Of Meditating Demonesses and Russians Far from Home

When I was in my early teens, my father was in the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, and nearly all our holidays, long and short, were spent in the hills. We would accompany Papa on his tours, if he happened to be going to places easily accessible by jonga or car (and occasionally even the ‘easily accessible’ was not a criterion). Papa would do his inspections and hold his meetings; Mummy would invariably be dragged off to meet the ladies, to visit camp canteens and camp schools, to cut ribbons and inaugurate gardens and whatnot.

And we children—my sister and I—would end up being taken to see the sights. These were often arbitrarily chosen by adults who had no real idea what we might want to see, and we, being too well-behaved to demur, went along silently.

Which is why, on the one occasion when we went to Kullu, our trip to Manali entailed nothing that I remember.

Three decades down the line, therefore, I decided it was time to set that right. At the start of this month, we went for three days to Manali.

The Beas, near Manali.

The Beas, near Manali.

I had so completely forgotten what Manali looked like (besides, of course, the fact that the mountains loom all around and that the Beas flows beside the town) that it came as a surprise—and a pleasant one at that—to find that despite the commercialization, despite the mushrooming of hotels and souvenir shops and German bakeries and varied bhojnalayas, Manali manages to stay within spitting distance of nature. The hotels lining the main road, for example, have deodar woods crowning the tops of the hills on which they stand. From our hotel, a two minute walk would have got us across the road, down a rocky bank, and to the swift-flowing waters of the Beas. The other side of the Beas, almost down to the water’s edge, was thickly wooded mountain. Unlike a lot of other popular hill stations in this part of the country, the touristiness of the town hasn’t utterly destroyed nature.

And touristy it is. In an oddly eclectic way. Most other hill stations have their well-defined visitors. Rishikesh and Gangotri and Badrinath, for example, are pilgrim hotspots. People head for Kasauli and Srinagar and Palampur for the scenic beauty, to Dharamshala for the Tibetan flavour of it, to Bir and Billing and Ladakh for the adventure.

Manali is the exception: it’s a destination that draws the most disparate of crowds. There are those to whom Manali is synonymous with drugs, and who come here for everything from cheap ganja to exorbitantly priced (and more likely than not, fake) Malana cream. There are pilgrims. There are hordes of Indian families wanting to go to Rohtang to be able to finally see snow. There are adventure-seekers, booking up for rafting trips, for paragliding and more. There are the bikers, their luggage held down with tarps across their bikes, heading for Spiti, Lahaul, possibly even up to Ladakh.

And there are people like us, who may not go rafting or biking or paragliding, but who are interested in a lot of other stuff. Some history, some architecture, some art, some food. Some drooling over gorgeous scenery, some ooh-ing and aah-ing over the way the misty clouds kiss the peaks.

So, here’s a rundown of what we saw, what we liked and what we didn’t.

The Hadimba Temple. Manali’s major sight to see, this is a 16th century temple of wood and stone that sits in one of the most scenic settings I’ve seen: on a hillside forested with deodar, and with bushes covered with huge blossoms of blue hydrangea below. Legend has it that Hadimba, the demoness who married Bheem, refused to accompany Bheem back to civilization after his exile was over. Instead, she stayed here, ensconced in a cave, where she meditated and prayed until she was finally accorded the status of a goddess—which is how she’s worshipped here.

The Hadimba Temple has an interesting pagoda-style tiered roof, the topmost tier made of metal. There’s a lot of carved wood along the outside of the temple, and antlers nailed up here and there.

Hadimba Temple, set in a deodar forest.

Hadimba Temple, set in a deodar forest.

The Ghatotkacha Temple. Just fifty metres from Hadimba’s Temple is that of her son, the half-demon, half-human Ghatotkacha. This is nothing like Hadimba’s large and relatively ostentatious temple: it’s just an idol, along with its accoutrements—the vermilion, the flowers, the tinselled red cloth—under a deodar tree. And, just in case you didn’t realize that Veer Ghatotkacha was a warrior and women come low on the social scale as far as warriors are concerned, there’s a prominent sign here to the effect that menstruating women have to keep their distance from the tree temple.

