Day 4 The Mount of Olives

It had to be done. Well I suppose it did. Can a Christian come to Jerusalem without viewing Christ’s supposed tomb? I think not. But neither it seems can most other religions, agnostics, atheists etc. which is why you have to get up early. 6.30 in our case and arriving at The Church of the Holy Sepulchre at about 7.30. Dani and Mike had gone to a 6.30 mass and it was pure luck that we joined the queue to get to the tomb directly behind them. The queue was not moving. We stood an chatted. Still no movement. At about 7.45 some thing seemed to be going on up ahead and sure enough the queue moved. Slowly we inched forward until at about 8.20 we got to view the marble slab on which he supposedly lay in the tomb. From there it is but a short walk and a short queue to view the supposed limestone mound which was Golgotha. Of course it didn’t have to be that high as being on a cross made you all to visible ‘pour encourage les autres’. There is a gilded hole above the stone which I assumed was to put your arm in to feel the stone. I was somewhat surprised to find it full of litter. Then it dawned on me that these were bank notes. How better to commemorate the death of our Saviour than in dollar bills or shekels?

 

We did not linger and headed back through empty streets to our hotel and breakfast. At the Damascus Gate Christine noticed a woman n a red coat and bobble hat standing absolutely still in front of it. Christine had noticed that she had been there at 7.15 when we had passed through. Very odd.

We met Dani and Mike for breakfast and then set off to the. Mount of Olives. We headed back to the Damascus Gate. I was now 10.00 but the girl was still in the same pplace. I asked her what she was doing and apparently it was some form of independent film project. Her cameraman was on the steps to her left.

We walked down the Via Dolorosa looking for Lion Gate and St Anne’s Church. I mistook one of s number of arches for the fate and then got us completely lost. Eventually we found St Anne ‘s and it was heaving! The church is Romanesque and beautiful in its simplicity. It has a remarkable acoustic and an American Choir was trying it out with Amazing Grace. If sound quite impressive, in spite of their pronounciation. Once they had left we had the church to ourselves so I gave a quick solo of ‘Lord we beseech you.’, and yes the acoustic is quite remarkable:even  my voice sounded passable!

 

It is hard to work out what is what outside the church so many generations gave built over and around the pools. Add to this the vast numbers of awed Americans and clamorous Chinese and the whole experience becomes hard to enjoy. However they do stay with their leaders, few wander from the throng, so we found a walkway around the other side of the site and enjoyed some relative peace. The pools, north and south, I was particularly keen to see having written about them in both of my religious monologues, Febronia and Mary, particularly the latter. I was not disappointed. With the help of a simple guide and some plaques we managed to piece together what would have been there in the time of Christ. I imagined Mary in one of the rather posh rooms situated between the pools, favouring the northern one where the water was cleaner and the common people did not enter.

Outside the Lion Gate we entered a Moslem cemetery which gave us good views across the Kidron Valley towards the massive Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. We crossed the Kidron or Valley of Jehoshaphat, dodging the multitude of tourist buses and taxis and eschewing the Basilica of the Agony, we found a quiet road up the edge of the Jewish cemetery to a viewpoint at the top of the Mount. The sun was beating down and it was quite a climb, but well worth it. As we passed the Jewish cemetery I pointed out the stones piled on many of the graves. “Why do they do that?” Christine asked. I reminded her that at our Family Remembrance Service only a couple of weeks ago I had based the service on this Jewish ritual and we had all laid stones around the font. It clearly had made quite an impact!

 

We treated ourselves to a cereal bar as we looked across to the walled city and then after using the impeccable toilets we headed further up to the Mosque of the Ascension. Within its grounds is a beautiful little chapel dating from about 1200. Inside is a piece of stone with a supposed footprint our Lord left behind as a left for heaven. If so, he had surprisingly large feet.

