Northern India

On Monday the 13th February we depart for a trip to Northern India. This is a pilgrimage of sorts as we shall be visiting a wide variety of holy sites – churches, temples and mosques, but also staying in some rather nice hotels! On Monday afternoon we fly from Heathrow to Delhi overnight and then on Tuesday morning we fly to Amritsar and make an evening visit to the Golden Temple.

If you would like to follow us then please do. Below is a map of our route over the 16 days we are in India.

Monday and Tuesday 13th & 14th February

A more exciting day than we imagined. The Jet Airways plane was a Boeing 777, a great beast of a plane with 338 of us in Economy class.  We had managed to check in online and had got  two seats in front of an emergency exit which gave us lots of legroom. However the seat was very uncomfortable, being designed for people with smaller bottoms than mine!

Over Hungary we hit turbulence, or should I say it hit us? Either way we were thrown around pretty badly and the pilot wisely cut his speed and lowered our altitude. We hit another area over Afghanistan as well, so we arrived at Delhi about half an hour late.

Unfortunately we only had two hours between flights and now we’d lost half an hour! Jet Airways also failed to give out immigration cards and there were none in evidence at the airport. As a result we joined the Evisa queue, presented our documents, only to be sent away to find and fill in an immigration card. We then joined the back of a much longer queue. It seemed to a requirement that most visible parts of our bodies had to be scanned and so we got the other side of immigration as our plane to Amritsar was due to leave.

However our travel company had held the plane, but we’re anxious to get us through security as quickly as possible. We divided by gender and the men were soon through. The women though we’re less lucky and one if their security staff just walked away , so they had to run down the queues to another one.

As we left security a very urging young man told us we had 3 minutes to get to the plane. Christine and I set off at a run, but others in the group are less mobile. In the end we all made the plane, now half an hour late!

So here we are in Amritsar in the Punjab. Our hotel us disgustingly luxurious, if rather anonymous. We are allowed no alcohol, as if it is smelt on our breath we will not be allowed in the Golden Temple this evening. From our hotel window we can see Amritsar through the pollution haze….just. We have been garlanded and dotted and now have time for a shower before an early dinner. Things are looking up!

Tuesday 14th February (cont’d)

The one thing about travelling with Mark Woodrow is that you can guarantee the food will be good. Our evening meal was excellent and set us up for the rest of the evening which was a visit to the Golden Temple at night. It is hard to put into words just how beautiful this is. It is magical. Walking bare foot over the cold marble floors and onto the carpets spread along the ‘Pool of Nectar’ which surrounds the temple, your breath is taken away as you look across to the floodlit building, the gold reflection shimmering in the water below it.

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We arrived in time for the ceremony which closes the temple for the night. A special palanquin is prepared to take the Sikh holy book from the temple to its bedroom in the Sri Akal Takhat Sahib at the other end of the causeway. It is a lengthy ritual in which the palanquin is garlanded, the bedding changed and fresh almond oil is applied to it. Then with much trumpet blowing the palanquin is carried over the causeway and the book us laid to rest on it. It is then brought back and taken up into the bedroom for the night. The next morning the procedure is reversed.

This has to be one of the most beautiful man made sights I have seen. A fascinating mix of the spiritual and the everyday. People praying beside the palanquin and then breaking off when their mobile rings!

Wednesday 15th February

We went back to the Goden Temple this morning, still a stunning sight in broad daylight.

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This time we walked around to theLangar an enormous eating area and kitchen which can feed 10,000 pilgrims a day. It is an incredible operation with vast vats of dahl and rice bubbling away.

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People ferry the food in buckets to the eating hall where everyone sits on the ground in long rows to receive it. A man with a large water barrel wheels it down the line and fills each cup by depressing a footpump. It is a military style operation. Most chapattis are made by machine, but there were people doing it by hand so we had a go with mixed success. Mine was enormous and barely round, Christine’s was much better!

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From there we walked around to the causeway and crossed to the Harmandir Sahib, the golden temple.  No photography is allowed inside, but it is an enchanting place. Inlaid marble on the lower outside is exquisite, but inside everything is gold and red. On the ground floor, musicians sing ragis all day long. Upstairs a man sits and reads from the holy book. On the roof you can walk around or sit and pray in the open air. It is just so beautiful. We crossed back over the causeway and regained our footwear. It was getting warm, but nothing like the heat of Southern India.

We walked a short distance to the Jallianwala Bagh. Here on the 13th April 1919, General Reginald Dyer ordered his men to open fire on people who had gathered in peaceful protest at the reduction in civil liberties. Over 1,000 were massacred including women and children, 120 of which drowned after taking refuge in a well. There was no escape as the soldiers had blocked the only narrow passage out. Today it is a memorial garden and very moving.

Rather bizarrely the British soldiers are represented in topiary. It seems odd to use green hedging to represent agents of death.

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More tomorrow. Time to sleep off yet another enormous dinner. The pounds are piling on!

From Jallianwala we drove to a local school for the blind, run by a very impressive blind headmaster. He told us about the school and demonstrated how you write in Braille, something I had never thought about before. Paper is put into a frame and then a blunt stick is used to make dot impressions in patterns on the paper. He reckoned that he could teach us Braille in 30 minutes, but unfortunately we did not have the time to spare. We went to their computer facility consisting of 8 machines and watched as the Phil’s write on them. The computer speaks each key press so they know what is happening. We visited the library with an impressive array of Braille books and then finally we went to hear the school choir sing a beautiful song with harmonium and drum accompaniment.

 

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Time for lunch in an unprepossessing looking restaurant called ‘The Yellow Chilli’ set in a concrete block of shops on a main road. The food however was delicious and again we came out stuffed. The 45 minute drive to Wagah, gave little time to sleep it off, but at least the 1km walk from the car park to the border burned off a few calories.

Wagah us on the Pakistan border and every night they hold the closing of the border ceremony. This is pure jingoism on both sides, with The Indian side in particular wiping the enormous crowds into a fervour. We were seated in the VIP stands opposite the main crowd, with a good view of the Indian gate, but no view of the Pakistani side at all. A man with a microphone shouted and the crowd responded, shouting and chanting back and waving their Indian flags. Then the soldiers appeared in exotic uniforms with crested hats. Various members marched to the gate and made gestures towards the Pakistani side showing their bravery and defiance. Fists were shaken, strong man poses held, hats were cocked in what was clearly a well choreographed display which sent the crowd wild. The whole thing was mirrored on the other side to a somewhat smaller crowd. The gate was opened and then shut and there was more goose stepping. The gate was opened again and the troops came right up to the white line and threatened each other . Then the flags were lowered, crossing each other as they did so, and the fates on both sides were shut and locked. We followed the crowd out, back to our buses and home to the hotel for another massive meal.

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For technical reasons I am opening a new page ‘northern India 2. See you there!

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