My two-week journey through India would not have been possible without the MPW Travel Fund grant, nor without the support of my travelling companion, Ollie Kelly. The plan was to travel from Delhi to other locations, mostly by train. Neither of us could have guessed at what lay ahead. The Monsoon, Lord Shiva, landslides and newfound friends were, cumulatively, life-changing experiences. In total, we covered over a thousand miles on foot, train, coach and Jeep during our journey, through the arid desert to the rain-soaked jungle and back. The cliché is that travelling through India is a journey into oneself, though our aim was something less existential: simply to experience as much as we could of the subcontinent, noting the British influence along the way.
We lugged our bags out into the dust and heat, immediately overwhelmed. The English road signs were of little use as we took brave steps into the Main Bazaar by New Delhi Station, looking for a place to rest our heads. As if by magic, we navigated to a place with a charming, if ramshackle, rooftop restaurant, and beds that did not bite of their own accord (bedbugs were a constant factor that we quickly learned to ignore). We learned that the only way to get about the city without losing our wallets or our lives was by auto rickshaw, or ‘tuc-tuc’. Edwin Lutyens is a name tied to New Delhi as Sir Christopher Wren’s is to London: he fashioned his Delhi as a meeting of worlds, affirming British rule through classical architecture. However, despite what some might expect, there was no post-imperial bitterness in the heart of our guide, who proudly showed us the vast treasures of his city.
To the west we were guided around The Pink City, Jaipur. Within its Mughal walls stands the mysterious and impressive Jantar Mantar, an early 18th-century observatory. Its complex geometric tools are still used to track the heavens today; the huge sundial is so large it is said to be accurate to under three seconds. More ancient still, the Amber Fort at Amer displays a network of breathtaking structures, an art historian’s heaven.
There was no trace of the British to be found here, only a complex weave of Arabic and Indian design, testament to an alternative tradition of civility.
Then we returned to Delhi, hours spent in sleeper cars playing cards and sharing hot, sweet chai, to catch a train to Shimla. A narrow-gauge ‘toy’ train took us steadily up into the foothills of the Himalayas. The distance travelled was less than 100km, but the train sometimes progressed slower than jogging pace, to negotiate sharp bends and dangerous drops. Our luck held out: there was no cloud, except those below us, allowing spectacular views across scenes that I can only describe (inadequately) as awesome. Noting the typical colonial styles in each area, it was impossible to ignore the no-frills attitude towards building, due at least in part to the East India Trading Company and its bluntly military grasp upon the region. Typical of this approach is Christ Church in Shimla, neo-Gothic but relatively plain and unembellished, its silhouette a defining feature of the ‘summer capital’ of British India. However, this featureless style was thankfully not predominant. Atop one of Shimla’s seven hills stands what once was the Viceregal Lodge and is now Rashtrapati Niwas, the home of a modern educational centre, ornate in all its ‘Jacobethan’ elegance.
In Shimla we rented sticks and ascended to the temple of the monkey God Hanuman, an area inhabited by thousands of thieving, rascal monkeys. We clung to our sticks while observing from afar a family unlucky enough to pick a fight with the nimble creatures, which were on them like a flash, screeching, stealing and scratching until they were finally beaten off.
From here we were taken to Manali in a jeep by Kamal, our three-fingered driver and trusted ally. The roads were narrow, but our Jeep wasn’t; Kamal was highly skilled, but drove shockingly fast. We waited in a polite queue of traffic as a huge tree that had fallen across the road was chain-sawed and tossed off the mountain, landing on top of a rusting luxury coach. We had time to stop at many Hindu shrines, a Sikh Temple and the most incredible moment of the journey, a naturally occurring Shiva Temple. We followed a goat track over a hillock and down to the temple via steps cut into the rock. We came to an azure pool that seemed the most beautiful place in the world. Fed by a musical stream, the tranquil water appeared to breathe with the landscape, light playing across the sheer walls of rock soaring above while butterflies chased each other through the air. We rolled up our jeans and dipped in. Never have my feet felt so clean, or my mind so tranquil. Then we progressed inside the cliff.
Chanting mantras, our guide silently instructed us in the proper way to show respect to the Deities that inhabited the damp, cool cave. I rang a bell, which resonated for an age, crouched to touch the ground with the fingertips of my right hand. Looking up, I saw a crudely carved stairway reaching into the blackness above us as Kamal said, “To the top.” It was a statement. As my eyes adjusted, I made out two huge stalagmites directly ahead, and to my astonishment there was the carved figure of Lord Shiva, standing behind Ganesh, the elephant god: an awe-inspiring sight.
We finished our trip with a stay in the last – and best – hostel and were invited to a new restaurant, La Plage, where we ate in astonishing style. We were also invited to a party by an Indian boy, at which one of the promised English girls turned out to be a fellow student at MPW. It is a very small world.