The thought occurred to us some time back, when considering possible destinations for our next long-haul trip, that we had for some years neglected one of our favourite countries – namely the vast Indian Subcontinent, and that there were parts of it that remained to be explored.
So it was that I (Simm Sahab), and my good lady wife the Memsahib (hereinafter referred to as the Mem) found ourselves arriving in New Delhi on a sunny and pleasant spring morning in early March. We had determined in advance that we would follow advice and not give in to jet lag, and had therefore planned an outing to a couple of temples.
Before these, however, we visited old Delhi, and found ourselves caught up in the colourful chaos and mayhem of India’s capital. We travelled through the alleyways by bicycle rickshaw, passing shops selling clothing, spices, metal wares, Holi powders, vegetables, shoes and all manner of other items, and of course the ubiquitous street food, and noted the electrical cables festooned over buildings and across alleys, which also provide a useful bridge for the local monkeys.
People continued to rush purposefully about both hither and thither, all bent on some mission or other, which does create a buzz of excitement – as we passed amongst them, it became apparent that whilst practical (and you have to admire a slight Indian managing to shift some 145kg of European tourist), the bicycle rickshaw does have drawbacks in the comfort stakes… being 1.80m, the frequent collisions between cranium and framework can become a little wearing.
After this immersion in the sights and sounds of India we moved on to the day two’s main activities, visiting the Birla temple and the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib: the former is a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu (although side temples are dedicated to Shiva, Krishna and Buddha) and inaugurated by Gandhi, and the latter a Sikh temple and holy lake (and a place of great reverence for followers of that religion).
All visitors are required to go barefoot and to cover their hair, but the hair covering has to be approved – a simple hat will not suffice – and one is required to wear a knotted bright orange square: a straggly ponytail would have completed the picture of an ageing hippy!
Following on from Delhi, our first major destination was Srinagar, the capital of the historically troubled region of Kashmir. This does mean that there is more restrictive security on the flight (very little cabin baggage is allowed), and a heavy military/police presence in town. On arrival visitors are required to register before being allowed in.
The houseboat in which we were billeted was fairly well out of town on Lake Dal and, unlike the majority of boats, not cheek by jowl with its neighbours: many of the latter were so close to each other that it would be possible to hear the occupants changing their minds. There is a degree of fancifulness about the names of many boats: inter alia we noted Happy Dawn, Merry Dawn, Golden Hind and Cherry Ripe.
We were woken early on our first morning by the call to the dawn prayer, a reminder that Kashmir is a predominantly Muslim area, and perhaps fitting given that the day’s tourism was heavily involved with places of worship. We started with the Hazratbal mosque (which houses a hair relic of the prophet Mohammed), continued to the Pir Gastir Sahib (a sufi shrine), the Jama masjid (one of the most sacred mosques in India) and finally the Khanqah of Shah-i-Hamadan, the first ever mosque built in Kashmir (and without the use of nails), whose frontage and interiors are covered in papier-mâché reliefs and extravagantly coloured faceted wood panelling.
After this immersion in matters religious, the following day turned to the secular with visits to three gardens, starting with the Shalimar Bagh, the royal garden of Kashmir originally laid out by the Emperor Jehangir some 500 years ago, and subsequently turned into a pleasure garden. We then moved on to the Nishat Bagh: not an imperial garden, but water runs down through a succession of man-made waterfalls, each of which (it is said), makes a different sound.
At this point the Mem fell in love, firstly with a pair of Punjabi shoes (they’re the ones which have toes curling back on themselves) and secondly with their wearer, a tall, elegant, fine-featured Sikh gentleman from Amritsar (this sort of thing does wonders for one’s ego!!). Fortunately her feelings were not reciprocated and we moved on to our final destination, Pari Mahal, a multi-terraced garden originally used as an observatory to teach astrology and astronomy, which offered us splendid views over the waters of Lake Dal.
The following day brought an excursion to the almost obligatory local crafts, where we saw demonstrations of weaving methods: it came as a great surprise at the end to find that nobody tried to sell us anything! Our final outing was a trip on the lake in a shikara, a human-powered narrow boat. We sat at the front like Lord and Lady Muck whilst the boatman took us on a trip initially through the quiet parts of the lake, eventually ending up at a waterside village with the sort of shops seen in its land-based equivalent.
