This is Part Two of a two-part post about our trip to India. Click here for Part One.
From Pushkar we headed east once more to Ramthanbore, outside the bustling city of Sawaii Madhopour. We came for one reason: tigers. There is almost nothing for a tourist to do in Ramthanbore except taking bumpy, three-hour jeep safaris into Ramthanbore National Park and hope to spot a stripy beast.
Our first such foray took us up onto a big range of hills. We saw plenty of deer and a type of antelope, a handful of birds and some nice views as far as the smog would allow, but no tigers. We had half a day to kill and the hotel was a hovel, so really we had no choice but to try again.
I’m sure glad we did! The section we now visited definitely had a tiger in it. You see, a cow had wandered into the park earlier in the week. A large male tiger had made short work of it, and had been feasting on the carcass all week. I spent most of the trip quoting the Jungle Book’s Bagheera at Hailee: “Shere Khan has returned to this part of the jungle. The man-cub is not safe!”
We saw him much faster than expected. He’d been wallowing in a muddy waterhole, and when the jeeps watching him bathe became too obnoxious he climbed out and made his slow way across the track. His yellow eyes and fangs hung in a sort of permanent leer, menacing shoulder muscles working casually under bright orange fur. He disappeared into the bush and, with typical Indian noise and chaos, the jeeps scrambled to follow.
Tribal villages still exist along the fringes of this and other national parks around India, forgotten little places where people still speak unique languages and live off the land. They keep cattle, and it is apparently common for the tigers to steal in at night to nab a cow.
I found this story terrifying. With all this talk of hunting for a tiger sighting, I had thought of the tiger as our prey, something that we would stalk, and shoot a picture of to prove we’d seen it. But to the people of those villages (and now to me), the tiger is a kind of monster, a lethal presence in the night. It felt absurd to be racing around the bush, with guides shouting and tourists furtively aiming their lenses, in the presence of a creature that could, given the urge, tear any one of us limb from limb. The only one who seemed aware of this was the tiger itself, who did not shy away from the hounding jeeps, but simply went about its business with a sort of lazy arrogance until, unsettlingly, it simply decided to disappear.
The train to Amritsar was called the “Golden Temple Mail,” and despite its 17 hours it proved a bearable, even enjoyable journey. The trains, a relic of India’s time as a British territory, are an essential Indian experience, and with hundreds of millions of over-enthusiastic drivers on the roads, they are the preferable mode of transport.
Most trains have at least five different classes. This new, troublingly delicate version of Traveller Quinten took one look at the poor bastards jammed in behind the barred windows of the “Sleeper” and “Second Class” carriages and thought fuck no. So that narrowed it down a bit. (My mum, by contrast, braved these carriages during her travels here in the mid-1980’s.)
“Three Tier AC” carriages have air conditioning, and are divided into compartments where six people sit on a bench, three to a bench, facing one another. The straight back of the seat lifts up to become a bed, and a third bed completes the “three tier” set. “Two Tier AC” carriages are the same, only with double bunks instead of triple. We didn’t feel rich enough to take a private cabin in “First Class,” so we organized a package of tickets in Delhi that promised seats in either “3AC” or “2AC” carriages. Naturally, we ended up in 3AC each time, but officials provided pillows, fresh sheets and blankets, so it’s a comfortable night on the rails.
We were popular in Amritsar.
It was early when we rolled into Amritsar’s grey dawn, seemingly another grey, bustling Indian city. The notable differences included: lots of turbans, lots of beards and everyone was a bit taller than usual. Amritsar is the heartland for Sikhism, an offshoot of Hinduism that started among a Punjabi warrior caste. Sikh men and women never cut their hair, which they wrap up in bright turbans that add yet another splash of colour to any Punjabi street scene, and most men wear a beard. Putting the hair up prevents it from growing too long, and one man claimed to us that this made Sikhs physically stronger than the rest of us.
Sikhs are supposed to carry five symbols, known as the Five K’s: a metal bangle (kara), a comb (kangha), uncut hair (kesh), a roomy type of underwear (kachera), and a weapon (kirpan), traditionally a three foot, six inch sword. Some Sikhs, both men and women, still carry all of these, and it is common to see tall women, their hair wrapped in a beehive-like turban, walking the streets with swords hanging from their hips. Most go for a more functional dagger, while some carry full-sized spears.
At the Golden Temple.
One of Sikhism’s best-known martyrs is a 17th century bloke named Deep Singh (which sounds like a Bollywood Star Trek: “Deep Singh 9”), whose full title is Baba Deep Singh Ji. He had his head cut off in the defence of Amritsar. Legend has it that his decapitated body kept fighting until the safety of the city was secured, with his scimitar in one hand and his disembodied head hanging from the other. These are the kind of people the modern Sikhs are descended from.
Sikh prayer is performed in a variety of ways: meditation and repeating the name of god, who has no gender or form, are two. But the most evocative is prayer through song. For most hours of the day, bearded, turbaned men sit in the carpeted, gilded interior of the Golden Temple playing a rhythmic, repetitive yet soothing music. A bouncing sort of drum keeps time, a sitar plays an occasional solo and a droning accordion-like instrument whines out little melodies here and there. The largest of the musicians croons into a microphone, and the music is piped out into the surrounding grounds. Until we entered the temple, I thought this music was just a recording. As far as prayers go, Sikh jam sessions are probably the coolest I’ve seen yet.
