Amritsar: Holy City of the Sikhs





The family from jillander who give us a ride insist that we are now family. Of course we should squeeze into their little car and with effort pack our cases in back with theirs. Our ride through the mountains down to Pathankot was a jolly time. Bushan waited for us, coming from Delhi on the night train several hours before. He tells us his family is waiting to greet us. We hug our new Jillander family goodbye and move on to meet the next one. Two families of relatives live side by side in neighboring houses. Four generations of people welcome us so warmly. The women cook lavish meals, the young boys proudly show us the neighborhood. So much friendship.

The next day we took the train a short distance to Amritsar. Again we were treated so lovingly by Bushan’s brother and his wife. Amritsar is the Holy city of the Sikh Faith. We were amused by the names of some of the stores like Simran Shoes, Satguru Electronics – and the less inspiring Dreamland Resort, sitting right next to a chemical plant spewing obnoxious smoke. Over three busy days, we saw the main points of interest.

The Jallianwallah Memorial

Jallianwallah is a moving memorial at the site of the 1919 massacre. It began as a peaceful demonstration ordered by Mahatma Ghandi against the Rowlatt Act which enabled imprisonment of Indians suspected of sedition without trial. No one had guns. At the order of the Brisith General Dwyer, 2,000 Indians were shot to death and many more injured. The site is now a beautiful garden but with several gruesome reminders: the narrow passage way where the soldiers entered blocking any exit; the bullet holes in the brick wall where people were shot in the back as they scattered; the well where 150 perished when they jumped in for cover. The event prompted Ghandi’s civil disobedience campaign and ultimate liberation from the British. Looking at the many photographs and newspaper coverage of the event, I felt ashamed of my heritage.

Golden Temple

Westerners are allowed to visit the Golden Temple – the spritiual center of Sikh faith – after covering the head and washing feet. The marble temple has a large lake, in the center of which sits the golden inner sanctum. The best times to go are at sunrise or in the evening when the Sikhs are singing bhajans – devotional songs. We went in the evening; despite the crowds of visitors and pilgrims it was surprisingly peaceful. I was awed at the fierce looking turbaned Sikhs sitting quietly in prayer beside the lake.

Bedlam at the Border

Amritsar is only 27 km from the Indian Pakistan border and every evening at sunset it is closed in a flag lowering ceremony with much pomp and ceremony. Indian guards wearing elaborate costumes with plumed hats perform synchronized speed markcing along a 100 meter walkway to the border gateway, turn and stomp back. A guard lives his feet so high, he hits his hat. The crowd cheers raucously. Then the Pakistani guards emulate – and try to outperform – the Indian efforts, while the Parkistani crowd yells spiritedly. National music blasts on both sides while the crowd dances in patriotic enthusiasm. The flag lowering ceremony is turned into an opportunity for a disturbing (to us) show of extreme emotional patriotism. It was intriguing to watch the Pakistanis on the other side, women in black burkhas, men in simple white cotton suits – but otherwise they looked no different from the Indian crowd.

We say goodbye to our gracious hosts at 4.30 am and take our last train ride to Delhi. For the last time, we step over the sleeping bodies and listen to the familiar voice over the PA system announcing the arrival of each train with: “For your kind attention…”

Khajjair: A Meadow in the Mountains




Khahjjiar is basically a large open meadow sitting in a tall lush pine forest, high in the mountains. Everything looks so green and healthy here, more so than anywhere else we’ve been; a stark contrast from Badami, Orccha, Ajunta… We’d had such a good time in Chopta up in the mountains in Uttrakhand, and wanted to enjoy one more day in a similar environment before descending into the hot plains of the Punjab.

Khajjiar is not really a town – only a couple of hotels and restaurants border the meadow. It’s a popular day trip from Dalhousie for Indian families who take horse rides, picnic on the grass, and have their picture taken in traditional costume. Our guesthouse is set back a little way in the trees – just a few rooms looking out on a pretty garden.

The last couple of days in Chamba the weather kept chasing from cloudy to thunderstorms to clearing off – and continues to do the same here. After three months of continuous sunshine, it’s a novelty to have this changeable weather.

While waiting for dinner at the guesthouse, Gerard starts a conversation with the family in the room next door to us. They inquire where we’re going, and then surprise us with an invitation to join them driving to Panthakot. They happen to be going to the same way we are! We enthusiastically accept. I’m reprieved from one last bus ride in the mountains!

