Indelible India

Mari Zipes Wallace

© Copyright 2021 by Mari Zipes Wallace

Photo by Sonika Agarwal on Unsplash
          Photo by Sonika Agarwal on Unsplash

My husband, Alan, suffers from “itchy feet”. No, not Athlete’s Foot...but the itchy feet that one associates with a wanderlust, a great desire to hit the road. In essence: to travel. And ever since we’ve been a couple, I’ve benefited from this desire of his.

He’d already been to India twice when he first took me to that exotic, colorful, sometimes frustrating and always bewitching country. My initiation was typically touristy – to visit the places in what’s called “The Golden Triangle”: Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. This “nickname” is derived from how the three cities appear on a map, roughly forming an equilateral triangle of approximately 125-150 miles along the sides. Each place was fascinating, especially Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, which left me breathless with its timeless beauty. That often overused word awesome is the best way to describe its effect on me. If you’ve ever been to Grand Canyon, you’ll know exactly what I mean. So still, so perfect, almost unreal.

But it’s my second trip to India that I want to share with you. This is when we visited places a bit more remote, a bit more off the beaten track.

We flew into Delhi, like the last time. The places on our new itinerary were Shimla, the capital city in the state of Himachal Pradesh, and Amritsar in the Punjab, close to the border with Pakistan – both in northwestern India.

We’d hired a car and driver through an Indian travel agency. His name was Anil, and It was his job to negotiate through the famously chaotic Indian traffic, which he managed to a native. To us, it was mayhem. To him, it was the norm. He maneuvered in and out of cars, tuktuks, trucks, bicycles, pedestrians and even the occasional cow that had wandered out onto the road. The constant horn honking was deafening. We decided then and there that driving in India should be classified as an extreme sport.

The wide-ish motorway out of Delhi gave way to small roads going through small towns with no lane demarcations. As we started the climb up into the foothills of the Himalayas, we repeatedly encountered road-works, making the journey very bumpy and requiring several detours. One route took us up and down a steep hill that turned out to be in an army camp. Anil did not have GPS but he assured us that he knew the roads like the back of his hand. (He didn’t say which hand...) At one point, he got so confused that he had to stop by the roadside to ask locals the way to Shimla. By the time we got to our hotel on the outskirts of the city, we’d been on the road for more than 10 hours. Scampering around the hotel’s grounds were groups of Rhesus monkeys, totally oblivious to us human, and thoroughly enjoying themselves. After checking in and subsequently collapsing into chairs on the balcony, we sat and watched their entertaining antics. One particularly cheeky monkey blithely sauntered into a hotel room on the floor below,via the balcony door which the occupants had naively left open. In a matter of seconds we heard shrieking, followed by the same monkey making a rocket-propelled exit as he practically flew up into the safety of the nearest tree. We made sure to close our balcony door securely when we went down for dinner.

The next morning Anil drove us up to the Kufri Hills, part of the Himalayan range, about 10 miles out of Shimla. From this vantage point we could see snow on the mountain tops – it being early March -- as well as clumps by the roadside. Anil parked the car where several docile-looking yaks were tethered. I willingly became the stereotypical tourist by climbing into the saddle so Alan could take photos. The yak’s Tibetan owner kitted me out with a fur hat and gun (which I hoped wasn’t loaded) - props lent to me for this photo op.

The afternoon was spent at the Jakhu or Monkey Temple which is dedicated to Lord Hanuman, the Monkey God. At 108 feet, the statue of Hanuman is even higher than the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio. It was fascinating to see the throngs of Indians, both young and old, worshipping at this temple, to a god so important to Hindus. Monkeys, of course, were also in evidence. Many devotees came prepared with fruits or vegetables to feed the primates, after paying their respects to the diety. I gleefully used my smart phone to video them as they as they competed with each other to grab the food and run.

The next day we visited the Viceregal Lodge situated on the summit of Observatory Hill about a mile to the west of central Shimla. Dating from the late 1880s, the Lodge had been the summer residence of the viceroys, the Queen’s representatives, who ruled India on behalf of the British Crown. This was the period known as the days of ‘the Raj’, a Hindu word meaning state or government. Because Shimla is at such a high altitude, on a ridge of the Himalayan foothills at an elevation of almost 7500 feet, viceroys over succeeding decades used the lodge and grounds as their summer residence -- for them, their families and associates -- to get away from the sultry and oppressive heat of Calcutta and New Delhi, the main seats of government. One word immediately came to mind as I stood in front of this impressive edifice, with its abundance of window bays and long galleries: Hogwarts. In fact, I expected to see Professor Dumbledore emerging from its grand entrance, with Harry, Hermione, Ron et all following in his wake. Even the interior, so like an old English public (private!) school, was reminiscent of Hogwarts. The lavish use of wood was everywhere – floors, walls, ceiling, banisters – cedar, teak, walnut. No expense spared. Here and there we noticed evidence of historic British rule – worn out bas-relief lions over the fireplace, marks where swords had been displayed - all removed when India became independent in 1947.

