Arvind Viswanathan

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I was taken to a village high up on the mountain, along the narrow road to the Nicholas Roerich Museum. Nicholas Roerich was a Russian Renaissance man who lived from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. He was an accomplished painter, archaeologist, scientist, teacher, explorer. He had two sons. While the older one was of some reputation, the younger son- Svetoslav Roerich was equally accomplished in a lot of fields his father had delved into. Svetoslav was married to the great Indian actress of the 1940s Devika Rani. I read all about the Roerich’s with great interest, then took in all the paintings that were on display. Both men had attempted capturing the scenic beauty of this area, but, in my opinion, had not succeeded too well. Svetoslav’s portraits of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were much better than his landscapes.

 

Then I walked to the backyard and looked back at the house. It might be that my mind was playing tricks on me, but I sill believe that the Roerich house was bigger than the Naggar castle. I felt pretty bad for the Kullu royalty. From the backyard, I could see the castle itself. Small and unassuming; (if I were playing word association games, these two words would pop into my head when one mentions Naggar castle.) Nothing imposing, grand or audacious. The royalty, I concluded, must have learned a lesson or two in simplicity from the gods themselves.

 

Up the road at the Urusvati Institute, started by Nicholas Roerich, I walked around the small campus and came to the edge of a cliff. Beyond this there was a sheer drop, followed by deep ravines and high mountains. That whole area may be accessed by some accomplished mountaineers of the caliber of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. Armies cannot easily cut through this terrain easily and mount an attack on this region. This was the security that the Naggar Castle enjoyed- the best and the most economical kind, provided by Mother Nature herself. The castle and the villages had only one access pathway. I could easily use Eli Wallach’s dialogue from the movie The McKenna’s Gold, “One way in, same way out”, explaining to Omar Sharif with his outstretched arm. Feeling relieved and satisfied, I moved on in my mind.

 

Reflecting on this trip, it was, simply put, exhilarating. My faith in Mother Nature was restored. Typical of a woman, she was immensely powerful in action and yet simple and beautiful in appearance. Her splendour and glory scared me, and yet fascinated me. Again, just like women.

 

 

MANALI

I decided I had to experience Mother Nature here one more time, so I hiked the area a little bit more. Each step made me breathless as a whole new, different enriching scenery evolved before me. My senses were reveling at being pampered like this- cool air that caressed my skin, fresh smell of the cedar trees, brilliant rays of light dancing on the mountains, rivers and trees, taste of cleanliness and purity, and the resounding silence of the forests and mountains that can never be heard anywhere else. Total, absolute silence, that is broken only by the rustling of leaves, an occasional bird-call or an animal call, and now the panting of this poor, breathless author. I was ashamed of myself for causing this noise pollution in the Valley of the Gods. My mortal nature was exposed to me.

 

I realized I was leaving the next day, and I hadn’t bought anything for my friends and family. I knew the question “What did you get for me from Manali?” was forthcoming. I wanted to reply “Memories! Simply brilliant astounding memories that I will share with you!” because that is what I considered most valuable of all the things I took back with me. Memories supported by photographs. Any articles, trinkets, gifts, would cheapen the most valuable commodity I brought back from there- memories! Yet I had to find gifts.

 

That evening, I walked down the steep incline to downtown Manali. It was very busy with tourists and shopkeepers haggling over the value of various items. I noticed a water fountain in the middle of the square. I edged closer and realized it was a set of fountains called the “Dancing Fountains” where the water would spout out from the nozzles in a particular sequence that was in tune to the song being played at the moment. And exactly at the moment I came closer, the song being played was “Aashique Banaaya”. I had to get away from there as quickly as possible. I walked into a couple of stores and bought a few items with the least bit of haggling- much to my friends’ and family’s ire (`you paid that much for this? Thanks anyway!’)

 

Next day I boarded a bus that meandered its way past the valley, away from the mountains, farther from the coniferous forests, deeper into the urban civilization. I looked back at the receding scenery and sighed. I reflected on what I had experienced. This is what Heaven feels like, I thought. This is what one feels when one has been where the Gods have roamed and continue to awaken the spirituality dormant in most of us. I opened the window and sucked in a lungful of air, wanting to carry with me the air from the Valley of the Gods.