 

We descended via a much busier road and enjoyed an overpriced, but delicious pomegranate juice at a small cafe at the bottom. Back through the Lion Gate we navigated our way across the old city to the Jaffa Gate. The Via Dolorosa was blocked in places by thrombosises of tourists, clustered around their guides, drinking in every word and quite oblivious of everyone else. Eventually we struck off away from the crowds, but met them again as we approached the Jaffa Gate.

 

Our aim was to walk on the walls which run between Jaffa Gate and Dung Gate. It cost 18 shekels each, but I produced my senior railcard and got in for 8 as a senior citizen! The walk was lovely but hard work. Every tower had massive stone steps up and down and by now our legs were feeling like jelly. At Dung Gate we set off in pursuit of refreshment, but decided instead to buy some cakes and head back to the hotel for afternoon tea on our terrace. We bought some delicious cakes from a stall near the Damascus Gate and as we passed through there was the girl, standing in the same spot. Christine asked if she had had a break and was released to hear that she had. She was still being filmed, so I presume we are now part of an art installation to be screened in the future!

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Tomorrow we leave Jerusalem for the Sea of Galilee and hopefully a less frenetic and cheaper few days.

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N.E. India – Day 13 – Darjeeling to Kolkata

 

Another travelling day today, driven by 3 of the shortest drivers imaginable. When clustered together they look rather like a tea bush and I half expect a tall woman in a sari to pluck leaves from their heads. The worst thing is that our one barely looks old enough to have left school. However they are remarkably skilled drivers, treating their vehicles as a second skin, squeezing them through gaps where surely only a motorbike would fit. With consummate ease they brought us swinging around the curves, spiralling down to the plains below.

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From there it was a straight forward run through the Indian equivalent of Salisbury Plain (one of the biggest army camps and training areas I’ve ever seen) to Bagdogra airport. It was crowded but we soon got through check in and security and into the departures lounge, where it was standing room only. Mark led the British charge and laid waste to all in his path as he headed towards a coffee and snack bar, the rest of us following in his wake. Somehow he got wind of a further lounge right next to our departure lounge which was almost empty so we formed camp there.

The flight was a little delayed and we had got there early, so we had about a 2 hour wait, but at least we were sitting in reasonable comfort. When our flight was called we walked to the tarmac and were then herded into buses for a 100 metre (I kid you not!) drive to the airplane’ steps. I disobeyed instructions and walked, only to find an empty plane as everyone was being held captive, nose to sweaty armpit on the buses. I settled myself in and was soon joined by the others. It was an uneventful flight – which of course is just what one wants!

We were met at Kolkata ( what a lovely airport it is – 4 visits now and it really does grow on you) and taken by bus to our hotel, a mere 10 minutes away. Tomorrow is an early start as our flight back to Blighty is at 9.45..

This will be my final blog on this trip, so if you have been following, then thank you and I hope you have found it interesting. We have thoroughly enjoyed the 4 weeks and there have been many highlights, nevertheless I think we’ll be glad to return to the U.K. and get back to some sort of routine. Saturday morning I am doing some filming, then there are church accounts to finalise before the APCM, a family service to plan for the following Sunday, rehearsals for the Freedom from Torture evening, a script to finish, ……actually I wonder if Christine fancies going on somewhere else. Japan’s quite close……..darling, how do you fancy……….?

N.E. India – Day 12 – Darjeeling 2

A rather wet and foggy start to our last day of pure sight-seeing in India. The minor irritants of this ‘luxury’ hotel did not get the day off to a good start. The shower was luke warm and we discovered the same was true for everyone else in the group. Furthermore our breakfast coffee was Nestle instant. No fresh coffee was available. While we would quite understand if this establishment was at the lower end of the market we are paying a great deal to stay here and so little things like these are quite annoying.
Anyway, we said goodbye to Karen and Tom, who are returning early for a wedding, and then got into 3 cars and headed for Tiger Hill in the rather optimistic hope of seeing Mt Everest or at least some of the lesser peaks of the Himalayas. Instead we visited a building site with a good view of Darjeeling. It appears they are building a viewing platform for those who come to see the sunrise, which apparently is not as good as it once was due to climate change. Optimism runs deep in India.

