India, over, and out

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2010

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Flag of India  , Punjab,
Saturday, July 12, 2008

India has come and almost gone, and it's time to put some grease in the wheels and change up a gear after 2008 had been taking on the feeling of an endless summer - and a damned hot one at that.
Yet, the disturbing thing about this large country is that it tends to grab and shake by the scruff of the neck.
Leaving Kathmandu bound for India a week ago in a jam-packed public bus, with a pair of hobbled and cobbled cackling hens just behind my ear, Ayrton Senna raises himself from the dead and decides to inhabit the driver for the 100km hairpin spin down the slopes to the flat plains.
In reality: arms are locked full forward against the seat in front, against gravity, as the bus hurtles downhill towards a switchback, Ayrton hits and holds the honking horn, hits the breaks, steals the outside wheels past the precipice, over-corrects to stop the slide, and takes aim at the next bend.
Just as well this is reincarnation country, and that Ayrton seems not to have lost any of his skills during his absence.
Into the sweat of the valley, the armpit of the Himalayas, and on to the ragtag border town/zone of Nepalganj, where Indians and Nepalese do not require any documentation to cross the frontier.
Squelchy, muddy streets, ox carts, smoky 2-stroke splutterers and shanty shops laden with a peculiar assortment of electronic goods: suspicion reeks that customs officers know their A-Z of B-grade TV brands better than the local import and export laws.
A night in a dodgy, though friendly dump, and my faithful tricycle taxi eventually drops me at Indian immigration, where one is invited to sit at a table under a tree in the garden and sip on a cuppa while filling in the forms. Jolly, jolly, especially considering it is already approaching 40 degrees C at 9.30 in the morning and the tin roofs are hot enough to toast a sandwich on.
Squeezed 3-up into the front seat of a wee Suzuki 4x4 for a 5-hour ride to Lucknow - the roof so low that my head is cocked and flattened up into the upholstery, meaning now 45 degrees beats directly through the tin top into the noggin top. No fun.
The only reason for Lucknow is to catch the 16-hour train ride to Amritsar, on India's western boundary.
And 'the Residency' - site of a legendary siege against the British administration and forces, also deemed the first serious spark in the First Indian War of Independence, or the Indian Mutiny as the eventual losing side would have it.
Bottled up into 60 acres of the administrative headquarters of Oudh were about 3,000 Brits and Sepoys (Indians fighting for the Brits). An estimated 20,000 'freedom fighters' laid siege for 148 days before being driven off by a second British relief column. Less than 1,000 emerged from the Residency, laid to ruins under a barrage of sniper and cannon fire.
Nothing has been done to the broken, battered and blasted buildings since 1857, except for tailoring the gardens - it is now a national monument to the great battle for independence.
It is ghostly to walk in the banquet hall, once a magnificent, pillared, balconied building, pocked and holed with cannon and shell. Across the road, the doctor's quarters, where Governor Sir Henry Lawrence died early on from cannon fire wounds. On top of the hill, the residency itself, the cellars of which became home for the besieged. Everywhere there is rifle blister, and cannon shock. Huge holes in thick mortar. The barrage poured.
A small museum - dedicated to the besieging martyrs - carries artwork from the time, including a line drawing of the billiard room during the siege: in tatters, windows and walls smashed, and the apology of a billiard table on three legs.
Bodies were dragged to the cemetery by night, thrown into communal pits with short prayers.
The grave, a humble stone at that, of Sir Lawrence is still there, with the famed inscription: "He tried to do his duty".
Now it's full of local rubber-neckers, and the many nooks used as lovers' corners by wooing couples.
And on to the final train ride, this across half the width of India, east to west, heading for the Pakistan border.
I stumble into a compartment of freeloaders. If you don't have a ticket, you look for an empty compartment, not say a word, and drop anchor. Even if other people come in, it is doubtful they have booked all six bunks, so a sense of mystery awaits the crucial moment of when one decides who is going to bunk down where.
Enroute 3 well-heeled young lads, all mates off for the same job interview as a stock broker, I later discover, move into the compartment.
Their tickets prove they own three bunks, and the 'campers' are dispossessed. They look across at my side and one begins to babble at me in Hindi. I say nothing. He gets irritated and starts shouting 'down' at me in Hindi.
"Errhm, excuse me, old chap, I, err, don't understand."
The mouth drops, spittle is withdrawn, and he snarls: "Is that your seat?" ... "Of course."
What a chuckle.
The great beard strategy has finally proven itself. Looking a bit weatherbeaten, and a bit grubby, the lad had mistaken my 6" beard, and me, for a drifting holy man also trying to sponge a seat.
The beard was begun a few months ago as a strategy to engender just such an interaction. "Gotcha, ya little bugger."
The beard wobbles people here, where beards have all kinds of standing.
