Category Archives: Himachal Pradesh

Offbeat Himachal Pradesh: Chail & Solan

I’m not particularly religious but even I cannot deny the spiritual lure of some shrines that reverberate with the presence of something otherworldly. It was all thanks to Club Mahindra Kandaghat that I ended up at one such refuge – Mohan Shakti Heritage Park. Giving the popular Shimla a miss, we devoted ourselves to unravelling the secrets of lesser known Chail and Solan over a nippy November weekend.

Chail Palace

Once the summer home of the Maharaja of Patiala, Chail Palace was purchased by the tourism department of Himachal Pradesh in 1972. Thereafter, it was converted into a hotel and guests can enjoy the regal aura that pervades the various rooms, including the Maharaja and Maharani suites. Most of the main palace has been preserved in its original form and makes for a fascinating walk down the ages. However, not all parts are available for public viewing. While I enjoyed roaming through its plush corridors, what really warmed my heart was the beautiful Hyde Park-like garden in the courtyard with tall trees and generous canopies, wrought-iron benches, smiling walkers and little monkeys stuffing fresh grass into their mouths. A stay here doesn’t have to be impossibly expensive – there are rooms starting from Rs 2000 per night and even dorm beds for Rs 200 but the choicest rooms are priced at Rs 10,000-Rs 18,000. There is also the option of lunching at the restaurant but we found it a little stuffy for our taste and chose to picnic at the Sadhupul River bank instead.

Chail Palace, Himachal Pradesh
Chail Palace is all about the preservation
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of a beautiful bygone era.

Kali Ka Tibba

‘Tibba’ means mountain in Himachali and so the name of this temple translates to ‘the hill of Kali’. She is the most fierce of Hindu Goddesses, often characterised by a flaming red hanging tongue and a necklace made of the heads of slain demons. We climbed uphill along a hilly path that afforded stunning views of the neighbouring Shivalik Range. The white railings reminded me of fort complexes. Temples in Himachal Pradesh are quite lovely and this one was no exception. The white and red facade attracted me immediately and there were other mini temples next to the main one. We kept hearing the sounds of birds and found that a few were caged in an alcove below the temple area. A group of Punjabi visitors regaled themselves by singing devotional songs. We’d later see the same group at the Sadhupul River.

Kali Ka Tibba, Chail, Himachal Pradesh
A winding fort-like path
Kali Ka Tibba, Chail, Himachal Pradesh
took us to the main temple, outlined against the clear winter sky.

Sadhupul River

The river isn’t much, especially in the month of November. I imagine that it must be more ferocious in the monsoons but what makes the spot special is its popularity among tourists who park their vehicles right in the middle of the flowing stream and enjoy themselves with food, drinks and loud music. A row of eateries and makeshift hotels line the river bank but I’m not sure how safe it is to stay in the tents. A couple of wooden lodges further away looked more inviting. We spent the afternoon eating the delicious biryani thoughtfully packed by Club Mahindra Kandaghat by the river. A pleasant lull settled over us once we had finished and it would’ve been quite easy to catch forty winks. Instead, we strolled around, watching the youngsters and families frolic in the stream.

Cottages at Sadhupul River bank
Fancy a stay in one of these cottages
Sadhupul River, Chail, Himachal Pradesh
on the banks of the sun-washed Sadhupul River?

Mohan Shakti Heritage Park

I first came face-to-face with the concept of a heritage theme park at Haw Par Villa in Singapore. While that was dedicated to Chinese folklore and mythology, Mohan Shakti Heritage Park draws inspiration from Hinduism. Named after Brigadier Kapil Mohan who conceptualised the park in 1979, it is a marvel like none other. Strewn with stunningly realistic statues of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, a criss-crossing field reminiscent of a chess board (see featured image at the top of this post) and a vast field of animals overseen by Lord Shiva, the temple is a study in intrigue. The location in Hurt village is stunning, surrounded as it is by thick forests and the lofty Himalayas. The main temple is more arresting from the inside than the outside. A sweeping marble hall with unspeakably beautiful idols of deities, a ceiling so high you have to crane your neck to see all the way up, walls that echo your words and the reverberation of Vedic chants lend the temple a mystical quality that finds expression in a deep silence within your own mind. I had goosebumps when I walked out of the temple. I then walked around the main structure, as is Hindu tradition and found the walls etched with more figurines and carvings. Was there no end to the mysteries and beauties of this 40 acre park, I wondered. Still under construction, an Ayurvedic hospital and meditation centre are among the many facilities proposed to be added to the park.