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We drove to Solang Valley, where the Indian winter games are to be held. With this introduction, I got out of the car, only to be mobbed by people offering me a horse-ride to a place they called “Naya Amarnath”. I heard a chorus of voices describing how in one particular spot, the water drips down and freezes into ice in the shape of a Shiva Lingam. Apparently, the chorus piped in, at the beginning of the winter season, the Shiva Lingam was about two feet high, but as the winter progressed, the Shiva Lingam increased to a whopping six feet high, only to keep growing till at least the month of February or March. All of this was capped with a sales pitch as to how each one of their horses would be a better form of transportation to witness this divine miracle. Finally, I made a choice and was hoisted onto a soft, comfortable saddle of a mule. (Yes, I am almost positive it was mule and not a horse, but does it matter?)

Their description of ice forming into the shape of a Shiva Lingam made me think of the games we used to play as little kids, when one of us would give form to cloud shapes and make everyone else see it. I figured I may have to do just that- mentally see a Shiva Lingam and attribute it to the shape that I see in front of me.

I was expecting a rapid gallop to this site, much like what we see in those wild western movies. Instead, the horse-trainer led us on a gentle amble, while he walked in front of the horse. The terrain was rocky and a mildly steep incline.

As usual, I was looking around my surroundings, taking a good view and breathing lungs full of fresh clean air, not sure when my lungs would be treated to such pure air ever again. At one point, I looked directly behind me and saw a near full moon literally sitting atop a peak. My jaw dropped at its sight and my heart surely missed a beat- it was divinely beautiful. It reminded me of a time in the past when I was driving somewhere in Midwest USA, when I saw the full moon sitting at the other end of the highway. It appeared as if I would drive right into this large, white sphere if I made haste. This time, the sight of the moon sitting on top of a throne-like mountain peak gave it somehow a more regal appearance.

When we started our horse-ride, it was evening, but there was still considerable daylight. But soon, I realized that darkness descends quite rapidly in this part of this world. The existence of twilight is merely ephemeral, and one has to be quick to actually see it. So, when I finally reached the sight of the divine miracle, there was not much light- just barely enough for me discern the shape of a Shiva Lingam. There was not much in terms of substitutes for light- electric or otherwise- available on hand. But I was fairly impressed by the shape of the ice formation ahead of me- I didn’t have to stretch my imagination too much to see the Shiva Lingam.

The return path was quite well-lit by the moonlight. It was white, still and lovely. This was another one of those revelation moments, when I realized that all my life, I had been viewing this world with the aid of electric lights. The darkness was never complete true darkness as diffused light does flow into my presence. The luminosity of moonlight had always been overpowered by sodium vapour lamps or tube lights. But now, here, no such man-made intrusions existed and I was engulfed by the brilliance of moonlight. I was enchanted by it. I was experiencing nature at its pristine best in all of its splendor, and I was loving every moment of it. Thus ended another enchanting day full of rich experiences, and filled with wonder.

 

 

JAGATSUKH AND NAGGAR

A trip to Naggar castle was on the cards for the next day. It was a bright sunny day (what else could it be?), and quite warm as well. Naggar was the capital of the Kullu empire, for as long as it lasted. It was about thirty kilometers from Manali. The road, the driver assured me, was easier to navigate than the one that leads to the Rohthang Pass. So, we should reach there in quick time.

I came out of the lobby to find a Maruti Omni waiting for me, and I thought to myself, Why wouldn’t I ever get a four-wheel drive? The feeling of comfort, I am sure, was merely psychological as the drivers were incredibly skilful. Still, it’s a good feeling to sit in one of those monstrous SUVs. But I took what was offered to me and sat meekly and allowed myself to be shepherded to my next destination. The driver sped through the narrow, winding slopes. My face was glued to the window pane admiring the scenery unfolding in front of my eyes.

We came out of the valley that ensconced the town of Manali. I looked back and realized why Manali was a great choice as a retreat destination- it was well protected by tall mountains on all sides from nature’s wrecking forces, such as harsh winds. Once outside, we were exposed to heavy gusts of cold winds. And my driver mentioned that the wind was milder on that day than the days prior to that. It didn’t make me feel any better then.

