Manali , Winter Wonderland of India
Manali is the first choice of many people who want to see and ‘touch’ snow for the first time. The lure of the playing fields of Solang Valley and Rohtang Pass is strong. Here, people have a ball with fresh snow and make their snowmen. But there’s far more to this happening Himachal town than just snow and ice. The river, forest trails, Himachali village life, food from many parts of the world… Manali has it all for the young, the old, the energetic and the plain lazy.
You’ll find the long drive from Delhi was well worth the time the moment you cross Mandi and start the run-up alongside the Beas to Manali. The first sight of the hills cradling this picturesque town is so inviting that the foot on the accelerator gets a shade firmer. Drive up to the centre of Manali and into the marketplace. Starry-eyed honeymooners hang around lost to the world. Now and then an Israeli roars past on a dusty Bullet wearing a Juley’ T-shirt, telling the world he’s survived the Leh-Manali Road, Nepali porters scurry up and down the street with ropes swathed across their torsos.
Manali gets its name from the stream called Manalsu, which joins the more famous Beas. The town constitutes three adjacent hillocks, almost within walking distance. Each has a village and a temple dominating it: Old Manali (Manu Temple), Vashishtha (Vashisht Temple) and Dhungri (Hadimba Temple). Having grown up around these temples, Manali now has riverside cafés called ‘River Music’ or ‘Moondance’ that waylay your senses with promises of soups, pasta lasagna, hummus-pita, momos, pancakes, ginger-honey tea… at reasonable prices. Shops with titles like ‘No Problem International sell diaphanous, colourful, entirely charming garments that you may never dare drape around you anywhere else. Internet cafés also offer money changing and bus services to Leh. Look around and there’s the river and protected stretches of the deodar. Look up and the majestic Pir Panjal, Parvati and Bara Bhangal ranges cradling the town mesmerise you.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
In Manali, you find a picturesque blend of traditional village life and contemporary tourism sitting back-to-back, inviting you to surrender yourself to its ‘global village’ feel. At first, you will invariably want to suss out old favourites such as the 16th century Hadimba Temple, the hot springs at Vashishtha and speculate about the life and times of Old Manali – the happy enclave. Then make trips to the spread-out vistas of Solang Valley and the spectacular heights of Rohtang Pass. Take skiing lessons and you’ll never forget this vacation. There’s also pony rides, rappel ling, river-crossing and rock-climbing.
Drive to Rohtang Pass
The formidable 51-km climb up to the pass, 13,060 ft above sea level, along a rough bridle path will send the adrenaline levels shooting up. But once on top, the stunning panoramas of peaks and glaciers, and the desolate Lahaul Valley, would banish all fears.
Many happy picnickers probably don’t even know that Rohtang means ‘pile of corpses’ in Tibetan. Many of these corpses belonged to the hapless residents of Lahaul and Spiti at the far north of Himachal, which the Rohtang Pass connects to Manali and the rest of India – for a few months of the year at least.
You’ll pass the Solang Nallah at Palchan. The climb is steep from here on, and if you don’t have a head for hairpin bends, bravely ignore the precipices on one side of the road. You can stop en route at Snow Point it’s not a fixed point. The point closest to Manali with ample snow is christened Snow Point by the tourist trade. Here, you can climb around in snowshoes, build your snowman, pound your friends with snowballs, but only from January to March, if it has snowed here.