Mohan Shakti Heritage Park, Solan
The temple, the adjacent garden and the surrounding greenery charmed me
Mohan Shakti Heritage Park, Solan, Himachal Pradesh
almost as much as the intricate carvings on the walls
Mohan Shakti Heritage Park, Solan, Himachal Pradesh
and the larger-than-life statues of Gods and Godmen
Mohan Shakti Heritage Park, Solan, Himachal Pradesh
with strangely Romanesque flourishes and detailing.

Solan’s mushrooms

As someone who loves mushrooms, I was overjoyed to discover that Solan hosts the Directorate of Mushroom Research. It came as a surprise that the city is renowned for its cultivation of various types of mushrooms and goes by the moniker of ‘The Mushroom City of India‘. Obviously, I had to purchase the mushroom pickle (Rs100-150) from an HPMC store, one of several across the state. The apple wine (Rs150-200) was a bonus. (Afternote: Both tasted exceedingly good.)

Mushroom pickle and apple wine from HPMC
My spoils from an HPMC store

If you want to plan a trip to Solan and Chail, consider staying at the nearby Club Mahindra Kandaghat, a beautiful luxury resort atop a hill, with stunning views, adventure sports facilities and several exciting family activities. You can book a single night or become a member to gain exclusive access to all 46 Club Mahindra resorts in India and the world. Click here to know more.

Have you been to Chail and Solan? Leave a comment and tell me about your experiences. And be the first to know about the secret destinations we uncover:

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Club Mahindra Kandaghat: White-washed beauty

I watch the birds and their curious descent onto white-washed verandas like a voyeur. The nip in the air no longer bothers me. Maybe I’m on my way to being Himachali. The ragged edges of the mountains are topped by evenly spaced trees – something I never depicted in my school scenery drawings. It’s 7 AM but the sun has long since risen and is now a blazing ball of white gold, casting its luminescence on my coffee mug and bedroom slippers. Yesterday, at this very moment, I was navigating those mountains in my quest for the temple of Skand Mata.

Room veranda and view at Club Mahindra Kandaghat

That was all I could scribble before I realised that my time for a morning walk would soon be up and I had to leave the warmth of my room at Club Mahindra Kandaghat. It was my third day in this Himachali town close to Shimla so perhaps I’d better start at the beginning.

Every time I cross the borders of Mumbai city and begin glimpsing the outline of the Sahyadris, my eyes take on a special sheen and I stick my nose as close to the window as possible. “Mountain!” I breathe, behaving like an excited toddler rather than the 27 year old adult that I am. I’ve had my share of hills and chills over the years but none can compare to the profound and icy charm of The Himalayas. India is so fortunate to host a major portion of this majestic mountain range. And I was so fortunate to receive an invite from Club Mahindra Kandaghat to find myself in its shadow once again (read about my previous encounters with The Himalayas in Manali and Kanatal).

Club Mahindra Kandaghat

I was almost as excited about landing in Chandigarh as I was about my trip to Kandaghat. Harjyot and I had some time to kill before Amrita joined us from Kolkata; so we asked our driver Jagdish for ideas. I was keen on visiting Chandigarh’s famous rock garden but it was miles away. So we headed to Elante Mall, a popular hang-out in the area and India’s third largest mall. Imagine that being located in a small city like Chandigarh! We didn’t do any shopping but we did a lot of ogling – at swanky showrooms, chubby kids and eye-popping price tags. The mall was indeed large; our feet were hurting after walking for nearly 30 minutes to cover its entire area.

Once Amrita joined us, the adventure had fully begun. I love scenic drives and the route to Kandaghat took us via many narrow, spiralling roads flanked by soaring mountains dotted with distant houses. We made a pit stop at a decent looking dhaba for a quick lunch and asked him what was good on the menu. Pat came the reply – “everything”. The Himachalis are certainly a confident lot! We did enjoy everything that came to our table.

