Some holiday days are just packed full of things about which to write reviews and our day in the Himachal Pradesh town of Manali was such a day. Before noon we’d visited a major Hindu temple, strolled round a museum of local culture and visited the lamest so-called amusement park we’d ever seen. And there were still a couple more places to see before dinner.
Hopping back into our car, we asked our driver, Mr Singh, where we were going next. Actually since Mr Singh spoke only slightly more English than I speak Hindi (and that’s about two dozen unconnected words) the conversation was rather more a case of us getting into the car, giving Mr Singh a meaningful and expectantly excited ‘where next?’ look and hitting the road. We were off to Manali town centre to explore what it had to offer. We parked up just south of the city’s main street, known as most pedestrian streets in India are, as Mall Road. We parked in the sort of multi-storey car park that looks unfinished and may well be so. Mr Singh pointed through the car park to a brightly coloured temple and pronounced "Sir, Buddhist temple, very good sir" and then turned to point in the opposite direction saying "Sir, Van Vihar". The fact that this latter attraction didn’t get a "very good sir" was noted. We agreed to meet up again in 3 or 4 hours time and said we’d come back and find him.
It’s an observation based on multiple experiences with Indian drivers that they will always find you and when you think that maybe, just maybe, you can sneak up and catch them out by coming back early, they will be there, like the shop assistant from the old children’s cartoon, Mr Benn, the driver will always magically appear.
We decided to start with the ‘very good sir’ temple, more correctly known as the Himalaya Nyinmapa Temple and headed down a side street in the vague direction where we expected to find it. A large number of the (many) Buddhist temples I’ve visited have involved nose-bleed and cramp inducing climbs up the sides of mountains so it was a relief to find a temple sitting in the town and not requiring anything more strenuous than a brief, flat stroll to find it.
Most of the population of Manali are Hindus and traditionally there has been a religious dividing line that runs through the Rohtang Pass with Buddhism to the north and Hinduism to the south. There are now also quite a lot of Muslims, some of them fleeing the troubles in Kashmir in search of more stable places to live and work. But the influence that led to this temple being built in Manali is more recent. Manali has an influx of Tibetan Buddhists after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1951 and this is one of the temples used by those refugees.
The temple complex is laid out in a roughly square plot surrounded by the town’s side streets. It seemed to me that it took up a block of the city. A grassy enclosure was surrounded by fencing and a row of small rooms which I would guess were accommodation for those studying there. Within the square were a yellow-roofed temple, with a smaller rectangular building set to one side, a smaller yellow roofed building whose purpose I didn’t understand and a stupa, the traditional Buddhist reliquary. Next to the stupa was another small building. The most striking things about the buildings were the golden rooftops and the beautifully painted wood work.
A narrow pathway leads up to the temple with flowers growing alongside. The building stands three storeys high with the roofs sticking out over the building below. A large porch stands in front of the building and was covered in intricately painted pictures of flowers, leaves, the odd demon and symmetrical patterns. We took off our shoes and I paid a camera fee of 20 rupees (about 25 pence) to take my camera inside. The light was good and I was optimistic that I’d be able to get some good shots.
I struggle with Buddhism. Not the beliefs so much as the terrifically complicated iconography. I’m fine with churches, mosques and Sikh temples, and pretty good at understanding Hindu temples too, but I have a bit of a mental block on Buddhist temples. We spent 2 weeks being lectured at by a guide in Ladakh and another fortnight in Bhutan, but after a while it all washes over me. So if you know your Buddhist iconography, please give up now before my ignorance offends, move on, and don’t hang around to shake your head at my ignorance. Thank you.
The main deity is a two storey high gold-faced statue of a seated Buddha. From the ground floor you can see him only up to mid-chest level and to see the rest you’ll need to go upstairs. He cuts through both levels with the temple seemingly constructed around him. On the ground floor there are smaller statues to either side as well as glass-fronted wooden book cases holding the holy texts used by the monks. These look a little like stacks of coloured paper and fabric. We also saw a drum for use during meditation and a row of brightly painted boxes which may well have contained the monks robes. Brightly coloured paintings covered the walls which were not already covered by book cases. On the opposite side of the seated Buddha was another wooden case with small carvings inside and in front of it. A bank of coloured light bulbs seemed to be replacing the traditional butter lamps and candles and no doubt keeps the risk of fire to a minimum, even if they aren’t as atmospheric. Painted scrolls hung from the walls and the brightly painted wooden columns, small intricate paintings were leaning against a small window and I spotted a peacock feather duster propped in a corner.
We headed upstairs to look the big Buddha in the eye. On the upper floor a balcony surrounded the Buddha, decked out with more of the coloured light bulbs we’d seen downstairs as well as small metal bowls of water. To one side of the Buddha was a red demon-like figure with skulls around his head, brandishing a staff with another skull on top. To the other side a slightly less scary statue of a gold faced figure balanced up the scene. The Buddha sat beneath a yellow-frilled canopy suspended from the deep blue painted wooden ceiling.
The topmost floor of the building is not accessible to visitors so we headed downstairs again to walk around the outside and turn the prayer wheels. Rows of these sit along three sides of the building and I always like to take the time to turn them as I pass. With very few visitors around, we had plenty of time to turn each and I mentally chanted in my head the standard prayer wheel mantra. I find this helps me to think about nothing except the act of turning the wheels themselves and it always feels very therapeutic (unless I’m being chased around a temple by a large school party, at which point my thoughts may be somewhat less than pure and holy). The wheels should always be turned clockwise with your right hand and you should always walk around a Buddhist temple in a clockwise direction. I’m sure there are very holy reasons for this but on a practical basis, it stops you bumping into people.
Before leaving we left a donation in the box, put our shoes back on and retraced our steps along the pathway. This was the first Buddhist temple of this particular holiday and whilst it’s neither particularly historic, nor particularly beautiful, I hate to miss an opportunity for a quiet moment and a bit of prayer-wheel turning. If you’ve already seen lots of temples and are arriving in Manali from somewhere that has many more such places, you could probably give this one a miss, but we were just ‘warming up’ for the next day when we’d be heading to Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama in exile and a place with plenty of temples to see.