What happens when three atheists decide to go on a Chardham yatra – that most revered pilgrimage among Hindus covering Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath in Uttarakhand? First, we convert it to Teendham deeming ourselves unfit for Yamunotri, considered the toughest of the treks. Then we do it anti-clockwise including in the tour the not-so-holy Auli and Deoria taal! And lastly we commit a blasphemy – return from Badrinath without darshan as the queue was four kilometres long.
In the process, we travel to an unplanned destination and discover a gem. Four kilometres ahead of Badrinath, tenuously sits the village of Mana at 10,561 feet above sea level. It is popularly referred to as the last village in India with tea stalls which scream, “Last tea shop in India.”
Stones spout stories here. Most of us are familiar with the myth of Sage Vyaasa dictating the Mahabharat to Ganesh. The caves in which they sat for this stupendous task are here in Mana. The Vyaasa Gufa is purported to be 5321 years old. The vagaries of the weather in these parts over centuries have resulted in a formation that resembles the pages of a book marking it as a credible appropriation as Vyaasa’s cave. Ganesh Gufa situated a distance away is rebuilt to hold a temple inside. The guide told us the distance was not a deterrent to Ganesh hearing Vyaasa’s voice. Depending on which side of the fence you belong, you will either say, “Nice story” or “Ganesh is god after all.” Either way, walking through these cold caves bending till your back hurts takes you back to the caveman era. Emerging from the cave, we heard the happy sounds of a group of young boys who had climbed to the roof. Stoned silly, they smiled a vacuous smile when we teased them by yelling out, “Caught you!” As it struck them a little while later, they looked sheepishly and said to each other, “Arre yaar, sahi pakda!”
Mana village lays claim to the origin of the river Saraswati. If ever there is a beauty contest for rivers, Saraswati would win hands down. It rushes down a pure white, frothing like an epileptic through a crevice between two massive rocks and roars its way below. Further down, it turns into a pale blue, the colour that school kids use to paint rivers. Ganesh is supposed to have been disturbed by the noise while he was taking down the dictation and cursed the river to disappear.
Another story goes that the Pandavas on their way to heaven needed to cross the river. However, the feisty Saraswati refused to let them cross. Bhim the muscle man lifted two boulders and laid them across the river to facilitate the crossing. Ultimately this beautiful river with a personality was subdued by two men. The bridge, known as Bhim pul stands to this day.
A tiny temple for Saraswati sits forlornly in the midst of the gigantic rocks that rise high all around us. When a place is so full of mythology, it becomes a delightful exercise to look at everything through such a lens. We fed a lovely looking dog that sat on the parapet unmoved by the noise and the crowds around. Probably, his pedigree dates back to Yudhishtra’s dog that followed him to heaven!
Aghori babas dot the pathways to the various sites and sit at times in caves as well. People stop, stand and stare at them; some drop a note in their bowl. Covered with ash, they sit naked except for a loin cloth. I couldn’t resist asking one how he could bear the cold. He replied rather aggressively, “Why would’nt I? You think I’m a bhogi like you? I’m a yogi,” he said with a touch of pride. Another one, who looked like a rock star with his waist length dreadlocks, sat in a cave surrounded by his paraphernalia – incense sticks, stones of various shapes smeared with vermillion, a damru and a trishul. True to his appearance, he was a stellar performer too. Every time he noticed a camera being flashed at him, he would pick up his damru and start playing it!
Coming down this quaint village, we passed women knitting sweaters, caps and socks. They certainly were the polar opposite of Dickens’s knitting women who nonchalantly counted heads dropping from the guillotine as they knitted. They smiled and asked passers-by to buy their wares which they sold at unbelievably low prices. Untouched by the crass world around, they surely undervalued their labour but were smart enough not to allow photography.
The village, in a way, embodies the transience of life. Come Diwali and the sparse population of 1,214 people migrate downhill to live in Badrinath, Joshimath and other places below. Mana gets enveloped in layers of snow to retreat into its ancient past denying access to locals and tourists alike. If people constitute space, then this is one mobile space.