", starting on
September 19 and celebrated across India, is the
biggest annual festival in Mumbai, about 2,000km
A tourist group appears from
the southern state of Tamil Nadu, about 2,600km
away, where too Ganesha is widely worshipped.
Visitors plod through narrow paved pathways
between old, low-roof dwellings, and keep the
village economy alive buying local produce like
woolen garments, apricots, and rare herbs.
Vehicles cannot enter Mana, not even
bicycles. Time seems to stand still in some of
these tiny cottages; dark-robed women sit outside
spinning wool or stand to pound jhambu (Allium
auriculatum), a rare herbal seasoning sold in
small packets for 10 rupees (18 US cents). Raw
jhambu tastes like dried grass, but it may be
worth 10 times that humble price.
grows only for a few months far away, higher up in
the mountain," explains Rekha, a more beautiful
Indo-Tibetan version of the Bollywood star of the
1980s after whom she was probably named. "We
collect only a handful of jhambu flowers after
searching from morning to evening." It's very good
for health, she says, and is the only seasoning
Mana villagers use to spice their food.
Like Rekha, many Mana women and children
have strong Mongoloid facial features and
traditional Indian names. Rekha's three-year old
son Ganesh, for instance, could easily be
unnoticed among toddlers in any kindergarten in
Rekha's husband Chandra
Singh runs a tea shop adjacent to the Veda Vyas
cave. "India's last tea stall," proclaims his
35-year-old establishment. And it brews a terrific
frontier farewell with tulsi tea, regular milk tea
made with basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum)
In the magical twilight of early
evening, with a steaming cup of tulsi tea in hand,
a breathtaking view of the world below and
awe-inspiring Himalayan peaks around, heaven
becomes a postal address on Earth.
heaven is obviously not an easy place to reach,
and Mana becomes proof of the essential choice in
life: of taking the more difficult road to quiet
and tranquility, or the easier beaten tracks
filled with clamor and crowds.
early September, during rains and the threat of
landslides, is generally considered an unwise time
to take the road to Badrinath and Mana. So
unconventional wisdom announces this is a good
time to go - and take the risk.
30, three landslides blocking the solitary route
turned the usually 12-hour journey from Rishikesh
to Badrinath into a 33-hour saga, including
walking past and under a rockfall with the
potential to ensure Asia Times Online has one
fewer correspondent, taking four buses, an
overnight halt in Karanprayag, and then a jeep
ride from Joshimath town to reach Badrinath.
But it's worth even walking the distance;
the deeply serene Himalayan neighborhood around
India's last village reconfirmed that it
inevitably pays to take the harder road.
Life in Mana too exchanges physical
discomfort for the much greater mental comfort.
When winter sets in, the entire population of Mana
and Badrinath migrates about 45km down the
mountain to Chamoli district, or to Joshimath.
Mana gets buried in snow sometimes 2.4
meters deep. A few solitary ascetics and soldiers
then become the only dwellers around Mana.
Indian and Chinese army soldiers here
share a more cordial frontier office space than
their counterparts at the prickly border in
India's northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.
"We having frequent border meetings with
the Chinese army," an Indian Army major sporting a
fierce mustache and a friendly grin tells me as I
stop to chat with him, on my trek back from Mana
to Badrinath. He is sitting with a walkie-talkie
in hand by the roadside, watching his solders play
volleyball in the adjacent meadow. "Many of the
Chinese soldiers patrolling this border area
happen to be women."
Indian and Chinese
solders begin their border meetings with a
friendly "Jhule," Tibetan for "Good day"
and a common greeting among people in the
high-altitude desert region of Ladakh, in the
northern Indian state of Kashmir.
Army officers posted here, says this major from
Chandigarh city in Punjab, are required to learn
Tibetan and Mandarin to ensure accurate
communication in a sensitive border area.
With or without army presence, Mana could
see further changes ahead. In the past two years,
India and China have declared plans to revive
these centuries-old bilateral trade routes through
the Himalayas, such as through Nathu La and Shipki
Or, Mana may have other
supra-mundane destinies in store, if an ancient
legend comes true. The local belief is that some
day in the near future, Badrinath will be entirely
cut off from the rest of the world. And it won't
be an unhappy prospect for those here, if and when
that happens. Nothing quite like being stuck in a
solitary heavenly abode, with a signboard saying
"No way out."
Note 1. The
Mahabharata, one of the two great Indian
epics along with the Ramayana, narrates the
lives of the five Pandava princes and their final
war in Kurukshetra against their evil cousins the
Kauravas. After winning the war, the Pandavas are
believed to have passed through the Himalayas
around Mana, on their way to heaven.
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