Old Manali-'Dev Bhumi' or 'The Valley of the Gods'
This center of heaven
This core of the earth
This heart of the world fenced round with snow
The headland of all the rivers
Where the mountains are high
And the land is pure
- Tibetan poem
HIMALAYA- the Abode of Snow
“He who thinks of Himachal, even though he should not behold it,
is greater than he who performs all the worship in Kashi in a hundred ages of Gods.
I could not tell you of the glories of Himachal. As the dew is dried up in the morning sun,
so are the sins of mankind by the sight of Himachal”
- Skanda Purana
Sunrise on distant peaks
At the head of the Kullu Valley, on a tiny shoulder of the Himalaya, the eternal abode of snow, in a vast range of mountains and rivers without end, there is a small valley near the foot of the Rohtang Pass that goes up onto the high plateau, surrounded by eternally snow covered peaks which is Ladakh. It is called, Dev Bhumi, the 'Valley of the Gods'. That is where I have the small one room cottage where I live.
Looking up at the cottage where I live after the monsoon rains
It is a place for living, amongst a beauty and grace that brings forth flowers, fruits and pastures rich with lush grass for cows who provide a milk that is sweet and full of cream. The eye is delighted with what it sees wherever you look. The ears hear the constantly rushing waters of the snow-fed rivers and the air is soft with the feeling of pleasure and the sights of beauty.
I live where the Manalsu river comes out of snowfields, from peaks high above and then rushes down the boulder-strewn riverbed, loudly finding its way down the valley to Manali, where the Manalsu joins the Beas River that flows southeast into the Sutlej and then eventually pours into the Indus River, the very river that gave its name to India, continuing a journey southwest across the plains of India and Pakistan, pouring eventually into the Arabian sea.
The upper valley of the Manalsu- View from my house
Clouds on the mountains in the Deodar Forests after rain
Manali used to be called Manolaya- (the place of Manu). It is where the boat of Manu, the legendary progenitor of mankind and the (far more) ancient Indian archetype for the story of Noah's Ark, finally came to rest.
It was here in Manolaya, that earth was revealed to Manu, after a flood that deluged the whole world. It is a place worthy of being lived in by man and animals. It is a dramatically beautiful environment.
Very close to where I live and write, there is a temple of Manu Rishi, where the local shaman often performs religious rituals in the temple and ceremonies out in front on a stone courtyard.
Manu was created by the Gods as the very first of mankind. It was Manu who composed the Manu Smrti, the Laws of Manu which form the laws of the Sanatana Dharma which gave rise to Hinduism, the caste system and all the laws for living. Like Adam, Manu became the progenitor of all mankind and the first king of all the later kings of India. According to the Vedic scriptures, the story of Manu took place more than 10,000 years ago when great floods ravaged the world. This is how the story goes:
One day, Manu was washing his face in a river when a small fish swam into his hands. The fish spoke to him and asked for protection, requesting that he be placed in a larger pot of water so that he could escape the larger fish and continue to live. Manu did so, but the fish continued to grow, becoming bigger and bigger and Manu placed the fish in larger and larger bowls of water. Finally, the fish grew so big that Manu released it into the sea. There the fish revealed himself to be Lord Vishnu and in gratitude told Manu that a great flood was coming and he should build a boat to save himself. Further, he should take with him every seed, medicinal plant, tree and every animal on earth.
Manu did all of that. Then the rains began and accompanied by the Saptarshis or Seven Divinely born Rishis, his boat began to drift on the waves. The large fish returned and instructed Manu to tie his boat to a horn on his head (the fish). The rope used to tie Manu's boat to the fish was an incarnation of Shesha, the great Snake that always accompanies Vishnu and remains even at the end of time. Connected to the great fish- Lord Vishnu, by the eternally existing snake, Manu's boat was pulled to the Himalaya, where the fish told Manu to attach his boat to the tallest peak of the mountain and wait for the waters to go down. When the waters receded and Manu came down onto solid earth again, he stepped off the boat somewhere around here where I live in Old Manali.