Chamba: The Last Hill Station






Chamba is much larger than we expected; it is a district capital with a Raj feel. It sits in a river valley, surrounded on all sides by high mountains. A huge flat green, a ‘chagwan’, marks the center of town. It looks as if it was created by the British as a polo field, and I can almost see the horses with their white uniformed riders brandishing polo sticks. Today, it’s a focal point for socializing and cricket games. Alongside the chagwan are several large distinctly Raj looking buildings with pillared verandahs.

Beyond the chagwan, the town spreads in one direction down to the river Ravi and in the other crawls up the hillside. Intermingled with the usual drab concrete blocks are a surprisingly large number of very old wooden buildings with carved windows, balconies and slate roofs. The town is densely built on the hillside, with very narrow lanes and only a few wide enough for vehicles. At nighttime the surrounding hills twinkle with lights – it reminds me of the hills of Sarajevo. But here the hills are peaceful without the threat of mines.

Walking through town we’re both impressed by how friendly everyone seems. Women sitting in windows smile and call, “Namaste!” Finding our way to the temple complex is not easy and for once Gerard’s Junior Woodchuck’s Guide fails him and he has to ask directions! Without the aid of English, the shopkeeper closes his shop and shows us the way. Once again we find ourselves in a town where very little English is spoken, but people are polite and friendly. Maybe it’s due to the fact Chamba doesn’t see many tourists and we’re still somewhat of a novelty.

Many temples are dotted around the town. One intimate complex of temples is in a style found only in Chamba and one other neighboring town. The outer walls are carved and topped with overhanging wood canopies and a gold pinnacle. The oldest is 10th century. When we visit it is almost empty and very peaceful. Hindi temples clearly manifest idol worship – but performed so lovingly – the flowers, incense burners, orange and gold cloth draped over the idols and the sacred bull…the largest idol even has a ceiling fan and a wall clock!

Another interesting temple is high above the town up a steep climb of steps. Gerard puffs and pants, “,,,this is just like going up the mountain in Chopta!” It is very steep….but the sweat and strain to our knees is worthwhile. There is a beautiful view of the river valley and the town below from the top. The temple is decorated with literally hundreds of brass bells and is almost entirely made of wood. The ceiling is exquisitely carved.

A museum created by the British in 1908, and later rebuilt, houses a surprisingly large and very good collection of miniatures in the unique style of Chamba and neighboring, Kangra. There are also some wonderful old photographs of the Raj in Chamba.

Again the weather is unsettled – during the night it rains on and off, lightening flashes and thunder echoes around the mountains. It doesn’t clear the haze as much as we hoped, but the air is cool and fresh. We try to appreciate the cool 26C temperature because in a few days we’re going to be in Amritsar and Delhi which are reportedly 44C (112F).

As a side note, we recently read that on the last auspicious bath day in Haridwar, during the Khumb Mela, there were an estimated 1.45 crore (40.5 million ) pilgrims trying to reach the river to bathe. In the crush, seven were killed in the crush. We’re thankful that we had long left town.

In Tibet’s Backyard






Home to the Dalai Lama, McLeod Gunj is a small town nestled on a mountainside, just north of Dharamshala. The town is made up of just three streets radiating from a central square, and easy enough for even me to navigate. The higher peaks of the Himalayas seem to be in arms reach. This is the closest we have been to them. The first day we arrive a sudden thunderstorm erupts with heavy rain and lightening. The sound of thunder in the mountains is something you’ve never heard before. It bounces off the mountains and echoes down the valley. It’s wonderfully refreshing – it’s not only the first cloudy, rainy day we’ve had in three months but it also clears the air. In the afternoon, the sun comes back out and the snow covered peaks are crystal clear,

Tibetans make up at least 80% of the town’s population, smiling faced people with mellow dispositions. Many of the women, young and old, still wear the traditional dress with striped apron. But the struggle for a Free Tibet is very evident. Across the street from our hotel is the Tibetan Youth Council; there’s volunteer organizations throughout the town, and many other groups aimed at integrating the refugee community and struggling to promote the Free Tibet movement in various ways.

McLeod Gunj is a backpackers destination but their presence doesn’t overwhelm. They come for the fresh air, yoga, and the Dalai Lama – and hang out in the many cafes eating Tibetan momos and veggie burgers. There are more Indian tourists in town than usual, due to the national cricket play-offs happening in Dharamshala at a brand new stadium. The Dalai Lama is attending the opening ceremonies! Cricketers in India are superstars and everyone in town turns out in the evening to see them arrive at eat at McLlo, the most expensive restaurant in town. A bevy of policemen supposedly monitor the crowd, but are more distracted by the cricketers themselves than to be of much help if any disturbance broke out.

