Finding a decent place for my budget at Manali is going to be a challenge. That’s the case in any busy and popular tourist destination. Firstly, Manali doesn’t look appealing. I may be better off to look for something in Old Manali. I start walking in that direction. Someone tells me it is two kilometers away by road.
‘Looking for a room?’ smiles a man standing by the road as he poses me this question. I am at the end of a line of shops at Manali.
‘It would be expensive here, I am sure,’ I reply.
‘Not really. You can take a look,’ recommends the guy. He is definitely not hard-selling. I like his approach. I walk in to look at his rooms. There is hot water in the attached bathroom. The bed is cosy. The place is clean and even spacious. I take the room for Rs. 250 a night, meaning to stay here for a couple of nights.
This is just what I needed. I dump my backpack and take the much lighter daypack to Old Manali. Manali itself is a crowd of shops selling Kashmiri shawls, regional postcards, Tibetan antiques and curios. There are plenty of shops offering transport to Leh. At times it seems that every shop offers a jeep to Leh. It is sort of a conclusion that every tourist to Manali must be on his or her way to Leh. There are also the busy restaurants and cyber cafes. There are cooking class that promise traditional home food. There are ayurvedic massage parlours and yoga centers. It is a town for tourists without much to interest me. I hope to find something better at Old Manali.
I walk by the road, always being cautious of traffic in both directions. The road isn’t wide but that doesn’t stop drivers from speeding. Sometime later I spot a shortcut going uphill through the woods. I take it. Sooner than expected I find the famous Hidimba Devi Temple coming into view.
The temple stands in a magnificent setting of tall deodars. Made of timber and stone, this is a temple in pagoda style in three levels of sloping roofs. At the fourth level is a conical capping with a vertical finial. This 16th century temple is in the same style as the Tripura Sundari Temple of Naggar. A verandah surrounds the temple a few feet above ground level. The walls are plain except for the many sheep and deer horns that hang on them. The facade wall shows beautiful carved woodwork with familiar religious deities.
In this tourist season, this temple is a draw. Foreign tourists stand in groups around their respective guides. After short introductions, they step into the sanctum and usually come out with red dots on their foreheads and lighter by a few rupees. They linger around taking pictures. I take my turn to step into the sanctum. It is a small one. A pair of feet are carved out in stone under the shelter of a caving rock. An idol in metal represents the goddess Hadimba Devi just as the two sculpted feet. Prasad of puffed rice and sweets are on offer to all genuine devotees. Should I accept them, I begin to ask myself? The moment is lost and I am out of the sanctum before I realize it.
A local tourist is dressed up in a costume of traditional wear of the Kullu Valley. She wears a colourful pattu. Her head is covered in a red scarf bordered with silver lining. Heavy silver jewellery, no doubt every bit an imitation, hang on her breasts. She holds a bouquet of plastic flowers and strikes a pose. A local photographer clicks a few pictures as the girl’s relatives stand around giving orders and requirements. They will certainly have their money’s worth.
I quite like the temple and its setting. I draw out my little sketchbook and settle for charcoal pencil. I stand and draw for many minutes until it is finished. Curious onlookers come and go. I draw badly but it is easy to be called an artist under these circumstances.
As I leave the temple clearing, the walk to the road is lined with the same deodars. A man offers me a ride on his yak. I can’t recall if this is the first time I have seen a yak in my life. My memory corrects. No. I have seen yaks in the Spiti Valley. The yak before me is a fine creature, with large curving black horns and long woolly coat. A thick ring goes through its fleshy pink nose. It eyes look tiny, hidden among strands of wool. It is a handsome one of white and black dappling.
‘Want a ride?’ asks the man.
I shake my head in response and ask him if I can take a few pictures. He is a friendly chap and agrees to it. He is not at all surprised by my lack of interest. It seems children are his most important customers. Another tourist is standing next to me and watches the yak.
‘I will never ride a yak. It is not right,’ she tells me.
‘The fur is used in temples for religious ceremony. It is used in gurudwaras for example. It is not right to sit on a yak.’
Across the road is something curiously called the Tree Temple with a legend that associates it with Ghatotkacha. Ghatotkacha, a character from the Mahabharatha, is the son of Bhima and Hidimbi. Hidimbi is actually a demon who is worshipped in Manali as a goddess. The Tree Temple is nothing interesting – just a tree worshipped by the locals. At least in this way they have some respect for nature. You can be sure that this tree will not be cut down for decades to come.
Maybe I should walk to Old Manali from here but just then it starts to pour. The museum next door, the Museum of Himachal Culture and Folk Art, seems a good shelter for the moment. I might as well take a look at it. I buy a ticket for ten ruppes and walk in. I don’t regret it. The museum gives a wonderful insight into local culture – jewellery, masks, dresses, smoking pipes, cooking vessels, stone pots, straw slippers, snow socks, models of castles and temples, and even a water mill. Stone pots, they say, are used to cook slowly and preserve the nutrients.
By the time I am done, the rain subsides. I take out my umbrella, walk past the Hidimba Devi Temple and head towards Old Manali. It is a long walk in the rain. On the way, I pass a few apple trees. The fruits are small and half-ripe. This doesn’t stop me from picking a couple and enjoying them in the rain. Talk about fresh produce! I cross a bridge across the River Beas or perhaps a tributary of it. In the rain, the flow under the bridge is a torrent. The water is fresh and clear. I settle down at a restaurant for a late lunch. After lunch I walk uphill to see the sights of Old Manali.
