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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
… 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 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.
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.
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).
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.