Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Northeast Sojourn - Beauty Beyond Compare

The tiny Maruti 800 labours up the winding roads of Kohima. It is Sunday and most of the city is closed. Beautiful people dressed in their best emerge out of the lanes after the mass at the churches. We are making our way to the top of Aradura Hill. Few hours ago, the train from Delhi has brought me to Dimapur, a railway station, to my surprise is in Nagaland!

The Beautiful Northeast
The Catholic Cathedral in Kohima Nagaland
Cherry Blossom Delight in Kohima

Kohima is the first stop in my maiden visit to the beautiful Northeast. Few more twists and turns and we are at the soaring Catholic Cathedral. Up here, away from the bustle of the growing city, I am in a state of bliss. Northeast brings the first surprise when I see the jewel like pink flowers adorning the tall trees. These are the Cherry Blossoms popularly known as Sakura flowers in Japan. Here on the hill, the tranquility is in total contrast to the times when the fiercest battles of WWII were fought between British Indian and Japanese troops.  The Cathedral was built by the Japanese people to honour all the brave soldiers who died here. Just beyond, on the edge of the hill with the city spread out below, I am treated to a spectacular sunset.

Sunset View of Kohima from The Catholic Cathedral

The orderly streets of Kohima Nagaland

The next day, I head out into the city. Today is a working day and the vehicles line up the city's meandering roads. The traffic is however disciplined and is restricted to single lanes from opposite sides with the empty middle lane reserved for emergency and security forces vehicles. Yes, presence of forces is a constant hope that things will soon get better.

The immaculate Kohima War Cemetery maintained by CWGC (Commonwealth Graves Commission), Garrison Hill, Kohima, Nagaland
Cherry Blossom at Kohima War Cemetery. The battles fought here in Kohima and Imphal between British India and Japan are regarded as the Greatest Battles of Britain in World War II

We turn off the main road to arrive at another serene oasis called the Garrison Hill. This is the Kohima War Cemetery which is the final resting place of more than 1420 Commonwealth soldiers including 330 Indians who died during the Kohima Siege in the spring of 1944. Walking among the immaculately maintained gravestones and reading the moving inscriptions on the graves of mostly young brave men is heart rending. Today the soothing blanket of green grass and flowers seem to comfort the traumatised souls. The WWII memorial is another reminder of the futility of war.  

A performance at the Hornbill Festival, Kisama Nagaland
A Naga Tribe in their finery at the Hornbill Festival
I will call them colour coordinated sisters - at the Hornbill Festival Kisama
In the afternoon, I leave for the nearby Naga Heritage Village of Kisama where the annual Hornbill Festival takes place in the first week of December when all the tribes of Nagaland come together to showcase Nagaland’s culture and beautiful diversity. For a week, the stadium and the adjoining area in the village turns into a carnival as hordes of locals and tourists descend to savour the colours and taste of Northeast India. 

After soaking in the culture of Nagaland, it is time to visit the famous Kaziranga National Park home to the Great One-horned Rhinoceros. I catch a train from Dimapur to Jorhat in Assam. There are buses available at Jorhat that go to Kohora. Kohara is the base to explore Kaziranga and has hotels and resorts to suit all budgets.

Some Rhino Sighting in Kaziranga National Park, Assam
Next morning, it is time for jungle safari. This is tea country of Assam and the road leading to the Western Range of the Sanctuary is lined with glistening tea gardens. Soon we are bouncing along in the bountiful jungles of Kaziranga. In the distance, through the tall grass I am able to see the rhinoceroses munching in the abundant grasslands and wading in the swamps created by Brahmaputra. The driver and the guard are experts and help spot elephants, wild buffaloes and birds too.

Refreshed with culture and wildlife, it is time to head out to Scotland of the East. Catching a bus to outskirts of Guwahati, I take a shared taxi to Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya.