The Buddhist monks wander around town in their red robes, seeming almost like tourists themselves; the younger ones often hanging out on the street and in the cafes with westerners, or talking on their cell phones. Their lively vigor doesn’t fit with our concept of a monk. Then, when we visit the local monastery, a loud disturbance disrupts the otherwise peaceful surroundings. A group of monks are taking part in a ritual debate centered on religious concepts. In turn, one monk presents his view in a loud and boisterous manner. Each point he makes is concluded with slapping of hands and stomping of feet in unison right in the opponents face! It’s very theatrical. In another area of the monastery, a large group of young monks are chanting. The monastery felt vibrant and full of activity and the presence of tourists seemed to be unnoticed.

In the evening we watch the TibetTV channel. The Dalai Lama converses with a contingent of westerners who have come to Dharamshala to try and work out a solution to free Tibet. They suggest sanctions against China, but the Dalai Lama says he doesn’t believe in this approach because it will be adverse for the Chinese people and he doesn’t want to inconvenience anyone. But then he follows up this statement with “..but since the government has been so unresponsive, maybe they need a little nudge.” And he breaks into his deep joyous laugh.

The Dalai Lama’s presence is everywhere, even though he is often traveling and not in residence. Wherever you go there are pictures of the Dalai Lama, posters are sold on the street, his books are everywhere. We talk to Moslems from Kashmir, Hindus from around India – they all have respect for the Dalai Lama.

McLeod Kunj is a shoppers paradise….or hell. Tibetan jewelry, clothes and knickknack stores are a bait for women like me. We meet a young Kashmiri shopkeeper. While he seduces me with beautiful embroidered skirts I’d never wear, Gerard discusses politics and religion with the young Moslem. Eventually, feeling I have to buy something; I opt for a simple suede bag. I’ve already bough three other bags so Gerard has to remonstrate, “There are other things to buy than bags and scarves in India!” (I’ve also bought a fair number of the latter.) It’s true I have a bag fetish, but he fails to understand a woman needs bags (and scarves) of every size, shape and design for different occasions and needs. I go back to the hotel and then realize the bag is so small my sunglasses don’t fit in it. So we go back and barter for another bag – which is of course more expensive. I agonize over two different designs and finally select one that is very pretty. It takes a few hours for me to realize that the second bag is totally inappropriate for my wardrobe, lifestyle etc. So back I go again, to Gerard’s horror, and politely persuade the shopkeeper to change yet again – of course spending yet more money…When Gerard suggested naming my blog “A Small Case” – he was not only referring to my physical baggage – it also embraces the mental load…!

After five or six days of rest and relaxation the thought of getting on yet another bus of eight hours through the mountains is too much. We’ve got soft and opt for a car and driver to take us in relative comfort to our last mountain destination, Chamba.

Overnight in Shimla




It takes two more interminable bus journeys to reach McLeod Gunj in the foothills of the Himalayas. We travel through precipitous river valleys, pine forests and mountainsides swathed in maize terraces and apple orchards

Well shaken, we stop overnight in Shimla. Once a major British hill station it is now a popular tourist town for the noveau riche Indians from the Punjab and Delhi. The capital of Himachal Pradesh since 1966, the city has become an overgrown sprawl across the mountainside – but the old bazaar is a pleasant surprise to us. Built on a steep incline, everything that comes in and out has to be carried up by porters. Bent over almost double they carry three crates of soft drinks…100 kg flour…or three or four heavy suitcases. We manage to drag our own cases up the hill into the bazaar and find a little guesthouse in the midst of the small shops. Immediately opposite is a fascinating double purpose “dentist and goggles” (optician) shop. The painted sign displays a pair of dentures at one end and glasses at the other, and lists the provider as the LATE Dr Kushwant Singh. He not only services both your teeth and your eyes, but while deceased!

Above the bazaar is the mall – a pedestrian thoroughfare. I enjoy the still visible remnants of the Raj – Gothic churches, elegant tea rooms, half timber and Victorian mansions with British names, But the bazaar is unmistakably Indian, with a chaotic mass of corrugated iron rooftops and roaming monkeys. Shimla has become exorbitantly expensive, but in the bazaar you can still find a small dhaba serving alu parathas, curd and chai for two for less than a dollar. There’s nothing like a good bargain to make me happy!

Kirpal Kunj in Dehra Dhun



We have arranged to spend a few days at a meditation retreat in Dehra Dhun built by an Indian disciple of our Master in the early 1990s. With some difficulty we find it in the suburbs. A sweet older gentleman from Delhi comes up to take care of us while we’re here. Retreats are only held at the end of the month, and this is the beginning. He speaks no English which keeps the chatting to a minimum. Being at the retreat is a welcome break, and to be served is much appreciated. The schedule which is not mandatory includes seven hours of meditation.

