Where National Highway 58 ends, just past the holy shrine of Badrinath in Uttarakhand, a trail meanders up to Mana, the “last Indian village”, on the banks of a gurgling Alaknanda river, before snaking past the hamlet towards the higher reaches of the Himalayas. The trail, many say, is supposedly the “way to heaven”.
Several decades ago, Mana resident Pitambar Singh Moolpa’s grandparents took this route. Not to reach heaven, but Tibet. They did this several times, just like other fellow villagers. Part of the ancient trade route between India and Tibet, Mana has historically been an enterprising village that traded barley, buckwheat and rock salt for goats and yaks with the Tibetans. That trade stopped following the 1962 war with China, say residents, though traditional homes still stand as testimony to the village’s history.
Today, the village, approximately 50 km from the Sino-Indian border, is entirely dependent on pilgrims who come to visit Badrinath nearby. Mana is where the Pandavas supposedly walked past en route to heaven. Which might explain the presence of the Bhim pul here — a rock bridge believed to be fashioned by Bhim to help Draupadi cross the mythical Saraswati river. There is also the Vyas and Ganesha caves, where Mahabharata was believed to have been written. The recently acquired moniker of “last Indian village” has also attracted those visiting the Valley of Flowers to the village.
All this should ideally mean that a small village such as Mana — about 550 families and over 1,200 people according to the 2011 census — gets business through the year. Yet, Moolpa, 56, sits quietly in his woollen handloom shop, staring at the herds of sheep grazing high in the hills across the village, even as tourists walk past him.
“This isn’t the money-spending kind of public. They are here on a pilgrimage, for the temple. Not to enjoy this place. In the peak season (May-June), we manage to get some earnings due to the sheer number of footfalls. But after the monsoon, it’s very little. Remember, we have to sustain on this earning for the next six months,” says Moolpa, who was, until a few years ago, the gram pradhan.
At over 10,200 ft, it begins to snow in Mana (mid-November onwards). All the villagers move down to Gopeshwar and Pandukeshwar. Peak winters can be harsh with heavy snowfall and temperatures as low as -17 degrees Celsius.
“Most villagers are actually from Gopeshwar and Pandukeshwar. The real inhabitants are long gone,” says Mahendra Singh Bisht, 26, who runs a grocery shop near the Indo Tibetan Border Police post across the village. Bisht says that at any given point of time, half the homes in the village can be found locked. “The government has set up a Palayan Samiti (Migration Committee) to stop migration from Mana,” he says, adding that his earnings depend on soldiers and ITBP personnel buying snacks like Maggie and tea. The village has a cottage industry for woollen handloom products, but the small scale and poor marketing has not helped stem migration from the village. “People also grow potatoes here. But they keep running from pillar to post to sell them. It’s the same with woollens. There is just no market and the government is doing nothing about it,” says gram pradhan Bhagat Singh Badwal.
A couple of years ago, Badwal tried to revive an old tradition of the village, where a roster is maintained of four families who are supposed to stay in the village for six months to manage the local temple, conduct pujas and organise all rituals. “This is done in rotation so that everyone gets the responsibility and remains connected to their roots. You will find very few young men in the village,” says a resident.
Those left behind compete fiercely for livelihood. A few paces up the hill past Mana is a tea shop run by Chander Singh Badwal — the first to open a tea shop in the village about 25 years ago. With time, he named it “Bharat ki Antim Chai ki Dukaan” (India’s last tea shop). The USP caught on with tourists and almost every travelogue in recent years has talked about it, setting Badwal’s cash registers ringing. However, in the past 10 years, two more shops have opened — both lay claim to the label of the last tea shop in Indian territory. “Who is to decide which one is the last? These guys have taken prime spots near the Saraswati, too,” says Moolpa.
Many villagers also point at the fact that there is no alcohol allowed in the region because of the shrine, which keeps many tourists away. “There is a lot that Mana can offer. But why will anyone come here? People come here to wash their sins. A popular tourist place is one where you can commit some,” says Moolpa.