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Northern India

Hello after my final month in this crazy country, where the women dress so vibrantly and wear an aurific amount of jewelery and the men are styled so bewilderingly badly- the look of choice is sandals, skin tight jeans, a grandad shirt with a 'tache and side parting to top it off. I don't know how much coverage the Commonwealth Games are getting but I'm in Delhi now and the city is abuzz with the preparations. It's good to see they've kept their word in delivering a 'truly Indian games' with the phrases 'corruption, delays, inefficiencies and unfit for human habitation' appearing most frequently!
It's been a fittingly eclectic mix this month where I found myself in a riot, saw the Dalai Lama and definitely realized 'I love my India'.

After the tranquility of the Golden Temple I fancied a change and headed up to Kashmir; which aside from being one of the greatest guitar rifts of all time is apparently rated by all the security agencies as the world conflict most likely to cause a nuclear war. It's been a terrible Summer there as I'll go on to show but the story begins all the way back at Partition in 1947.

Whilst the British did many good things in India (railways, an effective administration etc) their role in India's independence and it's partition was not a positive one. They complacently thought India would remain part of the Empire forever and as late as the 1930's were still building New Delhi as the new capital of the Raj. After WWII however independence became inevitable and the British found they'd prepared no functional plan to allow the most diverse country in the world and its many possible problems to leave the Empire peacefully. After setting an independence date of 1948, religious and racial tensions between communities grew over who would hold power in the new country, in particular the Muslims were worried that the Hindu majority would freeze them out of all power and they would effectively become second class citizens. They demanded their own state and the Brits hurriedly and somewhat disastrously brought forward independence by a year to 1947 with the country splitting into 3, with the new Muslim state of Pakistan forming Western and Eastern parts.

In the build up to independence literally tens of millions of people moved across the country to where they thought they would be safe, Hindus and Sikhs to what would be the new India and Muslims to what would be the new Pakistan. The loss of their homes, property and businesses understandably created huge resentment amongst the refugees and as the 2 groups left their homes and crossed each other half a million people were killed in riots and skirmishes in a terribly bloody period in India's long history. Many other problems were caused by this huge movement of people and for example the famous famine in West Bengal in the 1940's was caused essentially by the state being unable to feed the extra 4million Hindu refugees who'd crossed from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
Attempts in the 20th century at drawing arbitrary lines to separate groups based on religion were spectacularly unsuccessful in Palestine and Ireland amongst others but by far the attempt to carve out a Muslim state in India was the biggest, and certainly in terms of numbers of people affected the least successful.
Peoples identities are formed by many things including ethnicity, language, the work they do and many other factors; nowhere is this more true than in India and the idea that religion could somehow trump all these factors and unite disparate groups was always very unlikely to work- for example nobody could describe Bangladesh as being 'Islamic' ahead of being 'Bengali'.
India's different religious groups were settled in pockets literally all over the country and whilst India under Nehru and Gandhi promised a secular society where state was separated from and took no interest in peoples religion, the leaders of the new Pakistan were quite clear that it would be a 'Muslim only' state. To compare the 2 countries since partition shows India in one of its most positive aspects whereas it's easy to see why Pakistan has become one of the worlds least loved countries.

India has a constitution similar to the US and many of the positives of American civil society have been replicated here. India is the most religiously and culturally diverse country in the world and the methods they've used to keep the country together and for the most part happy is really quite admirable. Many countries in Asia are also diverse and have competing claims for power from smaller groups but whilst many of its Asian neighbors like Indonesia, Myanmar and most famously China simply send in the army to start hitting people when they start requesting self determination, India has gone the other way. It has devolved power on most things ala the USA to a state level so that minority groups have access to decision making that Tibetans or the various tribes in Myanmar can only dream of.
Whilst there's definitely not enough states (only 28 for over a billion people) and they're terribly uneven in size- Sikkim has 500,000 people whilst Uttar Pradesh would be the 6th biggest country in the world with 170million people, the system is still a model that much of Asia could and should follow.
Whilst the 2nd biggest political party the BJP is adamantly pro Hindu it's still remarkable how united the country is regardless of religion and whilst in India no-one seems to care that much that the Prime Minister is a Sikh or that the 2 biggest Bollywood stars are Muslim. In Pakistan however, the countrys best cricketer is coerced into converting from Christianity to Islam in the face of public criticism from politicians and death threats from members of the public and the country is on the fast track to becoming a failed state.