The Lovely Umiam Lake, Shillong

The name Shillong conjures up images of waterfalls, dew fresh meadows, lakes and beautiful people. On the way, I stop-over to take a quick look at the Umium Lake. In Shillong, Police Bazaar is the nerve centre and home to hotels and shops. It seems the whole town has descended here on a chilly winter afternoon. I walk the streets enjoying the views and getting smitten with the sharply dressed pretty girls of Shillong. 
The flowery wonderland called Mawlynnong, Meghalaya
The Cleanest Village in Asia - Mawlynnong in Meghalaya
The Living Root Bridge at Village Riwai, Meghalaya

The Meghalaya Tourism office runs day-trip buses to attractions around Shillong. I take the opportunity to visit Cherrapunji hoping to get wet but it is as dry as Marathwada in the winters. Anyway, Cherrapunji has lost the tag of wettest place in India to its neighbour of Mawsynram. I duck through the Mauwsmai Caves with hanging staglacites, and enjoy the Seven Sisters and Nohsngithiang waterfalls. The next day, I cross a river on a living root bridge formed by training roots of trees that spans the entire breadth of the river. Nearby, I am in a flower wonderland called Mawlynnong which is Asia’s Cleanest Village. Walking through the flowery lanes, I wondered why we can’t make our cities this clean.

It has been a wonderful trip. Getting to know the friendly and beautiful people of Northeast has been a revelation. The trip has introduced me to Northeast. In the coming years we hope to get to know each other even more.

A version of the story appeared in the August 2016 issue of NRI Achievers magazine

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Love at First Sight - Singing and Dancing with the Beautiful Folks of Northeast

When both guests and hosts play their parts, the boundaries created due to ignorance and misconceptions dissolve

A guitar is swiftly produced before the moment passes away. The gentleman takes a long swig of thoutshe, a local rice drink, puts down the bamboo mug by the side, wipes his mouth with the elbow, cradles the guitar, caresses the strings, clears his throat one last time and starts to croon.

Having some fun at the Hornbill Festival, Kisama, Nagaland

We are in Kisama on a chilly and crisp evening. The next day, the annual Hornbill Festival will open bringing a mindboggling array of people and colours and festivities to this Heritage Village a few kilometres from Kohima. Going around the now empty morungs – community halls of the different tribes - we come to this snacks stall. The kids running the stall are the usual kids we have come across in these few days in Northeast and have grown fond of. They are courteous, always smiling, fashion conscious sporting latest branded sneakers and jackets and they do not seem to have a hair out of place on their gelled-up head. Most of them are college going students and are working part-time during the festival to make some money. Lots of them have Delhi connections and stories and jokes are flying back and forth.

The enchanting evening at Kisama - some music some long lost song
We are all having the time of our lives. We have been offered chairs and are being treated like celebrities. Soon thoutsche is passed around. Of course, at around this time now, songs have to make entry here. We do our bit and sing some Hindi songs. This is when the kids prompt us to ask the gentleman to sing. The gentleman is the owner of the shop. And when the words come out, we are blown away. The soft lyrics ‘Tum kitni khoobsurat ho’ reach our ears. This is unbelievable – this is a never heard before beautiful Hindi movie song! To be honest I do not ever remember listening to this song when I am a self-confessed Kishore Kumar fan. The fingers delicately strum the guitar and these mellifluous notes float in the night air. Time has stopped in Kisama.

Coming from Delhi with all the trepidation of a first time visitor to Northeast who associates the region with insurgency and blockades, never in my wildest imagination, I would have conjured up listening to a rare Hindi movie song in Kisama to the accompaniment of guitar and thoutshe. This is the beauty of India and her people. Just when we start forming opinions and biases, a scented breeze tiptoes in bringing sweet notes of a forgotten song and right now this feels like home.

The awesome kids at the stall in Kisama - their rapping their dancing had to be experienced to be believed - God Bless Them

The song opens the floodgate and the kids join in. They rap, they croon. To me it is like BoyzIIMen of long ago have come alive. They break-dance; they do headstands and cartwheels. We are laughing our heads off. I still do not remember the last time I had so much fun.

Some styling happening in Cherrapunji, Meghalaya

A performer at the Hornbill Festival, Kisama

In the next few days, we will see more smiling faces. People here in Northeast are always eager to talk and are always helpful and enjoy a good laugh. Dressed sharply and speaking sophisticatedly, there is no loutishness that is experienced in the parts where I come from. Not for a single moment during our stay we felt scared or fearful. Yes the omnipresence of security forces is a way of life here but I am sure that will be a thing of the past soon. 