It was late evening by the time we reached Club Mahindra Kandaghat, a grand-looking garden resort complex protected by filigree gates. The managers were upset that we’d missed the sunset but they still hoped to entice us with some high tea and bonfire. But first, we had to check in.

Club Mahindra Kandaghat in the night

I’ll confess something – my favourite moment in many trips is the moment I lay eyes on my room. It would be my home for the next few days after all and the silent witness to my coffee-making skills and occasional poetry. My room at Club Mahindra Kandaghat was supremely spacious with a beautiful bath tub, kitchenette and veranda. Flower petals had been arranged symmetrically on the king-sized double bed for a fragrant and thoughtful welcome. And there were welcome cookies and fruits which I would’ve devoured at once if not for the promised tea.

Rooms at Club Mahindra Kandaghat

We convened in the lawns for our first glimpse of the resort. The temperature was around 11 degrees and the cold breeze made itself known to me despite my warm jacket. Club Mahindra Kandaghat is spread over what seems like a mountain in itself and there are many uphill climbs along storybook lanes to be had. We undertook one such mini journey in the dense darkness of the wintry night. Down in the lawns, the weather seemed even chillier. But our hearts warmed at the sight of the pretty private table nestled in a corner, covered with myriad delicacies like cookies, tarts, cakes and fruits. Regaled by the tales of the hotel managers, we tucked into these and sipped on warm ginger tea. They told us about the resort’s eccentric original owner who was obsessed with the colour white. While the resort still stays true to this legacy, there are splashes of colour where required! Presently, we heard raucous singing and turned to find the guests taking part enthusiastically in the outdoor karaoke.

Club Mahindra Kandaghat lawns in the night

As the night advanced, we graduated to more potent refreshments and moved to the crackling bonfire for some much needed heat. And then we were treated to a beautiful Himachali dance performance by the staff of the resort, led by the unbelievably graceful and multi-talented Pradeep Rai. When the dance ended, many guests joined the staff to shake a leg with abandon. Though still replete, we decided to move indoors for drinks and dinner. We enjoyed the choicest of starters such as paneer tikka, crunchy kebabs and grilled meats (for my companions) along with our drinks at the bar at Blossom restaurant. A revolving lamp cast mesmerising, golden shadows on the wall. Dinner was at the buffet spread at Fun Dining but I only had room for soup and salads.

Blossom bar, Club Mahindra Kandaghat
The bar at Blossom restaurant

My day had begun at 5:30 AM that day and I fell asleep the moment I reached my room. Besides, my alarm was set for 6 AM the next day in preparation for our early morning trek to Skand Mata Temple, a tiny figure we could see from the resort atop what looked like an impossibly lofty mountain.

Trek to Skand Mata Temple

I used to be fond of treks until one or two trying ones instilled a fear of slippery slopes in me. Since then, I’m wary of attempting difficult climbs. Yet, my heart felt light when we embarked on the warm-up walk along the highway at 6:30 AM. I was suitably attired and already felt acclimatised to the nip in the air. We were a party of six, led by Naren. After a longish stroll, we crossed the road and began climbing up the hill. ‘Here we go,’ I thought to myself and hoped that I could do it. It was supposed to be a two hour long trek until we reached the temple dedicated to the fifth form of Goddess Durga. The climb was moderately easy at the start and I felt confident when I found that I didn’t slip even when the incline was steep. We paused a few times to catch our breath and take pictures of the lightening sky. The layered shades of the newly arisen sky were a marvel to watch. A lone cherry tree blossomed against the backdrop of brown mountains and sparse vegetation.

Sunrise during the trek to Skand Mata Temple, Kandaghat

When we were more than halfway up the mountain, a few of us felt our stamina giving way. Naren advised us to maintain a slow and steady pace rather than climbing in fast jerks with frequent pauses. We tried this for the next few minutes and found our chests opening up miraculously. Gone was the tiredness though I knew my knee and calf muscles would sing in exhaustion later. The final stretch to the temple was the easiest with nearly no incline but we were almost at the end of our patience. It was a fine moment indeed when the temple finally came into view. But every time we turned a corner, it seemed to disappear. When we finally looked up at its red and white façade, I felt ready to collapse. We each found our own spots to relax and soak in the breath-taking view, while fortifying ourselves with water and glucose biscuits.

