We searched vainly for the New Zealand Embassy but all we could find was a vacant building, so we caught a bus further out of town to the Baha’i Faith temple. The lines of the building were drawn from the shape of the lotus flower, all harmony and peace, which is what the Baha’i Faith stands for: unification of all people into a global community or commune. Not a lot of chance of that happening!!
Back in town we had a look at the India Gate and walked up the Raj Path where the Union Jack and the flag of India were flying from each lamp post, then caught an auto-rickshaw out the Diplomatic Enclave where a brand new New Zealand High Commission office is situated. We spent about an hour there drinking tea and reading copies of The Dominion.
That evening a group of us Tom, Robert, Tinka, Linda, an American guy called Chuck, Barnardos, Madeline and I went out for a meal then for ice cream at Nerala’s pizza joint.
We collected our passports from the Nepal Embassy at 10:30 then spent half an hour in the Natural History Museum. The displays there were well set out and informative but aimed more at children than adults so we didn’t hang a lot around too long.
Back at Ringo’s, we changed US$200 with the manager at a rate of 31 rupees per dollar, then set off by auto rickshaw over to the Handloom Expo ’92, where we spent a couple of hours browsing about in shops full of textiles, carpets and fabrics. Linda bought a double bed cover for 120 rupees and a set of tablecloths, napkins and placemats for 250 rupees.
Monday, February 10th. Our first job of the morning was to apply for visas at the Embassy of Nepal, about a 20-minute walk from Ringo’s. There was a long queue of applicants there, and the visas were extortionately expensive: 630 rupees each.
From the Nepali Embassy, we caught a rickshaw to the New Delhi poste restante office, where the only letter was one from for me from Chloe Hayward [wife of my former employer at Knoll Farm, where I’d spent the previous harvest driving tractors]. We shared another rickshaw with two Japanese girls over to the Old Delhi post office where there was a letter from Michael and Nancy [relations of mine from New Zealand].
We walked up to the Old Delhi Fort for a look around and despite some intricately carved marble work and mosaics, there wasn’t much of interest to see so we walked across the road to the Jama Masjid mosque. The mosque, built between 1644 and 1658, was impressive. It was also quite shabby and ill-kept. We climbed to the top of the 40 metre south minaret where there is an amazing view of Delhi and the mosque itself, which seemed much more impressive when viewed from above. It was quite eerie sitting up there in the marble cupola with the wind whistling around and the sounds of Old Delhi resounding up from the streets below.
From the mosque, we caught a rickshaw back to Connaught Place and had a snack at one of the Chinese restaurants, then walked around then sat around on the patio at Ringo’s talking to other travellers and writing letters until 7 p.m. when we went down to the posh United Coffee House for tea.
Everything was shut for the day so we sat around at the hostel talking until 11:30 a.m. when we over to the park and lay in the sun for a couple of hours.
We caught a number 620 bus out to the Railway Museum which was out past the Diplomatic Enclave. The museum had an interesting collection of old steam trains and several more modern locomotives, all of them painted in their original liveries. The largest locomotive on display was the giant Garrett engine, weighing in at 235 tonnes, the most powerful steam engine ever used in India.
There was also a very informative museum with well set out displays detailing the history of India’s railways, from the very first line – which opened on April 16th 1853 and ran 21 miles from Bombay to Thatta right up until the present day.
Back in the city centre, we browsed on the sidewalk book¹ stores and ate an expensive and disappointing meal at the Wimpy’s burger restaurant.
¹ I still have the bootleg copy of A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking, which I purchased at a sidewalk book store that day in Delhi.
We caught a rickshaw down to the railway station at 6:30 a.m. and boarded the very last car on the 7:45 Express to Delhi. We had plenty of room for a start, but after a few stops the carriage – which was the non-reserved carriage – began to fill up until every available space was crammed full of people and luggage
I found a space up on one of the top bunks and passed the 10-hour journey in relative comfort. We arrived in Delhi at 4 p.m. and caught a rickshaw round of Ringo’s Hotel, where a crowd of about 40 travellers were crammed into tiny dorm rooms and rat-infested chambers. But who could complain about 50 rupees per person, and the place had a good atmosphere. Our Danish friends, Ton, Robert and Tinker were there already.
That evening, Barnardos, Madeline, Linda, and I ate a huge meal at the Chinese restaurant next door to Ringoes. [We still talk about that restaurant to this day, as the waiter had such a good memory that he remembered every one of our orders without writing them down. When we said to him “how can you remember all this?” he just went winked and said, “trust me.”
Friday. First thing in the morning, we were awakened by the sound of running water. I went out onto the veranda to see what was happening and found that it was the sound of rain; rain streaming down vertically from the sky and pummeling the marble of the courtyard with an unremitting hiss. The sky was leaden, and the colours of the doors and balustrades of the temple complex merged into it amongst the rain.