The Museum of Himachal Culture and Folk Art. Once you’ve made your way past the vendors of fruit and woollens, the people offering you everything from yak rides to photographs in full Himachali costume, and the chance to cuddle an angora rabbit, you can cross the road from Hadimba Temple to the small Museum of Himachal Culture and Folk Art. This isn’t one of those memorable museums, mostly because it’s not very well arranged or labelled, but it does give you a fair idea of Himachal: traditional clothing, traditional architecture (that old favourite of Indian museums, small-scale models of famous buildings…), jewellery, weapons, coins. What really appealed to me here was the unusual stuff. The sieve made from goat’s hide. The water pot, made of hide and with its surface covered with moss to make it waterproof. The weighing scales, dating back to 1886, with the weights stamped in seers and chhataanks.

At the Museum: a hide waterpot, waterproofed with algae.

At the Museum: a hide waterpot, waterproofed with algae.

Scales and measures from 1886. Note the weights, which include 1 seer.

Scales and measures from 1886. Note the weights, which include 1 seer.

Vashisht Temple. Across the Beas from Manali proper is Vashisht Village, named for the Hindu Maharishi, who is believed to have spent thousands of years in meditation at this site. The story goes, too, that Lakshman, when he discovered that Vashisht had to go down to the Beas everyday for his bath, tried to help—he shot an agnibaan (a fire arrow) and created a hot spring.

I liked the wood carving at the temple, and the old slate-tiled roof of the half-open room/verandah beside it.

Vashist Temple. A Tibetan monk has a look-around.

Vashist Temple. A Tibetan monk has a look-around.

The gateway to the Vashisht Temple.

The gateway to the Vashisht Temple.

Since my primary interest in old temples is with their architecture rather than with any sort of religious feeling, I didn’t bother to peer into the inner sanctum. But my husband did, and managed to get a glimpse of the very unusual idol of Vashisht—it is clad in dhoti, shawl and cap, and looks more like a munshi than an ancient sage.

The other highlight of the temple is the hot spring. This has been diverted into two channels, leading into two separate areas, for men and women respectively. The women’s section had a large and prominent notice outside that prohibited photography; since the men’s section had no such restrictions, my husband went on in and took photos of the rather sorry-looking pool, and the much nicer carved stone beside it. The pool, he told me, looked murky—possibly because everyone had been dipping into it—but there are also water taps beside it supplied from the hot springs. And really hot; boiling, in fact.

The hot springs at Vashisht Temple.

The hot springs at Vashisht Temple.

Diagonally uphill from the Vashisht Temple, just a few metres above it, is a Ram Temple that’s also pretty. The core structure, with a squat stone spire, is old but the bulk of the temple’s decoration is of newly carved deodar wood.

Tripura Sundari Temple, Naggar. Between 25 and 40 kilometres (depending on which route you take) from Manali is the village of Naggar. Naggar is on the opposite bank of the Beas, surrounded by deodar woods and orchards.

Early apples in an orchard near Manali.

Early apples in an orchard near Manali.

Naggar has several things to recommend it: the castle, the temples, and the Nikolai Roerich estate.

Of the temples, the only one we were able to visit was the Tripura Sundari Temple. Tripura Sundari is the name of the local goddess, and the temple stands just below the road, a quiet and lovely building with three-tiered roofs in the style of Manali’s Hadimba Temple.

The Tripura Sundari Temple in Naggar.

The Tripura Sundari Temple in Naggar.

Carved deodar wood covers much of the exterior: there’s an intricately carved Ganesh above the main gate, a rearing lion at one corner of the eaves, and short chains of wooden beads hanging off the eaves all across. Pretty as it looks, what adds to the charm of it all is the faint fragrance of deodar which hangs in the air.

A carved Ganesh at the temple.

A carved Ganesh at the temple.

A porch at the temple.

A porch at the temple.