The next day we set off for Amritsar, and one of the main sightseeing objectives of the trip, the Golden Temple. Our tourism day was greeted with rain and grey skies, and started at the Jallianwala Bagh, the memorial garden to the victims of one of the more shameful episodes in the history of the British army, the Amritsar massacre of April 1919. Soldiers under the command of General Dyer opened fire on a non-violent crowd and slaughtered 379 people and injured a further 1,200 (these are British figures: Indian sources put the numbers significantly higher). We saw a well in which 120 died trying to escape the bullets, original bullet holes in the walls, the memorial itself (in the shape of a bullet), topiary representing soldiers firing rifles, and an eternal flame in memory of those who died here and in other conflicts.
We then moved on to the Golden Temple itself (the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion), and once more had to go barefoot and acquire the orange head covering – I discovered on a number of occasions that the combination of water, marble and bare feet is a little on the dangerous side, causing me to slide around with less than balletic grace!
The temple complex is some 450 years old, with the sarovar (water tank) having been started in 1570, and the temple following some 20 years later: it is now visited by some 100,000 people a day, and when we were there the it would have taken about 90 minutes from joining the queue to entering the temple itself. We did not have time to do this, but walked round the sarovar, visiting the kitchens and dining area (anybody can come here for a meal, from beggar to maharajah, and it certainly does not involve means testing!), where several thousand people are fed everyday by unpaid volunteers, and noted that despite the weather, a number of believers were bathing in the holy waters.
Following a brief interlude for shopping and the recharging of personal batteries we set off in the late afternoon for the sunset ceremony at the India-Pakistan border crossing at Wagah. Our guide was not allowed to accompany us as we passed through a number of security checkpoints and approached the site and, following his instructions, we headed towards the VIP area (basically its where they put all the obvious tourists!), but ran out of signage. Eventually we managed to discover a way in and took up position.
Crowd control was in the hands of the army, and consisted of shouting and blowing whistles. Despite the chaos, and indeed the prevalence of umbrellas caused by the (mostly) inclement weather, we did manage to see some of the ceremony, the lowering of the flags and the gates themselves.
We then set off again, this time for the summer capital of the Raj, Shimla. Our journey started at the railway station, where we were to catch a train to Ambala before driving into the hills: we were distinctly impressed by the porter who took our bags, given that he hoisted the 24kg of the Mem’s bag onto his head and, towing mine, set off for the train at a rate of knots (this entitled him to a tip of £1 – a useful comparison to British porterage rates!).
The journey enabled us to watch the countryside passing by, as well as towns and villages: we then got back on the road for the drive up to Shimla. Our route took us via Chandigarh, where we paused to inspect two buildings designed by Le Corbusier before heading for the hills.
The route is slow, windy and uphill, despite this, vehicles continued to demonstrate that there are no circumstances under which an Indian driver considers it inappropriate to carry out an overtaking manoeuvre or indeed to blow his horn at anything either moving or stationary. At one point we found ourselves in a queue created by a fairly long low-loader, with the local bus right up our exhaust pipe and honking frantically!
Our tour of the town covered the Viceregal Lodge (a substantial, and not overly attractive edifice, which was occupied from 1888 until almost the time of withdrawal in the 1940s), whose architecture is described as Scottish Baronial (which translates as dour, dank and gloomy), but which contains a number of interesting historical photographs, the Mall (the main shopping area) and the Jakoo temple. The latter is a fairly small temple, at the highest point of Shimla (which is about 900 metres higher than the lowest point), but dwarfed by a recently erected giant (and garish) orange statue of the monkey god Hanuman, to whom the temple is dedicated. It is 33 metres tall, about 3 metres more than Rio’s Christ the Redeemer, and to say it does not blend into its surroundings would be an understatement!
We departed Shimla by rail on the narrow gauge service known as the Toy train, which has existed since 1903, and that trundles and rattles its way down round a series of bends and through countless tunnels: we had splendid views of hills, valleys and distant mountains (given favourable weather, which we had, it is possible to see the Himalayas from Shimla) all the way to our destination, Solan, where we disembarked to return to Chandigarh for an overnighter before setting off for Jaisalmer and the desert.
The adventure isn't over... click to read Part 2.
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Images by Chris Simm and iStock.
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