After a long day of tourism, we were pretty much ready to head back to the hotel for a snooze but Mr Singh, our driver, had other instructions and wasn’t letting us go anywhere until he’d ticked off all the attractions on his list. The last of the day was to be the Vashista Temple. It’s located in the village of Vashisht just a few miles outside of the city upstream of Manali and on the opposite river bank.
Getting there took about 15 minutes as we passed along winding narrow roads. We had no particular expectations but were surprised when we arrived in a bustling little place, stuffed with tourist taxis. Everywhere else that we’d been had been very quiet and in most places we were the only tourists there – in fact sometimes the only people there. We realised there must be something a bit special about this place. We also solved the mystery of why there were no backpackers in the main city – quite simply they were all in Vashisht.
We still didn’t know what we were about to see but we left Mr Singh with a characteristically vague "back later" from us and a smile and a head wobble from him. He headed off to find a cup of tea and we set off up the hill, passing all the evidence of backpacker focus. Somebody had lost his passport and was offering a reward via posters pinned up on wooden electricity poles. Restaurants offered ‘international’ cuisine – including (and not temptingly) Israeli food as well as plenty of pizzas and easy foreign tourist food. Bars advertised cheap beer and film shows and if you were looking to get a massage or learn about meditation, this was clearly the place to be. I could almost taste the banana pancakes in the air.
We saw the temple just as we heard the sound of drums and horns and spotted a crowd of locals gathered around a small square. A young cow bellowed indignantly as two men tried to milk her in a pit in the middle of the square. On the buildings around the square, people were sitting on the upper balconies, looking for a better view of what was going on.
In the middle of the square stood a young barefoot couple, he in saffron robe topped off with a rather unattractive grey sweater, she in a white dress with embroidered edge and draped in a deep red, gold trimmed scarf. She was wearing her best jewelry and the two were joined by a pink scarf tied to each of them. Next to them stood another man, older than the first, but wearing the same saffron robe and a rather smart navy blazer. He was tied by a pink scarf to another young woman, dressed very similarly to the first. Beside her was an older lady dressed in the same way. I guessed – but wasn’t sure – that the two couples were getting engaged or married and that the older woman was the mother of the second woman. Of course, it was only a guess. We couldn’t ask the others around us as we were the only foreigners watching the events.
Back in the pit, the cow had gone and several men in impressive hats were lighting candles or lamps. One held a bunch of burning twigs and the drummer and horn blowers stopped their musical exertions for a while.
We were baffled about what was going on but rather enjoying being a part of it (whatever it was). Then my husband suggested that whilst everyone was distracted by the ceremony, perhaps we should nip into the temple since it would be quieter. A few minutes later when we were inside, we heard the musicians and the ceremonial party leave the square and head off up the hill past the temple. I’ll probably never really be sure what was going on but it was a rare opportunity to witness a ceremony that was clearly important to those who were involved.