Today I hiked down Old Manali’s single, half-paved road to the bridge over the river that separates the old and new parts of the city. Going uphill again, I passed a park full of the tall trees that cloak the hills in these parts – massive pine trees that give the whole area the look of a fantasy movie, a landscape subtly stretched beyond the limits of reality.
I was headed for the shops. I figured that was about all I could handle with my cold. Manali is in the far north, tucked into the Himalayas, and known for its woolen goods. I ended up buying a pashmina shawl for my mom, cornflower blue and light as though it had been woven from cotton candy or spiderwebs, and – for half the price – a silk and pashmina shawl for myself. Mine is a mellow Bordeaux color, so thin and soft my fingers feel rough and uncouth by comparison whenever I touch it, but I draped it around my shoulders anyhow. The slide of cloth against my neck is delicious, and as the weather cooled and rain threatened during the afternoon, it kept me pretty warm.
I started back towards my hotel, more energetic than I’d expected to feel after hoofing it all that way. I ended up stopping at one of the town’s fancier cafes for a salad and a tall glass of plum-ginger juice. Salad and ice cubes are dangerous for travelers, but look at the picture and tell me you wouldn’t have succumbed (the apples are local):
Manali is a prime honeymoon destination for Indians, and when you’re sitting in a beautiful garden with a bright green lawn surrounded by full-blown roses while snow-capped mountains loom in the distance, it’s easy to understand why. The contrast is magical.
Fortified by lunch, I detoured up to the Hadimba temple. It’s a seventeenth century temple dedicated to the goddess Hadimba – don’t ask me to explain who she is – and my visit there was nothing I would have predicted.
The building itself is plain, a pagoda shape constructed of dark wooden beams and white plaster, its roof clad in timber shingles. At first, the only ornamentation I could see were the ring of antlers fastened just under the overhanging roof.
A long line of people snaked out from the doorway, so I did a circuit of the temple before deciding if I wanted to get in line myself. Pollen rained down from the trees, turning the air green. Halfway around a pack of young men stopped me and asked if I’d take a picture with them. This has happened to me surprisingly often since I arrived in India; I got through months in Morocco and Egypt without ever feeling very weird about being white, or blonde, but it’s impossible here. Once I agreed to take a picture with the young men a whole bunch of other people approached me. I ended up standing around while little crowd swirled around me, people taking turns standing at my side and mugging for the camera – including a lawyer from Calcutta, who insisted that I converse in turn with each of his three children, two daughters and a son, to practice their English before they gathered around me for a big family photo.
Next to a temple! A sixteenth century temple!
Finally I got in line, made my way up to the front and clambered through the small door into a dark, almost empty space thick with smoke from an open fire. The devout crept down a small ramp to a little shrine, laid down their offerings, and left. I couldn’t tell if the shrine contained anything of note; I just saw the candles and the rupee bills and a sort of dark carved rock. I stepped aside, uneasy about getting any closer. I didn’t feel like I’d come to a tourist destination at all, and I didn’t want to intrude any further.
This cute little dog followed me home from the temple. I’ve seen street dogs everywhere I go. They tend to be starving and scruffy and at night they’ll bark and howl and fight. Some of them are injured. Some of them are tiny, adorable little puppies. In any case, India has the highest incidence of rabies infection in the world and I avoid them…until this adorable creature followed me down the hill. Pale and scruffy like all the others, but what manners! It walked at my heel for almost two miles, stopped when I stopped, sat and waited patiently with me when I hugged walls or signposts while cars zoomed past. I’d started to formulate a plan, thinking I’d find a vet, find out if the dog had rabies, get it a bunch of vaccinations, name it Kiddo and find a way to bring it home with me when it saw a pair of tourists walking by in the opposite direction and started tagging after them instead of me.