Manali's `history' is really more myth than history. According to Hindu mythology, Manali was the home of the lawgiver Manu (after whom the town is named). Legend has it that when a flood deluged the earth, Manu and the gods were towed to dry ground by a giant fish, which was the seventh `avatar' of the god Vishnu. The area where Manu eventually found refuge was Manali.


Whether that's actually how it happened or not, Manali remained a fairly quiet place, more or less unknown to the outside world, till pretty recently. During the 20th century, the British started to frequent the town- its climate and natural beauty were equable enough- and Manali gradually began to acquire the reputation of a tourist destination.


This reputation got a bit tarnished during the 1970s and 80s, however, mainly because of the discovery that marijuana grown around the town was particularly good. After two decades or so of happy-go-lucky, joint-smoking hippies, Manali's now turning into a base camp for trekkers and intrepid mountaineers. Honeymooners and families from all across India still descend on the town throughout summer, though.


Manali, at 1,926 meters on the northern edge of the Kullu valley, is the most popular tourist resort in this area. Though it does not have the colonial characteristics of Shimla, over the last few years Manali has developed into a major hill resort, chock-a-block with modern hotels and tourist lodges.


Situated along the Beas River with a superb view of the perennial snow cover of the Solang Nala, Manali transports travel-weary tourists into the exalted heights of the Himalayas. Originally known as Manu-alaya or abode of Manu, the name was later simplified to Manali.


The ancient village is said to be the original home of Manu, the 2nd century BC lawmaker of the Hindus. Manali is the focal point for treks and mountaineering expeditions into the Solang Valley and over the Rohtang Pass into Lahaul-Spiti.


It is also the beginning of the epic two-day trans-Himalayan journey up to the cold desert town of Leh in Ladakh, connected by the Leh-Manali highway. Manali’s rapid ascent as a major tourist destination has been further accelerated by the rise of terrorism in the Kashmir valley.


Besides the local Kullu people, Manali is full of migrants including Lahaulis, Nepali labourers and Tibetan refugees. Manali is also one of the favorite joints of marijuana-hunters, ever since the hippie cult of the 60s.

Sightseeing in Manali

The Mall or main road of Manali is the hub of activity in this tourist town, lined with hotels, restaurants, shops, the bus station and many travel agencies. Though it carries the same British epithet as its counterpart in Shimla, the Mall of Manali has an entirely different character from the colonial flavor of the former.


It is more of a busy commercial street with modern concrete blocks of hotels that spill over with tourists in the peak season. Most of the hotels overlooking the foaming Beas River, however, do offer pleasant views of the valley, green terraced fields and the surrounding orchards.


To get a more authentic flavor of the area, take a half-hour walk from the Mall across the Manalsu nala to reach the village of old Manali. Also known as Manaligarh, the village has a ruined fort and a cluster of houses built in the Pahari style - with heavy stone roofs and wooden balconies projecting out of the first floor.


According to popular belief it is here that Manu; the lawmaker lived around the 2nd century BC. His treatise, the 'Manusmriti' is the foundations of Hindu law and of the rigid caste system based on Varna or profession.


Considered one of the most orthodox Hindu texts with strict role definitions based on gender and class, the Manusmriti continues to be followed by many devout Hindus even today. In the centre of the village is the Manu Maharishi temple, a relatively new shrine dedicated to Manu.


The village itself is an idyllic break from the rush of main Manali, surrounded by terraced maize fields and apple orchards. There are several guesthouses and cafes lining the path to the village. Inside the shrine is the brass icon of the goddess, surprisingly tiny compared to the huge temple structure and the legendary prowess associated with her.


The shrine is within a natural cave formation dominated by huge rock. A set of enlarged footprints on the rocks is believed to be of Hadimba, herself. In mid-July the idol from old Manali is brought to this temple for a major festival.


As part of the frenzied celebrations, several animals including a buffalo and a goat are sacrificed to the goddess. The blood falling on the stones is channeled to the mouth of goddess Hadimba. Not for the faint-hearted, this ancient ritual draws large crowds, along with some pickpockets who take advantage of the spellbound mobs.


Manali has the largest Tibetan settlement in the valley, standing out by their colorful new gomphas, many prayer wheels and prayer flags fluttering over the houses. The Gadhan Thekchokling Gompa, built in 1969 has a prominent yellow coloured pagoda roof and bright frescoes on the walls.


Inside the brightly painted prayer hall is a statue of Shakyamuni (form of Buddha). Beside the main entrance is a roll of honour listing Tibetans killed in the late 80s during the many violent uprisings against the Chinese occupation in Tibet.


The monastery is maintained through donations and the sale of carpets woven by the lamas within the temple workshop. A smaller gompha near the market has a large gold-faced image of Buddha, which is best viewed from its first floor verandah. Monks can be seen printing prayer flags in the open terrace.