Today was the day of our long journey home. I always think that one must be truly semi-detached if one can endure occasions such as these: firstly having to reach the airport in the searing Indian heat; the tedious three hour wait at the airport; being cooped up in a cramped seat for nine hours; tolerating the baby crying and trying to ignore your neighbour’s elbows and finally the last leg of the journey on the tube home.
If, at the end of all this one can retain their sanity then they are truly enlightened.
Just before evening prayer we went to Delhi’s oldest mosque, the Jama Masjid. Things weren’t helped by the fact that we were all tired and the heat was suffocating. The stones were too hot to walk on, but we still took off our shoes. However, everyone in the mosque was extraordinarily unfriendly! It was not as if there were many tourists there, but it was Ramadan and the men were lying about suffering, probably after hours without food or water, so I can’t blame them for their lack of welcome. I should say that when I went to the old mosque in Leh everyone was extraordinarily polite and welcoming.
The sheer weight of people, of colour and light was overwhelming in the Old Town. It struck me that if there is a God, how could he possibly keep and eye on so many people.
We visited Delhi’s Red Fort. This was the chamber of the Mughal’s built in the seventeenth century whilst they were in their prime and contains, amongst other things, the Peacock Throne, the symbol of the ruling powers. However, in the early eighteenth century the Mughal’s overreached themselves, their governors became warring factions and the stage was set for the gradual and uneasy domination by European empires.
At the other end of modern Indian history I visited the home of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India. India is an extraordinarily good example of putting all political movements, empires and religions in their place. They literally do come and go. Nehru was not religious but he recognised the great power of his people’s religious faith:
“How amazingly powerful was that faith which had for thousands of years brought them and their forbears from every corner of India to bathe in the holy Ganga?”
He could not escape the religious past and present of India, but he sought to build a secular state: of course he was right, as any attempt to impose a religious state is fraught with difficulty, as Pakistan proves.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the first Governor General of Pakistan attempted to create a state in which Muslims could live together and feel safe, after its partitioning from Hindu India. But he made it clear that he wanted the government to be secular. Unfortunately his successors have found the task of creating a stable religious state particularly hard.
Today we went to mass at a local Catholic church. We were late as we didn’t know what time it started. The wooden church, more like a hall was packed, hot and characterless, but coming back to a Catholic church after three weeks felt like coming home. A great sense of peace and righteousness invaded me.
We took the mountain railway which snakes down 2000 metres from Shimla to Kalka. Shimla was the summer capital of the Raj and this railway was opened in 1903 so that the Viceroy and his entire government could escape the intense summer heat in Delhi. What a joy to travel on a slow moving train with all the doors and windows open allowing one to hang out of if they so wish. The whole thing was reminiscent of Kenneth More in the 1959 film the North West Frontier.
In comparison to the mountain railway, the cold, air conditioned express from Kalka to Delhi was positively boring. Arriving in Delhi’s main train station is a chaotic and boiling hot experience, even at 10pm. A mad ride through the town in an auto rickshaw was terrifying, but I am gradually getting used to them.
This was a day of rest. Whilst I soon tired of it, my youngest son spent about four hours in the swimming pool. The heat was suffocating, although nothing as bad as in Delhi. In the afternoon we wandered around the local smallish market town of Nalagarh. The colours, variety, and movement were breathtaking. There all kinds of people, from Muslim and Hindu holy man, jostling in the streets. A horse and cart pushing its way up the narrow street. Like many English I sometimes question the wave of immigration into my country. Here one can see India and Indians in an uninhibited way. By way of complete contrast on our return, we played croquet on the Maharajah’s lawn.
That night I went to the tiny Hindu shrine in the Fort’s garden. I was alone and, without embarrassment, I knelt down in the Hindu way and touched the earth with my head and acknowledged with courtesy the local God. Some sort of innate Anglo-Saxon sensibility against praying to idols stopped me from praying on as I would in a church. Yet the way the female Gods are dressed is reminiscent of the way the Virgin Mary is dressed in Catholic churches on her feast day.
I returned from the day to read Katherine Frank’s biography of Indira Gandhi, the first female Prime Minister of India assassinated by her own bodyguards in 1984. The book left me feeling very depressed. She had a fairly rough ride with the Indian people, demonstrated by the fact that she served two separate terms as Prime Minister. She also had to deal with, amongst other things, the war with Pakistan in 1971 and the incident at the most sacred Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple, which led to her assassination by two of her vengeful Sikh bodyguards.
