India beyond the Chicken Neck

 After a 36 hour stopover in Delhi, Grahame and I have arrived in Guwahati, The Capital of Assam and starting point for most explorations of the North East. This region sits between Myanmar, China, Bhutan and Bangladesh with only the 20 mile wide Siliguri corridor to join it to the rest of India. Known as the Seven Sisters for the seven highly varied states that it contains, it is sometimes  described as “more like Burma than India” by people who know little more than the fact that it is a tea producing region, home to the one-horned rhino and prone to both floods and earthquakes in equal measure.

Unusually, it is not vain boasting when I say that I have known about it for more than fifty years. In fact, the wettest place on earth has been calling to me for nearly all of my life, ever since I was a star geography pupil way back in my schooldays. (No, not before Indian Independence, I’m not that old). But getting here has taken quite a bit of planning and been subject to all sorts of itinerary modifications, the greatest of which has been the exclusion of three members of the family: Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Tripura have had to be left for another trip due to time constraints.

Actually, we almost didn’t get here at all. I may have been careful to check the permit restrictions for each individual state, the political situation and necessary vaccinations but I made a near-fatal assumption about India’s labyrinthine and ever evolving Visa requirements. “Visa on Arrival” doesn’t actually mean that you can get your Visa when you arrive. At least, not if you are British. A complicated on-line from must be completed at least 72 hours in advance but then payment cannot be accepted for at least another two hours. If that money does not go through correctly then the whole process is invalid and you will turn up at the airport and not be allowed to board. With only four days to go before departure, Grahame and I spent a whole evening swearing at two computer screens until the process was finally accomplished. No excuses for forgetting about this until it was almost too late: I really should know better by now.

Stopping over in Delhi was a scheduling requirement and I decided to use the opportunity to show Grahame, who has never visited the city before, a few of its charms while we checked in with the company that handles our in-country arrangements. Being met at the airport by a car and driver is a luxury I’ve really come to appreciate in later years but Deepak should know better than to send them to greet us with marigold garlands. It’s so embarrassing to be taken for first timers in India. The offending flowers were unceremoniously dumped in the back of the car and we set about looking for that much more essential welcome – a good, roadside cup of chai.

I don’t know what was in that tea besides a touch of ginger but, when our driver suggested that the Qtub Minar would be easier to access if we went there straight away, we agreed. The sun was doing a much better job of getting through the Delhi haze than usual and the air was surprisingly fresh for once; Diwali preparations meant that traffic was lighter than usual (a crawl rather than a standstill) and we made it to the magnificent, thirteenth century temple and monument complex before total exhaustion set in. It is eleven years since I last visited during my very first trip to India but this time found myself, if anything, even more impressed by its unique combination of splendour and artistry. I’m referring to the great tower, of course, not the “Might of Islam” mosque, whose hasty construction from the remnants of 23 sacked Jain and Hindu temples may have been a grand statement at the time but still lacks a certain finesse.

This morning we had time for a visit to the Swaminarayam Akshardam, a massive Hindu temple completed in 2005 and sometimes grandiosely referred to as “the Eighth Wonder of the World”. Its supporting plinth with the 148 near life-sized elephants is as impressive as it was when I first saw it in 2006 but, alas, its builders do not seem to have employed the same skills as their forbearers for stress fractures are already appearing in the stones. Because it is Diwali today and crowds were exceptionally light, we had the rare privilege of wandering around the huge temple and its lovely gardens at our leisure.

I have seen so much of India since I last saw this temple on my very first visit but it can still take my breath away. But not necessarily as an exercise in good taste. Inside its pink sandstone exterior it is intricately decorated with carved white marble, glittering crystal and more 24 carat gold than you’ll ever seen in one place. This is clearly designed to be glimpsed at the culmination of a long queue, through a shuffling multitude of devotees and complete with a full complement of “bells and smells” but, exposed to a more objective scrutiny when those crowds are absent, a little more restraint might have been beneficial. But beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder and for many of India’s 1.2 billion people this temple represents its pinnacle on earth so, for their sake, I hope that the legions of artisans charged with its maintenance will be joined by joined by a few good engineers.

After leaving the Akshardam we caught a short flight followed by a long drive to a shabby little hotel squeezed between a suburban flyover and the railway line. Never mind, the celebratory fireworks will drown out the noise and we set off early for another flight to get us to Imphal, capital of the remote and mysterious state of Manipur and first of the proper destinations of our trip.

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