Manali – Well visited Hill Town with Plenty of Character
Nestled in the lap of the Kullu valley, Manali lies on the banks of the River Beas surrounded by imperial pine trees, alpine hills and a crescent of snow-capped peaks. Legend has it that Manali was supposedly named after Manu; the Hindu law giver who recreated life in Manali after human life had been destroyed in an all consuming flood. Divided into two two distinct settlements, New Manali, resembles an overcrowded tourist destination, with an influx of many north Indians trying to escape the blistering heat of the plains. Old Manali is perched further up the hill between mesmerizing deodar forests and lush meadows relatively untouched by the modern world.
The cool waters of the seductive Beas almost luminescent green in color flow gracefully down from the mountains, tracing the path to Old Manali. The uphill section is brimming with backpackers, mostly Israelis, in search of peace and solitude in Manali's quaint vicinity.
The silence of the tranquil forest offers complete isolation from the cosmopolitan World. Writer's find an enigmatical alleviation in the spellbinding beauty of this sleepy town, the gurgling river acts like a soft lullaby while you read a book by candlelight on your porch. It is here that Khuswant Singh, writer and literary critic has his summer house, where he escapes from the scalding heat of Delhi to indulge in some serious writing every summer.
The Tibetan settlements on one side of the mountain are brimming with exuberance in spite of their poverty. The vibrant prayer scarves fluttering above the cheerful faces peeping out of their crudely made houses give no indication of the hardships they have endured.
The town is also frequented by adventure enthusiasts seeking the thrill of an adrenaline-rush. The Solang Valley, also 'home of paragliding' in Asia lies at a short distance from Manali. In the winters it turns into a skiing resort. Surrounded by beautiful pine covered mountains which have some of the best treks in the region it offers a brilliant view of the stately alabaster mountains and arresting pictorial scenery. You can arrange for a mountain guide and set out for a day of hiking up the Solang Valley at the end of which lies a charming Shiva temple. Spend some time taking in the view over a bowl of warm milk pudding generously supplied by the kind couple that resides at the end of this trail. The other trekking option is the trekking trails along the rocky terrains of Rohtang valley which can get challenging at an altitude of about 4000m The well paved road to Rohtang starts out innocently enough, with numerous shops renting long fake-fur coats and rubber boots to the Indian tourists, gearing up to have a snowball fight or dress like locals and get photographed. Other interesting trek routes to places like Lahaul and Spiti can be accessed from Manali. You can also go gyrating on the turbulent waters of river Beas or spend day fishing. Katrain, Raison, Kasol, Larji, and Nagar are some of the ideal places for hooking trout.
The neighboring village of Vashisht offers a more challenging terrain leading all the way up to the waterfall. Vashisht is also famous for its natural hot springs bubbling up in the center where you can watch the local women washing clothes. The hot water runs down the clean stone gutters and joins one of the brooks running down the mountain. Vashisht is very popular with backpackers. It has plenty of antique and curio stores, some very good coffee shops that serve lip smacking smoothies, breads and cakes and a very amiable Tibetan and local community, the people are graciously warm and genuinely try befriending you. Walk across the expanse of apple orchards and fruit gardens or stroll leisurely by the beautiful mountains, spend afternoons reading and having massages, while evening can be spent going to late night jamming sessions Vashisht is notorious for its night-life and alive with its coffee shops and local shops.
The Hindu temples that dot the landscape are usually made of carved wood. The Temple Of Manu is of great significance as Manali is named after the Sage. Nestled on a mountain, cobbled paths polished by years of use lead you through the maze of old village houses to the ancient temple.
The Hadimba Temple is the most famous Hindu temple in Manali, the locals flock to worship the goddess and the enthralling history behind the temple has intrigued many foreigners as well. Built in 1553 the main structure is built of wood, remarkably well preserved for its age the temple is dedicated to the goddess of sacrifice, Hadimba. Originally pagan, it was taken over by the Hindus a few hundred years ago. The wooden frame of the temple is built around a huge rock in the amidst a pine forest, the locals have worshipped the goddess appeasing her with animal sacrifice people since time immemorial. The blood is left to run down the sacred rock thus quenching the goddess’s thirst. Blood is also smeared on the outside walls and the front wall.
Manali is relatively well advanced when it comes to shopping. You can safely venture out to the market without cash in your pocket, plastic money is accepted at all the leading stores, hotels and luxury resorts. ATMs are conveniently located in case you frequent the local shopping areas or go up to Old Manali to shop. There are plenty of shops selling the famous kullu shawls, local handicrafts, miniature paintings, tribal jewelry. Tibetan shops have some great wooden accessories and tankha paintings. Most of the main markets are in the downtown area and at the corner of Mall Road. The best place to shop for curios and clothes are Old Manali and Vashisht. Most of the genuine handicraft shops can be found at Old Manali and at Vashisht.
Israeli cuisine is every where, the restaurant windows advertise many middle eastern delicacies like hummus and pita bread, delicious pasta, chicken Schnitzel, falafel etc. The food at the Jungle Bungalow is excellent and so are the lattes and cakes at Word peace Café.
Johnson’s Café at Manali offers great seafood especially worth mentioning is the grilled trout.
A dessert that remains a must try is "Hello to the Queen" The warm pudding involves banana cooked in caramel, covered with crushed nuts and topped with vanilla ice cream and rich chocolate sauce. Bliss.
Manali offers a wide range of hotels and comfortable guest houses, which blend luxury and affordability. If you are looking for adventure you can choose to stay in one of the many forest cottages. It is best to avoid the main tourist area and head to Old Manali where you can live at a quaint old farmhouse with huge rooms or one of the budget hotels, especially worth mentioning is The Jungle Bungalow located behind the clubhouse. Shingar Regency is a good alternative as it is perched on a hilltop far from the maddening crowd with a stunning view of the mountains and valley below and the whooshing rush of the river below.
There is a mystical charm in the lure of India especially in the mountains. The breathtaking array of colors evident in the outfits worn by the women and the chromatic display of nature be it the variety of fruits waiting to be plucked or the pretty orange and purple flowers in full bloom makes Manali an unforgettable destination. Manali remains in your memory long after you have left the zigzag roads of the mountains. Devoid of regal forts, palatial temples or glitzy malls, the mountains still manage to touch you deeply.
Getting There: Manali is well connected with a perennial network of buses, trains and flights that run here throughout the year, thus making these sleepy towns alive in summers, when the roads and markets are busy with the flourishing tourism industry.
There are daily flights with Jagson Airways from Delhi to the Kulu Valley's Bhuntar airport which is 10 km. from Kullu town where Taxis/Buses are available to Manali.
The closest narrow gauge railhead is at Joginder Nagar, 95 Km from Kullu.
The distance via Mandi is 530 Km and from Shimla this is 240 Km. from Delhi and Shimla, luxury buses ply to Manali.
The best time to visit is from April-October when summers are just about getting over and winters are yet to arrive. The hotels, guest houses, shops come to a stand still in the winter seasons. The vibrant town settles into a state of hibernation after a dense snowfall each year, but with the onset of spring in April the town seems to come alive in a kaleidoscope of color.