The journey to India’s far north was over, but there still remained the little matter of getting home. The obvious thing to do would have been to hop back by air via Delhi, but a more interesting and far cheaper option had presented itself – departing instead from the Sikh holy city of Amritsar, 250 miles south of Srinagar. Having correctly judged that two trips over the pass to Banihal by road in as many days might be too much for my spine, I opted to hop over the mountains by plane instead.
Few airport transfers begin with anything as pleasant as a short shikara ride – not Lake Fish this morning, alas – but that was the only highlight. The road section of the journey was through the stop-start morning peak Srinagar traffic and no sooner did we have a clear road than we had to stop for the first of many airport security checks – a cursory scan of the ticket. Airports in Jammu & Kashmir are seen as massively tempting terrorist targets anyway, but combine that with the fact that Srinagar’s is also a major military airbase and you have the recipe for a vast police/military security jamboree. The first check was followed by a second – out of the car with luggage, through an x-ray hut, and then back in the car for another half a mile before we even reached the terminal.
The impression of a smart, modern airport terminal graced with high, curving metal roofs was somewhat spoiled by the snaking queues and handwritten Notices leading to another x-ray check before entry to the terminal building. This was followed by a lengthy foreigners Jammu & Kashmir exit form to complete, despite my protestations that I wasn’t leaving the state just yet – the air ticket to Jammu Tawi perhaps being something of a clue. Long queues followed for check-in, then an x-ray check of hand luggage, a manual examination of any electronic items in the hand luggage, a badly-signed trip out to the edge of the tarmac to identify your hold luggage to airline staff and obtain its vital chalk mark, one more ticket check to enter the departure lounge, plus a few more pre-boarding. By the time I was on the plane, every piece of paper in my possession had been stamped and scribbled on by various officials to the point of illegibility.
The smart exterior of the airport was somewhat belied by its bleak interior (bar the Kashmiri carved wooden booths for security searches of women) of vast, underused spaces, awaiting a ‘normalisation’ of Kashmir that would bring domestic and international passengers in the numbers for which it was built. For now, the over-riding impression, as I gazed out over grassy bunkers, taxi-ing military helicopters and the slightly-too-close-for-comfort-for-a-nervous-flyer Himalaya, was of the constant birdsong from the blackbirds nesting in the terminal’s metal rafters, drowning out the announcements.
To be fair, after the joyless experience of getting on the plane, Spicejet’s crew were friendly and efficient. We sat at the edge of the runway, waiting for a fighter jet to roar in from an airspace patrol, accelerated past impressive military hardware, both avian and terrestrial, then climbed steeply over the Kashmir Valley, yellow mustard fields amid the greenery, metal-roofed villages glinting in the sunlight. The Himalaya at the southern end of the valley which we flew towards seemed an endless sea of white breaking foam, as snow peaks stretched unbroken on the horizon, the fishtail of Kangchenjunga standing proud, towering high above the other peaks on the far horizon.
In reality, our flight course took us over just one range of snow peaks and then we were over the lower, green mountains through which I had travelled to the Valley, the familiar twists and turns of the Srinagar highway clearly visible below. Barely were we over the mountains – the final long, lateral ridge south of Udhampur marking a clear boundary of the tectonic collision zone – than the plane was descending over the plains, huge brown meandering rivers stretching away into the distant murk.
Within fifteen minutes of leaving Srinagar we were over Jammu Tawi, but stuck in a holding pattern – a flight ahead had declared a technical emergency. Having enjoyed views of Jammu and the plains towards Pakistan from every conceivable angle, we were finally permitted to hit the tarmac at the town’s airport/armoured camp, forty-five minutes after taking off, but still twenty-five minutes ahead of the generously padded timetable.
Maybe I didn’t give it enough time and it would have grown on me, but I took a swift dislike to Jammu Tawi. Maybe it was the heat (38 centigrade) after the pleasant cool of Srinagar, or the over-priced taxi, or the beating being meted out by taxi touts to some sort of undercutter outside the station, or the fact that the railway station itself was the most fly-blown example I had seen on Indian Railways.
Nevertheless, Jammu Tawi did what I asked of it, delivering my flight early, my luggage promptly and getting me to the station in time for a pineapple juice made freshly by the stallholder and to find my seat on the Rourkela-bound Muri express despite the tight plane-train connection that I had been concerned about.