The retreat is a three walled bungalow including four guestrooms and a large meditation room, built around a pretty garden full of flowering pot plants, bushes and trees. A large flat roof looks out over a grassy common surrounded by a few well maintained houses and gardens. It has a peaceful dreamy quality that reminds me of an English village green – children play on a swing set, a couple of tethered cows graze, hens peck. People wander by; followed by the odd tractor or bicycle…but the sounds are all muted.

Refreshed we set off for the final phase of our trip with a LONG bus ride to Dharamasala via Shimla.

A Literary Footnote

For those who have been following the blog since the beginning and paid attention to minor details, you may remember that I described that a small case only allows for one book….well things have changed. I have fallen in love with a popular Indian author, Chethan Baghat who explores the complexity of India – cultural political and religious- in novels that are both extremely funny and thought provoking. I now have all four of his books weighing down my case, plus Victor Chan’s book on the Dalai Lama.

Khumb Mela in Haridwar




Everyone tells us you must go to Haridwar to see Kumbh Mela. It only happens there every twelve years; by 2022 we’ll be too old to travel. We’re conflicted – should we take the easy route and go straight to Dehra Dhun? But no, we decide to take an overcrowded bus down to Haridwar first. We have no hotel reservation. The bus drops us outside of town on the other side of the river, but once again my trusty guide gets us across the bridge and through the crowded streets to the Inder Kuter Guesthouse quite close to the river, where we get a shoebox of a room with a surprisingly soft bed.

The town is not what we expected – much larger, dirtier and noisier, exacerbated by Kumbh Mela. It seems a total circus. On the edge of town is a sea of dusty tents where the different sadhus discourse, peddling their spiritual wares. The sight of sadhus and rishis has become quite commonplace after being in Varanasi and Rishikesh, but the sheer volume in Haridwar is impressive – also their bizarreness. Some are clothed in the usual yellow robes, others are naked, except for a loincloth. Nakedness symbolizes giving up everything that is wordly. Some wear turbans, some have shaven heads, other have matted dreadlocks, their faces and bodies grey with the ashes they’ve smeared over themselves as a reminder that death is not far away. If we were searching for a guru we might find it all more attractive – but we’re not.

Elaborate houses are built right on the river bank; some are private homes others are ashrams. Further up the river the ghats widens on both sides, where bathers are protected from the fast flowing current by iron railings and chains. We are not there on one of the auspicious bathing days when hordes of naked sadhus parade through the streets to bathe en mass – but there’s still plenty of people in the water. I dip my dusty sore feet into the Ganges briefly, and the ice cold water feels wonderfully refreshing

In the evening we walk through the busy bazaar swept up in a sea of people to to watch the nightly Arti ceremony the spot beside the river. Thousands have already gathered. Unlike Rishikesh, there are so many Indians, the few Westerners present are obscured. Among the Indians, a fine line exists between tourists and pilgrims. They may not be pilgrims in the truest sense, but no one is here for a vacation; they’ve come to take a spiritual bath in the Ganges and experience Kumbh Mela.

A man with a baton orders us to remove our shoes and fight through a disorderly queue to leave them at a kiosk. I seriously doubt if we will ever see the shoes again even though we’re given a token. If people fail to remove their shoes, the man brandishes his baton threateningly at their legs, while simultaneously praying. Other official looking men walk among the crowds of seated people calling for donations, and writing pink slips as receipts. They seem a bit like wandering bookies at the horse races. As the sun drops, the singing begins and the monks appear from the waterside temple lighting the sacred fires and waving torches. Immediately the crowd stands up and the limited view we have is obscured. After stretching and straining for a while we give up, retrieve our shoes and move away to higher ground up some steps and behind a wall. Immediately some kindly Indians move aside and give us their view. Once again, I’m touched by the spontaneous friendly generosity of Indians toward total strangers.

For me, Kumbh Mela becomes a spiritual version of Comdex in Las Vegas – evening Arti/water performance at the Bellagio… spiritual discourses/hi-tech panel discussions…attendees seeking spiritual advancement/venture capital…big crowds, big headache in common…

Early the next morning we return to the river and watch a huge throng of naked sadhus bathing together in a cordoned off area, guarded by police. We’ve had enough. There may be more to see but we decide to get out of town. At the bus stand we find out there is a bus strike and we must trek off to the railway station and find a train to Dehra Dhun