Our first stop was at the Gaurishankar Temple and Gayatri Devi Temple in the town of Jagatsukh. I gleaned from the priestess that the temple was originally set up by the Pandavas during their thirteen year exile. But “the mountains fell on the temples and destroyed them later”, was roughly how I interpreted her words. Around the eighth or the ninth century AD, somebody collected the idols that survived the destruction and rebuilt the temples. And it has stood ever since.

After spending some few devotional moments (as much as I could muster up, which wasn’t any actually) at the two temples, we moved onto Naggar castle. As I got off the car, I was struck by how small and unassuming the castle was. The castle was also relatively unprotected. No moats, no elaborate sentry posts, no guard shacks, nothing. It seemed like one big building with many courtyards inside. As I explored further inside, I noticed that the castle didn’t have many queens’ palaces, as I am usually used to seeing. This was the castle from where the Kullu royalty ruled the entire kingdom. I figured these kings were monogamous simpletons- which was against any kind of notions I had regarding royalty in general. But I also thought that I wasn’t seeing the entire picture, and there must be something else that I was missing. But the lack of security measures was something that made me very curious.

My curiosity regarding the security issue was satisfied for the large part when I stepped into one of the courtyards. The castle was built on the edge of a cliff, almost atop a mountain, from where one could see the entire sprawling valley below. The view of the valley was so panaromic and so good that if I strained my eyes enough, I could actually follow the activities of the individual villagers below. Two loyal vigilant sentries could easily protect the entire castle by spotting any untoward activity occurring below. I couldn’t help think that this was some excellent strategic location.

The castle housed a temple inside that was deemed to be the most powerful of them all. One of the plaques stated that whenever there was any big trouble brewing on heaven or earth, all the Gods assembled here in this very temple to hold discussions and plan courses of actions. Once again, the small and unassuming nature of a temple that was supposed to be so powerful took me by surprise. The Gods must really believe in simplicity, I mused.

My curiosity towards the security issue was still not completely satisfied. I looked around and found that the castle was not at the top of the mountain but only almost. So, what if there was a stealthy attack from the other side? I wondered. There was no way the kingdom could watch on that side too, I thought. I figured that the inhabitants of the village above the castle must have been intensely loyal to the kingdom. Lots of such questions were running through my mind, and I was hoping to find answers to all of them sometime soon.
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Exactly across from the castle, intense plumes of smoke were rising from the face of the mountain. The smoke must be the result of a forest fire there. When I looked at simply the smoke, it appeared like puffs of clouds. I recalled a children’s comic story about this old woman who sits on the top of a high mountain and “weaves these puffs of cotton” we call clouds. Instinctively, I pulled out my monocular and surveyed that area from where the smoke was billowing. I think I saw some flickering flames but no old woman. I realized my own stupidity, laughed at my own naiveté and moved on.

I spoke to the driver and some locals, and they confirmed that this was largely a peaceful area, not having seen any major warfare or heavy bloodshed for a long period of time. In fact, one local averred to me that this is one of the main reasons why Manali is one of the main tourist areas preferred over Srinagar in Kashmir, even though Srinagar has a lot more to offer. War, civil unrest, curfew, all make Srinagar a less attractive destination- especially these days- for the “stressed out, urban” tourists who wish to relax on their vacation. How do you know so much about Srinagar? I couldn’t help asking him. I am from there, he replied. My whole childhood was spent there amidst bombings, communal violence, terrorist activities, general fear of public. Even during Chinese aggression, he went on, nobody here knew of any bloodshed. Now I got suspicious of him. He didn’t look old enough to have experienced the Chinese aggression of 1962. (Heck! Even I am not old enough for that). Besides, he mentioned he was from Srinagar. So his statement must have been hear-say, and had to be taken with a grain of salt. But the spirit of the statement rang true. People did seem generally friendly, and not paranoid and suspicious as, say a New Yorker. The general behaviour of a community is a reflection of events of the past. And using that as a measure, I could tell this community hasn’t seen much war and bloodshed.