Naggar Castle. Naggar was once the capital of the Rajas of Kullu, and even after they shifted their capital to Kullu, they retained this beautiful stone-and-carved wood palace complex as a summer resort. Later, when the British came into power in the area, the Raja of Kullu sold the castle to the first British Assistant Commissioner, who added staircases, chimneys and fireplaces to it. Later still, the castle functioned for a while as a courthouse; today, it’s operated as a hotel by the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation.

An inner courtyard at Naggar Castle.

An inner courtyard at Naggar Castle.

The Jagatpati Temple at Naggar Castle.

The Jagatpati Temple at Naggar Castle.

… Which means that while the exteriors of the hotel are beautiful, the décor inside is shabby and more in keeping with one of those seedy roadside hotels that dot India. We stopped here for lunch (the restaurant does a fabulous fried trout) and followed it up with a quick walk around the castle—past the little Jagatpati Temple, through to the ‘Museum’ (a single room, badly lit, and stuffed with an assortment of dusty odds and ends, arranged in a diorama and lacking all labelling). At the end of it all, we agreed that the best thing about Naggar Castle was the carved wood that decorates much of it.

The view from the balcony at Naggar Castle.

The view from the balcony at Naggar Castle.

The Nikolai Roerich Estate. This, as it turned out, was to be the highlight of our trip to Manali and Naggar. Russian scholar, artist, and philosopher Nikolai Roerich had arrived in India in 1924, and had spent much of the rest of his life—till his death in 1947—in Naggar, where he had bought an estate. This was where he lived with his wife Helena and their two sons, Svetoslav and George, and (this is where the Hindi film connection comes in), where Svetoslav’s wife Devika Rani came to stay too, after she married him (she had already given up acting by then, when she was in her late thirties).

The Roerich Estate lies spread out over a hill, and consists of several buildings. At the top (and approachable only through a climb up a path through the woods) is the Urusvati Museum of Himalayan Folk Art. This, established by the Roerichs to study items collected during an expedition through Central Asia, is now partly devoted to Roerich’s work, partly to the culture of the hill people (especially of Himachal), and other connections to Roerich. So, while one gallery (with several photographs of the Roerichs, as well as paintings by the artist) dwells on the International Roerich Pact, which aimed to preserve and protect cultural heritage, another gallery contains traditional Himachali clothing, pots and pans, a Bhutia mask, and so on.

At Urusvati, a Bhutia mask.

At Urusvati, a Bhutia mask.

Some of Roerich's paintings of Russian monuments and cityscapes.

Some of Roerich’s Russian cityscapes and monuments.

Further along, in a separate building next door, are more of Roerich’s paintings; works by Russian artists who came to paint at Naggar; assorted Russian artefacts; and this portrait of Devika Rani by her husband, Svetoslav Roerich.

Devika Rani, painted by her husband, Svetoslav Roerich.

Devika Rani, painted by her husband, Svetoslav Roerich.

Further downhill—and next to the gateway to the estate—is Roerich’s house. There’s a garden here, filled with colourful flowers and great black butterflies, with Roerich’s car (a 1930 Dodge) parked in a glass-doored garage round the other side. The first floor, where the family did much of its living, has been retained pretty much as it was in Roerich’s time. You can’t go into the rooms, but you can wander through the balcony and peer in through the windows, to have a look at Helena’s study and Devika Rani’s office.

Downstairs is the Roerich Art Gallery. As its name suggests, this is devoted to Nikolai Roerich’s work, though most of the paintings that are displayed here are in his better-known style, the stylized mountainscapes of the Himalayas. (Interestingly, the Urusvati Museum has a large collection of Roerich’s earlier work, much of it of Russian monuments and landscapes, and sometimes even of a religious nature. These are often in such a different style from the mountainscapes that I am familiar with, that I found it initially hard to believe that these were Roerich’s work too).

Roerich's House at Naggar.

Roerich’s House at Naggar.

Though we spent only three days in Manali (including our day trip to Naggar)—and we didn’t do the mandatory trip up to Rohtang to see the snow—it was still a fulfilling, satisfying trip.