Manu, with the Seven Rishis (Saptarshis in a boat pulled by the Matsya- an Incarnation of Vishnu )
The reason this valley is called the Dev Bhumi or Valley of the Gods is because of those Divine (not human born) Saptarshis (the Seven Divine Rishis- Vasishta, Bharadvaja, Jamadagni, Gautama, Atri and Agastya or sometimes Vishvamitra, Bhrigu and Durvasa) that accompanied Manu in that boat. When the waters receded, they came to live here in this place.
Vasishta established his ashram across the valley at a hot springs that is still there. Bhrigu Rishi had his ashram on a south-facing slope right across from where my cottage is. The great human-born Veda Vyasa, also lived here in this valley. Vyasa was the Rishi who arranged the Vedas into four sections, wrote the Brahma Sutras and composed the Mahabharata, the grand epic of India which contains the Bhagavad-Gita and the Bhagavatam Purana, the story of Lord Krishna's life. So vast and comprehensive is the Mahabharata, it is called the 'Bible' of India. It is said of this great story, 'If it isn't in the Mahabharata, it isn't'. Vyasa dicated that great epic right here in this Valley of the Gods to the elephant-headed God-Ganesh.
Vyasa dictating Mahabharata to Ganesh
The air here in Old Manali is inspiring and good to breathe. Tall trees and orchard-covered slopes rise to great heights from the rivers which pour through the valleys, scenting the whole atmosphere with the joyful mantra of their rushing waters.
On the hillsides are evergreen slopes of Deodars (Trees of God). Deodars are tall and mysterious Himalayan cedars and known for their healing qualities. In the morning, people with asthma will come out and walk amongst them. In ancient times, Rishis and Sages used these Deodar forests for spiritual practice and asceticism or tapas. When I walk through them I find myself imagining ancient Rishis sitting in their hushed beauty.
Deodar Forest with fog
When you walk up the slopes of these huge mountains, there are myriads of small meadows, filled with orchards of apricot, apple, cherry, pear, plums and wild gardens of flowers and food.
Apple Orchard full of fruits
Amongst the orchards, there are fields of barley, planted amongst the fruit trees, which are harvested in Mid-June. Then, in July, these very same small fields are again planted with corn for a second crop after the apples have been harvested.
Plowing the barley into the ground after harvest.
Getting ready for second crop of corn
As I write it is fall and every day I see men and women dressed in their exquisite everyday wear of handmade, handwoven beautiful clothing, walking up the narrow paths into the mountains, carrying their sickles and cord for cutting bundles of barley and hay which they bring down on their backs in huge loads piled above their heads. They want to harvest the barley before the monsoon rains come, slamming into the snow-covered peaks that surround the valley on three sides.
After monsoon, when the grass has grown tall and the sun finally comes out to dry all the greens in the small pastures, they again cut all the grasses and bring them in for the winter. A week after the monsoon rains have stopped, the small trails are filled with women and men going up into the mountains to cut the hillsides with their myriad meadows. After cutting the grass, they spread it out to dry in the fields or on the roofs of any houses available to evaporate the excess moisture.
Grass spread out on the concrete roof of my house to dry
Then, they bundle it up and bring huge loads of grasses down to their house on their backs.
Grass stacked in front of house to dry in sun before it is moved
into the lower part of the house to serve as the winter feed for animals
The monsoon comes in the early fall and lasts for over a month. There is daily rain, often day and night and everything grows, flowers, grass, herbs, weeds, fruit, rivers, creeks, and springs. What is a small rivulet of water that feeds the water for our spring, becomes a rushing small creek that runs right by my front door, overflowing its banks.
When the rains come, the walls of the concrete house where I live grows damp in places.
Rivulets of water are everywhere and everything grows abundantly.
The monsoon lets loose its water primarily on this side of the Himalayan range.
Very little moisture crosses over the mountains onto the Tibetan plateau.
Clouds after monsoon-Looking up towards the Rohtang Pass from the south
When you go up over the Rohtang Pass through a gap in the snow-covered peaks behind us and descend down into Ladakh, you find yourself in a high, dry and desert land.