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The one thing that still thrills me about my entire stay was the clear, deep blue sky that gently touches your soul and unknowingly makes your heart smile. Not a cloud in the sky during the second week of December. And the blue was a very rich, bright, azure blue that I had never seen before. This was on my mind the next morning when I left for Rohthang Pass. The brochure said the Pass itself was at an altitude of thirteen thousand four hundred feet (although sign boards there said thirteen thousand one hundred feet… didn’t matter to me! It was pretty high up anyway!… about seven thousand feet higher than the town of Manali. The distance to the pass from downtown was about fifty-two kilometers. So, I mentally made a calculation as to the altitude I would be climbing per kilometer traveled. I sensed it was going to be a hair-raising journey. I was not disappointed, but for reasons I was not ready for!
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The roads were, again, narrow, steep and winding. (Well, that much was expected by now.) But this road was quite precarious as well. It had a mountain face for a wall and no barricades or any protection on the other side. So, if one fell on the other side, it was a drop of about… I stopped that line of thought and instead focused on the scenery.

Interestingly, even though I drove in this car the day before, it was only then that I noticed the make and model of the car. One would like to have a four-wheel drive, heavy tonnage, high horse-power, great capacity engine car. But alas! That is not what I had. It was a front-wheel drive, forty-seven bhp, light-weight Maruti Alto! The saving grace here was a driver who was exceptionally skillful and knowledgeable of the terrain.

We passed through some spectacular waterfalls which, even more spectacularly, in some areas had frozen over in beautiful formations. In some areas where the sun does not shine any water froze over, causing slippery patches of ice. The driver negotiated the ice, bad road conditions, and major potholes with great aplomb. I was thoroughly impressed with his skill. But of all the things, the one memory that I retain is that of enjoying the scenery unfolding in front of me to the tune of `Aashique Banaaya’. Somehow the music and the scenery didn’t seem to gel well in my mind, but I figured it helped the driver calm his nerves and drive better, and hence, I shouldn’t tamper with it.
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The drive was simply superb and I was treated to some of the breathtaking scenery. As we climbed higher, we could see the valley unfold beneath us, constantly moving from our left to our right below us as we wound our way to the top. The villages below were partially covered with clouds. That’s when realization struck me as to why I saw only blue skies: we were above the clouds. After all, I was in heaven, in a place where Gods belong.

All through the drive, I constantly kept telling the driver, `Ek minute bhaiyya, aur ek photo lena hai!’ (One minute sir, I’d like to take one more photo.) Of course, getting out of the car from time to time also helped me alleviate the stress caused by the now very repetitive and clichéd song. I was a maniac with the camera. I wanted to capture each square inch of the landscape I was viewing to take back to my friends and family. Every time the landscape changed even slightly, it seemed like a completely new scenery and it was a completely new mindblowing experience that warranted another photograph. Every inch of snow, craggy rock formation, shape of the peak, flow of river, patch of ice, valleys- everything.
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After a few incidents (car stuck in an ice patch, I slipped and almost fell down a crevice etc.), passing a few villages on the way, and a chai break at a village called Marhi, we reached Rohthang Pass in a couple of hours. I got out of the car with my heart beating wildly due to the hair-raising drive I went through- every bit as exhilarating as it was scary.

It took one glance at what Rohthang Pass had to offer to me to fall in love with that place. Words couldn’t adequately describe this feeling that surged through me- I had never felt it before and I suspect I would never feel it again. A strong cold breeze was blowing across the pass. As soon as I got out of the car, my ears plugged up, my nose started to run and my extremities froze. I put on the necessary warm accessories and looked around. The number thirteen thousand struck me as being immense and yet, it meant nothing.

The road went on a higher ground, and everybody walked down to a small patch of ice and snow, about thirty feet of gentle downward slope. The patch of ice and snow was about twenty by thirty square feet and was densely crowded with people. Many were attempting to ski with the guidance and help of experts who led them by their hands. Almost immediately, I decided to avoid that entire area. I looked around and decided on a hiking course that purposefully skirted around the popular spot. I set out along this path all alone, feeling like the frontiersmen of the past.
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As I hiked, I noticed the strange and wonderfully unique rock formations, and the way these mountains had been carved over the ages. In some places wide channels had been cut, probably by some river which had since then dried up. In other places, the face of the mountain was almost flat giving rise to a sheer cliff and making it inaccessible to a hiker. One needed rock-climbing equipment to scale these peaks. Closer examination of one of these faces showed that the wall was not as smooth as it initially appeared but had many hidden grooves and ridges. I had probably covered around a kilometer distance and was about five hundred feet higher in altitude than the road we had traveled by car. I was completely out of breath in such a short period of time. And I have always taken pride in my fitness, and I was a veteran of several hikes under various difficult conditions. But this was my first hike at greater than ten thousand feet altitude, so I took solace from that fact.

