Sojourn in the Winter Capital (return to India)

It’s been a long and tiring journey to get back to India from Worcestershire via Kent and London. We plan to have a month touring the North West states this time and several of them include high altitude destinations which can only be undertaken during the Summer. Unfortunately, this means that the rest of India, which has to be negotiated along the way, is absolutely boiling hot. Arriving at Delhi airport at 0700h and leaving the city by train at 2040h the evening of the same day meant that the most sensible thing to do at our age was to have a modestly priced hotel room to rest up in, especially as we were loaded up with close to the maximum luggage allowance (of which more later).

Delhi is a hot, crowded and stuffy city, best appreciated in small bites and so, after depositing all the heavy bags and freshening up, we picked another couple of destinations from “The List” for a brief excursion. A rickshaw took us down past the Red Fort to the Jama Masjid where we mingled with the Friday crowds in the bustling market that surrounds one of the largest mosques in India. Either my favourite tea stall has been moved or I simply failed to find it but refreshment was never far away and we were delighted to find ourselves in one of the few places in India where no-one showed a particular interest in visitors and nobody asked for a “selfie”. I have been to this mosque before but I wanted to offer Grahame the opportunity to climb one of the 40 metre minarets and look out over the city on what turned out to be an unusually clear day. He very obligingly went up the narrow spiral staircase and took some absolutely spectacular photographs while I lingered in a shady corner of the courtyard below. Watching the Muslim families visiting and socialising here was such a great pleasure: the dress code is pretty relaxed and the sexes mingle freely. Even on a Friday it seems that, outside of the times of formal prayer, this is a very friendly place to be. Children ran around and a few husbands could be seen chasing them into the designated women’s terrace but no-one appeared to mind. The very small minority of women wearing full black burkas seemed to stand out more uncomfortably than we did but I wonder how long this will last.

Next I asked to be taken to the “big Gurdwara” and was summarily shown up in my ignorance. There are seven important Sikh temples in Delhi and I’d confused the glittering white turrets of the Sis Ganj with the simpler and older architecture of the Sri Bangla. We ended up in the latter where we received a wonderful welcome despite the crowds. It seems that places of worship in this city are as much places of community as they are of doctrine and, of course, being Sikh, an army of smiling volunteers practically ordered us into the Langar hall for a very welcome cup of tea. We thought we were the only foreign visitors but were horrified on leaving to see a guided group of Europeans (not British) walking in through the entrance with breathing masks clutched to their faces. The toilets are spotless, ladies! If that’s how you feel about it perhaps you shouldn’t have come.

A rest and a light meal back at the hotel, followed by a heated altercation with New Delhi Railway Station’s notoriously rapacious porters got us onto the 12425 Rajdhani overnighter to Jammu, the “Winter Capital” of India’s most northerly state. Jammu & Kashmir, as it is known, is more comfortably divided into three distinct regions: bordering the Punjab in the South are the fertile plains of the Jammu river valley, then there is the region of Kashmir which shares its snow-capped peaks and alpine meadows with neighbouring Pakistan and, to the East, the high altitude plateau of Ladakh which borders with China. And we had planned to visit them all. Or we would have done if news of yet another serious incident between police and insurgents in Srinagar had not arrived in Jammu at the same time as we did.

Srinagar, the Summer capital, was to have been our second destination where I had planned to show Grahame the incomparable houseboats of Dal Lake and the exquisite carpets of wild-flowers at the hill station of Gulmarg. Unfortunately, the region is also prone to violent clashes between police and demonstrators, with  frequent curfews and media shutdowns as part of an ongoing independence movement and, if the news outlets are to be believed, infiltration by Islamic extremists. We were strongly advised to change our plans so, with the help of our host, set about organising some sightseeing in the south of the state followed by a direct flight to Leh, capital of Ladakh, thereby missing out the volatile region of north west Kashmir and picking up our itinerary again in the north east of the state which, being predominantly Buddhist, apparently has no desire to become part of neighbouring China any time soon.

Our stay in Jammu was made especially comfortable by the wonderful hospitality of Pastor Neethi and his family. This was a long-standing invitation that goes back even before my trip to Kashmir in 2015, extended through an American gemmologist friend but never taken up. What actually happened, as I now call it to mind, was that this family of devout Christians had been forced to flee their home in Srinagar the year before my visit and it had been left to Eddie’s other contacts to arrange my accommodation and sightseeing. So it is that other people’s stories just pass you by when you can regard them as strangers on the periphery of your acquaintance. Now that we have met this adorable “joined family” (not exactly a mission, not exactly an orphanage) and been sheltered by their gentle hospitality, those newsreel images of sectarian rioting, looting, burning and the horror of being forced to flee with nothing but the clothes you stand up in become all too real.

Clearly, Jammu got the name “The Winter Capital” due to its sweltering Summer temperatures but the 43 degree heat didn’t stop one of the little boys taking Grahame out to the park for a game of badminton in the afternoons. He would return, pink as a lobster, for a lie down before the various daughters produced some of the most delicious food we have ever tasted. Both the fruits and vegetables were at their peak of freshness and flavour and, had it not been so hot, it would have been wonderful to visit the markets and find out more about the local farming methods. We did make it to a cricket bat factory, however, so that Grahame could see and photograph some of the traditional carpentry. We were asking lots of questions and getting on fine until one of the boys asked whether Cornwall was a “tribal” part of the UK and asked me to translate something my companion had said into English.

Sightseeing was equally challenging in the enervating heat but we were able to visit to the Hari Niwas Palace, which sits on a steep promontory commanding magnificent views of the Trikuta hills and the plains of the broad Tawi river spread out beneath. The palace itself is curiously European in style, vaguely reminiscent of an early twentieth century boarding school but Hari Singh, the last Maharajah who died in 1961, was a character to be reckoned with. A man for whom the word “louche” could have been coined, he straddled European and Indian high society with equal extravagance, buying off prostitutes, marrying four times and mixing with whatever extremist political group took his fancy at the time. Such was his power and influence at the time of partition that Jammu and Kashmir (with its predominantly Muslim population) had the choice of joining India or Pakistan or even having become an Independent state. In the end he chose India, a decision that some say plunged the region into a conflict that has raged uninterrupted to this day.

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