Here, on the southern slopes of the upper Kullu Valley, the faces of the people are clear, bright and happy. They smile easily and walk slowly. People are rarely in a rush and nearly all the ways you can walk are going up or down and steeply so. On the paths high up above the rushing river splitting the valley below, iridescent blue butterflies, exotic birds and green and yellow flocks of parrots flit amongst the trees and flowers. Aware of it or not, these people live in the Valley of the Gods as this place is called and the Gods are known for their happiness. Nonetheless, I remember Hari Das Baba once wrote, "Those who live in the Himalaya, do not notice it so much." It seems this is true of all of us in all ways and all the time, we quickly become used to everything; however, during my first year here in the Himalaya, I noticed all of it every day.
Rising up as an exquisite backdrop to these grand hills are would be called great mountains almost anywhere else in the world, the towering lines of white waves, the great snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. Remote, distant, unsettled, mythical, they catch the first and last sunlight of the day and cannot help but radiate glory. Perhaps this last description makes too little of everything else here, for truly, the whole place is glorious.
The ancient name of the Kullu Valley was ‘Kulant Peeth’. It means- ‘the end of the habitable world’. It rises steeply up to the Rohtang Pass at approximately 14,000ft. When you cross the pass, one not only comes into Ladakh, Lahaul and Spiti, but into different geography and land- the culture of Tibet. Not only is the climate and landscape very different on each side of the Rohtang pass, but the look of the people on the Tibetan side of the pass at the head of the Kullu valley, is very different from those on India side of the pass although both sides of the pass are now part of modern-day India).
On the Tibetan side, the faces of the people are broader and their bone structure larger. Their eyes are flavored with a Tibetan/Chinese/Mongolian shape and they are primarily Buddhists instead of Hindus. The 'end of the habitable world', referred to the distinction between the weather, land, religion and cultural differences found on either side and of course the 'End of the Habitable World' would be meaningful to those on either side of the pass, but, I believe it arose out of India India, which saw 'the lack of civilization' on the Tibetan plateau when compared with that of the plains of India which were considered 'habitable' and the more easy to live in. This becomes all the more obvious when one drives over the pass and onto the high, desert like Himalayan plateau of Ladakh and Tibet. Either way, the 'End of the Habitable World' is a name that finds clear definitions here.
The 'Rohtang' Pass means 'a pile of corpses' and testifies to the unpredictability and difficulty of crossing this pass, as well as the large amount of people who sought to do so over thousands of years. It is the oldest and most heavily traveled pass between the Tibetan plateau and the plains of India. Manali, used to be a great trading center where goods from the north/Tibet were exchanged with traders coming north from Delhi and the plains of India and yaks and horses were fed and refreshed after their long and arduous trip. It was as if everything heading into Tibet, had to come over the Rohtang and everything coming from Tibet passed over the same route. Even today, because of bad weather, the pass is only open 7 months a year. The paved road that goes through it, was only built in the 1950's, when India realized that it needed to protect its northern region of Ladakh from potential Chinese incursion. Before that, everything went over the pass on foot, carried by man, yak, horse, donkey, sheep and goat. This year (2019) marked the opening of a tunnel underneath the mountain pass nearly 5.5 miles long and constructed by India.
Rohtang, in spite of being 'only' 14,000 feet high is surrounded by peaks that go up over 20,000ft. The weather that sweeps through that pass is changeable, unpredictable and powerful. Sudden snowstorms and blizzards are common.
Here, in the Kullu Valley, the men are truly handsome and many of them look like movie stars. By this, I mean the classic appearances of Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. Perhaps it is the food, the genes, the weather or all of it, but one way or another, the look of the people is like an old snapshot, one that refers back to a time when people were physically and emotionally healthy and the living was good and honest.
Pritham with a load of grass for his sheep.
He is my landlord, friend and a Hanuman devotee
As it is throughout India, much of the work in the fields is done by the women. They are strong, healthy and beautiful to look at. The women's culture is rich and extremely varied in occupations. Every day, the women spend a lot of time in each other's company; working hard out in the fields and forests, harvesting grains, fruits, pine needles in the Deodar forests, corn and barley from the fields planted amongst the apple and apricot orchards.