Rohtang is cold, so rent coats, snow boots and gloves (Rs 50-75 per set and Rs 250 for a full set including dungarees; rates go up in high season) further up the road. At the village of Nehru Kothi (15 km), you can savour possibly one of the most phenomenal views ever to be had of the Beas. Further along, you will pass, at a height of 8,500 ft, the cascading Rahalla Falls. If you can, get to the summit at the break of day to watch the earth and sky play out the overture of Himalayan dawn. Finally, look north for dazzling views of the Sonapani Glacier and down at the Chandra River running west into the Lahaul Valley
Getting to Rohtang Pass From Manali taxi charges are Rs 1,500-1,800 for a full day (return fare)
Adventure at Solang Solang Valley
located 13 km north-west of Manali at an altitude of 8,000 ft, ha some of the best ski slopes in Himachal Pradesh. The vast snow-covered meadow here, which commands extensive views of the surrounding glaciers and snow. capped peaks have gentle introductory slopes. There are 2’/2 km of ski-runs and come January, even beginners can try their hand at this mountain sport. Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports (visit website) in Manali runs several skiing courses at their Solang Ski Centre (the basic, all-inclusive, 14-day course costs Rs 3,900), more details of which can be obtained from the HPTDC office in New Delhi. They’ve also installed a ski lift at Solang for training purposes. A major attraction at Solang is the national-level Winter Games organised by the Himachal Pradesh government in February. Solang’s proximity to Manali means that you can stay cosily in Manali and make day-trips to Solang
In other seasons, Solang Nallah is a pretty green stretch where most of the area’s adventure activity is centred. It’s a popular picnic spot, replete with Maggi noodles and tea, but also has plenty of getaway space for those willing to walk a bit extra. You can make a day trip there by bus, taxi or car from Manali, or even camp overnight. Here, you can also try paragliding. The 2-min Joyride will either scare you out of your wits or whet your appetite for the longer 10 to 15min high rides (which cost around Rs 1500 and Rs 3,000 respectively).
The Temples of Manali
The temples of Manali are interesting for many reasons. The Kullu-Manali region is rare in its worship of sages as opposed to gods. Sage Manu and Sage Vashistha are worshipped in the two main ancient temples, which have been reconstructed in stone and new wood. The local goddess Hadimba is even more interesting for defying the usual norms by being a demon. Hadimba married Bhima when he was exiled in the forest, and bore him Ghatotkacha. Architecturally, her temple is worth seeing as it has been left pretty much untouched in all its 400-year old wooden glory. The dark wood on its sloping roof glows like burnished metal, tall deodars frame the temple and the protected stretch of woods nearby exudes peace on empty mornings. Shops and throngs gather outside and pageant-like energy fills up the area. Yak rides and photographs with cottony rabbits are the crowds’ favourites.
The Devi-Devtas of Kullu Valley
Looking out of your bus at the narrow lanes and old wooden houses of Kullu town, or strolling along with Manali with a piece of chocolate cake in hand, or perhaps driving up to Rohtang Pass, you are likely to come across a colourful procession of men that announces itself from a mile off with loud drums and trumpets. The focus of the procession would be what the locals call the devta’s rath’: several mask-like faces of wood, metal or stone, arranged on a wooden frame, practically invisible under many, many scarves and chunnis, are carried on the shoulders of four men like a palanquin. What is a passing local spectacle’ for the tourist is part of an amazing tradition, some features of which are unique to the Kullu-Manali region.
Every village here has it’s own Devta and Devta’s shrine. (So tiny Manali, originally three villages, actually contains three famous shrines: of Hadimba, Vashishtha and Manu.) Mostly the deities are not Shiva or Vishnu or his avatars but, rare in India, the sages or rishis of Vedic ages whose names may be familiar to you from stories in the Mahabharata or Ramayana: Vashishtha, Manu, Jamdagni (deity of the famous village of Malana). Parashar, Kapil… Sages apart, local goddesses – who are quite distanced from the fair, gold ornament-laden vision of Durga or Lakshmi such as the demon-goddess Hadimba, or the blood-drinking Yoginis are worshipped. The famous Kullu Dussehra rath yatra opens with the arrival of Hadimba’s procession Snake-deities are also very popular here.