Politics is very important and someone has to do it, but really it can be a very depressing job. I couldn’t help comparing my positive thoughts whilst reading Hesse’s Siddhartha in the previous three or four days to my intense depression in reading about the politics of India in the 1970s and 1980s. Politics I suppose is the real world. Philosophy and religion are a welcome escape.
I dreamt that I was giving a lecture to a group of evangelical Christians about the merits of Buddhism. I was … But the audience drifted off and I was left in the embarrassing position of talking to no one!
Today we took a taxi for half an hours drive out of Manali to Nagger where the International Roerich Memorial Trust is situated. The Trust is in memory of Nicolas Roerich who was born in Russia in 1874 but eventually settled in Nagger. He is still celebrated in his homeland as an influential cultural figure. His thoughts combined his native Russian Orthodoxy with an interest in Eastern Religion, even Pantheism. His paintings of the Himalayas are definitive and superb. His art is a great inspiration to me. My own skill is very limited, but I find the act of painting gives me intense pleasure.
During his time Roerich’s thoughts were very popular and garnered him numerous Nobel peace nominations. However he is now almost forgotten outside Russia and India, but his mountain-top traditional home and garden is still a haven of peace.
I took a rickshaw up to the Viskrit Temple, entered into the compound and dipped my toes into the boiling baths where young Hindus swim easily. I went to the Temple of Ram, a major figure in Indian history and the Hindu religion, and stood silently for some time trying to understand this strange religion. These tiny temples where people kneel before Gods and angels, deities that seem so remote to me, and a religion which is so alien to me thanks in part to its polytheistic nature.
In the morning we visited the Temple to the local God of the surrounding Himalayan Valleys, Hadimba. We stood in a long queue, ducking below the heavily carved lintel and looked upon the gifts of money offered by pilgrims who probably had very little themselves. And they offered this up to this tiny God of theirs, tiny in so large a building. When it came to our turn we received the red dot of the pilgrim on our foreheads.
Afterwards as I stood before the Temple of Ram and myself knelt, I began to understand the pilgrim’s devotion and material offerings.
A passage from Siddhartha struck me later that day. One can spend so much time seeking that one does not see the things around oneself. I took a walk around the village. As I walked it felt as though I was always seeking but was engulfed by the ugly jumble of modern cheap concrete hotels, by the Western hippies, seemingly so out of place, by the dust and by the excitement on the road. I was so busy seeking that I could not see the beauty of God.
At first I found Manali overwhelming so I sat quietly in an outside restaurant, ate an English breakfast and looked at the light coming through the pine trees. I was reading Hesse’s Siddhartha and was strangely moved by it.
Siddhartha, like the Buddha, first became an aesthete. He later seeks to join him as a follower, indeed his friend Govinda stays as a monk and pledges himself to Buddha. But what is interesting is that Siddhartha realises that however holy a man the Buddha is he must find his own way. He mustn’t rely on a teacher. He cannot just be a follower. The word Siddhartha, a compound of “siddha” and “artha” in Sanskrit means “the wealth of a fulfilled aim” and the protagonist’s journey of enlightenment attests to this.
I meditated a lot on this as I noticed the light through the pine trees at Manali. I too don’t just want to be a follower. Too many people grab and hold on to their first religious experience. Whilst it is unfair to label this as the easy option it is worth striving to lead through ones experiences and perhaps only then, one can enjoy the wealth of a fulfilled aim, as Siddhartha does. It came to me strongly that all religions are largely man made, embellishing the simple teachings of the founder.
We climbed up to the Rohtang Pass, just before Manali. The desert was left behind in pleasant hop-growing terraced country above Lelong. So the days of driving into dry high passes were over. A heavy mist hung over the entire mountain and soon a continuous monsoon downpour was upon us. The Indians love coming up to see the pass as one can view the remains of snow even in summer.
Given that for much of the pass the road is nothing more than a narrow winding track perhaps unsurprisingly there was a vast traffic jam of jeeps, lorries and buses trying to squeeze past not only each other but around the various obstacles which littered the road. We finally arrived in Manali to stay in a seedy hotel, but as I was so exhausted after the twelve hour drive I didn’t even notice nature of the surroundings.
This was the first day that there had been no time to visit a mosque or a temple and I felt it.
We take the ten hour drive on the Leh to Manali road, climbing to 5,000 metres above sea-level. The dirt track roads, plunging into ravines and with no safety barriers, are perilous and terrifying.
We stop and take a break in a round tent where we sip on chai and eat rice and dhal whilst reclining on couches, until the dusty hot wind blows though the single entrance.
That night we stay in Gispa in the Padmor lodge, which is overpriced in my opinion, and unfortunately I immediately have a row with the proprietor over the different prices charged for different people.