For most of its history Pakistan has been run by little more than a series of corrupt gangsters (sometimes in army fatigues, sometimes not) and the non-Muslim world and India in particular can take a great deal of schadenfreude at seeing what a country which with no sense of irony decided to call itself 'The Land of the Pure' has become.
The Muslims in the Pakistan side of Punjab had been the driving force in the push for independence but quickly decided that they didn't actually want to share any money or power with any of the new arrivals from elsewhere in India and sent them to the furthest, poorest parts of the country. Amongst other things they've continued to be very poor, have founded the Taliban and due to infiltration from competing clerics from Iran (Shias) and Arabia (Sunnis) with their different messages, Pakistan has effectively been the frontline in the civil war within Islam for the last 30 years.
Similarly just mention the word Pak-i-stan to the normally incredibly placid Bangladeshis and watch them explode in anger. The political elites in Punjab dominated Pakistan couldn't suffer Bengalis to speak their own language rather than Urdu and after East Pakistan declared independence and became Bangladesh in 1971, Pakistans leaders made the decision to instruct the army to slaughter 2.5million Bengalis aiming firstly for those with education in an attempt to give the new country no chance of growth, more famously they also authorised the mass raping of 500,000 Bengali women in a disgustingly vindictive farewell to whom they called their 'brothers'.

As with the French in Indochina and the Dutch in Indonesia the British were also guilty of leaving the new country based on administrative boundaries rather than reflecting who actually lived there. One of the things I've been most surprised about Indians is that it's very difficult to tell where people are from based only on their looks, I couldn't really pick any physical characteristics which say someone is from the North or South. They pretty much look the same, except in the part of the country which sits incongruously above Bangladesh and in the Himalayas in the Northwest, and broadly speaking if they don't look Indian- they don't want to be. The Indian army has been fighting a variety of rebel armies in the North East which don't attract too much world attention but its the Kashmir issue which has really led India and Pakistan to be deadly enemies rather than neighbourly rivals over the years.

At partition all princely states had the choice of which country to join but Kashmir voted for neither wanting to go independent, however, because Kashmiris are majority Muslims Pakistan believes the territory should belong to them and indeed Kashmir is the 'K' in Pakistan.
Therefore after partition they invaded the valley at which point the Kashmiris asked India for help...but they never left, claimed the valley is 'India' and so began 60+ years of on off skirmishes over the area with the 2 sides split across a line of control. A few years later China also stole a part of the territory and the locals have been caught very much in the middle of one of the most politically volatile areas on earth.
They call it 'Paradise on Earth' and it is a beautiful area in the foothills of the Himalayas with fertile soils, gorgeous lakes and distinctive architecture making it marvelously photogenic and attractive to tourists. However, the continued army presence has led to it becoming a hell for the locals and have become increasingly vocal and violent about fulfilling their dream of independence. Apparently the rioting works something similar to gang violence in northern American cities like Chicago or Detroit where it's simply too cold in Winter to be out doing anything and then in the Summer things kick off. And as you probably know if you've been following the news it's been a terrible Summer in the valley, the trigger incidents were the army shooting dead a 8yr old boy and the alleged rape of a local by 2 soldiers but the chronic unemployment amongst the population and virtual police state now in place means there didn't really need to be a trigger. Over 100 people have been killed in rioting and the inadequately trained Indian army operating under a ludicrously ill-thought out policy of martial law just cannot get a grip on the situation, almost daily managing to kill teenagers and arresting hundreds of others who are doing nothing more than throwing stones in defiance of orders to stay inside.