I rested my back against a rock face that shielded me away from the blowing wind and took account of my surroundings. It suddenly popped into my head that these mountain ranges were quite young in geological age. I wasn’t sure of what to make of that fact, nor how to relate it to the present. From this vantage point, I observed the people on and around the ice patch.

Everyone, almost without exception, was shouting and shrieking with glee at their efforts in whatever they were doing. Each one of those cries was primitive and pristine, very much like any wild animal. These humans were wild and unmitigated, child-like in their expressions. I had been on many hikes wherein there would always be this one environmentalist group or individual who would do anything to hear a bird chirp or an animal make a sound. But these same people would never tolerate a human voice, and any kind of joyous shout would be treated with extreme condescension. But on that day, at Rothang Pass, I felt that evolved human being ought to be allowed to express his or her primitive side, or the innocence of a child which is an integral part of every human being.

While watching them, I felt a certain peace and solitude spread through my entire being. A strange inner calm coursed through my veins. I wasn’t sure if it was the blowing wind or my own mind that was responsible for muffling the shrieks and cries. The colorful parade of people dancing and frolicking faded into a distant background whereas the pristine mountains began to loom in the foreground. I felt drained of all emotions, and the chill, cold, stuffy ears, and runny nose simply disappeared.

Is this what Manu did? I couldn’t help wonder then. Did he distance himself from everyone else and observe them with objectivity. Did he feel this calmness that I now did? Or am I simply trying to glorify myself to be more than what I was feeling? Did he, while observing the wild pre-historic man, figure out a way to improve each individual’s lifestyle and that of the entire species? Was this how the first steps of mental evolution began? Or was this observation the result of my own mental evolution? Maybe Manu felt more than just what I was feeling. He must have. I felt both glorified and humbled at the same moment!

I couldn’t help ponder about this for a while. How do I capture this emotion? I had never felt anything like this before. Maybe this heavenly place, this breath-arresting altitude, this personal solitude, this quiet and thin air has something in it that makes people think the way they do. Maybe this is why Manu came from here. Not from Delhi, not from Kolkata, not from Chennai, nor from Mumbai. But from Manali, at this altitude, with the cold and hot weather extremes and thin air. I had a wonderful moment of introspection and made my way back slowly to the car.
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The drive back, in theory , was the exact reverse of the drive up. But that was just theory. Reality proved that it was a whole new experience. The sun was sinking in the western sky, thus illuminating some regions while creating shadows in other areas. And further the ball of light sank, the more colorful the horizon began to get. So it was no wonder to the driver that again I kept requesting him to stop every few yards or so.

Another difference between the drive up and drive back was that during the drive up, the day kept getting warmer, while during the return, it kept getting colder. Quite rapidly, as well. It then struck me that not all people here had modern amenities and comforts such as heating. So, I cautiously inquired of the driver as to how people in general kept themselves warm at night. Log fires, he replied. But that would go out quickly, I wondered aloud.

To which he said, “Han ji! Bahuth thand ho jaatha hai raath mein. Iseeliye hum ko dhaaru peena hai!” (Yes sir. It does get very cold at night. That is why we drink liquor.)

Hmmm… The liquor keeps them warm? Maybe. At least it should help keep the blood circulation up, I presumed. Then another thought crossed my mind based on what I had heard from others, and I couldn’t resist asking him.

“Han ji!”, he replied, “Bhaang bacchon ko dethe hain hum. Thoda sa!” (Oh yeah! We give bhaang to kids. Just a little bit.) He held his thumb and forefinger apart from each other, to indicate the amount given. “Lena padtha hai, neendh aane ke liye.” (One has to take it. To help sleep better.) So that’s why all these alcoholic spirits are for, I thought. To help sleep, not because of any other effects. Somehow, this whole conversation amused me, and I couldn’t stifle a slight giggle. I figured it must be my uptight, prudish and religious upbringing which forbade even discussing these sinful things.

