The mention of Manali conjures up images of lofty mountains, gurgling streams, quaint cafés, hordes of tourists and the remnants of a hippie way of life. This town is one of the major tourist attractions in Himachal Pradesh. Every summer, you’ll see buses, gangs of motorbikes, private cars and taxis snake up the picturesque road along the Beas River towards this mecca of mountain vacations.
But, trust us, not everything caters to the tourists here in Manali. Every May, the town has a very sacred, very private celebration. For three days, Himachalis from the town and the surrounding villages gather at the Hadimba Temple in Manali to celebrate the birthday of their beloved goddess, Hadimba Devi, the guardian deity of tribals and travelers.
The Heart of It
Legend goes that the Dhungri forest – the forest that surrounds the present day Hadimba Temple – was ruled over by the demon Hadimb. He was a terror in the area and travelers avoided going through the forest, fearing his wrath. Hadimba was his sister, also a demon. The Pandavas, of Mahabharata fame, came across this forest during their travels and heard of the terror there. Hadimb appointed Hadimba with the task of seducing one of the brothers and thus learning of their plans. But Hadimba fell in love with Bhima. She told him the foul plans that her brother had for the Pandavas and subsequently, Bhima challenged Hadimb and defeated him. Bhima and Hadimba married and had a son, Ghatothkach – a vital character in the Mahabharata. After her son took over the reigns of his kingdom, Hadimba came back to the Dhungri forest to meditate. She soon acquired a pious reputation in the area and was considered a goddess by the locals.
The Hadimba Temple was built in her honor by Maharaja Bahadur Singh of Rajasthan in 1553. The temple itself is unique in its architecture. It’s a four-sided pagoda with a carved wooden façade. The roof is made of timber tiles and has a conical metal top. The temple has been restored recently since the original wood had decayed. Inside, there’s no idol or picture of the goddess – just a pair of footprints set in stone to commemorate her.
Every year, from the 14th to 16th May, the temple comes alive with the sound of drums, horns, singing and revelries. The Dhungri Mela – as the locals call it – is a lively, crowded affair with a celebratory carnival-like atmosphere. There are vendors selling pakodas, chips and other snacks. There are carnival rides for the kids and stalls selling local produce for the adults. There’s music, singing, dancing and much merrymaking, thanks to the locally brewed rice beer that flows freely at the festival.
People from the villages in the area bring their own village gods and goddesses to visit Hadimba Devi on her birthday. They carry the veiled statues of their gods and goddesses in a procession outside the temple. Admittedly, it’s a slightly incongruous sight – statues swathed with silk and brocade perched on precarious chariots, swaying to the beat of the drums and surrounded by people looking up at them adoringly. But then, such is devotion.
Till 2013, ritual animal sacrifices were part of the celebrations at Hadimba Temple, but a Supreme Court order banned this practice and since then, the followers of Hadimba Devi claim that the goddess has shown her disapproval of the ritual too! No animal sacrifices are done at the festival now.
Most North Indians have been to Manali for a vacation – but all we’ve done there is dipped our feet in the Beas river, gazed admiringly at the mountains or taken that ubiquitous trip up to Rohtang Pass. How many of us have actually explored the culture and traditions of the people who are hosting us in those mountains? This here, then, is that chance to learn something about the folk culture of the Himachali people. From their traditional songs to their religious practices, everything will be on display at the Dhungri Mela. And if you’re lucky you might just get to witness one of their folk dances – the Kullu Natti dance – that’s performed at the mela.
Where: Hadimba Devi Temple, Manali
When: 14th to 16th May
How to get there: By air, the nearest airport is the Kullu-Manali airport. Manali is also well-connected to Delhi and Chandigarh by road.
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