During our stay we made it a point to chat with as many people as possible – driving around pretty Majuli, walking in the flowery lanes of Mawlynnong or cruising in downtown Shillong. Sometimes it was broken Hindi or English or sometimes it was just gestures. But there were always lots of smiles and a lot of feelings and goodwill were exchanged.

Two little girls trying their hand at some weaving - Majuli, the world's largest inhabited river island in Assam

On the train from Dimapur to Jorhat, I see a young monk with pony tail and wearing a dhoti. My deduction is right. He belongs to a satra in Majuli Island, our next destination. Yes, he will be more than happy to ride along with us to the ferry. We share rides in the auto and on the boat filled with people and automobiles. Like us, he too had come to Kisama for the Hornbill Festival. We talk about his life in Majuli. He provides us an introduction to the satras and their working in fluent English. We jump at the idea when he asks if we would like to visit his satra. The next day our new friend is happy to see us. We are taken around the satra campus. Monks of all ages are seen busy in the daily activities of growing food and tending to the cows. Our friend announces that we are lucky - a dance performance is about to take place for some visiting foreign guests and we are welcome to join in.  

This satra is one of the 22 satras set up here in Majuli in the 16th century in the aftermath of the Bhakti Movement that swept across the country. These Vaishnavite monasteries, devoted to Lord Krishna, pioneered the use of music and dance to enact the various stories associated with Krishna’s life.

The Dancing Monks - Majuli, Assam

Just like the other night, we are enthralled by another unprecedented and unexpected performance. In the prayer hall facing a simple shrine, the monks beating their drums rhythmically dance in unfettered abandon as their smiling eyes reflect content and joy. After taking some photos, the small audience sits back to enjoy the genuine and carefree dance and musical performance. The energetic Gayan-Bayan symphony, where the gayan are the khol drums and bayan are the tal cymbals, leaves everyone mesmerized. Later, we bid goodbye to our friend taking photos and exchanging phone numbers. This is another wonderful day with the friendly folks here in Northeast.

We are all alike!

Back in Kisama, I am speaking to a gentleman in the Konyak Morung who is nursing his ruffled hornbill feather back to health that crowns his traditional headwear. Here is a man who belongs to a tribe that was feared for their headhunting customs. Today, we are talking like old friends. I realise that there are no boundaries such as the language we speak or food we eat or even how we look. 

Now when was the last time you saw this frame! At Kisama where dancers from Punjab had come - Hornbill Festival 2015, Kisama, Nagaland

The past few days in Northeast have made it quite apparent that we have a common underlying affinity towards our fellow human beings. This interaction becomes even more cordial and happy when we find ourselves as guests in a part of our country that is out of reach and is not well understood. This is the time when both guests and hosts play their parts so that the boundaries created due to perceived human differences dissolve. Northeast seems like home; next visit to the beautiful Northeast with its beautiful smiling people will be like homecoming.

Discover India's Northeast

A version of the story appears in the incredible travel magazine Discover India's Northeast July-August 2016, pages 66 & 67

The Link to the lovely song ‘Tum Kitni Khoobsurat Ho’

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Shekhawati – The Painted Wonderland

Rajasthan’s landscape dominated by the imposing palaces and indomitable forts pulls in tourists trying to soak in the stories of valour and sacrifice of Rajput warrior clans among the golden sand dunes. But Rajasthan has its surprises too. On the fringes of Thar Desert, three districts in the north that form the region of Shekhawati are home to magnificent havelis adorned with beautiful frescoes. As with most offbeat destinations, Shekhawati will leave the traveller in awe of sheer variety and scale of India’s built heritage. 

This is what Shekhawati is all about - entire facades of havelis covered with rich frescoes

Shekhawati has largely remained under the radar of the tourists but things are slowly changing. Bollywood, always on the lookout for exotic locations, has already found Shekhawati. In Aamir Khan starrer ‘PK’, Sanjay Dutt’s character hailed from the town of Mandawa, while in ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’, the Salman Khan’s blockbuster, Mandawa served as the make believe Pakistan. If Bollywood could discover Mandawa, we can too! There had been occasional chatter on the social media about the abandoned havelis and the embellished walls that further added to the mystery.

Shekhawati is sprawled across three districts of Jhunjhunu, Churu and Sikar, and therefore a little planning is needed before coming. Research revealed that there are number of towns that have the painted havelis and which are conveniently located in a grid like layout easily accessible from each other. Logistics wise, the town of Mandawa seemed to have everything that Shekhawati had to offer – central location, lots of havelis, hotels and of course, the Khans had graced the town with their presence!

The restored Mandawa Haveli is now a heritage hotel - Mandawa, Shekhawati

On a long weekend, we finally leave for the fresco wonderland. From Delhi, we moved through Gurgaon, before passing through the towns of Rewari and Narnaul in Haryana. Jhujhunu, about 230 kms southwest of Delhi is the first major city in Shekhawati region but does not have much to offer besides a huge stepwell or baoli. A short drive of 30 kms from Jhunjhunu brings us to our destination of Mandawa. Winding through the market street, we arrive at the soaring gateway of Mandawa fortress. Here, nearby is the restored mansion, originally built in 1890, and now converted into a heritage hotel called Mandawa Haveli, and which will be our abode in Shekhawati. The walls covered with restored paintings provide a rich preview of what we can expect here.

So while the ground floors have been converted into shops, it is the projecting upper floors that provide a glimpse of what the town used to be in the past - main street of Mandawa

The ground floors are the most damaged parts with the paintings mostly lost or whitewashed over - Shekhawati in Rajasthan

It is time to take a walk in the town of Mandawa. The chaotic main street filled with vehicles and shoppers is just like any other town in India. But here men sport colourful pagdis and women dazzle in neon coloured odhnis. Yes this is how the people of this arid scrubby land bring colour to their lives. It is in the second glance that you notice the havelis lining up the sides of the street. The shops operate out of the ground floors. Higher up, the projecting floors can be seen with series of windows, alcoves and jharokhas. And on the walls, vying for attention along with the advertisement boards and messages are a riot of frescoes.

One of the most impressive havelis. It is a living haveli and do notice the turret like corners - in Mandawa, Shekhawati
An inner lane with havelis stacked together
Related Link on this blog

Shekhawati, The Frescoland
As we make our way deeper into the lanes, havelis of all shapes and sizes are packed together wall to wall. The Marwari trading community awash in money made during the early 19th century as caravan trade routes shifted to Shekhawati, busied themselves in this construction binge. This was like keeping with the Joneses or in this case keeping up with the Poddars and Goenkas and Singhanias. It is in these quiet lanes that the true scale of frescoes is revealed. The walls are dripping with paintings - all colours seem to have been used – red, blue, maroon, and even silver and gold.

Plane, Bicycle, Horses and the almost pristine panels under the eaves - in Mandawa town of Shekhawati

The main gates inside the compound walls have received the major attention. The imposing gates and their arched undersides are profusely painted indicating the influence and affluence of their owners. High above the ground, protected by vagaries of weather and vandals, it is the paintings under the eaves or brackets that hold the projecting upper floors are the most vivid. The painters seem to have gone ballistic under the instructions of the haveli owners. Most frescoes carry scenes from epics. Lord Krishna plays Raas Leela with gopis while Lord Shiva rides Nandi. Then there are portraits of rulers with flowing beards as they twirl their moustaches along with portraits of family elders.  The facades are mostly adorned with elephants and horses. Murmuria Haveli has canvasses influenced by Venice along with Raja Ravi Verma’s replica painting.

The jewel box of Kedar Mal Ladia Haveli in Mandawa

But Kedar Mal Ladia Haveli is the mother of all havelis. Situated on a corner just beyond the bus stand, we buy tickets for something we have been promised will blow us away. The haveli seems to be a living one with occupants. Though it is the gateways, façade and courtyards that are mostly painted but here the owner has decided to go whole hog in a sheer one-upmanship. The ordinary doors on the right of the courtyard are opened to reveal a jewel box. The walls, the roofs and everything in between is painted in gold as images and patterns gleam in the lighted room. We can only stare trying to keep our jaws from dropping to the floor.

While the outer and courtyard walls are for everyone for see, it is our guess that the contents of this room were probably reserved for special guests. This room right here reflects the desire of the rich to display their wealth but because Marwaris are generally not ostentatious the decorations were confined to a small room!

And then there are the outlandish depictions. Merchants who probably had sailed to Europe came back with stories of trains, telephones and Europeans out on a ride on bicycles, cars and horse carriages. The paintings depict their experiences and what they saw in foreign countries. This was social media of a century ago. We post photos on facebook standing in front of Eiffel Tower; the walls of foreign returned Marwaris carried images of telephones, fancy bicycles, trains and Europeans wearing fancy hats.

The Chaukhani Johra just outside Mandawa town in Shekhawati

Besides havelis, the merchants also built elaborate memorials or chattris and as part of philanthropy also built johras or water tanks, wells, hospitals and schools and colleges. Just outside the town on the road to Nawalgarh, there is the delightful Chaukhani Johra with a well on the other side of the road.

Even as the walls are alive with the technicolour frescoes, the mansions seem to have fallen silent. A deep feeling of forlornness echoes in the lanes. Most of the gates are padlocked, their owners now in big cities leaving the havelis at the mercy of elements. The once prosperous town seems to be in a deep slumber. As the caravan trade routes dried up owing to internal strife and moved to coastal towns, the Marwari merchants also moved to Calcutta. For a while the construction boom continued but with passing years as the owners’ new generations settled in the cities, the havelis were soon abandoned. The rapidly disintegrating but still imposing doorways and the now fading paintings tell the stories of glory days and the present abandonment to anyone who would care to walk through these desolate lanes.

Along with the havelis, the merchants built sprawling Chattris or memorials - Shekhawati

The neglect of the abandoned havelis is apparent. While some havelis are in good shape, others are locked and unoccupied. Some have caretakers who will charge a ticket to show you around inside. But it is the havelis that are in different stages of ruin that troubles a heritage lover like you. Then there are some plots that are just a heap of rubble. It is uncertain whether time took its toll or the mansions are intentionally pulled down to erect modern houses with no sense of aesthetics that jangle the sensitivities. But then this is the fate of built heritage across our country, whether the usurped tombs in Delhi’s urban villages or something similar happening in Gujarat’s Sidhpur where the European styled mansions are slowing giving way to modern houses owing to pressures of growing population. It is sad that the pride of preserving a piece of heritage handed down from their forefathers does not resonate with the new generation who either, understandably do not have funds for its upkeep or choose to let it wither away. Amid these ruins, there are some promising signs as some havelis after conservation have been turned into museums and hotels. The candle of old glory days is again flickering.

A Magical Evening in Mandawa, Shekhawati

We are at one of the Chattris or Cenotaph complex on the outskirts of the town. It has been a wonderful day here in Shekhawati admiring the frescoes and the zeal and love for art of its builders. A peacock bounces around the roofs silhouetted against the setting sun. Like a peacock with unfurled feathers, it is hoped a resurrected Shekhawati too will continue to dazzle us in the coming years with its opulence and grandeur. 

(Photos shown are not necessarily the prettiest or in the prettiest setting but are shown juxtaposed with the modern reality so that the reader gets an idea about the current state of the havelis and their surroundings)

Getting There
Mandawa is about 260 kms southwest of New Delhi. Best route is via Gurgaon, Rewari and Narnaul. The road is pretty good and if you make an early start, Mandawa can be reached in about six hours with brief heritage stops in Rewari and Narnaul. If coming from Jaipur, Mandawa is about 170 kms away.

What to See
·        Shekhawati is sprawled across three districts, so some planning is needed. Google maps will come in handy to get a perspective of the area to be covered. However since the main towns are arranged in a smaller almost grid like area, getting around is not a big hassle. The base can be the conveniently located town of Mandawa that offers a choice of hotels.

·        Other towns of interest are Nawalgarh with some beautiful conserved havelis turned into museums, Fathepur, Ramgarh, and Mahansar with its fort and the dazzling ‘Sone ki Dukaan’, Churu and Bissau.

Travel Tips
·        A personal car will come handy to get around the major towns in Shekhawati, otherwise there are plenty of local and roadways buses to get you around.

·        Shekhawati towns are best explored on foot as you make your way around the lanes discovering gems. If you have time, strolling around and getting lost in the lanes is the best way to discover Shekhawati but make sure your car is parked in a public place like near the bus stand or a landmark so that you can easily find it on your way back.

·        Wear comfortable shoes and carry water and snacks.

·        Guides will approach you for taking you around in bigger towns like Mandawa and Nawalgarh – make sure you know what you are getting for your money.

·        Some havelis have caretakers who charge money for a tour inside, so decide accordingly. Of course, you don’t have to visit every haveli.

·        On the way to Jhunjhunu, and while travelling through Shekhawati, appreciate the beauty of the sparse arid land and don’t miss the Khejri trees with their trimmed gnarled branches that look like hands reaching out to sky. Khejri is also the state tree of Rajasthan and the tree where the Pandavas hid their weapons during their agyatavasa.

·        Read the definitive guide ‘The Painted Towns of Shekhawati’ by Ilay Cooper before visiting for better understanding of the region.

A version of the story appeared on happytrips.com:

(This was one of the first Shekhawati blog I ever read and was totally sold)

(What a sparkling story – still surprised why I discovered Svetlana’s blog so late!)

(Neelima does a great job with her posts bringing people and heritage together, and of course she features on BBC Travel every month)

(Sudha’s blogs always hit the spot and sometimes the thought process is so uncannily similar – I even had a similar looking hand-crafted map of the Shekhawati as part of preparation! Also, reading her post I promptly ordered Ilay Cooper’s book online without losing a minute!)

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Mana – A Walk to the Heavens

Mana, the Last Indian Village, is where myth and reality blurs as we mortals enter the world of epics. Here Maharishi Vyas dictated the Mahabharat to Lord Ganesh who wrote it down and it is the same village where Pandavs, the heroes of the epic found themselves on their way to heavens. 

A friend’s advice had been perfect. I had risen early in the morning to step out of the hotel. As promised, the view outside was staggering. Towering over the holy town of Badrinath, Neelkanth, washed in the golden first rays of sun, gleamed brilliantly in the blue skies. The view was both exhilarating and breathtaking. Awe-struck by the glorious view, my body seemed to have been infused with new vigour after the arduous trek to the ultimate Valley of Flowers. Every day in Garhwal, here in the lap of Himalayas, has been pleasantly surprising.

The jewel like Neelkanth over Badrinath in early morning
In the quiet of the chilly morning, as the clouds form a lace embroidered canopy in the skies, I listen to the Alaknanda River murmuring its way to Devprayag where it meets Bhagirathi to form our holy Ganga. Last evening after paying obeisance at the surprisingly crowd-free Badrinath Temple, I had planned to visit Mana as my last stop of this trip in Uttarakhand. Mana Village, touted as India’s Last Village, is three kilometres to the north of Badrinath. Beyond is the Mana Pass and border to Tibet.

A lacy sky over Badrinath
An hour later blue skies and fluffy clouds over Neelkanth - Badrinath in Uttarakhand
Alaknanda murmuring her way to Devprayag where she will meet Bhagirathi to form Ganga - On way to Mana Village from Badrinath in Uttarakhand
Energised by seeing the brilliant jewel like Neelkanth, I decide to walk to Mana. The gently ascending road meanders around Alaknanda. Bare and rugged mountains along with the singing Alaknanda keep an eternal watch on the travellers - just like they did when the Pandavas walked this exact path on their way to heaven. It is almost the end of the tourist season and I have the road to myself. Once in a while, an army truck rumbles by. Shadows shift over the mountains and on the meadows that hug the river as clouds overhead change their patterns.

