The Kullu Valley pushes its way deep, deep, deep into the Indian Himalayas. Zoom in on the valley’s most northerly point and you’ll find the grungy little town of Manali. If you zoom in a little further you’ll find, on the outskirts of Manali, immersed in six hectares of mossy deodar cedar woodland, the stately Hadimba Temple. And if you peak inside the 24 metre tall, triple-tiered Hadimba Temple, you’ll find a large boulder deemed a likeness of Hidimbi Devi.
Hidimbi Devi, in case you aren’t well versed in your Sanskrit epics, was a demon of the forest. She and her brother used to fall upon and devour unwary travellers – all who traversed the woods feared the demon siblings.
One day a great warrior, known as Bhima, was passing through the forest. Hidimbi and her brother attacked the warrior; a mighty battle ensued.
The brother was eventually slaughtered, but Hidimbi found herself smitten with Bhima. The fight was called off, and the warrior and the demoness were soon married.
Hidimbi renounced her wicked ways thenceforth, and devoted her life to meditation, prayer, and repentance. In a twist of fate, she is now a guardian deity for travellers.
The grounds of Hadimba Temple – the forest of which is protected from illegal logging by being denoted a sacred grove – are filled with locals, many of whom eke a living from the carnival related cravings of visiting tourists. Wizened old women clothed in traditional Himachal Pradesh garb pose for photographs with giant fluffy white rabbits clutched to their chests.
The women claim the rabbits are of Indian origin, but they are not; they are German Angoras. These giant rabbits are bred in India for their fur, which is used in a variety of wool products (many of the angora farms treat their animals terribly; these tourist hugging rabbits are the lucky ones).
Yaks roam the parkland, their long horns polished till gleaming, their shaggy coats brushed and neatly clipped. These woolly banthas are used for kiddie rides, and they can be seen slowly traipsing through the woods, pulled along by bored, cowboy-hat-wearing locals, with half a dozen squealing children clinging to their backs.
There are also helium balloon vendors, popcorn vendors, and ice-cream vendors. There is a miniature merry-go-round, a pint-sized ferris wheel, and an array of portable stalls selling gulab jamun, jalebi, burfi, halwa, laddu, and other super-sugary Indian confections.
The tourists that visit Hadimba Temple are mostly interstate Indians, travelling from Delhi, or Chandigarh (the capital of the neighbouring state of Punjab). They come to Manali to escape the heat and pollution of the plains and to enjoy the cool mountain air. When they have had their fill of Hadimba Temple they will pile into rented four-by-fours and drive to one of the waterfalls on the outskirts of town. Many will make the journey to Rohtang La (literal meaning: pile of corpses), an alpine pass, at just under four thousand metres in elevation, that leads to the Lahaul and Spiti Valleys.
After a few days, a week at most, the tourists will depart Manali, returning to the smog-enshrouded lowlands whence they came, and all the while Hidimbi Devi will be watching over them, keeping them safe.
Manali is located in the state of Himachal Pradesh, in the north of India, about 570 kilometres from Delhi. The bus trip from Delhi to Manali takes about 14 hours. It is most conveniently completed as an overnight trip.