Travel to the last village on the Indian border and return awestruck by its pristine beauty
Deep in the Himalayas is a place like no other. Here, Himalayan kestrels chase each other at high speeds across mighty crags and leopard lacewing butterflies feed undisturbed all day on whorls of thyme.
As I walk along the pathway, a magpie trills an aria, unseen. I look for him, only to find him peering at me from a branch above, his head cocked. He chuckles, then a rush of beating wings, and he is gone.
But, I will start this travelogue where I started — on the road from Badrinath to Mana. It is still early in the morning and the Sun is just cresting the snow-clad peaks to my left, making each of them brilliantly white; looking as though someone had dredged sugar on them overnight. I am on the road to Mana, the last village in Uttarakhand — and India, before Tibet.
For the next hour, the road twists and turns through the mountains; and all along are signs of approaching the last village on the Indian border — Mana Gaon. The road twists once more and a large archway appears, signalling the entry to the village.
Mana village, the story goes, is the place where the Mahabharata was written and compiled, and it was through here that the Pandavas, supposedly passed on their journey to heaven. From the entrance, a pathway runs through the village. On either side are stone-slated houses with wooden balconies and shops with displays of colourful-knitted jerseys and shawls.
Tales from the Mahabharatha
As I walk, I hear —through the chinks in the doors — urgings of “hai hai” — as yaks are being huddled in for the day. Two hundreds yards further, I am at a signboard with names straight out of the Mahabharata — Vyasa Gufa 50 yards; Bhim ki pul 100 yards; Vasudhara falls four km.
From here, the pathway rises in sharp hair pins bends and ends in a small courtyard above which is a large slab of rock petrified in thin layers. This rock supposedly represents the pages of the Mahabharata. Below it is the Vyasa Gufa, where the sage stayed while he was compiling the four Vedas and the Mahabharata. Inside the cave is an image of the sage. I stand for a moment wondering if the stories of the place are true. Soon, I am back on the path that now hugs the valley. Down, down, down it goes, until it reaches a monolithic rock balanced precariously between two small rocks.
In front is the Saraswati river, which falls as a torrent of white foam through the gorge. In the days of the Pandavas, there was no rock and the Sarasvati was broader and faster.
And, the Pandavas stopped here because Draupadi found it difficult to go further, crossing it. Immediately, Bhima kicked a rock, creating a natural ford across the river — Bhim ki pul.
Bhim ki pul, is the farthest most tourists go. I proceed to Vasudhara falls, where the Pandavas were supposed to have stopped on their way to heaven. Soon, the path ahead becomes steeper and less defined.
Seas of wild gorse appear, and to my right rises a rock wall, brown and barren.
After plodding an hour through this desolate landscape, I reach the falls. It really is lands' end. The silver-coloured fall tumbles from a great height, framed as it were by the snow-clad peaks of Tibet. As I watch, the sunlight changes first to gold, then amber. Simultaneously, rain clouds drift into view.
On the way back, I stumble upon a Mana villager, an old Bhutia woman who sits on her doorstep, soaking in the Himalayan sunshine. It is my last memory of the place, but looking back at her over my shoulder, I feel that in this place, time has no meaning.
How to get there
Mana is three km from Badrinath and it is best to walk there, if only for the great views. You can also take a shared jeep from Badrinath for Rs. 10.
Mana is a day-trip, and although the villagers allow you to stay with them for a nominal fee, it is best to stay in Badrinath. Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam has basic accommodation (can be booked online) and there are plenty of rest houses and budget hotels (ranging from Rs. 200 to Rs. 2,000 per night).
Carry your lunch from Badrinath. The shops in Mana sell Pahari juice made from a local berry called buransh, which is worth checking out.