Nowadays, the Viceregal Lodge houses the India Institute of Advanced Study. We toured rooms full of photos documenting the building’s history. We learned what each individual room was originally used for. Of great significance was the room where the partition of India into two separate countries had taken place. We were shown the actual table where Nehru, India’s first president, and Jinnah, Pakistan’s first president, sat with Lord Mountbatten, the last British viceroy. Our knowledge of the blood bath that followed gave this room a particular and unforgettable aura.

Our next destination was Amritsar, about 180 miles to the west of Shimla, practically on the border with Pakistan. The roads, as we made our descent from Shimla, were twisty and narrow. This didn’t seem to faze Anil in the least as he seemed intent on convincing us that he was a contender for the Indy 500. When I was finally brave enough to open my eyes, I was greeted by lush countryside. Green fields where rice was growing. Banyan and eucalyptus trees were in abundance. When we reached the Punjab state border, we had to pull over so that Anil could show his documents and pay a tax. Once across the state line, Anil duly followed the signs to Amritsar but again had to stop several times to ask for directions to our hotel. And again, the traffic we encountered was chaotic.

If we thought that Shimla was fascinating, what we were about to experience in Amritsar would completely overshadow everything.

Let’s start with its name: Amritsar. This requires a brief lesson in Punjabi. Amrit translates as elixir, and sar (short for sarovar) means pool or lake. What could be more magical than being transported to a pool of nectar? We were ready, willing and able.

Our comfortable and spacious hotel room enabled us to get a good night’s sleep. After enjoying a superb buffet breakfast on that sunny March morning, we went in search of Anil and found him engaged in conversation with another Indian driver, Rahul. Coincidentally, the two men had been to school together, and both were waiting to take their respective passengers to the Golden Temple, the holiest of the Sikh temples or gurdwaras. Rahul’s group consisted a sister and two brothers, all in their 60s, who’d flown more than 1700 miles from their home in Mysore in southern India to Amritsar for this special trip. After introductions all around, these three – Sandeep, Hari and Amita - immediately invited us to join them for the day’s sightseeing.

Our first stop was Jaillianwala Bagh. Having done some preliminary research, I knew that this was the site of the infamous Amritsar Massacre of April 13, 1919, a very black day in the history of British rule in India. This was when a crowd of non-violent protestors had assembled to hear speeches against the Rolatt Act which, among other things, actually forbade just such meetings. Also present were many Indians who’d simply come to celebrate the Sikh festival of Baisakhi. Col. Reginald Dyer, who was in command of troops of the British Army, was convinced that this ostensibly peaceful gathering was going to turn into an insurrection. He marched into the Bagh with his soldiers, having first blocked the entrance to it with a tank as well as locking the main exit, and ordered his men to shoot. Their barrage continued for some ten minutes, only ceasing when they ran out of bullets. The total dead or wounded amounted to more than 1000 men, women and children.

We were much moved by what we saw: brick walls sprayed with bullet holes, the well into which scores of desperate people leapt in an attempt to escape the gunfire, a plaque inscribed with emotive tributes to the dead, and an “eternal flame” of remembrance. Sandeep took many photos as we all explored the Bagh, a word that ironically translates as garden in Hindi. I kept thinking, how could this have happened? At first, Col. Dyer was hailed as a hero but as the full story was revealed, he was ultimately censured and a House of Commons vote forced his resignation from the Army.

In April 1961, in the presence of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Jaillanwala Bagh was inaugurated as a permanent memorial to the people who’d lost their lives in this horrific and tragic event.

A short walk away – providing a most welcome change in atmosphere - was the famed Golden Temple. Founded in 1577, it is the Sikhs’ holiest gurdwara or temple. To visit this iconic building was the main reason why we’d put Amritsar on our itinerary.

Because Amita suffered from arthritic knees, Sandeep took advantage of the free wheelchair facility near the entrance to the temple complex, available to anyone disabled. I was impressed that you could so easily borrow a wheelchair, with absolutely no charge.