We came back down the hill, squeezing between parked cars in the last few yards with barely a Rizla between us. We crawled in heavy traffic along the route we had done yesterday in the train. We crossed the town and went up another hill road to the Centre for Tibetan Refugees. This is a pretty grim place, made worse by the rain. The toilets must be the worst we have encountered on any of our trips to India. We visited the shop, but saw nothing that Christine and I wanted to buy and I went around the photographic exhibition which was quite interesting. It was very cold and so wet, and a little miserable, we returned to town. We walked onto the Mall and visited the bookshop again. Christine and I went into a shop that sold tea and artisan goods from small producers and bought first flush tea at a fraction of the price that we could have at yesterday’s tourist shop. We also went into the oldest shop in town which is like an Aladdin’s cave, fully of jewellery and artefacts.

Once more we went to Glenary’s for lunch and some real coffee. It really is very good value for money.

Now our party split, some going back to the hotel and us two and David going to the Botanical Gardens. Rather ominously this involved a great deal of walking down hill, which would a great deal of up hill later! The gardens are in a pretty grim part of town and are approached along a street lined with washing hanging up to dry. However the gardens were well worth a visit with some stunning orchids and a beautiful hot house. The whole place had been allowed to deteriorate over the years (it was established in 1878) and had become the haunt of courting couples and those who were keen on that rather common species ‘Inflagrante delicto var. al fresco’. Now there are guards on the gates and you have to pay admission, so if it is still a outdoor bordello, at least it pays its way!

We set off back up the hill, taking it very steady, but David was clearly finding it a bit much. When we got to the informal bus station, he asked if we could take a taxi the rest of the way. Our guide immediately set to work to find us one, but the whole area was in utter chaos as it was the end of school and it was heaving. How we didn’t get flattened by a bus or taxi I don’t know, but somehow we survived. Our guide found us a taxi which was willing to take us up to the hotel for 250 rupees (about £3.00). Whether it was capable of getting us there looked unlikely as it was in a considerable state of disrepair. Still it was nothing if not game and its little engine laboured bravely under the strain of three large Europeans. We gave our driver 300 rupees in the hope that the extra 50 rupees might be spent on maintenance.

Tomorrow the long descent to the plains which promises to be a nerve shredding and bowel opening experience – I apologise for the coarseness, but I promise you I do not exaggerate. Forget coffee fir breakfast, we’ll break out the Imodium. Tomorrow night in the big city – where? Oh, Calcutta!

N.E. India – Day 11 – Darjeeling

I did manage to sleep well last night, despite reeling from the cost of a bottle of Indian wine at £35 pounds. If I tell you that I could have bought a glass of it today for a mere £4.50 in another restaurant, you will see why! Frankly it has left a nasty taste in the mouth about this otherwise delightful hotel. The room is well appointed, the shower is hot and effective and the bed is vast and very comfortable. Add to that the pleasant and efficient staff and the excellent grounds, it seems a shame that they have to resort to ripping off guests in their bar. Anyway, I may take it up with the manager when I come to pay our bill!

Today we breakfasted quite early and then were driven to Darjeeling station for a ride on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Needless to say that a number of us were like 9 year old kids! The station was quite busy with a diesel shunting carriages around. Over the road were a number of steam engines being prepared for their journeys. Mark, of course, couldn’t resist the opportunity to climb on the footplate.

The ‘toy train’ was built between 1879 and 1881 and is a remarkable feat of engineering. It zig-zags and loops its way from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling, climbing 6,850 feet over its 50 mile length and takes 9 hours to complete the journey. It is now a UNESCO world heritage site and rightly so. We opted for the ‘joy ride’ to Ghoum and back.