Inevitably, someone wanted to swap my place in Sleeper car S3 for their own so as to keep a family group together, moving me advantageously from the cramped middle seat to a more pleasant corridor one. By departure time, barely a single person in the carriage was sitting in their allocated seat, such was the wholesale reshuffling that had gone on. The last few shawl vendors jumped back to the platform and off we went, more-or-less on time.
The train headed back across the baking plains of southern Jammu, ripe with corn, its riverbeds wide and dry. Crossing one riverbed with a little water in it near Samba, many of the men in their carriage placed their hands as if in prayer – a geographic feature with holy significance for Hindus, like so many parts of India’s topography. After about half an hour on the move, some semblance of stability was arrived at over seating arrangements and calm descended over the crowded carriage. The pantry car sent round a man with a huge bucket of a split pea version of the chickpea dish I’d first enjoyed at Kullu bus station so many miles back, served on a sheet of newspaper with a rectangle of old cereal box as a spoon, the optional fresh green chilli sliced with great dexterity and speed there in the lurching train corridor.
We crossed a long bridge into Punjab (my mobile signal instantaneously returning – thank you for the text message offer of a free naan with every curry, Red Chillies of Woolwich) and returned to my old stamping ground of Pathankot Junction, where we reversed and zig-zagged southwestwards towards Amritsar, the snow-capped Himalaya – which had been my near constant companion since Shimla – finally merging into the blue, hazy horizon.
The late afternoon sun glinted on the giant flanks of wide water buffalo as we crawled down the single-track country railway. For one last time I went and stood by the open door and watched the fields, villages and level crossings slip by in a whirl of dust and corn chaff, the locomotive’s mournful horn sounding faintly from twenty carriages away up front.
If you have a flight in the stupidly early hours of the morning, it helps if the city in question has a fascinating attraction that will let you wander round until any hour of the night, will welcome and feed you without question. If that attraction also happens to be the holiest sight of a major religion, well, that’s a handy bonus. Amritsar fits that bill. But first, you must submit to some trials.
First, the locating of the station’s cloakroom to leave your bag for a few hours. You search the usual row of blue and yellow signs along platform one, to no avail. You push your way to the front of the Enquiries queue, where the lady behind the glass has a remarkable system which allows er to do her job while reading her book undisturbed. The answers to the commonest questions (‘Which is the next train to…?’, ‘Which platform for…?, ‘Has this waitlisted ticket cleared?) are written neatly on pieces of paper. Arming herself with a long stick, she can point to the required answer without glancing up from the riveting pages of her novel. Your question, however, does not have the answer written down, so the stick is instead used to gesture to the eastern end of platform one, accompanied by the gruff response “Last one.” You walk the quarter of a mile or so to the end of platform one, up among the piles of bedding and parcels waiting to be loaded on to trains, trying to work out what the ‘last one’ is. No joy. You trudge back. The Chief TTE has just emerged from his office, looking self-important, smart and completely at leisure. You accost him. He gestures back the way you came but mentions turning right through a gate. You follow his directions and find yourself out in the station forecourt. A cycle-rickshaw driver finally comes to your rescue pointing you to a hidden cubby hole in the dark recesses of the station’s façade. Here, Indian Railways has one final treat for you – a smartly dressed Sikh sits at his desk, surrounded by the most enormous piles of paper and carbon copy paper ever seen in an office. Even in India, the only possible way the simple task of hiring out spaces for bags on his shelves and charging 15 rupees a day for the privilege could produce so much paper is if he kept every single hiring slip and receipt from the past ten years on his desk. He adds the carbon copy of your slip to his not-obviously-perceptible filing system and finally you are divested of your bag.
Now, however, you fell a slight degree of gratitude towards the cycle rickshaw driver who is, of course, lurking outside. He quotes an ok-ish price for the trip to the Golden Temple, you haggle him down a desultory 10 rupees for the sake of form and hop aboard. Then the terror sets in. You are perched, with no form of guard or protection, on a hard leather seat, being cycled slowly through Amritsar’s swirling, honking, anarchic traffic. You begin to wish for the suddenly-so-secure seeming surrounding of an encased auto-rickshaw. You even glance enviously at other cycle-rickshaws with pull-up covers. Logically, you know they would be no safer, but your mind isn’t working like that. It just wants to be physically surrounded by something, not on this hard, slidey perch.