Each Devi-Devta has a rath, which sort of represents him/her in public. When the Devta needs to visit another or to go somewhere for ritual purposes, it is these raths that are carried out with much ceremony. That the Devtas take periodic sorties is also a rather rare occurrence in Indian temples. At the head of any procession, you will spot a man, usually long-haired and unshaven, sometimes dressed in a single piece robe that falls to his knees. This is the Goor the sacred spokesperson of the Devta. When the village needs an answer to a problem or to settle a dispute, the Devta is invoked in a ritual ceremony and appears in the Goor who goes into a trance and speaks in the voice of the deity. The Goor is different from the priest who performs the usual daily rituals. He lives a life of abstinence of many kinds: celibacy, and sometimes, no intoxicants. So the congregation of raths during the Kullu Dussehra is also a gathering of supernatural spokespersons.
Walks, picnics, boating for kids
If you enjoy exploring and walking peacefully, go past the Manu or Vashishtha temples (which are the endpoints for all tourists), past the Old Manali or Vashishtha villages, and soak in some crowd-free beauty. Fifteen minutes past Old Manali, you can sit by the Manalsu stream, with perhaps some horses or sheep for company and usually not a soul in sight (you may carry your picnic basket here, but remember to carry back the litter). Past Vashishtha village, you walk through some woods and land up at another stream and eventually the Vashishtha Waterfall.
Near the Manali bazaar on The Mall, look for the protected Van Vihar stretch. This is a truly beautiful 20-min trail through pine and deodar woods, which teaches you that darkness can be luminous too. The trail runs parallel to the Manalsu. There is an aviary with some colourful Himalayan pheasants including the stunningly shining monal. There is another stretch of the protected forest below the bazaar next to the Beas, with swings and walking tracks and a small pond for boating for small kids.
What is called river-rappelling in Manali happens close to the Club House at the base of the Old Manali hill. Ropes are tied to trees across the Manalsu stream and people (secured with belts) are pulled on rollers while they hang upside down on these ropes (Rs 500 per crossing).
The Beas is a wild river and rafting on it requires strong nerves and stamina. The rafting season lasts from May to mid-June and from end-September to mid-October. The trip starts at Pirdi and terminates after a 16-km lurch-and-toss ride at Jhirhi. Prices vary from Rs 600-1,000, depending on the number of people, and include transport, equipment and a guide.
During the tourist season, Manali’s bazaar is an unending rush of tourists buying woollens, toys, cheap electric items, local fruit wine and much more. During winters, the bazaar leads a more local existence. You can get a huge range of winter wear here, including gloves, mittens, socks, woolly hats, jackets, sweaters, overcoats, and, of course, shawls (though local, handmade Kullu shawls’ are mostly machine-made in Ludhiana). The HPMC outlet stocks the entire range of Himachali fruit-made jams, chutneys, pickles and oils. The rare apple pickle is of great gift value. Tibetan shops sell thangkas among other souvenirs, clothes and jewellery items. Stop at the German Bakery aka Café Amigos for sharp yak cheese. Tasty dried apples and apricots are available nearby.
WHERE TO EAT
You can never get gastronomically bored in Manali. The Mall is full of restaurants Chinese, Gujarati, you name it. Among its best restaurants is Johnson’s Café on Circuit House Road. Go there for well-made pasta, salads and the house speciality – grilled trout. But be sure to visit the Café Amigos aka German Bakery opposite Nehru Park, selling baked goodies from banana chocolate cakes (the cakes here are divine!) to peanut cookies, croissants and coffee. Pick up homemade yak or cheddar cheese. At the Tibet Kitchen restaurant, next to the Club House, try the very nice homemade Cantonese noodles and other delicacies. Chopsticks, also on The Mall, serves Tibetan and Chinese; it’s another old favourite. And, if interested in some authentic Italian food, definitely stop at Il Forno, located in a cottage on the way to Hadimba Temple, and blessed by lovely panoramic views. It’s run by Roberta Angelone who has spent years explaining to people that you get no tomato ketchup in her restaurant, no the pasta is not kuchcha, this is how it’s meant to be, and no we don’t serve burgers. She is from Naples and her pizzas are from heaven.
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