We climbed on board and squeezed into our seats, buttock to buttock. The steam engine whistled and we were off, straight across the Main Street of Darjeeling and then along the side of it. At times you could have grabbed packets of crisps from the shop fronts, if you had a mind to. The train criss-crosses the road and long tailbacks of traffic form. Not long after starting we stopped for water and it was reassuring to see the guard apply the individual brake for the carriage! Then we pressed on to the Batasia loop. In places, the only way the train can climb steeply in a short distance is to do a complete loop. At the top in the centre of the loop is a fine statue to the Gurkhas who have died in battle. The views from here are spectacular an£ no doubt even better on a clearer day. We had 10 minutes here and then we headed for Ghoum.

Ghoum station is rather attractive and there is a small museum about the railway. We had half an hour to mooch around and had the added bonus of a second steam engine and carriages joining the first. Then we headed back to Darjeeling. It was quite wonderful. The noise of the engine, the smell of the steam, the shriek of the whistle, the smuts in the eye…..it was all too, too…….brief an encounter, but “thank you for coming back to me darling.”

We left the station with our guide and walked up onto the Darjeeling Mall which is like the Maidan in Shimla. It is a wide open space on a ridge lined on one side by shops including a wonderful old bookshop. At one end, backing on to Observatory Hill is an open air theatre. Eventually we entered a restaurant called Glenary’s which was a fine colonial building turned into a charming restaurant with fine views. We sat at one long table and were impressed by the range of dishes the kitchen could offer. And very good dishes they were. Christine and I opted for vegetable gratin and chips and it was delicious and certainly worth every penny of the £9.00 total we paid! Service was excellent and we all ate very well.

Then followed a walk down into the market, which is always fascinating and made more so by our guide who could tell us what everything was and what it was used for. Wonderful fruit and vegetables, dried fish, pulses, incense, spices etc. The market is in the old colonial parade ground and above are some of the old government offices.

Our guide then led us into a tourist trap, but then it was expected! We were taken into a tea shop (selling tea rather than scones and clotted cream), and we had the different teas explained and a taste of 6 of them. It was very interesting, but of course we were expected to buy and the prices were high. Christine and I settled on 50gms of white tea for about £8.00!

We wandered back to the Mall, to find that the bookshop was shut. However a few minutes later it was opened and we went in. There were books piled everywhere and massive shelves filled to the brim. We were like kids in a sweet shop. Of course we couldn’t take much away because of weight restrictions, but we settled for a book on the common birds of India in the hope that we might identify some in the pictures we had taken.

Christine and I decided to walk around Observatory Point as it had stopped raining. The views should have been fantastic, but the fog that lapped the hillside meant that little could be seen. Still we enjoyed the antics of a couple of monkeys and soon found ourselves back at the hotel. A refreshing cup of Darjeeling was called for and duly enjoyed. Tomorrow is our last day of sight seeing as we shall be journeying homewards on Thursday and Friday.

 

 

N.E. India – Day 10 – Guwahati to Darjeeling

 

Our early morning call got us up and we certainly didn’t hang about, but managed to be the last down to check out! Still we were early leaving the hotel and the station was only 15 minutes away.

I love railway stations, but Indian railway stations are very special. Like the streets, all life is there on the platforms and even on the tracks. People are asleep covered with a blanket like a shroud. Others are sitting having chai or just a chat. Piles of luggage are arranged as though waiting to be filmed for a Miss Marple drama and men run past pulling carts with improbably large loads. On the tracks young boys seem to be filling bottles from the water lying between the sleepers.

We were taken towards the end of the platform as the A/C first class are always closest to the engine. Presumably this is so the privileged passengers do not have to miss one note of the train’s horn which the driver blows continuously for the whole journey. It’s like being imprisoned with a three year old who has discovered Daddy’s trumpet but has yet to work out what the valves are for.