When I got to the capital Srinigar they were on a 1 day week (Friday naturally) with the army maintaining a curfew the rest of the time. I was staying on a wicked houseboat on the lake near the old town and I somewhat foolishly ignored the family's advice and ventured into town on the Friday. It was fine up until about 3pm when I saw some people running towards me and obviously something was happening. I was near the gigantic Jama Masjid (main mosque with a capacity of 33333!) and thought unless the army fancied a bloodbath I'd be safe in there. Then I heard what I thought was a gunshot (I saw on the news later it was a tear gas round) and waited for 15mins but there was still plenty happening and people running around all over the place. The main street by the mosque was covered in rock and stone debris ala Palestinian riots with troops in riot gear facing off the stone throwing protesters. When I looked round and saw a teenager with what looked like a broken nose I thought that'll do and desperately tried to find a rickshaw to try and get out. Thankfully I did very quickly and we sped the other way... only to find ourselves stopped by another protest. This one was led by women which is a pretty common tactic in India to try and stop the army getting violent in protests but again something happened and I don't mind admitting my heartrate went through the roof as the crowd started stampeding towards us. The driver very calmly said 'Just stay inside don't worry' and about 30 seconds later he had enough space to sprint through the gap between the rioters and a besieged army post. It's fair to say I wasn't unhappy when we made it out to the safety of the lake where I was staying. Whilst it was scary enough what added another element of danger to it was the fact I was the only Westerner anywhere near things and I was afraid that whilst they hate Indians more, the protesters may have gone after me a bit. This is because for many years Pakistan has sent infiltrators across the border to act as agent provocateurs in the starting of riots in a religious tone. Every local I spoke to just wants independence from India and definitely don't want to be part of Pakistan but in "the continued export of terrorism" from Pakistan as David Cameron put it recently they've tried to turn the issue into a religious one. Whilst some anti-Pakistan politicians will claim that Kashmir is an 'inalienable part of India' it's quite clearly nothing like that on the ground, culturally it's completely different and the people look much more like central Asians than Indians with much lighter complexions, grey green eyes and noses that a Rabbi would be proud of- they even drink their tea differently! As with China and the troubled North Eastern states, India claims that if they let the area go independent Pakistan would simply annex it and there is a degree of truth in this. However, India also knows that aside from the strategic importance of the area located between India, China, Pakistan and Central Asia if they let it go independent the whole structure of India could begin to collapse as a domino effect of independence movements across the huge country could take place.

I've never been somewhere with such a big military presence, certainly not over such a large area and it does ruin the landscapes. Often you'll emerge on top of a beautiful pass only to see the next valley ruined by the barbed wire and khaki colors of an army camp with the endless streams of army trucks needlessly engaging in the national pastime of honking their horns every 4 seconds. But apart from the visual pollution as is often the way with conflict zones I couldn't help but think what a terrible waste of resources it all is. Kashmir is one of the most expensive borders in the world to maintain and to give a spot example- the Siachen glacier is an area near the line of control which costs India alone $4million to maintain a military presence. As you can probably imagine nobody can live there as it's too cold and for 2 countries as poor as India and Pakistan to spend so much money 'protecting' an area where they're not even wanted is an unforgivable waste of money- it's not surprising the rest of the world really didn't want to give any aid to Pakistan during the recent terrible floods. It was reminiscent of the Falklands Islands issue for Argentina (though not as extreme) in that neither country has that strong a claim on the territory but it's been the perfect vessel to act as an issue around which the populations of the two very diverse countries can rally around. Despite the pleasant surroundings and late Summer climate it was a sad place to be and at the very least India have got to reduce the hated army presence and remove the martial law in order to improve the quality of life for the inhabitants.

One definite positive side effect of the army presence is they've created a miraculous road network in some of the most difficult landscapes to build in on the planet. Despite its size I wouldn't describe India as a particularly beautiful country, off the top of my head only 4 landscapes really stand out in the country as most of the land is used for agriculture on floodplains. However as you head East from Srinigar the landscape becomes mindblowing as you go through different smaller ranges of the Himalayas with the road closely following the magnificent glacier fed Indus as it heads down the mountains. They've built most of the highest passes in the world in order to give supplies routes for the army up to the highest, the awesome Khardung La. At 5600m it's so high you need an acclimatization stop as you ascend and even in early September parts of the road were frozen over, it's a remarkable piece of engineering to have first built it and then to keep it open all year. At the top looking down on the amazing road I found myself reflecting it was a shame Phil the Greek wasn't with me as "It doesn't look like it was made by an Indian". As you can probably imagine you could never go much faster than 20km per hour but after a hard 2 day journey you reach the Buddhist area of Ladakh. Aside from being very high (pretty much everywhere is 3500m+) it gets a level of rainfall similar to parts of the Sahara desert. Nothing can grow on the slopes of the mountains so the landscape is something like a mountainous desert with only a few spots where life is sustainable on the riverbanks.
Once you've obtained a pesky permit from the army you're allowed to visit a few isolated valleys and I spent a few cracking days hiking from village to village, once again I was just overawed by how steep the Himalayas are. Even the Andes didn't feel the same with mountains here shooting up to 3000m to the white tops seemingly directly above you- it's a landscape that almost feels scary as your eyes can't stop looking up and around you. Despite the normally miniscule rainfall about a month before I arrived for the first time ever apparently there had been a terrible flash flood which utterly destroyed many of the houses in the main town of Leh. They were made of mud brick and so simply couldn't stand any pressure from the floodwaters which was very sad to see as whole neighborhoods were having to live in tents as the debris of their homes still lay around them.

