From the King of the Castle to Hide and Sikh
16.01.2011 - 22.01.2011
I reluctantly left Orchha behind, taking another shared rickshaw to the train station. Comparative luxury this time as there were only about 10 people to share with. I then took a mere 90 min train journey (nothing in India) to Gwalior.
Gwalior seemed to be a bit of a disappointment at first, lacking peace, tranquility and beautiful backdrop of Khajurao and Orccha. Just another another noisy, dirty Indian town. The hotels were some distance however from the main attraction. This attraction happened to be though a 3 km long fort rising above the dusty city dating back to the Mhogul period. Much of it is intact including a 500 year old palace with external paintings (all blue) of ducks, tigers, crocodiles. Coca Cola ads (just kidding) etc. I hired a guide who told me about a former king (in the pre Viagra days) who lived with his eight wives (and 8 lots of benefit probably). None of them bore him a child. To lure wife number 9, a local beauty, he had a separate palace built just for her. Fortunately this all paid off and a child was born.
So I spent most of the day wandering around the fort, admiring the Jain sculptures carved into the rock and the various other attractions. I decided to walk back wandering around the streets of the old town, the land that time forgot! Not a tourist tout in site, just the hustle and bustle of traders selling there ware, pedestrians battling with rickshaws, rickshaws battling with motorbikes. But nobody battling with cows.
I got chatting to a local who invited me home to meet his family and have a cup of chai. He chatted, amongst other things, about his plan to take over the Indian Vacuum cleaner brush market.
My knowledge enlightened by polygamous kings and Indian floor cleaning crusades, the following day I boarded the train to New Delhi. This was a brief one day stop, having already spent some time in Delihi before. It was an opportunity to meet up with my Dad's cousin and family, including her husband, a former award winning film critic. After discussing the merits of Police Academy 9: Raise Your Trunction, over Saw 15: The Black and Dekker Kill I took the night train to Amritsar.
This holiday, other than the odd days trekking in the mountains, was the first time that I have experienced real cold in India. Hot water is a must in hotels. Sometime you even have to ask for an extra blanket as it can get surprisingly chilly at night. It is the transitional time between an Indian winter and Indian spring. Generally a great time to travel. It is like a very good English Spring and hence the constant sweating and clutching of a bottle of water is not necessary. Really a pleasant time to travel.. I was though warned though about the overnight train from Delhi to Amritsar. It was told Sleeper class would be cold (basic as the others were booked up). On this "arctic express" I slept with several layers on. I wish I'd taken the over night bus instead or even bought a blanket Even the penguins and polar bears were clever enough to book warm first class.
After inspecting my digits for frost bite, I arrived surprising quite awake despite having hardly any sleep. Like Gwalior, Amritsar seemed nothing special, just a number of dusty streets. Like Gwalior it was dominated by one main attraction. And what an attraction, indeed possibly one of the highlights of India in 14 Years. The golden temple is the Mekka for Sihks and people come from all over the world. I even met someone from Altrincham!. Had I only got a glimpse of it for 5 minutes it would have been worth it. You go through the very elegant gate and are confronted by this shining gold temple (750 kg of it to be precise on the roof). It is connected by a long walkway to an island within this huge tank, the size of a small lake. The circumference of the tank seemed to be about 400 metres. You just follow the worshippers circling this marvel anticlockwise whilst the chanting can be permanently heard. The atmosphere is mesmerising and I'm not religious. I even visited the place at different times. Sunset is especially magical as the colours and shapes transform on the rippled (by bathers taking a sacred dip) water.
Everytime you do visit the temple it is necessary to hand your shoes and socks in. On picking up my shoes one day I was alarmed to see that they were the pampered 'victim' of a bizzare shoe cleaning ritual. A chain of helpers were involved in the polishing process. When I was ready to pick them up I could almost see my reflection on them. I should have brought my dirty hiking boots instead!
The golden temple was under siege by Sikh extremists in the early 1980s. They didn't bother handing their boots in. Mrs Ghandi sent the troops in and 100s of Sikhs were killed. She herself was assassinated at the temple shortly after by her Sikh bodyguards. Similar carnage had occurred last century in a public garden that remembers a shameful moment in British colonial history. In 1919 a British general sent the troops in to quell a totally peaceful demonstration, this time by ordinary law abiding individuals. Almost 400 people were murdered. Despite all this both places seemed very peaceful.
On a lighter note I had also seen an event of pure Theatre. Amritsar is only 30 km from the Pakistan border. Every evening at 4.30pm, soldiers from both sides open the border gate and put on this amusing display. The border soldiers are dressed in a curious garb, with a head piece that can only be described as resembling a chicken. They do this peculiar pythonesque walk and put on this rather silly posturing display like confrontational Peacocks. The opposing crowds sing and chant patriotic songs and slogans. All very wierd but good natured. If only wars and conflicts could be settled in this vein.. In Northern Ireland in the 80's the paramilitary organisations should have put on bravado ballet display. Or perhaps in the disputed island of Cyprus, perhaps the Greek and Turkish Cypriots could have had a ball room dancing face off.
I must dance off now