Skand Mata Temple, Kandaghat

Once I’d calmed down, I entered the inner sanctum of the temple and paid homage to the deity. I thanked her for the enjoyable trek. I was glad I had managed it without any help. But now the daunting task of descending the mountain lay ahead of us. If you’ve ever trekked, you know that descents can really challenge your balance and potentially send you careening. So it was with our hearts in our mouths that we began the downward journey. But wonder of wonders, it turned out to be a real piece of cake. It was the easiest reverse trek I’d ever done. And it was all over in a mere twenty minutes. We were back at the resort by 8:30 AM – a real triumph. And I now feel less jittery about undertaking treks.

We were quite famished and decided to go for breakfast immediately. The buffet spread at Fun Dining was extensive, consisting of idli, dosa, upma, eggs, muffins, donuts, cake, fruit, cereal and many other items that I don’t recall. But I was most impressed by the juice counter which had healthful options like rose petal water and cucumber juice. I drank two cups of the excellently prepared masala tea and felt that I’d already recovered from the morning’s workout!

Breakfast at Club Mahindra Kandaghat

Given the resort’s proximity to Shimla, you might think that there’s where we ended up post breakfast. But we decided to explore offbeat Chail and Solan instead (more on that in my next post). Dinner was made truly special by the resort staff with a private outdoor table at Kebab Corner and the tinkling and lights of the fountains keeping us company. Some red wine and a gourmet three course meal consisting of cottage cheese pepper stuffed rolls, Burmese fishermen’s soup and carpet rolls with ice-cream stuffing and kiwi pearls made us fall even more deeply in love with Club Mahindra Kandaghat. These dishes were in fact the result of a chef’s competition held across all the Club Mahindra resorts.

Mountains at Kandaghat, Himachal Pradesh

It’s only on my last day in Kandaghat that I really look at the mountains. And I mean actually look. All this while, my eyes were seeing, yet not really taking in the curves and slopes of these towering marvels. Now I look at them as an artist might, committing them to memory for future strokes on canvas.

Yet, my treacherous memory already requires the aid of the photos and videos I captured whilst I was at Kandaghat. I remember reading this article which said that we’ve forgotten how to enjoy visual beauty in our impatience and quest for speed. You haven’t really looked at something, the author said, until you can describe it down to the last detail and even reproduce it on paper. How many scenes have you absorbed with such rapture? On my last day in Kandaghat, I took in the pristine white beauty of the resort, its picturesque views and the vivid colours of the flowers lining every hedge.

Rose at Club Mahindra Kandaghat

After breakfast, we proceeded to try some of the many adventure activities available at the resort. I tried my hand at target shooting (with decent success after the initial duds) and was glad the gun didn’t feel too heavy in my hand. I also ziplined for the very first time in my life. This exhilarating adventure sport involves dangling from a wire running across the sky and riding along at top speed to enjoy stunning views of the surrounding mountains. I had mixed feelings as my instructor tied the harness around me and I was honestly scared when I got into position, holding on to the handles suspended from the wire. But once the ride began, I hooted in joy and my instructor joined in! It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life and I was sorry when my 25 seconds were up. At 270m, this is the longest ziplining rope in Himachal Pradesh.

Ziplining at Club Mahindra Kandaghat

Before we left for Chandigarh, we were taken on a tour of the resort’s many secrets. The most beautiful stretch for me was the nursery where they grow a variety of herbs and vegetables. The surrounding clearings were alive with the chirping of birds and I wished I’d come here before. We learnt that there are 100 varieties of roses in the resort and 100-150 types of trees and shrubs including chestnut, cedar, cherry, dahlia and yucca.

Nursery at Club Mahindra Kandaghat

En route to the airport, we stopped at an HPMC (government local produce shop) and I purchased apple wine and mushroom pickle. As I stuffed them into my already bursting suitcase (thanks to the beautiful Himachali cap and shawl gifted to me by the resort), I felt like I was trying to cram all the tastes and smells of Himachal Pradesh into my bag. And maybe I was.

About Club Mahindra

While you can book individual nights at any of the 46 Club Mahindra Resorts across India and abroad, it makes sense to enroll for a Club Mahindra Membership. This is especially for high net-worth families as they can enjoy a week’s holiday every year for 25 years. The resorts are in beautiful locations with luxurious accommodation and fun-filled family activities. But if you’re still unsure, read some Club Mahindra Reviews/Feedback before making your decision.