By the time we had risen, however, the rain had passed, leaving the street in front of the hospital ankle-deep in water. Barnardos, Madeline, Linda, and I made our way around to the cafe for breakfast then we set off to explore the areas around the temple. We donned head coverings and took off our shoes while we climbed one of the towers over on the left-hand side of the outer wall of the Golden Temple. From the top, we had an excellent view of Amritsar and the temple itself, including the two brick towers which were partially destroyed during the 1984 siege of the temple by Indian army soldiers directed by Indira Gandhi. On the walls of these towers, the scars of bullets and mortar shells could still clearly be seen.
We took chai with a group of young Sikhs at the foot of the tower, much to the amusement of a toothless old lady sitting with them, then set off around to the shops by the main entrance of the temple, where I bought a Sikh dagger – a traditional weapon known as a KIRPAN – and a couple of books on the philosophy of Sikhism. Linda bought a pair of leather shoes with hand embroidery work on them, and we talked over chai with some passers-by in the shoe shop.
In the early evening, I changed US$100 with a money changer in a china shop, then the four of us set off in rickshaws to find something to eat for dinner. It was a long search and we could only find a grubby little sidewalk place that served surprisingly good food. Back of the temple, we walked over to watch the “ceremony of the book” at nine PM. The pool of nectar was mirror smooth and threw back some wonderful reflections of the temple and surrounding buildings which were lit from the side and from within.
We walked out to the temple and sat down in the corner next to the musicians. The bearded old man who was singing was putting on as much soul into the music as an old black blues singer, and his voice echoed around the outer walls of the temple with an effect no electronic delay could produce.
At 9:10 there was a commotion outside, with a lot of chanting going on and a priest with two assistants came in. The priest sat behind the holy book and they began an elaborate ceremony, praying while they carefully wrapped the book in 7 white sheets. Then the priest lifted the book onto his head and walked out of the temple with it.
Outside, they placed the book on a golden byre and it was carried slowly across the causeway and showered with flower petals as it passed through the outer gates. A drum was beating as it was carried out of sight into another building, and most of the Sikhs accompanying it bowed and touched their heads to the ground. When all the ceremony had quietened down, we spent 20 minutes or so taking some long exposure photos of the Golden Temple, then retired to our chamber to sleep.
TO INDIA A group of 5 of us made the journey down to the border at Wagga, 20 km east of Lahore. Linda and I, along with 3 Dutch people – Tom, Robert, and Tinka – spent about 20 minutes at the Pakistani customs office, then walked through the no-mans-land to the Indian side. Formalities there were quite fast, and we caught a bus from the border to Amritsar.
Also on the bus were Madeline and Barnabas, our Australian friends from the Lahore hostel. At the Amritsar bus station, taxi drivers, rickshaw pedlars, and tonga owners vied for our custom and the 7 of us ended up piling aboard a tonga [horse-drawn cart] for the half-mile trip through the flooded streets to the bustling area outside the Golden Temple.
We were directed by an English-speaking Sikh to the hostel around on the Eastern side of the temple complex, and we were welcomed by many others as we made arrangements to stay in a couple of the spartan but warm rooms. The hostel1 complex consisted of a square building of three stories enclosing a central courtyard with a washing block at its centre. The colour scheme was grey and white, and against this background, the colourful turbans of the men made a beautiful and interesting picture.
After settling in, we all took off our shoes and covered our heads then went over to the kitchen hall where we sat cross-legged in a long line of Sikhs and ate a small meal of vegetable curry – served out of a bucket – and chapatis. When our meal was finished, we walked up the marble concourse leading to the “square pool of nectar” at the centre of which, reached by a causeway, stands the Golden Temple itself.
We walked around the edge of the pool to a narrow causeway paved with white marble and walked out to the temple about 50 metres from the edge of the lake. The outer walls of the temple we’re covered with beaten gold and ornately worked with designs and icons.
Inside we were directed to sit in a corner of the red plush carpet, and we watched transfixed by the scene. Three musicians were playing and singing, and a priest seated behind a huge book read silently from its pages. A continuous stream of worshippers came in, pressed their noses to the floor in front of the altar, then stood and bowed with their hands pressed together in front of them.
Outside the temple itself, we were invited to climb up onto the roof where another priest sat reading in a smaller room while a skilled painter worked on restoring the ornate floral designs on the wall. The Sikh men who had shown us the way up to the rooftop talked to us at length about the way Sikhs have been treated and about the 1994 siege of the Golden Temple.2
In the evening, we ate a small meal at a nearby cafe then retired to our room in the complex with the plaintive sound of the prayer singing echoing up from the temple.
1Visitors to the Golden Temple can stay for free in the temple’s hostel complex and eat for free at the complex’s canteen. People of all faiths are welcomed at the Golden temple.
2To read more about the Golden Temple, check out this Wikipedia entry.