Presenting the next edition of the Himalayan Villages Series – Mana
To the top of the mountains,
My heart yearns to wander. . .
To places where the Sun shines the brightest.
As we embarked on our journey from Joshimath, Uttarakhand, our car manoeuvred through the ragged, irregular roads spiralling upwards to the Garhwal Himalayas. We were travelling on a cold November morning, towards the last Indian village near the Indo-Tibetan border. About three km from the holy town of Badrinath, Mana is unlike any village in India. Here, mythology is not merely a fragment of fables, but an intrinsic and inseparable portion of the lives of the residents.
The (Old) National Highway 58 that originates in Gaziabad terminates at Mana. Travelling about 3Km from Badrinath, Joginder Bhai (our driver) parked the car alongside some 20-25 other vehicles, right in front of the BRO signboard – with LAST INDIAN VILLAGE (SEEMANTH GRAAM MANA) written on it. Nature has been lavishly generous around the terrains of Mana, with the snow-capped mountains on both sides of the river Alakananda making it a postcard-perfect view.
We stood for a few minutes in awe of the grandeur before finally walking into the village crammed with stone laneways and traditional houses. There are only about 600 inhabitants in some 180 households in this quaint village. The road ends at Mana for pilgrims and most travellers. However, it leads to the World’s Highest Motorable Pass – Mana Pass at 18399 Feet. The famed Swargarohini Trek also opens from Mana. It is believed that the Pandavas had to pass through Mana before “Swargarohan” – their final ascent to Heaven. Hence innumerable references to the Hindu Epic are strewn across the area.
Much like the presiding deity of Badrinath, who travels to the temple at lower altitudes of Joshimath during the winter months, the whole population here deserts the town. They settle in the towns of Pandukeshwar, Joshimath or Srinagar. One man acknowledged that they apparently had God’s generous sanction for habitation in His holy land for six months only. For the rest of the year, he believed that Gods themselves descend to these heights and hence the people require to clear off the place.
We found few female inhabitants (mostly a generation of an Indo-Mongolian tribe) busy with their work of weaving woollens that they were also selling. Handwoven shawls, caps, carpets or durries and sweaters are very popular here. Local spices and tea were also available for buying.
In a claustrophobically tiny cave, we found a Hindu sage, with ash smeared all over his body. He sat in front of a small fire. He applied tikaa to the foreheads of eager devotees who cared to peep in out of curiosity or offer him alms. Though hard to believe, Barfani Baba stays here in this cave all through the year.
Keeping a temple dedicated to Lord Ghantakarna to our left, we walked across a signboard that spelt out the height of Mana above MSL (mean sea level) – an imposing 3200 metres. The road ahead bifurcated in the form of the alphabet “Y” – leading to Bheem Pul on the left and Vyas Gufa on the right.
Soon, the thunderous noise of a waterfall split the quietude of the place – this was the legendary River Saraswati that originates in the mountains here. Flowing with exuberance, the waters crash through a chasm to meet the waters of Alakananda. Bheem Pul is actually a rock bridge spanning this chasm. It is believed that Bheem, the strongest of the five Pandava brothers, placed it here so that Draupadi could cross across the river stream. A carving on the rock that looks like a giant footprint is also attributed to Bheem’s feet. Next to the river spring, there is a temple dedicated to the goddess Saraswati. My mother offered her prayers to the deity and also bought herself a can of water from the river.
Multiple tea stalls boast of being the “Last Tea Stall of India”. We sat in chairs and enjoyed steaming cups of tea while marvelling at the sights around us. A temple is built at a height, where Draupadi is believed to have been the first amongst the group of Pandavas to drop dead while on Swargarohan.
According to the epic, Yuddhisthir, accompanied by a dog, was the only one to have gone to heaven. His wife and brothers had passed away one after another, along the trail. We next made our way towards Vyas Gufa.
We first came across Ganesh Gufa. This is where Lord Ganesha is believed to have written the Mahabharata at the dictation of Sage Vedvyas. According to the legend, while Vedvyas recounted the Mahabharata, the deafening roar of River Saraswati distracted Lord Ganesha. Vedvyas then cursed Saraswati to the underworld. It is surprising how the noisy River disappears under a gorge with no noise on the other side. Saraswati is confirmed to flow underground, as per topographical evidence. It reappears only at the Triveni Prayag at Allahabad, to meet the rivers Ganga and Yamuna.
Inside the “Vyas Gufa”, we found a statue of Vedvyas made in black stone. A pandit in a grey suit and woollen cap asked us all to settle down. To an audience of about 15 pilgrims, he elaborately narrated the fable of Sage Vyas – his birth, early life and his literary genesis. His way of singing verses and telling memorized phrases in a very animated way was a unique story-telling experience.
It is interesting to note that instances of the last moments of the epic and the first retelling of the same converge at Mana.
We clicked a few photographs of the cave which is supposedly over 5000 years old. As we retraced our steps, the woollen quilts being sold in the shops here caught my mother’s fancy. Since the entire village would run desolate in a couple of days, we got ourselves a good deal. Packing in a woollen quilt and a woollen coat, we returned to our car. Yogender Bhai was waiting for us. With sweet unforgettable memories of the people and wistful views of the snow-white mountains and clear blue skies, we bid farewell to the legendary village of Mana.
An honest SCORPIO who is crazy about movies, and overly-passionate about travel.
Believes in immortalizing the moment, either by way of photograph or literal documentation of the journey.