Like a video game, happiness comes in levels—singing in the shower, chocolate after a diet, the first experience of snorkelling. It’s easy enough to crack the first level when travelling—usually just the thought of going on holiday has me humming—but it can get tricky after that. Three days into a road trip with my family, I had accumulated a hoard of good moments—belly laughter, delicious food, and resplendent views—but I was still unprepared for the bone-deep joy that I encountered in Vashisht Mandir, an ancient temple in its namesake little Himalayan village near Manali.
My aunt and I had wandered out of curiosity into the women’s hot spring bath, a small, simple enclosure in the temple courtyard. The water from the narrow tank gushed out through pipes in the adjacent tiled bathing area, and the women squatting under the jets seemed to be on to a good thing. I’d never seen ladies in India bathe with such abandon, completely bare or in the absolute minimum, in a public place. Nobody seemed ready to move. The completely unexpected scene at the bath had wiped my mind clean like a slate. I looked over at my aunt, unsure if we had the time. “Go in,” she said.
I found myself first testing the steaming water with my toes, and then finding a place under the flowing pipes. My pants were hanging on a hook; I was only going to wet my knees. This was one of those moments, I thought, when Douglas Adams’ advice to travellers to “always carry a towel” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would have come in handy. After the first few scalding seconds though, the sulphuric spring felt so good that I simply stepped out of all my clothes and held them aloft in one hand, squatted on the tiles, and dunked my head under the pipe.
The sunlight was warm on my face, the mountain air still a little nippy. I was vaguely aware of other human beings but it was immaterial; the hot liquid felt like a mother’s embrace. A part of my mind registered the strangeness of not feeling body conscious in my own country, where I’d grown up learning to shield my form from the public gaze. But I was also remembering a long-forgotten state of naturalness that had all the familiarity of childhood. In that moment, I felt in immediate harmony with the women who stepped here before me. Perhaps it had taken them too only a second here to rewind time and innocence and step out of salwar kameezes and saris.
After a few long, slow, blissful minutes, my mind quiet, I emerged from the tank and slipped my clothes on, my hair dripping telltale streaks down my shirt. A couple of fellow bathers smiled at me. Most looked introspective, in their own zone—the bath was as settling as a good massage. Himachali temples were known for their ornate wood carvings, and I noticed a dark panel on the wall with the face of a man in the centre—the sage Vashisht, someone said. Perhaps not, but I sent up my thanks anyway. Back outside, my family was amused by my dampness, and happy to hear my aunt say that the aches in her feet had lifted.
Vashisht had emerged on our tempo’s windscreen as a typical tourist draw—narrow lanes with higgledy-piggledy shops hawking shawls and jewellery, restaurants with boards announcing freshly caught trout, and beautiful traditional homes against mighty Himalayan views. I expected to come away with lunch, or earrings. I hadn’t known until that bath, how liberating it would feel to drop my guard and move naturally among my own people. In a mountain village, when I least expected it, I got to experience a different set of rules. It was a sweet freedom I wouldn’t forget. One that drove home an important point: Though we may travel the earth, we can never guess which way happiness lies.
The village of Vashisht lies about 8min/3km by road from Manali in Himachal Pradesh. Autos from Manali ply to Vashisht and back, as do local buses.
There are frequent bus routes from Manali to Delhi (570km/14hr) and Chandigarh (300km/8hr). Bhuntar Airport is the closest airport (49km/1hr20min) to Manali, although Chandigarh is more convenient and is likely to have cheaper flight tickets too. The Himachali railway stations of Una and Jogindernagar are the closest to Manali but Chandigarh’s railway station is more convenient.