You begin to really wish that the driver had taken the route through the bazaars, not the longer one he has inexplicably chosen along the fast-moving delights of the four-lane ring road. Needless to say, much of the journey is spent in one of the middle lanes. You thank a deity of your choice when the driver pronounces himself unable to get up the slope to a railway bridge and you get the brief respite of a walk in the narrow gutter. You endure the terror of the free-wheeling descent down the other side. And you promise to devote all your remaining life to good works when you somehow, miraculously, arrive at your destination unscathed.
Two sites associated far too strongly with violence and mass killing stand within a hundred meters of each other on a bustling street in Amristar, one which heaped shame and ignomony on the British state and its armed forces when peaceful protesters were fired upon, even as they dived for cover in a well, by infantry in Jallianwalla Bagh in 1919, killing anywhere between 380 and 2000, sparking the non-co-operation campaign. The next-door Golden Temple complex, by contrast, saw perhaps the greatest military blunder in the Indian Army’s history when in 1984 Operation Blue Star, aimed at removing Sikh separatists who had taken over parts of the temples, went horrifically wrong, ending in the deaths of 2000 combatants and civilians, the destruction of many of Sikhism’s holiest buildings and the assassination of Indra Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation. Signs around the site inevitably paint the Indian government and military’s actions in terms of the worst possible motives – that Blue Star was an attempt to destroy Sikh autonomy and political capabilities, rather than as an appallingly-badly handled paramilitary exercise to remove violent separatists. This is perhaps not so surprising when you stand in front of the Akal Takht, Sikhism’s second most sacred shrine (after the one a hundred meters away in the lake) and realise that it is entirely a post-1984 replica: after Indian troops were massacred by the separatists as they attempted to storm the shrine, tanks firing across the holy pool destroyed the Akal Takht in seconds with squash-head shells. Interestingly, the signs are diligent in specifically naming the Congress party as the chief culprit, rather than simply the Indian state, which must take interesting squaring with the fact that prime minister Singh (in office for a few more weeks before his retirement when I visited) – India’s first Sikh PM – is a Congress politician.
Given this history – and a further occupation attempt by seperatists in 1987 – it is remarkable how low-key security is to enter the Golden Temple complex – no bag search, no security arch, no sniffer dogs. The only visible security is provided on the gates and inside by tall yellow-turbaned guards wielding five-foot spears, who are far more interested in maintaining a handful of basic rules of religious observance, such as that visitors pass through the foot washing pools before entering – than in stopping any would-be-attackers. One gently suggested to me – in as gentle a way as anyone with a 5-foot spear can – that my rather grubby sun hat was not quite in the spirit of the head covering rule, pointing me towards the bins full of free, more appropriate head scarfs.
That oh-so-gentle suggestion set the tone for the Temple complex, one of the most enjoyable visits to a major religious site I have ever had, as a total non-believer. There was no shortage of religious fervour and tradition on display, but done without a cant that alienated, deliberately or not, the outsider. For most of the Sikh pilgrims present, the trip to the Golden Temple seemed to be as much a time to have fun with family and friends as for religious observance. Children dashed about, the circuit of the holy pool was a social passeggiata, camera phones were brandished and family snaps taken in even the holiest of shrines – I ended up being far more observant of the ‘No Photography’ Notices than most pilgrims (though the ‘Do Not throw Eatable in Holy Lake’ Notices were strictly observed). As I wandered around, people would spontaneously wish me welcome and quietly encourage me to enter the shrines and observe the ceremonies.
The Golden Temple itself (the Harmandir), seemingly floating in the middle of the lake with a causeway linking it to the shore, is one of those few places – like the Taj Mahal – where the intake of breath is genuine, no matter how well known the image, as you descend the steps from the gateway. Its sheer gaudiness is, in some ways, horrific. It makes the interior of the House of Lords appear a masterpiece of restraint. Yet somehow, by placing this gleaming, gold, overwrought, over-done edifice in the middle of a simple pool, even one surrounded by other grandiose, domed, marble-inlayed buildings, provides it with a surprising sense of simplicity and serenity of design. Every inch of it sparkles with gold and every inch is reflected back in the dark waters of the pool, in which devotees bathe from the ghats, while many others – myself included – sat cross-legged as per the instruction on the Notices, taken in by the spectacle and the surroundings, glancing down occasionally to watch the dark shapes of fish twisting through the shallow waters. Across the water rang out the amplified sounds of the rhythmic reading of the entire Guru Granth Sahib from within the Harmandir, a process that takes 48 hours in total, before they start all over again.