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As soon as I got off the bus from Delhi early in the morning, I realized Manali had evolved and appeared to be was quite very different from what I had experienced before, and I immediately hoped (the pessimist that I am) that I shouldn’t get disappointed. At the end of trip, I realized I wasn’t disappointed in anyway. I was, in fact, enriched in many ways that could not be easily described. In any case, I am about to undertake that very task. So, please dear reader, get comfortable, and indulge me by going on this armchair trip.

At six thousand feet altitude, Manali had everything required of hill stations. Cool, crisp and fresh air, mountains that are visible from everywhere, people milling about their everyday lives in sweaters and jackets, a quietness and stillness, and so on. Things I could not see in my everyday life in my urban dwelling. As I was rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, I noticed that the roads were sloped at a very steep incline. And I mean, at a really dangerously steep incline that simply standing on it seemed to be a dangerous prospect. To add to the dramatic incline, the roads were quite narrow too making me wonder how things on wheels managed to amble along. I was soon to discover the magic of three-wheel drive on these roads.

I threw my bags over my shoulders and looked around for a suitable mode of transportation to my home for the next five days, when I noticed someone look directly at me and politely enquired, `Auto, sir? Auto?’ I was confused. I looked at the steep slopes the roads were set at, and couldn’t help wonder if these tiny, three-tyre, small capacity engines could handle the slopes at all. But nobody else seemed to have such doubts. So I decided to be brave, put my thoughts aside and got into one. I was not off by much- the auto was having a rough time tackling the slopes. But we reached our destination in a reasonably short period of time and safe.
After going through the check-in formalities, I freshened myself up and came out for a bit of late breakfast. It was almost mid-morning by then. I had my first revelation then- the sun was nowhere to be seen yet. Mind you, its not that the sun had not risen; it was just that it was hidden from view. Then I took stock of my surroundings- huge mountains surrounded this small town, which was set in a narrow valley. The mountains are so huge and so close that one doesn’t get to see the sun till it decides to play hide and seek with the sky-kissed peaks, the sun in all its glory makes its appearance over a peak by about noon, and then disappears behind another peak within about three hours.

I read through some of the pamphlets and advertised material about Manali and pieced together several bits of information. Manali derives its name from the old name of the village Manu-Alya- a phrase that loosely translates to Manu’s Abode. Manu- the first man in Hindu mythology. Manu- the original created by Gods to populate this earth and teach the laws of life to humans. Manusmrithi, I think, was the name of his seminal work, which every Hindu recognizes and at least acknowledges.

Manu- I reflected a little bit over my cup of coffee (which tasted terrible, by the way, but I wasn’t there to drink fine coffee!). My scientific bend of mind started interpreting this whole bit about the first man a little differently. Perhaps he was the man attributed with taking the first significant step of mental evolution from the pre-historic man to the current day human. Perhaps Manu organized a group of pre-historic humans into societies. Perhaps he recognized that other animals could be domesticated and could be exploited to our advantage, thereby saving human energy. Perhaps… it doesn’t matter why or what. Manu is supposed to have lived here. At an altitude of six thousand feet with all of its thinness of air, cold, terrain, beauty- everything.
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Manu was deified in a temple in a section of the town called the Old Manali, which was one of the first guided tourist spots I was taken to. I noticed that the temple had more pagoda-like features. Hailing from South India, where the temples are known for their structural beauty and having greater flavor and character, Manu Rishi temple didn’t quite inspire the austerity I was used to in the south (not that I am inspired by temples anymore, after having chosen the path of agnosticism/atheism). The stone idols inside the temples were black in hue and not exceptionally adorned, in fact they looked quite unassuming. Another thing that struck me was that the main deity was slightly off-center in relation to the entrance. It made wonder for a bit. I later came to realize that this was the case with all the temples I visited and I am yet to discover the significance for this unusual placement.

Both Hidimba and Ghatotkacha temples were built around 1550 AD under the orders of the then reigning king. Once again, the temple resembled a pagoda structure, and gave me the feeling I was in a Buddhist temple. While this perplexed me, I wasn’t sure what to make of the Ghatotkacha deity which appeared to be a wooden sculpture that was adorned with some silk clothing hung on a tree bark. Somehow the hanging on the tree trunk reminded me of a voodoo doll (why so? I can never tell why I feel certain things), which gave me a shiver. I quickly left that place.