This is truly tourist heaven and quite unlike the Manali I have left behind. The narrow uphill street is lined with shops selling specific stuff for tourists. The restaurants are posh and cosy. Clearly the places here are pricey and cater mostly for the foreign crowd. A mechanic shop at the bottom of the street caters exclusively for Enfield Bullet and Thunderbird fans. Foreigners have taken to these Enfields like ducks to water. Shops sell Himachali caps and Kullu shawls. In another shop, a man sits surrounded by a packed display of Madhubani paintings.
One of the famous temples of Old Manali is the Manu Temple. As the name suggests, it is dedicated to the Hindu God of Law, Manu. It is a rare one indeed in all of India. The temple has been renovated in recent times. I do not find it one bit interesting and I give it a cursory look. On the other hand, Old Manali has many fine old buildings constructed in the tradional kath-kuni style. These are of timber and stone, with roofs made of slate tiles. Many of these old buildings stand beautifully but I see a couple whose roofs have caved in. In another one by the road, I find a jettied higher floor used as a storage for hay. In one case, a short drystone wall separates the road from a courtyard. Buildings line the courtyard in a L-shape. It seems people live here as extended families. The timbers are painted red. The stones are white-washed. Doorways are deeply recessed in rectangular frames. These jambs are hand-painted in cream-coloured paste with geometric shapes, dots and swastikas. The higher floor is similarly constructed with the addition of a wooden balcony supported on projecting timber beams. Under one such balcony sits snugly a handloom. It can be accessed by a wooden ladder from ground level. It is one of the beautiful sights on this facade.
Near this house is another equally beautiful building with the highest floor jettied across on all its four sides. This is not unlike the castle at Gondhla but of course much smaller. I ask someone about this building. All she can tell me is that it is like a temple. Apparently it is used to house religious paraphernalia.
I stand opposite this building in the shelter of a verandah. I put down my umbrella and pause to make a quick sketch. A few kids of the neighbourhood take interest in my drawing. They play in the rain with my umbrella. Later they crowd around to the backdrop of the “temple” to pose before to my camera.
It is late. I return to Manali. I look around for suitable places to eat. Finally, not happy with anything in offer, I buy a loaf of bread, some chips and fruits. The night is cold but my bed is warm. In the morning, I wait a long time for a bus to Solang.
‘Why is the bus not here yet?’ I ask at the counter. I have been waiting for nearly an hour.
‘You missed it. It stopped by the road half an hour ago,’ he says without feeling sorry.
‘But the board had something else for destination,’ I complain.
‘Well, that’s the bus.’
So I wait around trying to make out my next best option. Someone suggests I take the bus going towards Keylong but get off at Palchan. My map says that a walk from Palchan is not impossible. It is a crowded bus that’s coming all the way from Delhi. It is headed for Keylong. That’s quite a long journey. There are people on this bus who have travelled for a night and a day, maybe more. What am I complaining about? My life in Bangalore is a lot more comfortable in comparison.
I stand through the short ride to Palchan. Soon I am on a decent path heading northwest towards the Solang Valley. Needless to say, the scenary is spectacular. The river Solang, a tributary of the Beas, flows down below in the valley. I walk along the winding road, sometimes following its long hairpin bends but taking shortcuts on steeper dirt slopes where I find them. After 15 kms of hard walking I arrive at Dhundi, a site of construction workers, sheds and busy activity. A tunnel of some sort is under construction but to where? I have no idea.
My attention is more towards the path leading to Beas Kund, a place higher up in these mountains where the River Beas starts. It is easier said than done. I am caught out by a fast flowing stream coming down the slopes. The stones are slippery and the flow is forceful. I hestitate to cross. A boy comes around and offers assistance for a fee.
‘There is another place where you have to cross. It is much more difficult,’ he cautions me.
I am about to thank him for this information but he interrupts, ‘I can guide you to Beas Kund for ____ rupees.’
He quotes some outrageous price. I check my watch. I don’t really have enough time to get to Beas Kund and back. It is certainly a rush with obstacles along the way. I think I’ll relax in this valley for a while and start my return.
‘I can help you cross this river for fifty rupees,’ shouts the boy after me as I start walking away. I am not interested. I lie down on a rock. To my right a sloping valley goes down to Dhundi and the mountains beyond. I have just climbed through it. Facing me on easy slopes are tall deodars framing the innocent sky. To my left are the snow-covered slopes and peaks hiding in their midst Beas Kund. Behind me, flows a little stream through a steep rocky course. As I lie on this rock, little alpine flowers sway in a breeze at eye-level. Birds chirp away somewhere in the trees. The clouds above move slowly. The sun comes and goes.
In time, I start walking back. I walk past Dhundi, past workers battering rocks and stones into gravel, past their children happily playing in the dirt until I arrive at a ski center. In the morning this had been a deserted place but now it is teeming with tourists. Some are on cable cars going up the mountain. Others are on their way down in their paraglides. Vendors are selling food and drinks. Horsemen are giving rides to tourists on their ponies. I have no time to linger around here. I ask around for buses but no one is really sure. I walk back to Palchan and wait for a bus back to Manali.
I have nothing more to see at Manali. I step into the local tourism office and pick up a nice book on Himachal Pradesh for Rs. 25. I don’t really need it since my trip of the state is coming to an end. Soon I will be in Ladakh. But I like the book, the photos and the terse write-ups on places of interest. I also buy a map of the state. I get money out of an ATM nearby. I head back to my room for a nice bath, dinner and rest. I have liked my stay here, particularly Old Manali. My main complaint is that after 24 hours on the line, my laundry are still wet. I don’t think they are going to dry when morning comes.