When I walked through the Deodar forest during the noon hour, I would see groups of women sitting around in a circle in a grove with their wicker baskets beside them. I would hear them talking and laughing, while their cows and sheep grazed all around them in the dappled sunlight that penetrated to the forest floor. They would be the envy of any Western woman for the support of their peers as well as their beauty, health and happiness. They harvest barley, wash the dishes, cut the grass, take care of children, feed the cows and gather food all day, working outside even when it is raining. They go into the Deodar forests and gather huge basket loads of pine needles that they carry back to their houses and use as bedding for their cows, sheep and goats who spend the long winters underneath the stone-roofed wood and stone houses while several feet of snow pile up outside and cold winds blow down the valleys from the great peaks above.
My house in winter after first snow
Almost every day of the year, if it is not winter, the women go up into the fields and orchards that cover the shoulders of the mountains and cut the grasses, which they then carry on their backs in large wicker baskets back down the winding stone paths to their cows, which mainly live in the stone courtyards of their houses.
Kullu woman cutting grass in the orchards just outside my house
Traditional Kullu House with lower floor for animals
They bring the grass to their cows, as it is more efficient than taking those large animals up narrow stony paths into the meadows every day. Much of every day is spent going up into the mountain meadows, cutting and bringing back large wicker baskets of this fresh green grass for their animals.
Now that the monsoon rains have stopped and the colder days are coming. Snow is appearing on the higher elevations and the trees are losing their leaves. The meadows and slopes of every hill are being cut for grass- food for their animals, to help all of them make it through the long winter to come. The woman cut closely around every rock and tree like they were mowing a vast lawn. The slopes of the mountains look like huge zen-gardens. the grass fields dappled with boulders after they are done.
Woman carrying basket of fresh cut grass
Goatherds take their flocks of Himalayan mountain goats much higher up into the mountain meadows for grazing as the goats are much more agile on the sides of mountains and more hardy than cows.
Himalayan Goats and Gaddi (goatherd) in upper valley pastures
Himalayan Goats at creekside
Closer to the village, the women wash their dishes in the constantly running faucets of clear mountain spring water that pours into troughs of stone hollowed out for washing.
Water trough carved into rock fed by constantly running spring water
Standing in the ice cold freshly flowing water, their feet are bare and they do not seem to mind it.
People smile at me and they are quick to laugh at me and at one another. Their eyes engage with mine and for nearly every one of them, their health is good. Once you get up onto the mountain slopes, on the steeply rising hillsides speckled with small villages, nearly every face you see is shining with an inner light.
Some smaller Himalayan Peaks
in back of our house
The mountains are immense here. Old Manali is at 7000ft and the snow covered peaks I see in the distance rise up to 18-20,000ft. The sense of scale here is much larger than anything I have ever experienced before. It is only clear, however, when you actually stand here and look. With pictures, the scale of it all is impossible to convey. When I look at the stretching-to-the-horizon, waves of the strong-shouldered slopes of these mountains, they not only extend horizontally, but, they rise up for a long, long ways and you see many tiny houses and even villages way up on the mountains where there does not seem to be any roads, because there are none.
Everything is carried on one’s back. If you build a house up on the mountain, all the building materials, logs, rock, concrete, rebar, windows, doors, tub, refrigerators; everything. It is all carried on someone’s back.
Kullu man with his wife carrying wood for burning
Nepali Porters with wooden framed rock carriers
Nepali and Tibetan men work as porters. All day I see them carrying rocks for building houses. They carry wooden framed 'knapsacks', up and down the steep hills . They come to Manali from villages in Nepal where they were born and lacking work in their native country, travel to Manali for the summer season and hire themselves out here as laborers. The loads they carry up steep hills are large. But, they don’t seem to notice. They outpace me walking with over 150lbs on their back and they were flip-flops! To walk up and down all day in this air and altitude has very good effects on one's health. I can attest to that personally and I don’t carry much weight.