The road South towards Delhi was washed away by the floods and so any transport had to do an extra day detour to get down, officially the road closes on the 15th September and I turned up to the bus stand at 4am on the 14th hoping to get a passage out but was informed that all the buses were full for the next couple of days so I had no obvious means of getting out other than by plane. Then one of the drivers jokingly said 'Well you could sit on the floor!!' so I instantly said 'Yes' and realising he could make quite a bit of money out of me drove for 22hrs over the next 2 days with me sat on the floor of the minibus- my back hurt at the end of it. It was quite an adventure as we broke down about 9pm about 3500m up on one of the passes, it was absolutely freezing and being an hour away from the nearest settlement we eventually had no choice but for the driver to freewheel it all the way back down to the nearest village, which in the dark on single lane unpaved mountain roads was a lot of fun.

When we got down it was into the lower foothills of the Himalayas which have become very famous and turned into a hippy paradise since the Dalai Lama arrived to claim asylum in 1959. Several hundred thousand Tibetan refugees have followed him and whilst they've settled in India wherever there's altitude, it's in the area around the Dalai Lama's residence in the oddly named McLeod Ganj where they're most visible. On my last day in Leh I was actually lucky enough to hear the great man speak and you can get really close to him though he has to have several bodyguards around him 24/7 as the Chinese keep sending spies into the Tibetan community! Whilst I couldn't understand his speech (it was in Tibetan) it was a lot of fun watching the crowd. They went crazy when he appeared bowing in homage for 10-15 minutes and the lady to my right spontaneously started crying in an indication of just how much his presence/guidance means to them in their dispossessed state. Whilst it's probably not the right place to write about the Tibet issue, seeing the various exhibitions and museums of what they've been put through is really quite shocking and it's a thing of wonder how positive they remain on both a day to day level and also that eventually they will get their freedom- which doesn't look likely in the medium term. The arrival of the tourists has given them a way of making money selling handicrafts etc but Indians from the plains have noticed this and moved up to try and claim some of the business creating a remarkable comparison between the two peoples. Tibetans have a real air of dignity about them as they quietly sit counting their beads, serenely contemplating getting off the wheel; in contrast the Indians are the same as on the plains below constantly hassling any foreigners with the usual "My friend, my friend come and see my Free Tibet souvenir shop". Whilst this obviously doesn't show Indians in the best light the fact they've put the Tibetans up and given them a safe refuge (unlike much of the rest of the world in the face of China's economic might) for 50 years now shows a great deal of magnanimity and once again shows India in one of its more positive, inclusive lights.

Before I made my final stop in Delhi I visited the fantastic city of Chandigarh- India's only major attempt at being a civilized country. At partition the Punjab was split down the middle and the main city Lahore went to Pakistan so a new capital was needed to accommodate all the refugees. India commissioned the Swiss architect Le Corbusier to construct it and if you haven't had the misfortune to be dragged round an exhibition on him by me,between 1930-1960 or so he was the world's foremost modernist architect. And I loved it! Everything works, there are no traffic jams or stray dogs and there are parks and huge sculptures dotted around the city. A fantastic antidote to pretty much every other Indian city sat by the lake on my final evening there with classical music piping out of the greenery behind me I had to pinch myself to remember I was actually in India rather than a garden city in Hertfordshire on a late Summer evening.

Then I got a return to normality as I somewhat illogically finished off my time in India at the nations giant capital of Delhi which for some reason is virtually the only major city which has retained its Anglicized spelling. The overwhelming impression I have of Delhi is that it's a city where your experience of 'space' hits the extremes; it's been 'rebuilt' 5 times and the older parts of the city are almost unbearably cramped and dirty. In contrast New Delhi was designed by the British less than 100 years ago and there's just too much space with all the major parts of the city too spread out to get around by foot. Whilst it has great sightseeing and beautiful bright green pigeons instead of grey ones it was ultimately a fairly unsatisfying place to end my time in India. It's got a really unpleasant climate (it can get to 50 degrees in Summer) and is another city where the gap between the haves and have nots is truly woeful. Whilst the poor live in the tented shanty towns found all over the city the rich live in shiny towerblocks (their maids and drivers live in dorms in the basements) and shop in the grotesque A/C malls which I've increasingly realized is the symbol of the rich poor gap all over Asia. India probably faces a more diverse set of problems than any other country in the world whilst I've tried to describe but I think trying to improve the quality of life of the poorer sections of society over the next 20-30yrs must be the most pressing one for me. I don't always feel that optimistic about problem riddled countries I've been to (Haiti being the most extreme case I've seen on my travels) but despite it's problems India is definitely somewhere I feel pretty positive about. Bouyed by its terrific economic growth and a political system which certainly tries to give everyone a chance I can definitely see it achieving its desired superpower status in the coming years.