And then there was Vashisht temple. Vashisht is definitely an important character in Hindu mythology. But as far as my knowledge goes, he is one of the great sages. But that is what he was- ONE of them. What did he do that warranted a temple for himself, but not others? I wondered. Or were there temples for others that I am not aware of? This last question nags me till today- so much I didn’t know at all, and so much I may never know at all.

The stone idol of Vashisht was of him standing akimbo and was embellished with silver stone as eyes. And the eyes were large and the most noticeable feature of this three foot tall statue. The silver caused it to glow in the dark, which somehow appeared menacing (again why?) to me.

As my tourist guide/driver and I made our way back to the resort, I had a chance to observe the town itself. Manali is a small town, with small, narrow, winding roads. This town appeared to have more cottages for rent, inns, resorts, motels, hotels, etc. than actual residential houses. The center, active part of the town- or as I like to refer to it as `Downtown Manali’- was bustling with activity. The downtown had tourists, vehicles and a few locals selling their stuff. These locals may have been moved here from someplace else, but to me they have made their home here now, and hence my description of them as locals.

Vehicles included autorickshaws, small cars of different makes, buses- name it, its here. It was a true wonder that these vehicles plied about without running into each other in these narrow roads and it amazed me totally. Drivers were the most skilful that I have seen so far. They seemed to know the width of all the cars and that of the roads down to the last hundredth of an inch.

Some of the shops blared away some music to lure customers, while others had people screaming products they were selling for the same purpose. One of the things I noticed then was how popular the song `Aashique Banaaya’ -a song from a recent Hindi Bollywood movie- was. One could hear it everywhere- shops, buses, radio stations. My kind of music usually involves Roger Waters, Jimmy Page, Jon Lord, or the like. So, `Aashique Banaaya’ was certainly not my first choice, but it kind of grew on me after the first two or three thousand times.
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But what an outstanding location! What a beautiful place! What magnificient mountains! This part of the western Himalayas offered some of the most breath-taking views. I decided to take a walk to soak myself in these views. How high these peaks were! How lovely they look when they glistened and shimmered under the sun or when they grew dark and silent in its shadow! Some of the peaks were brown, craggy stones, while others were covered with pure white snow. I not only saw these with my eyes, I recorded it with my digital camera.

Digital photography is the best thing that happened to amateur tourists and photographers like me. No more buying expensive film rolls with limited number of exposures, clicking selectively, developing, printing and then only seeing the results. Click, view, like- keep, dislike- delete. It is ridiculously simple that I can’t express my appreciation for this advancement of technology. And that’s all I did all through my trip- click away!!
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This time of the year (second week of December) brings with it the cold weather without much clouds. Seeing mountains against a back-drop of a clear blue sky filled my heart with a strange contentment and excitement. I couldn’t help the feeling of being in heaven, and hence, I concurred with the title offered to this place, `Valley of the Gods’. I wondered if other higher regions of this world with such breathtaking views incited this sensation within me. I made a mental note to check this for myself in my subsequent trips.

I also wondered if people staying here felt this euphoric feeling of being in heaven, combined with a heady feeling of contentment, general air of superiority, and divinity. My question was answered a little later during my trek back to the resort or maybe I was being judgmental.

I had on my person a monocular, the sort that is cheapish, doesn’t focus things afar too well, but was decent and well-suited for my purpose.

A young lad with rich dark chocolate brown skin, dark tousled hair and light brown eyes came around flashing a cute bright smile. He was particularly interested in my monocular and called out to two of his friends. The three of them took turns looking through it and expressing wonder. And I, in turn, wondered if these lovely young children realized they were in the Valley of the Gods, and that they were part of a divine section amongst the species. Just as this thought crossed my mind, I looked at their attire and the somewhat dirty, disheveled appearance, and another thought followed. I tried to stifle the second thought. As if the lad read my mind, he came towards me with his palms open. `Please don’t say it! Please! No!’ I pled with him mentally. But he didn’t hear my non-verbal begging, and went ahead, and asked, “Ek rupaya do na?” (“Could you please give me a rupee?”) I was disappointed with the turn of events, grabbed my monocular from him, turned my eyes towards what Mother Nature had to offer, and put him out of my mind. I suppose I should have felt sorry for them too or at least made a more decent exit, but somehow I didn’t at that moment.