When the train arrived, and not a moment before, we got on board and found ourselves in a corridor with separate compartments of the sort much beloved by Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith. Peter, Glynis, Christine and I had been given the first class while the others had to slum it, however, as though to compensate, Indian Railways had allocated us seats in different compartments. The British, needless to say, formed an united front and refused to be split asunder, so we were put into a sleeping compartment and hunched on the lower bunks. We were joined by a rather bemused Indian. When the ticket collector came along he seemed quite happy for us to stay in the compartment and one of the staff raised one of the beds so that Peter and I could sit upright.

After about half an hour, tea was brought, but after Christine’s experience in southern India, we decided not to risk it. Later breakfast arrived, Kellogg’s cornflakes with boiling milk ( a new experience), vegetable cutlets with peas, carrots and runner beans. Very tasty it was. Bread and jam was provided as well all washed down with a mango drink.

We watched India speed by, read and dozed. I did get out at the first stop, but we are so far away from the main part of the train that there is little of any interest. The carriage was hermetically sealed so there was no opportunity to take pictures out of the window, or stand in the open doorway. Still watching India from a train window is always a great experience.

Lunch arrived in the form of a spicey tomato soup with bread sticks. It was delicious and we wolfed it down. Then the person who had been serving us came around for a tip. He was wearing a large badge that said not to tip him, but somehow Peter and I ended up parting with 100 rupees each. If Mark had been with us he’d have dealt with it better, I’m sure!

Our station duly arrived and we had 10 minutes to leave the train. As we entered the corridor we were nearly bowled over by Indians racing to find their seats. Peter remonstrated loudly that if they allowed us off then it would be easier for them to get on, but to no avail. I blocked the corridor with our bags, but they blocked it with their bodies creating an impasse. Eventually we reached a compromise that involved them squeezing past in one direction, while I squeezed past in the other.

On the platform porters grabbed our bags and swung them onto their heads and we walked across long footbridges to the car park where our vehicles were waiting. Women with children on their hips proved to be very insistent beggars, even banging on the window to get our attention. They left empty handed I’m afraid.

Our drivers all look about 16 except for one who is absolutely massive – we’ll over 6 foot. The next two and a half hours were certainly memorable, as like most Indian drivers, they drove as though they were at Brands Hatch. At first we rode through flat farmland, but then the hills loomed ahead and we started to climb. I thought the roads around Dharamshala and Shimla were scary, well these are a notch above, particularly when being driven on by highly skilled maniacs.

These mountain roads are incredible. In a space where there is only about 6 feet of room they manage to cram in a road, a railway, a deep drain and is the a shop either side. The Darjeeling Railway which we are going on tomorrow runs alongside the road, criss-crossing it up the mountain. We saw two trains coming down as we went up. At one point we stopped for toilets and a cup of tea. The latter was not forthcoming as apparently the cafe owner couldn’t be bothered to serve us! On we climbed, breathing in as gaps barely big enough for one car suddenly accommodated two. Christine fell sound asleep and eventually even I nodded off, abandoning myself to karma, fate, kismet, whatever you want to call it.

By now it was foggy and raining, but that did nothing to slow our drivers down. Then we were in Darjeeling and squeezing down an even narrower road to our amazing hotel. Built in 1880 as a colonial house it soon passed into Indian ownership and eventually became a heritage hotel. Outdoor pictures will have to wait as it is still raining, but believe me it is sheer luxury!

N.E. India – Day 9 – Jorhat to Guwahati

A leisurely rise and then packing before breakfast and a film advertising the other holidays provided by the company. A number of us fancy some time in the Rajasthan desert and possibly a cruise in Kerala!

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The ship’s crew lined up as we drove away from the quayside an£ it did feel sad leaving our fabulous home for the past 6 days. We drove towards Johart airport, but pulled off the road to a tea plantation. There we were given a talk about Assam tea and the correct way to make tea. The plantation house looked like an ex-colonial bungalow with a wide verandah and was set in idyllic gardens with hibiscus, lilies and amaryllis growing in profusion. Beyond the garden were the tea gardens and the workers’ village. It was very beautiful and peaceful. Our hostess was a charming lady who suffers from MS. She made us very welcome and then joined us in the garden later on.

