Twin towns, twice the fun

Twin towns, twice the fun

Back in the 80s, when rampant turmoil took its toll on tourism in Kashmir, the hilly towns of Kullu and Manali in Himachal Pradesh rose to prominence. To the discerning travellers and backpackers, they have always been the idyllic getaway, and for avid bikers, the starting point of the grand drive to Leh. However, it’s in the past few decades that travellers have discovered their touristic diversity.

For solitude seekers, adrenaline junkies, art aficionados, culture vultures, bohemians, religious ones or those in search of salubrious climate, the Kullu valley has it all.

When we took the right turn across River Beas at Patlikuhl from NH21, the Kullu-Manali highway, we were on steep ascent, manoeuvring hairpin bends past cheerful apple orchards and tall cedars. Serene Naggar, away from the Manali tourist melee, promised solitude.

Ensconced on the mountain top with a spectacular view of gurgling Beas, lush orchards and Dhauladhar mountain, Naggar is best navigated on foot or by cycling on its circuitous roads. The trendy sports bicycles lying on the premises of Naggar castle tempted me to go cycling.

Prior to that, intrigued by the fact that the 16th-century castle was unscathed, jolted by an intense earthquake of 1905, I took a stroll inside. The Raja Sidh Singh castle, built of rough-hewn stones and wooden beams with richly embellished carvings, was not only stunning but strong and sturdy too. Ever wondered why people go for tacky concrete when local resources are eco-friendly and look fetching?

Fresh fare

From the sunny courtyard overlooking the Beas valley emanated a buzz of voices and laughter. On a large table under a shady tree were laid heaps of freshly prepared trouts, one of the tastiest fish caught the same morning from the river. The wafting smell could whet any fish lover’s appetite, but I had had my lunch, so I picked up bottles of fruit wine and apple juice from the shop nearby.

It was time to cycle around, rambling through forests, passing numerous deities and admiring the colourful traditional attire of locals on the way. In the delightful company of myself and the whispering wind, I reached Russian painter Nicholas Roerich’s expansive estate.

Roerich’s cozy cottage stood in the midst of dense green foliage and blooming flowers, a pretty picture straight from a painter’s canvas. The celebrated artist and his talented family had made Naggar their muse and abode (1929-1948). Their legacy lives through the International Roerich Memorial Trust through museums, galleries and educational centres. Some 7,000 paintings, mostly oil on canvas, are left behind by Nicholas and Svetoslav, his son.

Still under Naggar’s artistic spell, the next day, we moved towards Parvati Valley into Manikaran, the home of Shiva and Parvati for 1,100 years. The uphill trek is much sought after by trekkers; it’s a pilgrimage to Sikhs because Guru Nanak had performed miracles here; health seekers who go for natural hot springs are said to be cured of physical afflictions. The hot springs are so hot that the food served at the langar in the Gurudwara is cooked in them.

Merriment

The winding road past Bhuntar that took us uphill through thick coniferous forests overlooking  River Parvati cuts a steep-sided gorge through the mountains. Now and then an Israeli roared passed on his bullet bike. With nearby Malana known for its cannabis cultivation, it’s anybody’s guess where partymongers head for, but such conversations are kept under wraps.

Never mind the Israelis conspicuous in old Manali and its tag of being a hippie hangout for rave parties, visit the place for bohemian vibe and a feel of global village. Strolling along its winding streets, meeting tourists from different nationalities, the ‘global’ feel extends to its cuisine in cool cafes, with musical names crooning Western melodies. Soak in the vibrant and quirky artwork of Shesh Besh serving Israeli cuisine, and for a delicious cup of coffee, visit the Dylan’s Roasted and Toasted.

Thoroughly charmed by its cosmopolitan culture, we headed northwards for some contemplation in the only temple of Maharishi Manu in India. Mythology says that the ancient lawgiver, Manu, got off the ark in Manali after the deluge that caused pralaya (end of world). He had saved the Vedas and seven sages,  recreating human life. Manali means the abode of Manu.

Deities’ abode

If you throw a stone in the valley of Kullu and Manali, chances are it lands near a local deity. There are temples strewn in the hillocks and valley. However, the renowned three are Manu Temple, Sage Vashishtha Temple in village Vashishtha (on the left bank of River Beas, endowed with hot sulphur springs) and the Hadimba Devi Temple in Dhungri village. The latter is a bit unusual as Hadimbi is a demon but a local deity and Bheema’s wife. The 400-year-old wooden temple, adorned with horns of wild beasts and skirted by towering deodars, exudes peace.

We drove to a traditional cottage nearby and were bowled over by its authentic Italian cuisine. Don’t miss pizzeria IL Forno, for the lady from Naples serves mouthwatering pizzas and pastas. From the quiet Dhungri village, as we reached the main marketplace called Mall, we couldn’t miss the frenetic tourist activity. The majestic Pir Panjal mountains tower over it.

We shopped for gloves, mittens and warmers and the next day rented coats and snow boots for Rohtang’s cold. Snowfall had rendered the road slippery the previous day, and when most tourists’ primary objective of visiting Manali is to see or touch snow, be prepared for a traffic jam at over 13,000 feet nearing Snow Point. We had to hike 2 km uphill and taking a skiing instructor along helped. It was a fair out there with assortment of eatables on sale, hapless yaks to mount and even sledges for lazy bums to ride.

But with ample fresh snow at Snow Point, we decided to take a crash course in skiing and pound our friends with snow balls. Slathering tubes of sunscreen on faces, we walked to a secluded place to gaze at the azure sky and catch stunning mountain views. I thanked the hardy vendors who prepared delicious Maggi with stir fry greens, boiled eggs and served steaming cups of tea for us ravenous lot.

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