I've now been in India for over 5 months which is probably as long as I'm likely to travel anywhere, unsurprisingly I think I feel about 20% relieved to be leaving a country which has "...no electricity, drinking water, sewage treatment, traffic controls or concepts of honesty, discipline, courtesy, personal space or personal hygiene". Trying to get anything done is inescapably difficult, for example I had to see 4 people over 1.5hrs just to send a small package home from the Post Office as "We don't have envelopes or marker pens here- you need to go to the market".
Whilst most of the above I can deal with OK some things I just never got used to in India, there are a lot of frustrating things about the country that can't really concern a visitor like the dowry and caste systems or even the immense hypocrisies of the society as a whole (treatment of animals, portrayal of sex in the media etc).
However, the way people interact with you here is something I've never really adjusted to on a day to day level. Delhi has a very new and fairly good metro system - but if ever a people don't deserve a decent metro it's here. In India they incredibly don't have the concept of letting people off before getting on-board public transport- everyone tries to get on/off at the same time and in such an overcrowded city the rush hour is utter carnage. You've literally no choice but to forcibly wrestle people out the way to get on or off the trains and whilst I'm bigger than most Indians and more importantly get much angrier at the whole situation, every time I stumbled out of the maelstrom I found myself incredulously muttering to the nearest bystander "How can you live like this?".
Whilst the vast majority of Indians I found to be very good natured their social skills really differ to Western expectations; it's probably the only place I've been to where I think its better not learning any of the language. Everybody always want to know as much about you as possible through the endless rounds of conversations which just don't go anywhere and most of all being stared at all the time. A few nights ago as I waited for my train to Delhi a middle aged bloke came and stood 3ft away from me and stared at me for a solid 10 minutes, not saying anything just staring. Whatever you're doing and wherever you are in India as a white person you will ALWAYS have people watching you and I've never learned to deal with this. Whilst in Bangladesh I found myself fairly forgiving because they're so isolated both geographically and culturally, in India they're not and even in downtown Delhi or Mumbai where there are lots of foreigners there for all kinds of reasons people are fixated by you in an ultimately unsettling way. For various reasons India is not a great place to travel by yourself and I REALLY wouldn't recommend the same to girls!

But 80% of me is very satisfied too. There's a saying that "You hate India for the first 2 weeks and love it for ever after" and in mine and my Mums case we detested the place for the few weeks before we arrived as through a combination of red tape and outright dishonesty from various Indian embassies both my Mum's 2 wk holiday and several months of my trip looked ruined. In fact but for a handful of days my entire stay in India has been done so illegally and its only thanks to the incompetence of a couple of immigration officers that I've got away with it. Once I did manage to get in though I've loved the place from the word 'go'. India has a cultural breadth and depth to it which no other country in the world possesses and being here for so long and seeing so much of the place has been both instantly stimulating but also cathartic too as the traveling has progressed and I've seen the different sides to the country. I found the sensual experience of traveling in India stronger than anywhere else I've been, and whilst that includes the smells of wandering cows, the endless cacophony of car-horns and the sights of extreme poverty it also includes many, many positives. From the cliched swirls of the saris and scents of the spices to the incredible food and the amazing sightseeing, both in the historical buildings etc sense but also just constantly seeing how life goes on in this indescribable country. Indians would often ask "What's your opinion on India?" and I could never give them an answer; as you can probably gather from the tangential nature of these emails (sorry!) I found India to be one of the most intellectually stimulating places I've been to. I found opinions I have on lots of things constantly challenged as people live a life with completely different priorities than we have in the West, which I guess is much of the reason why I enjoy traveling so much. Aside from the 'bigger' picture I also found there were loads of little things I loved about India, from reading the Times of India with my umpteenth chai of the day, the fact it has 3 cricket channels and reading through some of the fantastic literature the country has produced since WWII- I even got through the 1,349 page A Suitable Boy!
It will take a bit of getting used to not hearing the Hindi love songs constantly blazing out from radios and the overwhelming colors that make up the mesmeric streetlife in India- I will miss it greatly.

But tonight I take the bus to Nepal where I'm guessing the assault on the senses won't be quite so great.
From Delhi,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 13:53 Archived in India

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