One lives closer to the beginning of things here. Not only because this is the area where the first man- Manu settled. I also mean that the food I eat has been grown here. There are hundreds of small gardens all over the mountain. The local markets are filled with the produce that grows here. There is a local man- Efram, who gathers wild mushrooms and brings them down to sell. Later in the year he goes far up into the mountains and cuts and brings down our firewood for burning. He is always happy, smiling and enthusiastic.
Efram- a local man who brings down fresh mushrooms, lingeri and happiness from the upper valleys.
His older brother is the village shaman.
The water that I drink comes from a tank on top of my roof that in turn comes from a small spring that flows out of the mountainside about 300 yards up the mountain from my cottage, just below a small shrine to the Apsaras, the divinely beautiful dancing-girls of the Gods.
My water tank sitting on my roof amongst grasses spread out to dry in sun
This year, I built a small concrete catch basin where the spring issues from a rock and fitted a pipe in the wall of the small pool and ran a hose down to my tank on the roof. The water flows naturally by gravity. When it fills the tank on my roof, I take the hose out and just put it on the ground where it runs down eventually into the Manalsu River. Every time I fill the tank it gives me enough water for about three days and nearly every day, I go up the mountain to clean the intake for the water hose which gets clogged with leaves and twigs. One day I will make it in such a way that it keeps from clogging, but for now, I like going up there. While I am there, I see the water that I am going to bathe and wash with, coming directly out of the rock below a small shrine and it thrills me.
Apples, pears, plums and apricots grow just outside my door. Mint and wild edible ferns called 'lingeri' do as well.
Apple Trees in Full Bloom
I live on the side of a mountain and look out at snow covered peaks on three sides. In the midst of all this beauty, I feel vulnerable and at the mercy of greater forces than what I can muster. I need not believe in this. I can see it. I feel closer to the sun and the moon. I observe the cycling of the seasons and the waxing and waning of the moon. To be closer to nature is to be less insulated. In some ways, that makes one more grounded in what is actually true. . . the reality that our lives are largely out of our control.
When I look around, nature is extremely beautiful and at the same time, it is a big killing machine. Death is much closer to the surface of life here. Death is not hidden here, like in the West. It is good to know the real scheme of things in the world. Somehow such knowledge is healing.
Across the valley from where I live there is a temple to the Goddess Hidimbi. a while ago, the local village shaman went into a trance here and asked the Godess what they should do to make their life better. He was told, "You must treat your cows and your dogs very well." They do this but they also still do animal sacrifice here once a year to the Goddess, sacrificing one of each of nine kinds of male animals. However, other than that, the people do seem to treat their animals very well compared to other parts of India. The temple belongs to the Goddess Hidimbi. She was a Rakshasa or a demoness and a character in the great epic of the Mahabharata. This is her story:
After the Pandavas and their mother escaped from a fire in a house made of Lac, set by their enemies and meant to kill them, they fled at night through the forest. Exhausted from their narrow escape, they all fell asleep except for the fabulously strong son of the Wind God-Bhima. He stood guard.
They had wandered into the vicinity of a terrible man-eating Rakshasa-Demon Hidimba and his sister Hidimbi. This demon was, 'as dark as a rain cloud' and had hideous features. His ears were shaped like arrows, and the shock of red hair on his head stood erect. His powerful body, clad in a loincloth, was covered in wiry red hair. The Rakshasa was as tall as a tree and had broad shoulders. His arms, thick like tree trunks, reached down to his knees. His huge mouth was open, revealing rows of fearful fangs.'
His sister Hidimbi, didn't look much better. Smelling human meat, Hidimba told his sister to kill them all and then drag them back for him to eat. When she went to do so, instead of killing them, she fell in love with the strong and handsome Bhima at first glance. Thereupon she changed herself into a beautiful, human, womanly form (Rakshasas can change form at will) and approached him shyly. She had been smitten with love for Bhima and poured out the truth, telling him her real nature and the mission her brother had sent her on. Then, she pleaded with him to come away with her. Bhima told her that he could not abandon his brothers and Mother and that he was not afraid of her brother, Hadimba.
