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 before the closely guarded Himalayan regions where people are not officially permitted to stay the night.
Seven 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."
The unique 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 wonderstruck tourists.
An unexpected 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).
Surendra, 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.
The village, 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 meditated.
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 from Mana.
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.
"Jhambu 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 Lhasa, Tibet.
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) leaves.
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.
But 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.
August to 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.
On August 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.
Indian 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 La passes.
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."
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.
(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd