Finding a lost Shangri La

The Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal is known for its tall snow-covered mountains including Everest, the world’s highest peak.

That apart, the country boasts of numerous treks and trails, one of which, namely, the circuitous trek around Annapurna peaks, is the most sought after and categorised as a “classic trek”.

The 16-day adventure involves crossing the 17,769-foot Thorung La pass, going through many alpine villages en route.

A lost civilisation

Manang, a tiny town lost in the wilderness of mountains, is one such stop. Situated close to 12,000 ft above sea level, it is imperative that trekkers spend an extra day here to enable the body to acclimatise well to the altitude.

During the season, thousands of adventurers descend or ascend rather, to this settlement, on their way to the pass. Nestled on the edge of the deep valley of River Marsyangdi amidst lakes, glaciers and tall snow-clad peaks, it is a heavenly place.

Trekkers spend the day climbing to a high point and by afternoon listen to the free lecture on mountain sickness and acclimatisation.

But this is also an opportunity to experience the unique culture and history of Manang and its people.

Centuries ago, a semi-nomadic tribe of Tibetan origin drifted southwards and entered north and central Nepal. Overcoming difficult, harsh terrain, they arrived at this plateau and decided to live here.

They were the earliest of the Gurungs who followed the Bon religion worshipping the elements of nature.

Years later, another clan, the Ghales, also from Tibet, gained access to this valley.

Though there were initial skirmishes between the two, the latter seem to have dominated, resulting in peaceful co-existence with intermarriages.

They came to be known as Manangis or Nyeshangis, whose religious affinity also transformed with the advent of Buddhism.

The tracts of plains were used for agriculture.

Though Manang and its surroundings was in the rain shadow region with scanty rainfall, the settlers depended on glacier-fed Marsyangdi river and used the terraces of the valley for cultivation.

To augment the resources, they engaged in pastoral pursuits as well, raising herds of goats and yaks.

The yaks especially provided them with milk, manure and meat. They could also be used as beasts of burden.

For years, Manangis lived this way in their own little settlement, virtually cut off from the outside world.

Being snowbound with long harsh winters, agriculture was limited to few months, which meant they could hardly produce enough to last for the year.

But the Government of Nepal came to rescue. As the settlement remained isolated in inhospitable terrain, the monarchy encouraged the Manangis to engage in trade with other countries, particularly Southeast Asian nations.

The merchandise included forest produce such as medicinal herbs, rock salt and dried rhizomes.

The trading caught up so much in course of time that  many  became wealthy and began settling down in cities like Kathmandu.

The locals travelled far and wide so much so that today almost every house has a portrait of the owner in Singapore or Hong Kong.

Slow progress

As this exodus continued, there was a dearth of manpower in the village itself. Agriculture was sidelined.

Still Manangis lived incognito with their doors closed to outsiders. Even as late as 1950s, explorers and mountaineers like Maurice Herzog and Bill Tilman were looked upon with suspicion.

It was not until 1970 that Manang got an exposure to the outside world when the government officially opened the area for trekking and climbing expeditions from other countries.

At this juncture, the few Manangis who remained began to look at other options to make a living.

Being tough and hardy, it was easy for them to join climbing teams as porters and guides. Some others extended hospitality to visitors providing basic facilities.

With hordes of trekkers flocking the place, an inflow of money was seen. More and more hotels, lodges and eateries sprung up.

Over the years, Manang metamorphosed into a town with modern amenities, and even an airstrip of its own.

However, the unique culture of Manangis is fading into oblivion. Researchers and anthropologists may find it hard to trace the history and extract information from village elders.

And the only link to the history of Manangis and the way they lived seems to be the museum here that aims to preserve the 100-year-old culture.

Housing the artefacts, utensils, jewels and clothing used by Manangis, apart from old photographs and inscriptions, the Manang museum gives an insight into the civilisation that once was.

Manang today is not just a place to pass  through; it is a cultural destination by itself.

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