Suddenly, Hadimba showed up on the scene and seeing his sister in human form and talking to Bhima, realized that she had betrayed him. He roared in anger and said that he would kill them both and then eat the others, but Bhima engaged him in a terrible fight and killed him.
Hidimbi then pleaded with Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas to let Bhima marry her and give her a child. She eventually persuaded Kunti, as well as the eldest Pandava brother, Yudhisthira, of her sincerity and the 'rightness' of her cause. She was granted her wish. She bore a great son out her union with Bhima - Ghatokacha, a noble Rakshasa, who did great deeds in the Kurukshetra Battle, the great war which was the setting for the Bhagavad-Gita.
His story goes like this:
In the Mahabharata war, one of the dominant heroes on the side of the evil Kauravas was Karna. He had a divine weapon that could only be used once. This Divine weapon was Indra's weapon. It was the personal weapon of the king of the Gods. It had been gifted to him by Indra who was the father of Karna's chosen enemy- Arjuna. How did this happen?
Indra was concerned about the threat that Karna posed to his son-Arjuna in the war to come and also knew that Karna had taken a vow that he would not refuse anything asked of him immediately after he had performed his morning worship. So, Indra came begging to ask Karna for his natural armor, a Divine armor that he was literally born into that made him invulnerable.
Knowing that he would not be refused, Indra appeared as a sadhu and asked for the armor. Karna, knowing full well what was going on and who this 'sadhu' was, literally, cut the armor off of his body to honor his vow and gave it to Indra. Indra was so impressed with his adherence to truth, that he gave in return to Karna his own supremely lethal weapon, the Vasavi Shakti, capable of killing anyone. Indra told Karna that he would only be able to use it once.
During the battle at Kurukshetra, Indra's son, Arjuna, was the foremost warrior on the side of the Pandavas and Karna, one of the best warriors on the other side was holding that Indra-given weapon. Karna intended to kill Arjuna with it when they met in one on one combat. In the earlier days of the war, fighting was only engaged in during the day. But, as the battle went on, dharma was discarded, rules were broken and sometimes the fighting continued late into the night.
It was well known that Rakshasa's gain more power at night and one night, the Rakshasa son of Hidimbi (the Rakshasa/Goddess of the temple above) and Bhima - Ghatokacha, began to wreak havoc on the Kauravas. Ghatokacha fought furiously and defeated hero after hero on the Kaurava side, it became apparent to all that Bhima's Rakshasa son was irresistible that night and was going to destroy all of the Kauravas then and there. Duryodhana, effectively the supreme leader of the Kauravas, begged Karna to save all their lives and to use the Divine weapon of Indra to kill Ghatokacha. Needing to save his life as well as that of others and never wanting to refuse Duryodhana anything, Karna used the weapon and the Rakshasa- Ghatokacha, was killed.
Unknown to everyone except for Krishna and Karna, Ghatokacha had actually saved Arjuna's life with his exceptional bravery. Because Karna had used his special weapon against Ghatokacha, it could not be used against Arjuna.
The temple pictured above, across the valley from where I live is dedicated to the mother of Ghatokacha- Hidimbi. There is another smaller temple nearby, dedicated to Ghatokacha, himself.
According to the Mahabharata, the Pandavas stayed for some time in the Kullu valley during their 14-year exile from their kingdom. Later, at the end of the Mahabharata, after they had renounced their kingdom and began to travel up into the Himalayas to Heaven, which was located 'geographically' near Kailash in modern day Tibet, they again went through this valley on their way over the Rohtang Pass. This story, along with that of Manu Rishi, are but a few more events from the ancient Puranas, that took place in this valley.
View from my house up the Manalsu Valley in late September after snowfall in higher elevations
Sitting on my porch in the morning writing
Sunset from the roof my cottage. It looks like the view that inspired the apricot.
It is a mystery to me how I came to live in this place and I am thankful for it. All my life I was fascinated with the Himalayas and the stories of the Indian tradition.
Now, at least for a while, I have come to live right in the midst of all of it.
"I could not tell you of the glories of the Himachal."
but I will try . . .