Hailee at the Golden Temple.
The Golden Temple is Sikhism’s equivalent of the Vatican. It consists of a marble courtyard arranged around a square pool, which pilgrims bathe in. The buildings around the pool are full of shrines and administrative offices, as well as a huge community kitchen, called a langar, which offers free meals to all comers, seven days a week, almost 24 hours a day.
Hailee and I liked Amritsar the best of all the places we visited in India. We ate our best meal of the trip there at a restaurant called Kesar Da Dhaba (the eggplant bhakta, ugghghg), but it wasn’t just that. The Sikhs are a serene people, much more chilled than their talkative Hindu cousins. I suppose you don’t have much to prove if you come from a long line of bad arse warriors, and less so if you’ve got your own sword hanging from your belt.
For something completely different, we spent an afternoon with a few thousand new friends at the Wagah border crossing, doing our best to antagonise the nation of Pakistan.
The grandfathers and grandmothers of young Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis all used to live in one country. Britain’s refusal to grant this vast, diverse nation its independence after World War One allowed time for ethnic tensions to build, and for certain Hindu nationalists and threatened Muslims to campaign for a post-independence partition of the country along religious lines. By 1947 partition was all but assured, and when it finally did happen great waves of migration took place. Hindus and Sikhs left Pakistan while Muslims escaped India. As they did so, radicals on both sides attacked the fleeing migrants, and up to 2 million people were killed.
For his part, Gandhi could not bear a partitioned India, and almost starved himself to death in a hunger strike to protest against it. Gandhi, a Hindu, was eventually shot dead by a compatriot who thought the Mahatma had been too kind to Muslims. In all India there is only one museum, a two-roomed affair in Amritsar, that deals with the tragedy of partition.
I asked plenty of people in India what they thought of Pakistan, and found an almost uniform hatred of their former compatriots. This divorce of a nation is more than a sad curiosity of history: some 10-12 million people were displaced by partition, and up to 2 million people were killed. Violence still flares in Kashmir and worst of all, both nations are now armed with nuclear weapons.
So you would wonder why their respective border protection forces insist on antagonising the situation each evening with the famous Border Closing Ceremony at Wagah, on the road between Lahore and Amritsar. Both country has its own elaborate gate on either side of the metres-wide no-man’s land. Both have built seating in a U-shape around their gates.
The ceremony involves various soldiers striding or goose-stepping out to the edge of his or her nation, shaking his or fist in a comical fashion at the other, and then taking up position by the road. Whatever you see on one side is mirrored by the other, in a different colour scheme. When female Indian soldiers stride out in gold uniforms, a pair of Pakistani ladies will do the same in dark navy. When a Pakistani flexes his muscles in a bizarre navy-coloured hat, an Indian is doing the same thing across from him in an equally bizarre red hat. Then they take the flags down, and the crowds go berserk. At one point the noise spooked a cat, which ran straight down the centre of everything and, without pausing for customs, sprinted out of Pakistan and disappeared into India.
This was our last stop in India. Rishikesh is an interesting place because it lies at the very tip top of the holy Ganges River. The town straddles either riverbank and up the sides of the very first foothills of the Himalayas.
Hailee and the intrepid Squirrel E. Wood by the Ganges in Rishikesh.
The Ganges is said to flow from the feet of the Hindu Lord Rama, which makes it a middling holy site in Hinduism. However, its position on the Ganges, its peace and quiet and its accessibility have made it a major stop on the Holy Foreigner’s tour of India that I mentioned earlier. Rishikesh is one of the great new age capitals of the world, a place where you can improve your chakras, work on your ramaka, share your satsang, learn tantric yoga and maybe even learn what all these words actually mean. It’s a place where foreigners take intensive courses, live frugally in ashrams, delve deep inside themselves and shop for the talismans that broadcast their enlightened status to other foreigners. It is common to hear Americans talking about universal truth, Spaniards being late for drum classes, and Englishmen humble-bragging about how small Indian condoms are.
Off to Australia Again
And then we were off, back to vast, empty Australia. On these empty Tasmanian streets, I still catch myself wondering where everybody is hiding.
India is an exhausting, exhilarating country to visit. You will find the most inspiring and spiritual aspects of humanity here in their rawest form: the dancing joy of a wedding party, the rickshaw driver who asks for five minutes of patience while he ducks into the mosque for prayers, the garlands of flowers hanging from the necks of holy cows. All of these things take place alongside of some of humanity’s ugliest, most depressing traits: pantsless, mud-spattered children living in huts of torn plastic and rags at the feet of skyscraper hotels with names like “Silver Spoons” and “Elysium,” all in haze of pollution that turns your boogers black.
India is a nightmarish vision of an overpopulated world, seemingly polluted beyond repair. But it is also an example of how many different faiths and cultures (only the entire continent of Africa beats India for cultural and linguistic diversity) can live together more or less peacefully – in the world’s biggest democracy, no less. We can look to India and feel reassured at humanity’s capability to get on in diverse, mostly peaceful societies. We can also look to India to see what will happen if we fail to ensure education and access to contraception for women, and if we fail to limit the influence of “go forth and multiply” religious teaching.
Weeks later, I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about the place. But it sure is a spectacle worth seeing.