I wake in the middle of the night depressed with various things and feeling rather unwell. Despite being in the midst of countless mosques and Buddhist temples it is a prayer to the Virgin Mary that changes my mood. Buddhism is a lovely religion but it lacks the clear path of prayer to a heavenly intercession which Christianity offers.
Even as I say the prayer I had forgotten that today is the feast of the Assumption. I am in a far-away land where one sees no churches, only mosques and temples and where one can easily forget which day is Sunday. Regrettable, but perhaps understandable.
We drive out of Leh to a nearby village and walk up the road past the fields, the school and the scattered homes topped with thick flat thatched roofs.
Eventually we reach a small roadside temple. Here there is a revolving drum. The idea is that one spins the drum so that the prayers written inside it can take flight. On the outside of the drum is an inscription:
Perfect good deeds,
Purify your mind
This is the essence of the teachings of the Buddha.
As we walk through the village we hear the old men and women chanting as they spin their hand-held prayer wheels. The refrain of the prayer is a follows:
O (pronounced with a long O….hmmm.) Om Man Ne Hum, Um Man Ne Hum
They repeat this refrain over and over again, but I cannot catch the rest of the prayer.
Later in the day I go to the market and buy myself a small prayer wheel, a little Buddha and some prayer flags. You are expected to haggle, but being the world’s worst shopper I happily settle for the asking price.
I wake breathless in Leh; at 3,500m above sea-level this is extraordinary. If we were in the Alps we would be in the Aiguille de Midi at the top of the highest ski life, looking out across a vast waste of snowy mountain peaks. Mont Blanc is only a thousand metres higher than this!
Upon rising we walk around the crowded and bustling town. Leh is in India but has a trace of Tibetan calm about it. At a bookshop I buy Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, a novel written after the First World War about a young Indian boy at the time of the Buddha and his quest for spiritual enlightenment, a key theme in Buddhism.
Being the world’s worst shopper, with no intent to purchase anything and with a distaste for haggling I wander the bazaar aimlessly. However later in the day I walk through town to the Soma Gomta, or new monastery, in a quiet courtyard just off the main street. A hundred yards away is the Muslim mosque. The close proximity of these different religious establishments causes me to consider faith, and in particular, Buddhism. Of all the religious faiths, Buddhism is arguably the simplest. It requires no faith in a supreme God and is more a way of life than a religion. It is the most ancient, but in many ways the most modern and demands only good thoughts and an ambition to reach a state of nirvana.
It is easy to see where the aforementioned Tibetan calm comes from and in a place as vibrant as this it is most welcome.
The road to Leh winds up over the Photu La. At 4,093m above sea-level this is one of the highest roads in the world and unsuitable for ordinary traffic. Everything is completely dry, with undulating barren landscape, deserted and with an occasional view of a distant green slope nestling towards the bottom of a deep gorge by a fast flowing river. Indeed, now we come across the Indus River on the start of its long journey to the sea.
It is here that we cross the actual divide between Islam and Buddhism. It is a relief to enter a valley where the prayer flags fly and road-side chimes abound. We arrive at the Lekir Monastry. At last, after so many years reading about Buddhist monasteries it is a joy to enter my first, to sit beside two elderly monks chatting in a quiet and distinguished manner and to come across the young novice monks eating their simple lunch in the midday heat.
We move on and drive another two hours and exhausted, after a total of ten hours in the car, we arrive at one of the oldest monasteries in Ladakh, Acchi Choskor, founded in the eleventh century. The Temple is beautifully decorated and there is a giant figure of Maitreya. The place is dark and imperious but I go to one of the smaller temples where I sit alone. This is a wonderful experience. One feels an overwhelming sense of calm sat barefoot on the wooden floor in the quiet darkness.
We start our long twenty-hour car journey from Srinagar to Leh. We spend the night in Kargil, an unattractive, dry, high place where exhausted travellers stop for the night. The road it high, narrow, often just a dirt track and for me absolutely terrifying.
As I lay in bed at night, woken by the 4am cries of the Imam which by now I am accustomed to, my thoughts immediately turn to the usual depressing early morning doubts about what I am achieving. Then, perhaps encouraged by the chant, I suddenly get one of those unaccountable positive thoughts that I can achieve something by saying what I believe and that one’s job is worth doing.
Even here, in an unfamiliar, relatively desolate place, the power of a call to prayer, albeit from a religion not of my own, is strong enough to alter my outlook.
Kargil is located at 2,740m above sea level but tomorrow we shall climb even higher.