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Manali: A snowy encounter

I’ve spent 25 years of my life without ever feeling the chilly, flaky goodness of freshly fallen snow. But all that changed last month when I finally went to the lap of India’s most majestic mountain range – The Himalayas.

My friend and I – we took a flight to big bad Delhi (Chandigarh is a better option but the flight is more expensive from Mumbai) and then an overnight bus to Manali from ISBT Kashmere Gate. Read about my impressions of Delhi here.

The bus ride

The bus ride was surreal – we paused at strange little pit-stops consisting of tea shops and a barely serviceable loo; sometimes a shop selling the ubiquitous lays and biscuits – at odd hours of the night and early morning. And though I knew we were travelling across New Delhi, Punjab and finally Himachal Pradesh, everything looked the same; just bearing the air of Northern India. The men at these all-night eateries spoke in varying accents rather like the contestants on MTV Roadies and I wondered about their lives; for that matter even the bus conductor; spending their nights staying up and their days nuzzling into fitful sleep.

Our sleep wasn’t much better than what they got – every time I felt like I was passing through the doors of light slumber into the world where even dreams cannot invade, the bus would stop and jolt me into unwilling wakefulness. We also watched a re-run of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai of all movies and I was reminded anew of how inappropriate the plot actually was – glorifying and romanticising the ‘second choice’ who was earlier ignored in favour of a prettier one.

The next morning, we witnessed a beautiful dawn over the mountains of Himachal Pradesh and the entire route to Manali was an incredibly picturesque one – dotted with storybook villages, colourful roofs, mountains painted in strokes of white and grey and the River Beas. All throughout, the River flowed, its merry gurgle a welcome song for all the souls who paid her a visit.

The Himalayan Spa & Resort

You can’t blame me for not wanting to leave my room at The Himalayan when I was treated to views like these:

Manali

In the wee hours of the morning
I saw a world subdued and sleepy
I saw the mountains yawning
Read to unfurl a snow-capped canopy.

Manali

ManaliWe got there after an unworldly walk through little twisting lanes inside a village strewn with roadside taverns and shops selling colourful woollens, not too far from the main market. However, our resort was located on top of a hill and involved quite a trying climb, which we eventually got used to.

Although I had an exhaustive list of places to cover in and around Manali, what we finally managed to explore in the span of a few days was this:

  • Hadimba Temple
  • Solang Valley
  • Vasishth Village
  • Buddhist temple at Manali market
  • Van Vihar

And there were many meandering walks around Manali and Solang village, explorations in unforeseen patches of snow and silent moments by different parts of the River Beas which were perhaps more memorable than ticking boxes on our travel itinerary. For practical information about planning a trip to Manali, please scroll to the bottom of this post. For a poetic sojourn through my own experiences, read on.

Glimpses of Manali

Everyone should come to Manali to realise how beautiful India can be.

Manali

Especially, people who aren’t sure if there is an India beyond the squalor of her capital cities.

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The River Beas gurgled softly
Swept our silence into its merry flow
And turned it into a mountain song
Whose arcane lyrics I might never know.

River Beas

Solang Valley

These are glimpses from different parts of Manali but the experience I should really dedicate this post to is my day at Solang Valley. Friends had told me that I’d see remnants of snow even in the month of March but nothing prepared me for the stunning white valleys with lush grey mountains peeking from here and there. When the bus began ascending the hilly road, it was as if we’d begun an ascent into a different world.

Solang Valley

There was a wispy coolness in the air
And little fingers of slithering wetness
That traversed the edges of our boots
And sent us into unexpected shivers
Once this wetness was flaky white
Now in my toes, it was just watery light

Solang Valley

The snow, the sun and I
We played a merry game of slip and fall
Plod and stall
Laugh and jump
Marvel and stump.

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The snow, the sun and I
We bridged the gap between child and man
Joy the protagonist of our lively plan
To bring to life, years of
Reading
Watching
Wondering
About playing in white, wintry stardust.

At Solang Valley, you can try as many adventure sports as your wallet allows – tyre rides, paragliding, zorbing, skiing, snow bike riding and of course, making snow angels and snowmen and all that stuff that you only read about in Enid Blyton novels.