I wandered around taking pictures of the abundant wildlife. P.K. spotted a red billed kingfisher and I managed to get some half decent shots before it got away! Lunch was served in the grounds and then we were packed up in the cars and taken to the local airport.

Johart airport is small and charming. Security however is strict and I was held up for sometime as my India guidebook seemed to set off alarms. Once located it still gave concern until it had been examined page by page by a security guard. We walked out to the plane through rubble and puddles and climbed the steps to the cabin. We discovered that the seats in front of us had more legroom and so moved into them just before the flight took off.

We were no sooner up than down and then it was into cars for a return visit to the Cygnett Repose Inn in Guhawati. A different room this time, with no smell of smoke. We relaxed, had drinks and dinner and then an early night. A 5.00 call tomorrow as the train for Siligur leaves at 7.00.

N.E. India – Day 8 – Majuli and Sivasagar

 

The evening dinner proved rather expensive. Christine certainly did look stunning in her sari and I felt rather grand in my kirta, although the dhoti was a logistical nightmare that I feel I will never master. However one of our party (Karen) said that I really should purchase the sari for Christine and Neena, the Norland nanny’s eyes gleamed at the prospect of a sale. By the end of the meal I was about £45 poorer having bought both our outfits! I had opted for pyjama rather than a dhoti however.

In the morning we boarded our tender and headed off towards the island of Majuli, which means ‘the land between the water’. It is one of the world’s largest occupied river islands which was formed in 1750 due to massive floods following 3 major earthquakes. However constant erosion means that the island is getting smaller. In 1991 it 2as 1,256kms and now it is a mere 420 sq kms. It might disappear in the next 20 years.

Arable farming (rice and mustard) and fishing are its main concerns along with dairying (buffalo and cow) and hand weaving of both cotton and silk. They also make papier-mâché masks. Pots are made to keep yoghurt in as well.

There are about 200,000 people on the island in 150 villages, mostly speaking Mishing, Assamese or Deori. They are followers of Lord Vishnu.

We docked at the ferry terminal in an area of sand dunes that looked vaguely like something out of the Wild West. There were small stalls that sold snacks and a tariff board for the ferry that even gave you the cost of carrying an elephant with its mahout. We boarded vehicles and bumped our way over the dunes. I caught sight of a beautiful kingfisher, but as we stopped to photograph it it disappeared into its improbably small burrow in the bank. We then joined a tarmacced road and passed through busy, but charming villages with houses built on stilts.

The cars delivered us to a small area of beaten earth in front of a traditional house. This was where we were to witness the dancing and other delights. A brightly coloured curtain hid the retiring room where the cast could be heard shuffling and whispering. The air was filled with anticipation as four musicians started warming up just below the house’s verandah.

The first dance was a solo by an attractive young lady highly skilled in the art. It was quite stunning, but unfortunately, I’m not sure what it portrayed!

Then eight girls (I was going to say maidens, but who can be so sure these days) appeared and danced the ten incarnations of Vishnu. They were excellent, moving with incredible grace and flexibility in their brightly coloured robes.

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Finally we had a drama about Lord Vishnu, his wife Parvita and a demon. It was like a pantomime, but very well done, with a particularly nasty villain who laughed and would have twirled his moustaches if they hadn’t been painted on. In the end Hanuman and Vishnu overcame the baddies and it all ended happily ever after. At which point a fish appeared. The fish was beautifully made and moved like a fish thanks to the acting of a man bent over double inside the costume. The first incarnation of Vishnu was as a fish.Then the whole cast came out to take their bows and were rightly applauded to the hilt!