The journey to and from Delhi is tiring. Don’t believe anybody who tells you that the Delhi-Manali journey is “just 13 hours”; that means they drove like maniacs. It’s closer to 15 hours (even if you only make a brief half hour stop for a meal), and what with some bad stretches of road around Bilaspur as well as a winding and dimly lit 3km long tunnel near Kullu, driving at anything above 40kmph in the hills is suicidal.

We halted overnight at Chandigarh both going and returning, and between Chandigarh and Bilaspur, we took the road that bypasses Ropar. There is a route through Roopnagar and Kiratpur Sahib, which we’ve taken to get to Himachal on an earlier occasion, but besides the road being narrow, there’s also a lot of truck traffic here, slowing one down even further. There’s a third, major route, which is through Shimla. Very scenic, but also much longer: this might make sense if you decide to drive through Chandigarh and halt at Shimla, either just for the night or for a couple of days to see the sights, if you haven’t already visited the town.

20 thoughts on “Of Meditating Demonesses and Russians Far from Home

  1. My wife and I were fortunate to be guests at the Roerich (pronounced, Rayrich) Estate, so we didn’t have to stay in Manali. Alyona, the Director there, being a friend of ours, and the fact that my wife is Russian and an artist, made this possible. We drove up from Delhi, but wisely broke our journey at Pinjore, Panchkula, where we stayed the night. This way, the drive wasn’t tiring. Manali is 600 kms away, and 380 of these is a hill drive, therefore it takes so long, despite the fact that the road is well kept.

    My mother was from Kashmir, so mountain never fail to attract me.

    • I spent three of the most memorable years of my life in Srinagar, so for me too the mountains have a very special fascination – I can never tire of them.

      I remember having stopped at Pinjore years back, en route to Thanedhar, if I remember correctly. If one’s going to Manali through Pinjore, does one have to go through Shimla, or is there another route?

      P.S. Thank you for mentioning the correct pronunciation of Roerich’s name. I hadn’t known that.

  2. Very nice account Madhu; although we stayed in Manali longer than you did (back in 2010 now)… we had other things in mind (it was the beginning of an ill-fated trek) and we didn’t really do all the interesting things which you did, and I regret it! We did enjoy “New-Age” Vashisht though… You’re right, Roerich’s place must certainly have been worth while visiting. I knew him only faintly, from some interest in Russian painting, and was excited to read more about him. By the way, this time you didn’t give us an account of the hotel/place where you stayed! Was it any good?

    • Thank you, Yves, glad you liked that. I am curious about that trek you mention – what happened? (If you don’t mind saying)

      Roerich’s estate was something I was keen on seeing right from the start, because I’ve come across a good deal of his work scattered across other Himalayan hill towns, as well as in Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art. His style – when it comes to the Himalayan mountainscapes – is so distinctive and so striking, that it got me intrigued quite early on. The collection at the estate is a very rewarding one, and I especially liked that there’s a good deal of his earlier, Russian work, which is so different in style.

      I skipped the description of our hotel this time because I decided to put it on Tripadvisor (which I joined last month). TA is not conducive to general thought on destinations, which was something I did want to do, so I decided I’d put that here – and then it seemed incomplete without at least something about what we liked in Manali. We stayed at the Quality Inn, which was pretty enough and comfortable enough, but we had some very noisy people on the same floor as us – not nice!

  3. Wonderful account Madhu didi! As I’ve mentioned before, your writing always actually takes me those places you’ve visited, and I’m all like starry eyed when I read them.

    I always like a bit of ‘Britishness’ in the hill stations I visit, I don’t know why didi. But then, they were the ones who introduced the concept of hill stations only. So though I haven’t visited many such places, I’ve always liked old palatial colonial style mansions; in fact (though its wrong) these buildings are what define hill stations for me. But that just means I’m ignoring the Indian aspects of that place, which had been in existence much before the coming of the British only.

    But thanks a lot for this account didi. I absolutely loved the photographs you clicked, and that part when you said ‘they probably drove like maniacs’. Your sense of humour is too good!

    • Thank you, Rahul. I’m glad you enjoyed this post!