At one end of the pool, the serenity was slightly ruffled by a distant, metallic rumbling. Climbing the steps leading away from the water’s edge, the rumbling increased to a thunderous crashing and clanging, making un-shouted conversations almost impossible to hear. Under canvas roofs, hundreds of temple volunteers were industrially washing thousands of metal plates, bowls and spoons in a spectacle of efficiency, ensuring that the enormous communal canteens, the Guru-Ka-Langars, never ran short of the implements needed to feed the vast numbers of pilgrims who passed through.
While watching this scene of production-line-like washing up, several passers-by encouraged me to join the line for the canteens – freely feeding visitors alongside devotees is a strong tradition. Handed my compartmentalised plate, a water bowl and two spoons, my line was quickly ushered to the upstairs of the two dining halls, which run continuously, twenty-four hours a day, so no-one has to wait more than a few minutes to be seated. The last few diners of the previous sitting were just leaving and as soon as the all was cleared, the hundreds of us were admitted. Rows of carpets lined the vast wooden floor and we sat on these in rows, facing the next line across, cross-legged, shoulder-to-shoulder, our plates at our feet. Within moments, kitchen volunteers carrying huge tureens, themselves replenished from vast cauldrons that looked like props from a production of Macbeth, began circulating the rows, ladling out huge dollops of food onto the plates, to a menu unchanged in decades of hundreds of thousands of servings – back dahl, rice, chapati, coconut sambar. Our water bowls were replenished from a wheeled tank, whose pusher simply positioned the nozzle over the bowl, pulled a bicycle brake-like trigger to release a flow of water, then wheeled on. The food was solid, basic and remarkably good. No sooner had you cleared one of the compartments on the plate than a server was in front of you, offering replenishment. While people gradually filtered out, the sitting did not end until everyone was replete. Feeling I had abused the Temple’s generous hospitality enough, I headed out of the hall, dropping a few rupees in the donation box and handing my utensils to the eager advance guard of the washing-up army.
Shortly before 10.30pm, a richly ornamented golden palanquin was carried across the causeway to the Harmandir and on the dot of the half hour, the chanting of the Guru Granth Sahib stopped for the evening. The huge ceremonial copy of the book was placed on the palanquin, carried back across the Guru’s Bridge, followed by enthusiastic devotees keen to touch the palanquin, the book, or even the cloth that was used to wipe the marble floor before its passage. The Guru Granth Sahib was placed ceremonially in the rebuilt Akal Takht to rest for the night before the continuous reading recommenced at dawn. The activity around the temple complex showed no sign of slowing down, however. From the upper gallery of the Harmandir, I watched as pilgrims continued to throw offerings of notes and coins onto the platform on which the holy book had sat, the jewelled canopy that sheltered it being carefully dismantled for the evening. Across the whole temple complex, the levels of ritual and symbolism left me feeling quite unworthy of my Leeds City Council certificate saying I had studied the tenets of Sikhism as part of compulsory Religious Education.
At a little after midnight, I left the Golden Temple and wandered back to the station through the sleeping-dog-and-cycle-rickshaw-driver strewn streets of Amritsar. In his brightly lit cubby-hole, the cloakroom attendant was still tending to his piles of chits. For the final time, I wiped the chalk numbers from the cloakroom off my bag and commandeered an auto-rickshaw for the long drive along empty highways to Sri Guru Ram Dass Jee airport, India having one final peril for me – a near-collision with an unlit combine harvester on the airport approach road.
Stamped out of the country by a small army of border, immigration and customs officials, by just after 4am I was air-borne in the pre-dawn sky heading for Doha. Within moments of take-off the Airbus had crossed the partition line and was over Pakistani airspace. India had been unique. It had challenged and excited me, shown me things I never thought I’d see. It had worried me for its own immediate future and the fate of Indian secularism, but also impressed me with its ability to somehow muddle through. I would return – there was so much more I wanted to see, learn and experience, even beyond this whistle-stop tour of its latitudes. But for now, India was receding behind me, some sort of dawn breaking over its red, dusty soil.