But be prepared to feel really exhausted at the end of all this snow sporting because climbing and plodding through snow-covered valleys is quite the same as trekking and I had a moment when I realised I simply couldn’t take another step, what with the cold numbing my toes and the sun making me feel dizzy. That’s when we paused to shake the snow out of our boots and spent some time spot-jogging to get the blood running in our veins again!

Hadimba Temple

But I’m getting ahead of myself, as I often do, when wanting to tell a good story. So on our first day in Manali, exhausted from the overnight bus ride, we soaked in the hospitality of The Himalayan Spa & Resort, where our room was welcoming and warm, done up in woodsy hues of brown and gold. Once we were fortified with some great coffee, we set out to explore the neighbouring lanes, the market and the nearby Hadimba Temple.

Hadimba Temple

The temple wasn’t much to speak of, although I knew from my childhood readings of the Mahabharata that Hidimba had quite the role to play. She married Bhima in Manali after he slayed her demonic brother and thus they had baby Ghatotkacha, literally meaning ‘bald pot’.

However, the area around the temple was a delight – dark, quiet and woodsy and dotted with eerie women holding on to poor white rabbits and offering to let us hold them for a price.

Yaks

We walked around aimlessly and chanced upon a dirty patch of snow, on which lay two majestic yaks. I wasn’t too inclined to ride on the poor animals and so, we settled for pictures with the mountain beauties.

We were absolutely unprepared for the sudden descent in temperature, as soon as sundown began. It was around 10 degrees during the day, so you can imagine how cold it was in the night. We had milky tea (it tasted more like tea-flavoured milk) at the first eatery we spotted for some much-needed warmth and then headed back to our resort.

On the second day, we awoke early to go to Solang Valley. While you can pay 400 – 800 Rs for a car, we opted to take the local bus – a mere 10 or 20 rs each. There weren’t too many tourists in the bus but the Himachalis didn’t take much notice of us. Wrapped in multiple layers of scarves and sweaters, they looked a lot warmer than we were.

Vasishth Village

After returning from a day of snowy revelry at Solang Valley, we decided to visit Vasishth, a village known for its temple, hot springs and remote waterfall. But more than these landmarks, it was the walk through quiet forests with not a soul in sight that stayed with me. The hot springs adjoined the temple and there were separate areas for men and women. Both however were filled with people in various states of undress and since community bathing wasn’t really our cup of tea, we beat a hasty retreat!

Glimpses from the walk to Jogini Waterfalls

Vasishth Village

Vasishth Village

Vasishth Village

Alas, I don’t have too many photographs of the waterfall but given that we went in March, they weren’t particularly momentous. I believe that their true beauty would be visible post the monsoons.  However, I couldn’t get enough of the white and rose blossoms that greeted us wherever we went in Manali.

We had not anticipated how long our walk would take and found our poor auto rickshaw driver quite irate when we returned. However, the folks of Manali are really quite amiable and after a few soothing words and the promise of some extra money for his trouble, he was back to his agreeable self.

The Buddhist Temple

On our third day in Manali, we explored some landmarks around the market. The area seemed dotted with lovely little temples that looked like works of art. I have a feeling the Gods there are quite pleased with their accommodations.

I have visited many palatial places of worship in my life but I have rarely felt the sanctity and serenity that permeated every inch of the modest Buddhist Temple at Manali market (tucked inside a bylane opposite Van Vihar). I remember thinking that if at all I had to subscribe to one single religion, I wouldn’t mind choosing Buddhism for its penchant for introspection, solitude and a no-frills worship of the silence housed within ourselves.

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The Buddhist Temple

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The courtyard had a main temple and an adjunct one which contained the rotating prayer wheel, inscribed with the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. We pushed the wheel several times while chanting these words and felt the vibrations resonate from every fibre in our beings. An in-depth analysis of the mantra can be found here.

Van Vihar

As the name suggests, Van Vihar is a forest recreational park close to Manali market. But it’s not like the landscaped, humanised gardens we see in our cities. Here, the wilderness is lovingly allowed to take over, even while nudging it here and there to maintain the semblance of an arrangement. The best part was that the park offered direct access to the banks of the River Beas and we spent some beautiful moments sitting on the boulders and listening to the palliative sound of the flowing water. Hot though it was, we didn’t mind the sun when it made the foam of the gushing river glisten like diamonds.

