Out in the streets, chaos reigned. There was chatter in different languages, uphill lanes lined with shops on both sides, and people who talked over one another with rucksacks strapped on their backs and cameras around the necks. On one side, local eateries gave way to rooftop cafés and bakeries with tables skirting on the road. Local families ate together and some foreigners gathered to play chess and indulge in freshly baked sweets.
We pushed past the crowds and reached our destination for the day. After spending hours stuck in traffic, we had taken a detour, foregoing our plans to head to the snow-covered Rohtang Pass for a chance to see the springs in Vashisht village. Hidden in temple complexes, these springs attract locals and tourists alike. People flock here for a quick dip in the sulphur-rich waters that are said to cure many diseases and rejuvenate the weary soul. A temple stood in front of us and, like others in the complex, they happened to be a storey tall, with intricate carvings and designs. Next to it, we finally spotted the two chambers (separate for men and women) with slanted roofs, which housed the hot baths. Inside, the baths were unpretentious, brimming with water and people. I had planned to take a dip myself, but with so many individuals around me headed in the same direction, I decided against it. Instead, I sat and listened to prayer chants and watched as people exited the bath house. They all seemed to wear a look of peace, as if one quick dip had washed all their problems away.
Beyond the temples and hot springs, Vashisht is known for its multitude of yoga centres and small homestays. We walked around the village and stumbled upon many sights: children playing with a calf, abandoned homes, a sage who glared at us, and small waterfalls that sneaked in on us from nowhere.
The drive back was long. We got stuck in traffic, as we did on most of our ventures in and around Manali. The roads were narrow and there were too many cars. By the time we returned to Prini, where The Fern Residency is situated, we were exhausted. Surrounded by apple orchards and gentle streams, the property’s wooden interiors gave it natural warmth. Huge windows covered most walls, and the music of the river became a constant backdrop during our stay. Before retiring for the night, we were treated to the most delectable meal.
Chef Vikram had prepared a traditional Himachali spread. He talked about ingredients and cooking methods, and the significance of each dish. First came siddu. If momos and thaipo had a child, this would be the result. Stuffed with spiced walnuts, and served with a bowl of pure ghee and tomato chutney, this was the stuff of dreams.
It seemed a bit odd to dunk the dumpling into so much ghee, but the taste was divine. Siddu can be found all over Himachal Pradesh, from roadside stalls to local restaurants. Instead of rotis, we gorged on bhaturu (a version of bhatura) and a whole lot of curries. The piping-hot chana dal was cooked with a hint of cardamom and the aloo chana madra was made with hung curd and other local spices. Where most of the food was sour and spicy, the vadana took us by surprise. Chef Vikram presented a bowl boondi cooked in sugar syrup. The vadana was so sweet that it needed to be mixed with rice to balance the flavours. Even then, I could only have a few bites and quickly returned to the siddu, happily dunking it in copious amounts of ghee.
The next morning, we woke up to thick rain. The mountainscape outside my window was blanketed by fog and our plans for the day stayed on hold till the downpour stopped. I spent the majority of the day in bed, climbing out only for food. Late in the afternoon, we braved the world again. Rest time was over and we were back to exploring.
Our car stopped before a bridge that led to Old Manali. We crossed on foot as the Manaslu river rushed and tumbled under the bridge. On the banks, people sat on boulders with their feet dipped in the chilling water. The rains had considerably lowered the temperature, and I was glad to have my jacket for warmth.
Like Vashisht, the lanes of Old Manali started with cafés and restaurants on either side. That is where the similarity ended. If the crowd in Vashisht evoked frenzy, in old Manali, the idea was to lay back and relax. The many riverside cafés were a testament to that. They played low music and provided al fresco seating. We sat close to the river, with cinnamon rolls and coffee in hand, and just enjoyed the views. The river flowed next to us, pouring from a narrow path in between two hills. Puneet’s vision traced the river as far back as his eyes would allow, and when he turned to face me, I knew what was in store. He wanted to walk up the hill, to the point from where the river emerged.
Leaving behind the baked goodies from the German Bakery, we started our walk until the gentle slope turned steep. There are many, many haunts for food in Old Manali that cater to most international tastes. Apart from the continental and Indian spreads, there are cafés for authentic Israeli, Thai, Chinese and Japanese foods. Fast food is found in plenty, and smaller stores serve fruit wines, fresh apple juice and a host of local snacks. For people living in Manali, they needn’t venture out to explore the world, for, more often than not, it comes to them. People travel from far and wide to stay in Manali, bringing with them their language and craft; so much so that even the signboards come in different languages, not restricted to just English and Hindi. We stumbled upon several shops that sold leather garments and curios, instruments and semi-precious stones that could be fashioned into jewellery on request, and where experts held classes to teach music, magic and local crafts.
We continued our walk uphill, the cafés and hostels disappeared behind us and we entered the village. The roads were narrow and old, and no cars are permitted after a while. With houses on one side and the steep valley on the other, we trudged up and up and up. At last, we came to a stop. The village had been left behind and everything we could see was covered in green foliage. Puneet’s destination was still far away but I had had enough. Even if I had pushed myself further,
I wouldn’t have been able to make it back so I gave up. I found a boulder at the edge and perched on top of it. The scenery was spectacular, I could have sat there for days.
The people at Fern Residency had arranged a walk in the nearby villages Prini and Shuru. A navami festival had just begun and they wanted us to experience it the way locals do. We met up with Zirdi, a Shuru resident who took us around the place, to her home and to the temple where the festivities were taking place. And so my walk began, more strenuous than the last but just as worth it. Zirdi lived in a traditional house made of wood. Perpendicular stairs led to the upper floors, where the roof was low (lucky that I am so short) and small bulbs lit the sparse rooms. She fed us more bhaturu and chana and offered jaggery wine to wash down the meal.
In Shuru, everyone was a part of her family. Pointing to various houses, she said “my uncle’s house”, “my sister lives here”, or “my aunt’s son and his wife stay here”. When she spotted people, she spoke in rapid Pahadi. The next thing we knew, we were in another house (her brother’s), glasses of rice beer in front of us and her family seated around the flat space. While Zirdi lived in an old house, many of her relatives had refurbished their homes into something a bit modern.
The houses still looked traditional, but the materials were different and the roofs higher.
The women of the house sat around drinking, while the men did all the work. They offered me some raita and Puneet was given mutton as an accompaniment with the beer. They all spoke loudly, laughed and Zirdi turned to translate some of the gossip. In a few hours, we had become a part of their clan. In the villages, it was about families and a language barrier held no weight.
Everyone in the village made their way to the temple. We crossed a line of small stalls selling toys, makeup and clothes. People indulged in food and children jumped around on trampolines and bouncy castles—all part of the festivities, we were told. In the main temple complex, gods from nearby villages arrived on palanquins. The men formed a circle, singing and dancing, and each palanquin entered the circle before departing for home. As the men continued to dance, we found seats nearby. Zirdi explained that it was a privilege to be a part of the circle and men wore different coloured sashes over white tunics that represented their village. They sang over loud drums as more and more people came to the temple.
As the sun set and the gods went to sleep, people continued to sing and dance and drink. At night, Zirdi walked us back to the hotel, and this time we greeted people on the way with equal amounts of enthusiasm, more a part of their family than before.
On the last day, the rains delayed our departure. When we finally boarded the bus, moonlight streamed through the window. A slow-paced drive took us down the valley, the pitch-black mountains came alive with twinkling lights and with only the clear night sky to frame them, the sight was dreamlike. I popped in my earphones and, for the first time in my life, really enjoyed the traffic. It kept me in Manali a bit longer, so who was I to complain?