      Manali doesn’t have much of that ‘Britishness’, but when it comes to that lovely colonial feel, the (North Indian) hill station which tops my list is Shimla. Especially the Viceregal Lodge, which I really loved. It has plenty of other magnificent buildings too, not surprising considering it was the summer capital of the Raj, but what I especially appreciate is that because a lot of the buildings are still in use (and often by the government) they’re well-maintained, well-preserved.

      Nothing wrong with preferring the ‘colonial’ aspects of hill stations over their Indian ones. Everybody is entitled to their own preferences – there’s nothing wrong with preferring one style of architecture, even if it’s not indigenous, over another (which may be indigenous). Aesthetics has nothing to do with patriotism. ;-)

      • Even Kodaikanal and Yercaud in Tamil Nadu have that British feel didi… Apart from Ooty of course. But Ooty has become warm these days.. It’s terrible.. And thanks for the advice in the end didi! 😊

        • And Coonoor! I loved that place, even though I visited it ages ago, only for tea with a couple who lived in a beautiful little colonial cottage overlooking the plantations. Peninsular India, of course, has some other amazing colonial heritage sites, even if the colony wasn’t British: the Portuguese villas in Goa, for instance; or Pondicherry’s Ville Blanche, and – one of my favourites – Tranquebar.

          Sigh. Now I want to go travelling south again!

  4. About 20 years ago we went hiking in the Himalayas under the aegis of the mountaineering institute in Manali. Most of the time we camped in the hills but returned to Manali a couple of times. Each time the crush of hikers and sightseers appeared more intense.

    There was a bunch of Israelis who had ridden up in motorcycles. One of them chatted with a Malayali who was also there for hiking.

    Where are you from? said the Malayali.
    Jerusalem, said the Israeli.
    Ernakulam? said the Malayali.
    Sorry? said the Israeli.
    What? said the Malayali.

    I remember the Hidimba temple. Thanks for the writeup!

  5. You had me at the “The Beas, near Manali.” picture. I must have spent a good 10 minutes just scanning through the white waters and the beautiful surroundings. I agree with rahulsaran that you tend to take us with you! I think your photographs are very underrated. You (and your husband both) deserve credit for those wonderful picture which really add so much more to your wonderful descriptions. They go hand in hand. Even though you describe very well, the pictures add a lot of value! I especially like “Roerich’s House at Naggar.”, “Naggar Castle”, “Hadimba Temple, set in a deodar forest.” besides the Beas picture!

    I would love to go to these exotic places but unfortunately we are never able to take much time out when we are visiting the family back home. The only hill station that I remember going to, is Ooty back in 2000. Shimla is certainly on top of my list too, my brother keeps telling me to make a trip to the Northeast. My mother in-law is from Himachal and we are way overdue for a trip to these heavenly places. May be couple more years before we can take time out for a long vacation..

    Thank you Madhulika for taking us on such a serene ride!

    • I’m so glad you liked the post and the photos, Ashish. Thank you!

      I understand you very well when you talk about not being able to visit anywhere but where your families stay when you come visiting India. It’s the same story with most of my friends and family who stay abroad – there’s just not enough time to spend time with family, and go exploring India! That said, Himachal is a wonderful place, and personally I like it better than Uttarakhand when it comes to preservation of habitat. It seems to me that Uttarakhand has been commercialized and overworked to such an extent that a lot of it has really been ravaged. The roads are awful, there are fewer trees (and more hotels!) with every passing year, and it’s generally heartbreaking to see such a beautiful state letting itself be ruined. HP manages to control things better. I am very keen on visiting the upper reaches – Lahaul and Spiti – and, of course, doing a trip to the North-East sometime. I’ve come across what seems like a good tourist operator who specialises in NE trips. Might just take the plunge sometime, though perhaps after a couple of years.

    • It’s a lovely area, Shilpi. What I especially like is that, in comparison to Uttarakhand, Himachal is much more green. They seem to take greater care of the environment (something I noticed almost ten years back too, when we went to Kasauli, Shimla, and Thanedhar – even back then, plastic bags were completely banned, and anything you bought was given to you in paper bags, if you didn’t have a cloth bag with you).

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