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.
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.
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!!
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.