Today, a holy day for Muslims, we visited the Jama Masjid mosque. It is one of the most important in the Srinagar province and was built in 1400. The centre part of the mosque was busy with worshippers who squatted as they listened to a sermon. However, the side aisles were largely empty so I sat there and prayed, admiring the great wooden pillars which supported the roof, each one made from a single deodar tree, I later learnt.
Now sitting there, mesmerised by the chanting, almost alone in this great space, with its high roof and small latticed windows letting in a cool trace of light, I began to understand the power of Islam.
The day was hot and later we rested awhile in the Moghul gardens high above the city.
It is undeniably peaceful to live on a lake where only the splash of the paddle from canoes laden with produce disturbs the calm. Today we visited the Shalimar Bagh Gardens. Built in the seventeenth century by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir for his wife Nur Jahan, this is a garden of cool terraces with water channels leading the eye down the hillside.
I suppose that for Hindus and Muslims this is a vision of heaven. As I sat in the shade of the magnificent trees I was troubled by the thought that I might get bored spending eternity here. But that’s the problem with Heaven, we can’t imagine enjoying anything that lasts forever. Time must be suspended.
Winston Churchill explained the alternative view in an insightful way. “I will spend my first thousand years in Heaven painting.” A Benedictine monk put it a different way. To him Heaven is an everlasting, continuous Ah! where we encounter the divine.
Later in the day we had a long hot climb up the Shankaracharya Hill to a Hindu temple. It was built during Jahangir’s reign and is located on the site of on a much older, second century BC temple. I felt thoroughly exhausted when entering the temple but curiously un-replenished by the suffocating scale and smell of the place. So I looked at the Hindu pilgrims ringing the bell, entering barefoot and kneeling in prayer and was heartened by them.
I got my comeuppance tonight. I had thought the previous day how lovely it was to hear the chant of the Mullah over the water of the lake. But today was the feast to mark fifteen days before the start of Ramadan. The chants continued from the mosque without ceasing all night.
I have talked of Britain as the nation that forgot God. This is the opposite. This is the nation that never seems to think of anything else but God. What would happen if churches in Britain set up loudspeakers and wailed out the psalms all night? I can’t believe people would take it.
However, my youngest son, on arriving in India, had promptly fallen sick, so I prayed along with the chanting, then slept and woke again. I had already promised God that I would not hold anything against the well-known person who had upset me. I now made an even more difficult deal. If my son got better I would not hold the grudge in my heart. Later in the night I woke again and immediately had to banish the aforementioned grudge I had in my thoughts. This would be a difficult deal to keep.
We arrived on our houseboat in Srinagar on the Dal Lake. This is a wonderfully peaceful place. Motor-boats are banned and all one hears is the slap of the paddle against water from the small canoes as they are propelled past, carrying people and produce; the local men sit squat legged in the front and navigate everything skilfully.
The islands are man-made by gradually dropping earth and willow into the shallow lake, so everything is green, indeed verdant.
Kashmir is a Muslim state. As the evening sun fades the chants from the mosque echo over the lake. It is an enormously beautiful and spiritual moment. Try as hard as you like to avoid the sentiment in the West, Islam can seem at times ill at ease with the surroundings. Here it feels entirely right.
We start our sixteen-hour journey to Kashmir. The guide book tells us that “travellers not dissuaded by the ever present threat of violence or official warnings to stay away can expect to encounter extremes of beauty and friendliness and hard salesmanship in an economy which has been starved of tourist income for over twenty years.” But our daughters are there so we are going.
Travelling can be a stressful business at the best of times and today I worry about whether we’ll be on time for the plane and will we make our connection between airports in Delhi? When travelling my wife likes to take too much whereas I tend to take the minimum; all that is needed is enough clean clothes, a credit card and a passport.
I have this week been reading Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. There have been so many poor film adaptations of the book that one forgets its fresh and brisk easy reading style. For a traveller, Phileas Fogg is a great role model. He is completely imperturbable despite all the disasters on his journey which threaten to cost him his enormous bet. This laissez faire attitude is often an essential prerequisite for a traveller and in a wider context is also necessary to achieve happiness in one’s life.
Before we leave for Kashmir I go to Mass and think of today’s reading. “Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side while he would send the crowds away. After sending the crowds away he went by himself into the hills to pray” Matthew 14
I prefer this part of the passage to the more familiar later part of the chapter where Jesus walks on water. It is significant that he goes somewhere high-up and isolated to pray. It is easy to pray in the wilderness and significantly easier than when on board an aeroplane, when prayer’s calming influence is necessary, particularly with sixteen hours of travel to come. Mercifully, at least planes are free of mobile phones.