On my way back from the Manali bus stand yesterday, after enquiring about the ticket, I decided to make a quick stop at the pine forest that marks the road leading up to the Old Manali bridge.
Running down from the slopes of the Hadimba temple, the forest is first abruptly bisected by the road and then further down valley is stunted by metal grills near the bank of river Beas. This pine forest is your quintessential location for a horror story.
I was here the last time with Puneet. We had walked in towards the afternoon and loafed about till the evening. Finding an enormous rock to accommodate us both, we had settled down to smoke in the eerie quietness of the gigantic, overbearing pines as the sun light mixed with the mist and scattered around all over the place. I remember we had screamed gibberish into the stillness of the air and sung songs to challenge the mist that rose steadily and accumulated mid-air, undecided of its future. Lovely memories.
I couldn’t quite resist the temptation to relive something similar to that this time too. Just that I entered a tad too late. It was about 6.30 in the evening and the sun was already setting over the hills on the far west. By the time I found a nice moss free flat rock where I could plant myself, my eyes were already straining themselves to see clearly around the forest.
The crickets and an entourage of other bugs with the strangest croaks were about their daily duty of adding ambience to their surroundings. Punctuating a kind of foggy silence that’s hard to explain. I roll a cigarette from my newly acquired packet of golden Virginia. The smell of fresh tobacco merging with the freshness of the greens around me.
Even though I sit really close to the fence, facing a branch of Beas where tourists of the season holler and wade over slippery rocks, I can’t ignore the ocean of silence behind me. Even though I’ve not walked too far away from the entrance, I can’t hear anything from the road that hugs the forest on two sides. Neither can I see the entrance from where I sit.
The silence is so heavy I can feel it pressing against my back and my ears. I try my best to ignore it but it won’t let me. Jim’s stories from last night at the café, about the notorious legends of the Hadimba temple crowd my mind.
Jim and Badal (both cynics from Delhi) have cooped up in a home of sorts near Hadimba Temple. They party late till night at Gravity and return home to crash. It’s been a month they have been at it. However, the locals have warned them about using the route after 12 and till 1.30 at night. “Don’t mess with the goddess” they have been told. But Delhi folks. Do they believe in such stuff?
However, Jim recounts how one night while walking up, they encountered a horrible stench. The next day Badal narrates the same story minutes after we have met. He says he thought he saw a tank and decided the smell was coming from there. Jim’s logic suggested they should keep going straight without stopping. The next morning they didn’t find the stench, nor the tank.
Another time, they found the stairs on their route flooded with blood. A darker shade spilling down the dark steps at night. No one else in sight. Just the blood, a sign of quenched life. “It must have been a goat sacrifice”, Jim nods knowingly. City folks. However, they did admit to being more pious now, “It’s not a good idea to mess with the goddess.”
All this just across the road that bifurcates this pine forest from the slopes of the Hadimba Temple. The road from where I have entered. The one I can’t spot now in the darkness at 7 in the evening. It’s completely dark now. Not twilight like I was telling myself just 5 minutes back. It’s night now.
I turn left and my imagination shows me something I don’t quite want to see. And then I look right. Did something move? Did I hear something? I decide to make a move. What if the gate closed? I’m travelling alone and must be responsible for myself.
I panic when I realize I can’t see too well in the darkness. I must now rely on my memory for the road till the gate and hope that I don’t twist my leg in a ditch and that no dark hand appears to grab my neck.
The perils of avoiding company (and of being spooked too easy).
I was out, of course, to write this. But it’s only on the next day that the fear I felt yesterday makes itself apparent as I try to relax under a blanket in a wind stricken hut in Batal (3,960 feet above sea level) after a bone breaking, spirit crushing journey past Rohtang Pass to the wind capital of Spiti.