Manali/2: the Valley

Before coming on every trip I usually emphasize the most on two things – where to eat and where to shop. Today we decided to head for one such place that is pretty much the second best spot to eat in entire Manali as per the expert travelers – Casa Bella Vista. By the time I had become fairly comfortable riding our bike through the bumpy roads of Manali (It gets bumpiest between the bridge to Mall Road and Aleo where we stayed. The previous day I thought I was going home with a dislocated hip joint.)

If you are a true explorer (read NOT a newly married north Indian of either gender or middle class Bengali man travelling with his entire clan) you would love old Manali and despise its younger counterpart. Take the uphill road right off Mall Road and soon you would discover the ambiance around is quickly changing. Old, colonial buildings, quaint bookshops, cafés with blackboards announcing live music, silver trinket shops – old Manali is basically hipster’s paradise with great mountain view as bonus. Our Italian pizzeria and café was quite far off the main center of the town. I was sitting on the pillion looking at the GPS with growling tummy. How far is it man? Then a wooden tablet poking its head out of the shrubbery came into our view. Arey see it’s there! We have reached!

Until the time our fresh oven baked pizza arrived no one else was around there. I love it when we are the only people somewhere. I went to take pictures of the pizza making. The smiling young chef (who kept smiling at me the whole time we stayed there.) seemed most eager to have a conversation with me. I tried to compensate my broken Hindi with my smile while praying for escape. Good times never last for long. Very soon our delightful feast in the solitude ended and a group of middle aged couples joined us. I finished my coffee and chocolate dessert discussing how to spot pretentious Indian in three easy steps.

Mahabharata tells stories of great many men and women. The first daughter in law of Kunti has however remained a rather less important protagonist, a mere background props only to keep the flow of the story intact. But whatever injustice she had to face for being a non-Aryan ‘rakshasha’ woman, Kullu valley has compensated it to the fullest. Here, she is the goddess of the valley and her temple is the most iconic tourist spot in the map of Himachal tourism. And that was our next destination – Hadimba Devi Temple.

After escaping being burned alive the five brothers and Kunti came wandering about in Kullu Valley and took refuge in the thick forest. Two ‘rakshasha’ siblings lived there – Hidimb and Hidimba. Upon seeing the huge second Pandava brother Hidimb wanted to eat him. (This is how the Aryan authors always talked about the native, non-Aryan Indians. I am pretty sure Hidimb wasn’t a cannibal.) So he sent his sister to kill him. But Hidimba fell in love with Bheem and expressed her desire to marry him. (Think about the progressive native women of that time!) The Aryans never took the straightforwardness of native people nicely (Remember Shurpanakha?) so Bheem rejected her and killed her brother. Then Hidimba came imploring Kunti to make her a part of her family. Kunti and Bheem agreed but on one condition. He would marry Hidimba but he would only spend time with her during the daytime and at night he would come back to his family. And also, he would leave her as soon as she would bear him a child. Hidimba agreed. After a year Hidimba gave birth to a son who would eventually become the great hero Ghatotkach. Bheem abandoned his wife and son and never bothered to look for them until years later when he would come across his grown up son.

Hadimba devi temple is a typical Himachali temple made of wood and a three-tiered pagoda shaped roof. It was built around a cave where Hadimba devi was said to have meditated. It was like a carnival going on around the temple. Long queue in front of the temple, another for eating Prasad. Local women roaming about with fluffy Angola rabbits – you can click photo with them. I did. Some were offering traditional Himachali dress on rent, again for photo sessions. Some were selling dry fruits at dirt cheap rate; don’t ask about the quality though. Gypsy people were sitting with scary looking tattoo needles; you would get hepatitis just by looking at them. We joined the queue (read I was made to), went inside the temple, came out, went about roaming around including the Van Vihar. The best part about staying in a crowded place for long time is that after a while you begin to feel like a live, active element of the crowd. That you are part of one great, big community, no more no less. So when we sat down in the gallery by the temple to watch the goddess’s chariot procession we did not feel like outliers even for a moment. The Kullu dance, the multi-faced goddess, the little stray puppy sleeping on the sidewalk, the extraordinarily beautiful Himachali women – we simply got assimilated by them and before we knew it we were one with the great merriment.

The journey to Manu Temple was a fun one. The more we progressed the road went on growing steeper and at one point I feared I might just slide off the backseat and tumble down the road of Old Manali until I reached Mall Road again. We met world’s cutest and most domineering dog at Manu Temple. He was sitting on the edge of the courtyard looking out at the mountain with a demeanor of the father of human race himself and didn’t even budge when I tried to pet him. However as soon as we started feeding the other dogs at the temple he simply came and almost sat on my lap with the same victorious attitude and ate most of the biscuits and left without a single look back at us puny humans. Later when I found him at the lower part of the road he looked at me as if he had never seen me in his entire life before.

Our day ended with a not-so-relaxing, bone crunching foot massage at the Mall. This foot massage is apparently one of the unique tourist must-do’s in Manali. (yes, google again) However, in my case the massage was not so easy. We had to struggle with my super skinny jeans for about five minutes before having my legs revealed. Not to mention I was feeling a sensation of dread that my precious legs would just give in and the masseuse would go home happily with a fresh pair of skinny legs dangling from his back.

To be continued