Before being permitted into the hallowed ground of the Sikh temple, we had to follow certain procedures. Sandeep instructed us to remove our shoes, which we placed in a large canvas bag to be retrieved later. We then bought head coverings: a scarf for me and an orange-colored cotton square for Alan. Suitably prepared, we waded through shallow water to ceremoniously wash our feet. Now we were able to walk through the archway that opened out onto the Temple precinct.

And there it was at last, glistening majestically in the bright sunshine, the Golden Temple of Amritsar. It was a truly spectacular sight, made even more stunning by the sarovar or pool of holy water surrounding it. The exterior is a blend of Hindu and Islamic architectural styles, with a lavish use of white marble and gold. The dome alone, that adorns its top, is gilded with 750kg (more than 1600 pounds) of pure gold.

Unfortunately, our rhapsodizing was short-lived, and we almost did a double-take when we saw the line of people – easily numbering 500 – slowly inching their way along the causeway to enter the temple. Alan turned to me and shook his head in dismay. We’d travelled all this distance just to be confronted with a line that was like a Disneyland attraction at its worst! “I’m sorry,” he said to our new friends, “but we cannot spend our day waiting in that line. We’ll just have to make do with exploring the complex, and not go into the Temple.” I was disappointed but had to agree. “Ah! Don’t worry!” Hari, the other brother, said. “We will all follow Amita in her wheelchair as there is a separate entrance for elderly and disabled people. Remember – you are with us,” he added, smiling, “and we are all going in with Amita.”

So in we went. When finally inside, we marvelled at the walls which were covered with inlaid flower and animal motifs; their designs were so intricate that from a distance they looked like Persian carpets. In the center of the Temple was a huge canopy studded with jewels, below which was the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikhs’ Holy Book, resting, appropriately, on a sort of throne. Priests and musicians kept up a continuous chant from these holy scriptures. Our stay inside was brief, making room for Sikhs who’d waited patiently in that very long line to enter and pray. After all, it was their Temple, their holy gurdwara. As we exited, we were given a handful of a putty-like substance which we were told to eat. Despite its unappealing appearance, it was delicious. This was Prasad, Amita informed us, a devotional offering made of whole wheat, clarified butter and sugar.

Now you must come with us to the Langar,” Sandeep said. Puzzled, we followed him to what has been called the world’s largest free kitchen. We joined a line that moved quickly and efficiently as we each were given a metal plate, a spoon and a mug. We were then ushered into a huge dining hall where we joined our friends, sitting down on a runner on the floor. Amita, despite her bad knees, managed to get down, with help from Sandeep.

The Langar is an extraordinary place. Run by volunteers, it can feed up to 100,000 people a day. We felt slightly embarrassed as if we were “sponging” off the generosity of the Sikhs but Sandeep reassured us, explaining, “To us Sikhs, eating together, sharing our food as a community, is a way of showing the oneness of all humankind.” We learned that everyone was welcome, regardless of caste, creed or religion. What an inspiring philosophy of life!

Wielding a ladle, one of the volunteers came by, doling out a simple vegetarian meal to all of us in the dining hall: Indian bread, lentils, rice, a dish made with sweet peppers and carrots, and a sort of pudding. Another man filled our cups with water dispensed from a container which he carried on his back. When we’d finished - and Sandeep gallantly helped his sister back onto her feet - we joined another orderly line where we put our plates in one bin and our spoons in another – all to be washed, dried and recycled. On our way out, we spotted even more volunteers busily chopping up vegetables for the day’s meal preparations. Thanks to donations from all over the world, the Langar thrives – and although we felt awkward about accepting this free meal, we wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

Our Indian friends stayed on to visit the other buildings in the complex but we knew that nothing could top what we’d just experienced. We said our goodbyes. Alan shook hands with the men and I embarrassed a smiling Amita by kissing her on both cheeks! We thanked them profusely, exchanging email addresses so we could send each other photos of the day. Without them we would have abandoned any thoughts of entering the Temple, and we’d have known nothing about the Langar. They really made our visit to the Golden Temple so very special.

The other must-see for visitors to Amritsar is the daily ceremony at Wagah, the border crossing point between India and Pakistan, which is only about 18 miles away from the centre of Amritsar. We’d come to witness the lowering of the flags, a sort of “beating of the retreat”, that has taken place here between the two countries’ security forces, since 1959. Historically, this is also where the partition was drawn in 1947 that divided the Indian subcontinent into two separate countries. What followed was many weeks of extreme violence and bloodshed as former friends and neighbours – Sikhs and Muslims – turned on each other.

