The final leg of our adventures in India was, for me, the most enjoyable. Whilst Rajasthan, with its well documented Golden Triangle route, was a feast for the senses (not necessarily a good thing, at times) we headed North, to the mountains, for the cleaner air, fewer crowds and Tibetan food.
This part of the trip had us awestruck at not just one, but two, spiritual homes; watch a grown man mummify himself in toilet paper before setting himself alight; gatecrash lunchtime at a school; take a night bus with a blow-up T-Rex; enjoy a full(ish) English breakfast in Kipling’s favourite resort, Shimla; and take a toy train (literally) to a rock garden (literally, also).
The first of the spiritual encounters came in Amritsar, the Punjabi capital and, more specifically, home of Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple.
With heads covered and secured by knots (as well as with bribes of chocolate for keeping said heads covered throughout our visit) we respectfully bathed our feet and entered one of India’s most serene and humbling sights. Despite the many hundreds making pilgrimages, there were times you could almost hear a pin drop. We walked barefoot on the white marble walkway around the Amrit Sarovar (Pool of Nectar), from which Amritsar takes its name. The boys enjoying carp spotting en route.
The Golden Temple itself, floating at the end of a long causeway, adorned with flowers and animal motifs was a true highlight of our trip thus far. The whole complex had an air of spirituality and even the boys were calm.
Our second spiritual encounter came some days later with our chance meeting with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama at Tsuglagkhang Complex, McLeod Ganj.
The more organised and prepared visitors – worshippers and tourists alike – had in advance researched HH dates in residence, arranged their security passes, made adequate arrangements for sitting on the cold, polished concrete floor for many hours and tuned in to FM92 for live translations of HH’s public teachings. This teaching was a three-day event hosted at the request of Korean Buddhists, who are otherwise unable for various reasons to see their spiritual leader in their home country.
For us, however, it was an absolute fluke. Being, to put it simply, in the right place at the right time. Suffice to say, both Sam and I were highly excited at the prospect of hearing him teach and, ultimately, were not disappointed.
McLeod Ganj, provided three further treats during our short stay there. One evening we decided to see what was billed as a ‘cultural event, of dance and music’. In fairness, it was all three of those things; and more. His stage name was Lionman (derived, one might imagine, from his long mane) and when he wasn’t throwing himself bare-chested at the walls, electrocuting himself and jumping out of the windows, he was crawling all over the bemused crowd and, as mentioned above, demonstrating the flammable properties of tissue paper. Please don’t try this at home, kids!
The next day, we thought it would be good for the children to see, well, other children. It was respite for us also. So we made a few subtle enquiries and were told of a local infants school, which coincidently was Lionman’s chosen venue the previous night.
Happily however the charred remains of Lionman’s hair and the tissue paper had been removed and, alas, little people were sitting on the floor enjoying noodles for lunch in the sunshine. We were then invited, by a teacher, to join them and for the proceeding two hours or more we played with the children and shared ‘Children’s Day’ with them – a day where the teachers did very little, whilst students were allowed a free rein to play! It was a win-win!
Lastly, we headed to Bhagsunag Waterfall. A short trek, not surprisingly, upwards from our guest house and a welcome change from the thoroughfare of McLeod Ganj. We all enjoyed a cold paddle in the falls, whilst the Indian tourists looked on in horror as two fair skinned Brightonian boys stripped off to their pants and made the most of the cooling water.
Our next destination was the hill town, Shimla, former capital of the British Raj during the hot summer months, now capital city of Eastern Himachal Pradesh and a seven-hour night bus ride south from Dharamsala.
Our journey was made all the less enjoyable by the addition of a blow-up T-Rex, which a fellow passenger (with the best will in the world) had kindly given to Tomas as a ‘cuddlie’ for the night. He eventually tired of it, as well as the days events, and fell asleep. The next morning, after a brief nap in our hotel, we enjoyed a stroll along the Mall, a horse ride for the boys, and a hearty English breakfast near Scandal Point (we never did find out what precisely was the scandal from which the place derived its name?).
We had intended staying in Shimla for two days. Somewhere along the way however we miscalculated our time available – specifically we had managed to lose a day. Accordingly, we hotfooted it the next morning to the station to board a Toy train to Kalka, with a connection to Chandigarh. The train was, as the name suggests, a jolly experience with a scenic, winding decent from the mountains, passing 103 tunnels On the way (the boys lost count, or rather got bored counting them, after 7).
The next day, we visited Chandigarh’s Nek Chand Rock Garden. A surreal sculpture garden, which is like something from Alice in Wonderland. A weird and wonderful place created by Nek Chang out of concrete and recycled junk, including broken bathroom sinks and bicycle frames! It was superb.
In the afternoon, we boarded a dragon-shaped pedaloe and floated for an hour on another of Nek Chang’s creations, Suhna Lake. In short, we had a wonderful day in Chandigarh, playing in the garden and lake and thanks Steve Barnes for the recommendation! We loved it.
Lastly, it was back to the mayhem of Delhi to catch our flight to Nepal.
In sum, through luck rather than design, we saved the best of India until last and left the subcontinent (albeit, temporarily) on a high note.