Van Vihar

Van Vihar

Kullu 

On our last day in Himachal Pradesh, we had a stopover at Kullu but after the mountainous splendour of Manali, Kullu came a sad second. At a much lower altitude than Manali, this town is primarily known for its markets and the day we arrived, the market was shut. So instead, we made our way to the renowned Vaishno Temple, a lesson in how opulent Hindus can be. Spread over several storeys each housing a different deity clad in the choicest of fabrics and colours, the temple felt more like a museum than a place of worship. Nevertheless, it is admirable how well maintained the place was. The temple also serves free food to anyone who comes by and we partook of some wonderful sweet rice and lentils. It struck me that every religion has a personality and one must choose as per one’s own traits and preferences. To have it thrust upon you by birth is so illogical! I might be a Hindu by birth but I definitely have a more Buddhist personality.

In Kullu, we also wandered into a beautiful garden as the sun was setting and an idyllic sight met our eyes.

Kullu

Kullu

We returned to Mumbai via Delhi, where we visited the Qutub Minar and experienced the crowds of the Delhi Metro. For a full account, click here. Himachal Pradesh was a beauty. From what I saw from my bus window, so was Punjab. We passed by numerous gurudwaras and beautiful gardens in the early morning, full of vigorous walkers dressed in traditional Punjabi attire. I was so glad to see this clean, sparkling version of India. While we waited for our bus to Delhi from Kullu, I was thirsting for a cup of ‘real’ tea. Hoping that she wouldn’t take offense, I asked the lady proprietor of a tea stall to add less milk and more sugar to my tea. And voila, she presented us with a cup that resembled Mumbaiyya chai pretty closely. So I left a mark on Kullu-Manali, after all.

A guide to Manali 

How to reach

If you live in Delhi, take an overnight bus from ISBT Kashmere Gate. You can prebook the tickets or get them on the spot. Reliable government operators include HPTDC and HRTC (which is what we took). There are grades of buses – if you’re on a budget, go for the special deluxe buses by all means. They are quite comfortable. If not, the volvo AC buses are the most comfortable for a good night’s sleep. If you live elsewhere in India, take an overnight bus from Delhi or Chandigarh. From Delhi, Manali is around 14-15 hours away and from Chandigarh, it’s a little closer. However, ticket prices tend to be the same, more or less.

Where to stay

We stayed at The Himalayan, a luxury resort and spa. If you can splurge a little, this place is highly recommended. If not, Manali is a very affordable place and you can find twin rooms starting from Rs 1000 per night. We did not notice too many homestays; resorts and cottages are more popular here.

Getting around

There are buses for nearby places – both government run and private. The private buses offer air conditioning at times and tickets are slightly more expensive. Either way, the buses are a lot cheaper than autos and cabs. However, autos are convenient if you manage to bargain a good rate. Several tourist operators offer cars if you’re in a large group – make sure you visit a few as all of them quote different rates.

Food and drink

There’s not much by way of local cuisine. The little street food that we sampled wasn’t a good experience. Go for the restaurants and choose the cuisine that you like, although it tends to be a bit expensive. The trout in Manali is really famous.

Shopping

Be sure to pick up woollens such as sweaters, caps, mufflers, scarves and gloves at throwaway prices at the market if you travel often or live in a cold place. Head to Kullu for more shopping options. You can also pick up the local sweets such as the fruit halwas if you enjoy desserts.

Activities

There are a plethora of snow sports to choose from at Solang Valley if you’re going between November and March. If it’s not snow season, you can still go river rafting on the River Beas. But be warned, it comes at a hefty price. We didn’t try it because we thought it would be a better idea at Rishikesh.

For a longer trip

If you have more than a few days at hand, do explore the nearby hill-stations Kasol and Manikaran. Around Manali, don’t miss Naggar (there’s a castle and waterfall) and Spiti Valley or Dharamshala if you have a lot of time to travel. In fact, all of Himachal is your oyster. The place is dotted with breathtaking villages and peaks.

If you have any other questions, please leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer. Thanks for reading.