Related Links on this Blog
Valley of Flowers
Valley of Flowers - a Photo Essay

The tiny wild flowers growing by the side of the road have kept me company for the past few days are spectacularly colourful and always smiling. Horses graze on the slopes high above as the hardy local women carry firewood and fodder on their bent backs. The mountains, always silent but observant watch the proceedings benignly. The timeless mountains can vouch that not much has changed over the centuries. The life here has always been beautiful and unhurried - the smiles never leaving the content faces.

The Last Indian Village - Mana
Vyas Gupha or Cave just beyond India's Last Tea Shop in India's Last Village! Branding is the key in today's competitive world
Close-up view of Vyas Gupha or Cave - it is supposed to be more than 5300 years old

Mana Village is just beyond with a smattering of dwellings. In the shadow of Badrinath, Mana has enough to hold on its own. In the village, mythology blurs into reality. Mana is the place where Mahabharata was dictated by Maharishi Vyas to Lord Ganesh. It is surreal that the place where the heroes of the epic were on the last leg of their journey to heaven is also the birthplace of the Mahabharata. Signs lead me up the inclined concrete pathways to the Ganesh Gufa and then to Vyas Gufa – the creator and steno of the epic. Here don’t miss to enjoy a cup of refreshing tea at the aptly branded ‘India’s Last Tea Shop’.

The elusive Brahma Kamal flower - it is mostly found in the trekking route to Hemkund Sahib from Ghangaria
Coming down back into the village square, as I enjoy a hot plate of noodles, I notice the lettuce like Brahma Kamal adorning the table. I had missed seeing the flower in my trek to the Valley of Flowers which is also the state flower of Uttarakhand and is offered in the temples. Seeing the flower seemed almost divine on this last day of my trip.

River Saraswati at Mana Village
Mana has more surprises. I walk to the spot where water gushes down from the mountains above. This is the origin of the legendary Saraswati River which would flow into Ganga and Yamuna at Allahabad but has now vanished. Flowing with exuberance, the waters crash through a chasm to meet the jade waters of Alaknanda few metres in the distance. Alaknanda in turn flows from the Satopanth glacier about 25 kms away. 

The Bheem Pul or the bridge formed over River Saraswati by Bheem when he placed this rock so that Draupadi could cross over when the Pandavs took this route on their way to Heaven

Baba Barfani aka Naga Baba at the Bheem Pul in Mana Village - Last Indian Village
And then I realise, the bridge on which I stand, is actually a big rock spanning the chasm. People believe that the rock was placed by Bheem when Draupadi could not cross the river, thus creating a natural bridge. In an alcove like dwelling carved into the rock sits the Baba Barfani aka Naga Baba who is now manicuring his nails while an admirer sits watching the proceedings. 

Mana Village - You have come a long way baby!
It is time to go back home after a once in a lifetime visit to Valley of Flowers - Mana Village
In Mana, it seems we mortals straddle the time continuum. The paths in our present take us to the times when epics were born in this ancient land of ours. In Mana, I have just crossed over into the world of epics.

Getting There: Mana Village in Chamoli District of Uttarakhand is about 540 kms from Delhi and 3 kms from Badrinath. The nearest railhead is Haridwar or Rishikesh 325 kms away. Plenty of private and government buses run towards Badrinath. It is recommended to break the journey at Rudraprayag where you can participate in the evening arti at the confluence of Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers. The arti conducted by local devotees is a sweet experience. Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) has budget guesthouses in all the towns on the way with two properties in Badrinath.

When to Go: The months from May to October are ideal to visit Garhwal.

What Else to See: Vasudhara Waterfalls about 5 kms from Mana make for a delightful trek among the lofty peaks. The trip to Badrinath & Mana should be combined with the ultimate trekking destination to the World Heritage Site of Valley of Flowers and the Sikh shrine of Shri Hemkunt Sahib. The trek is arduous so it is recommended that proper planning is done before undertaking the 15 kms trek from Govindghat. Govindghat lies on NH58 and is 30 kms south of Badrinath.

A version of the story appeared in Sunday’s Free Press Journal, Mumbai Edition on 21st Aug 2016