From there we were taken to a satra or monastery. Each temple in Assam has a long corridor leading to the holy of holies called a Namghar and it was here that we were to witness a traditional drum and cymbal dance. However it was the first day of Bihu a 3 day festival that marks the start of the new year, so the monks were engaged in prayer and we were told that our dance would be at least half an hour late.

Still it was pleasant to wander around the square of monks’ cells that surrounded the temple. Each cell or room is subdivided and so is shared by a number of monks. Parents can send children to the satra between the ages of 5 – 9 to get religious training as well as a proper education. At 18 the young men can make up their own minds whether to stay or not. Once they leave there is no return. Monks have to be celibate, but many have jobs in the outside world (journalist, teacher, accountant etc.) returning to the monastery in the evening. The money they earn goes to fund the monastery as does the money from their drumming and dancing. One group is currently in the U.S.A. at the moment.

 

The singing of the prayers was very pleasant on the ear as we waited and we were amused to watch the children misbehave just like children the world over! Eventually we went in and the monks slowly assembled with their cymbals and drums. What then followed was an electrifying performance that took my breath away. I was so entranced that when they stopped I burst into applause, quite forgetting the stricture not to. Still they seemed very forgiving, which is what you hope for in monks when it comes down to it!

We went back to the boat via ‘a town like Boothill’, only pausing to watch a ferry unload a car and several tens of bikes. After lunch we boarded cars at the dockside and went to Sibsagar, the stronghold of the Ahom civilisation which ruled N.E. India from 1228 to 1817. They came originally from Burma and the dragon is their symbol. They were skilled in
* wet rice cultivation
* saving land from erosion by using bamboo porcupines
* constructing houses on stilts
* irrigation systems

It was an hour and a half’s hair raising journey there, which at least allowed time for a post prandial nap, if you were prepared to place yourself in the hands of God and whatever deities the driver had faith in.

Our first stop was the Talatal Ghar (1751 – 1769), a palace and a military station. It was once huge with 4 floors above ground and 3 floors below. It also boasted 2 tunnels, 1 of them 16 kms long so that the king could escape his enemies. Both are now shut because of earthquakes and indeed the place is in rather a poor state of repair, although work is being done. Still the grounds were very pleasant.

We were hurried on to the Rang Gabriel (House of Entertainment, built in 1734) which was described as an amphitheatre but was more like an arena in which the popular sports of wrestling, archery, elephant fights and buffalo fights could take place, while members of the royal family watched from the safety of the second storey set of rooms, only accessible by elephant. If that sounds unlikely, then le5 me assure you that the steps up stopped a good ten feet off the ground, so not if you arrived on the back of an elephant could you enter! Thankfully today steps have been added to help those you do not possess a pachyderm.

Onward we sped to the Sivadol (Siva Temple)also built in 1734. Night was falling as we walked passed the enormous tank in front of it and around its side to the namghar where priests sit to sell flowers, charms, etc to the faithful. We entered and walked into the temple. Our guide P.K. assured me that pictures could be taken inside but I was hesitant as that is not normally the case. As I raised my camera, I was reprimanded by the priest and a forceful discussion then took place between P.K. and said officiant. I stayed out of it, of course, and the result was, no pictures. However it was fascinating to watch pilgrims pour milk and place flowers and fruit into a hole in the ground where an old siva lingum was to have been found. 3 more modern lingums lingered near by, also annointed at times by milk. The result of all this lactation was a fairly rancid smell and cockroaches the size of small cars…..the ‘Volkswagen cockroach’ anyone?

As w3 left the namghar a priest, friendly to our guide, tied coloured string to our wrists to keep us safe; and can I say that those strings did the business. I have observed before that there is nothing more terrifying than being driven by someone with an innate belief in reincarnation. I wish to correct that observation and say that there is nothing more terrifying than being driven by someone with an innate belief in reincarnation and who is late for their tea. The shades of night had fallen so what we missed on the way home was only identifiable by the bright lights sunny into our windscreen, but miss them we did. At times there may have been little more than a fag paper in it, but that’s enough in my book.