Are you Urdu, Pakistani, a holy man, from Punjab, a sikh? Each time one of these questions has come it means I am not being robbed, or hit up for buying whatever the flavour of the minute is. It has proved a well chosen defence.
Turns out one of the lads had served a few years in Durban, until he was hijacked and dumped, naked on the side of the road 2 years back. He didn't even go back to work, just home, packed, and said "bye". Odds are not that small of meeting one of those victims, after all! Nice guy, Ricky ("like Ricky Martin"....ja)
And now in Amritsar - for fear of boring, another Holy City. But this one with bells on. The home of the Sikhs. The home of the Golden Temple. A dry city. No grog. No cigarettes allowed to be smoked within 500m of the temple grounds. No tobacco or alcohol at all is allowed into its grounds.
Sikhs abstain (or should) from all narcotics, including tobacco, alcohol, as well as meat. A purist folk who believe in "righteousness" and hard work.
Dangerous word, righteousness, yet one that seems to carry a sense of egalitarian and utilitarian wisdom here.
Seems the Sikhs grew out of disillusionment with Muslim and Hindu hard-arsedness. One Guru Nanak, founder, drummed up a working philosophy of life hinging on three tenets: meditate on the eternal, work diligently and honestly, and share the fruits of one's life. I rather like the sentiments.
Turns out the Golden Temple might just be the most free place in India. It embraces none of the chauvinism that so bedevils other local religions.
Overriding is Sikhdom's tolerance for all. The temple is open to all, of all colour, race, creed and sex. All that's required is that you walk in bare-footed, and cover your head. Cover your head?
The giant guard at the gate in his purple robe, foot long black beard and 10' spear just shook his head at me and pointed at my head. Huh?
"Hat, hat."
I walked away in puzzlement until a kindly woman pointed to a large plastic bin.
Peer in, find a pile of golden and orange scarves available to the public, if you are not one of the majority that wears a turban anyway.
Delicately poke around and try and find the cleanest one. Heavens knows who, where and what might begin to nibble on my scalp in a few days' time.
Sandals to the shoe minder, through the flowing, floot-cleansing trough and into the 'courtyard' - a pool 100m x 100m ringed by a 5m marbled walkway, flanked then by a rank of temple type structures.
In the middle of the lake stands 'the' Golden Temple. Pure gold, around 12m by 12m and 3 floors high. Magnificent. Exquisitely beautiful, connected to the pool rim by a thin walkway.
Hundreds of people walk around the pool, down the walkway, into the temple. Sit on the side and look, meditate, listen, smile, muse. It is unbelievably peaceful.
It feels pure. It is physically pure. Large fish swim happily. The water is clean. There is no rubbish in the streets outside. There is a love for this temple, for the wisdom that eminates from the scriptures within.
And continuously, the music plays, and the voice reaches out. From 4am to 10pm a singer chants and sings the words of the ancient Sikh gurus, rhythmically backed by a lone, plaintive, then excitable timpan drum.
Free food and water is dispensed to all.
In the surrounds no food and water is allowed to be sold.
Women have the identical rights as men.
It is the most quietly, beatifically peaceful place of worship I have entered in India, maybe ever.
People bathe in the water, believing in its holy powers, legends lent by ancient tales of healings.
I sit, for a long time.
This is beard city. Big beard city. Punjab beards, Sikh beards. My beard draws eyes, intrigued eyes, puzzled eyes. The trick is to acknowledge nothing. Just be, and leave the guesswork to the watcher. It holds them at bay.
All the great beards you have ever seen, long, flowing, short, cropped, tight, tweaky little moustaches, cornered, twirled, flattened, spaded etc etc etc all live here.
The sun sets, full on the temple, the gold comes alive. As the shadows lengthen the temple finds life, the light moving, the gold brightening, and darkening.
The temple is open to all 24/7. I return at midnight.
The entoning has ceased. Stunningly there are hundreds of people, most lying flat, on the cool of the white marble in the cooling eve, bathing in the golden glows being thrown off the lighted temple.
Even more peaceful.
A rare place in the world. Pure! No smoking for 500m, all the people within the walls are non-smokers, non-drinkers, vegetarians. Physically pure. Everything is clean. Breathing seems to fill one with this cleanliness. The odd person quietly chants a verse or two to himself. Sometimes others will pick up and the hum will spread, then diminish.
As holy as Varanasi, yet so different. All seeking enlightenment. Yet a beast with a different heart.
But let's not forget why the world knows about Amritsar.
1919. Not all that long ago. 150 British soldiers cornered 20,000 peaceful anti-colonial protesters in Jallianwala courtyard/park about 500m from the temple and fired point blank into the crowd - without warning. 300 odd killed, 1,500 wounded, 200 die after jumping into a well. Numbers from a variety of sources are disputed. These are the figures from the park's memorial.
Again, walls are left pocked, pocked, pocked with death. Each soldier fired on average 33 rounds before sanity resumed.
2,000 dead in Lucknow, 2,000 blooded in Amritsar, city to city. This country grabs the scruff of the neck, and keeps throwing up the beard, the 2,000, the well ...
It's Pakistan tomorrow.
I will return to the temple tonight, for one final golden bath.
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