Nowadays, the festive, almost carnival-like atmosphere belies what happened here more than 70 years ago. Anil dropped us off in a huge parking lot where other vehicles – cars, buses, even pick-up trucks - were disgorging their passengers. We’d hardly stepped out of his car when an enthusiastic young Indian charged over, persuading us – for just a few rupees - to let him paint the national flag on our fists. Other braver souls had allowed the flag – with its bold red, white and green stripes -- to be painted on their cheeks. There were numerous hawkers selling pirated CDs, picture postcards of the soon-to-be-seen ceremony, cotton candy, small Indian flags to carry and wave, as well as jalebi – a traditional Indian sweet made of batter that’s been steeped in an orange-colored syrup.

We followed the crowd to the “checkpoint” where Alan and I were separated, he to the line just for men, and me to the one for women. With my passport clutched tightly in my hand, I found myself being gently “frisked”. When I uttered my one word of Hindi, the greeting namaste, my “inspector” giggled then motioned me through. I met up with Alan and together we were directed, as foreigners, to the “VIP” section, quite close to the where the action would take place. The chairs here were mostly occupied by westerners like us. We bought ice-cold bottled water and settled down for the entertainment.

And what entertainment it was! Lively tunes, which the locals all seemed to know, were blaring from loudspeakers. A young Indian clad all in white was the emcee, leading the spectators in chanting and singing, like a cheerleader at a football game, revving up the crowd to support the “home” team. As he repeatedly shouted “Hindustani Zindabad!” – long live India – his shouts were echoed by equally impassioned fellow nationals. From across the border gate we could hear competing but slightly muted shouts of “Pakistani!” Now we could understand the importance of the flag painting in the parking lot. With flags on our fists and on others’ faces, it was obvious as to whose side we were on!

We surveyed our surroundings from the vantage point of our “VIP” seats. Below us, a group of young female patriots charged through, their leader proudly carrying a huge Indian flag, all running in ellipses as the crowd cheered them on. Then they began to dance. As more women joined in, the group grew in size, now numbering about 50. It was as if I was watching a Bollywood movie, made even more real when I recognized the theme music from “Slumdog Millionaire”. Now very much “in the moment”, I found myself enthusiastically clapping along. Also not able to resist the jubilant atmosphere, two blonde women near us rose from their seats and hurried down to join the group, their distinctive coloring making them stand out in the throng of dancing Indian females. What a spectacle!

On the Pakistani side, by contrast, we noticed that the men and women were sitting separately. The Pakistani’s “cheerleader” was a one-legged man wearing a tunic with that nation’s flag printed on it. He whirled around in energetic, bouncing circles like a mad dervish. Despite his efforts, the Pakistani spectators seemed far more subdued overall than their Indian counterparts.

Then the tone suddenly changed as the guards on both sides - the Security Forces from India versus the Pakistani Rangers – began their daily face-off ritual with a bellowing yell. Their routine of menace consisted of synchronized stomps and athletic high kicks designed to “see off” the enemy. Watching this exaggerated display, I couldn’t help thinking of Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks”. Brandished fists and intimidating glares were part of the performance which we were all thoroughly enjoying. We couldn’t take our eyes off their extraordinary headgear. Each hat was topped with a large, fan-like accessory resembling the comb of a strutting rooster. The tone was slightly softened by the inclusion – on the Indian side only – of female guards who also strutted but did not menace, wearing more subtle headgear consisting of black berets with small red plumes.

The climax of the evening was the opening of the border gates. The crowds on both sides were silent, expectant. The chief guards exchanged quick handshakes and salutes. Then the flags of each nation were lowered and taken away. The briefly-opened gates were slammed emphatically shut. The two sides then turned their backs on each other and walked off...until tomorrow’s ceremony, same time, same place.

As we walked back to our waiting car, we reminded ourselves of the bloody history of these two opposing countries, and were so glad that what we saw tonight was simply a performance. The crowd of spectators, which included Alan and me, dispersed in high spirits...and peace.

This was the finale to our visit to India. We’d certainly remember Shimla...but it was our time in Amritsar and nearby Wagah that provided both high drama and spectacle...and also left us with warm memories of human kindness.

Retirement in 2007 gave me time to write, as well as to travel. I always keep a travel journal which helped me write this story. I’ve had a few pieces published in UK magazines: ‘Sussex Life’, ‘Best of British’, ‘The Oldie’, ‘Countryfile’. I’ve had 2 pieces published in two different ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ volumes.

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