Back at the boat we had a delicious farewell dinner and the ship thoughtfully provided me with a birthday cake for us all to share. They also tactfully only put 4 candles on it…… the ones you can’t blow out! I think 66 will be a birthday I won’t forget in a hurry!

N.E. India – Day 7 – Mishing in action

Revived by a good night’s sleep and a little light supper, we first awoke at about 2.00 when lights flashed outside the cabin windows. It was lightning and soon we could hear rolls of thunder. The heavens opened and rain lashed the deck above us. We decided that the best solution was sleep and sure enough by 5.00, when I woke again, the storm had passed.
I was definitely feeling better, although Christine was still rather fragile. None-the-less after a leisurely levee we both attended yoga at 8.00. This proved to be a very interesting session which took place on the quarter deck. Our very own Norland nanny took us briskly through our paces. Breathing correctly was followed by drinking correctly and then some exercises. I suspect tomorrow we will be taught how to eat and possible toilet training will be offered, but let us hope not. Any way it was very interesting and invigorating.

We managed some breakfast and then had a talk on where we are visiting tomorrow with some background on the Dashavatar and part of the story of Ram and Sita which we shall see danced tomorrow. The final part of the talk was about the Mishing village we were going to visit after the talk. ‘Mi’ means ‘human’ and ‘Yasing’ means ‘good’, so this was both a tribal name and a mission (mishing?) statement all in one! There are 0.7 million Mishings in Assam, although originally they came from Tibet via Uttar Pradesh. They are the second largest tribal group in India and are patrilineal. They follow animism as their belief system worshipping the river and certain trees etc. They call their belief Donyi polo after ‘Donyi’, the sun or mother and ‘polo’, the moon or father. They bury their dead and their language is only spoken , there is no script. They specialise in agriculture growing rice, mustard, lentils, maize, chillies, tobacco, bamboo, and the Areca nut (betel). Mustard is their cash crop. They also fish using nets.

They are also expert weavers, using hand looms positioned under their huts. They weave cotton and silk and the fabrics are beautiful. Christine just had to invest in one , made of silk but embroidered in cotton.

Their houses are on stilts, because of the floods in the monsoon season and there is even a goat house underneath raised on stilts. Inside there is an open fire on which they smoke their food.

They make a delicious rice beer called Apong. We tried the 4% – 5% variety but there are greater strengths available. All houses now have government issued solar panels primarily to enable them to charge their mobile phones, but obviously as som3 have satellite dishes, they probably are able to power TVs as well. Houses are generally thatched, but some now have metal roofs and even concrete bases.

There is a primary school, which does not look well resourced, although there were some impressive equations chalked on the walls. Pupils go to the mainland for secondary education. Even those who are well educated tend to return to the island as they have everything they want there. It certainly seemed a pretty idyllic existence! The children were delightful and, as always, were fascinated by Mark who keeps them entertained.

At the end of the trip Judy and I volunteered to dress in Assam costume, probably to amuse the locals! Still, though I says it as shouldn’t, I think we looked pretty good in it. As our boat left women rushed down to the water’s edge to do their washing. Clearly these darn tourists had been in the way. Children lined the bank and gave us a warm send off.

Back on the ship we had lunch and then Mark led a communion on the upper deck. These are always very special and this was no exception. Praising and thanking God as a group, while surrounded by his creation, is a privilege and a delight.

We then had some leisure time, so I laid out under the awning with my book. Of course the inevitable happened and the next thing we were being summoned to another talk about the trip tomorrow afternoon to Sivsagar, capital of the former Ahom kingdom. Tomorrow is shaping up to be a very busy day. Tonight however we are having an Assamese evening, so it is on with the Kirta and the dhoti for me and the sari for Christine. I wonder if there’ll be any of that rice beer?!