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The First Seventy Years: Chapter 52 - In India

...Placing an orange cloth on our heads Mary, the children and myself were now ready to be admitted into the grounds of the Golden Temple but not before removing our shoes...

Eric Biddulph and his family go touring in India.

The MV Asia sailed out of Mombasa harbour. I stood on the ship's stern until the African coastline disappeared from view. Simultaneously the absence of the horizon triggered the onset of queasiness. I made my way to the cabin where I lay in my bunk until my head ceased to spin. I was to remain there for the duration of the three thousand kilometre journey to Bombay, now Mumbai.

As the skyline of this major seaport city came into view I was able to once again bring myself up on deck after six days marooned in the bowels of the ship. Watching my Ford Escort being winched on to the dockside I became aware of the contrast with Africa. The bureaucracy of the Indian State quickly became apparent when, together with two fellow passengers we joined together to hire a taxi to enable us to move around between various government departments each with their own interest in imported cars. Constant movement between them continued all day. Eventually all the paperwork was successfully completed. I was able to drive out of the customs compound. The family meanwhile had spent the day investigating Bombay, albeit under somewhat difficult circumstances, the heat being oppressive. We booked into the YWCA for a few nights.

Bombay, as amajor city of the British Raj, is home to many fine buildings erected during the 19th Century. The Gateway to India is a magnificent monument overlooking the harbour. It was built in a similar style to Admiralty Arch in London. The museum, in the heart of the city is a fine building erected in the best Victorian tradition. It would not look out of place in the centre of Manchester. The city is situated on a peninsula.

When the time arrived for us to leave the absence of road signs caused some minor problems. After a number of attempts to leave I eventually found the road to Poona. Here was a town with strong connections with the Raj. British officials would come up into the hills to escape the oppressive heat of the coast during the build up to the monsoon. A visit to the Ajanta caves and the nearby Allora caves revealed what wonderful results could be attained from carving monuments out of solid rock. Moving northwards through the centre of the country Bhopal was a stopoff for a couple of nights. An industrial town with very little to attract the tourist it nevertheless, provided an insight into the lives of ordinary citizens. Little more than a decade later it was to attract worldwide infamy when Union Carbide of America became embroiled in high compensation claims after its chemical plant exploded causing the deaths of many hundreds of people and serious injuries to thousands.

By the end of the second week of this journey through the Indian sub-continent I had accepted some cultural home truths. Cows wandering the streets at will had to constantly be taken into account whilst driving. They were at liberty to sit down in any location. It was not unusual to find myself driving on the opposite side of the road to avoid a prostrate cow. The constant presence of unlimited numbers of cyclists and people on foot meant that my speed never exceeded fifty kilometres an hour throughout the four weeks, five thousand kilometres of travel.

The country consists of thousands of villages each usually having a small Hindu temple. A visit to Jaipur to see its magnificent buildings with resident monkeys having a free run around the upper reaches was a fascinating experience. Amongst its heritage was a collection of buildings proving that astronomical research was alive and well many centuries before it had been undertaken in Europe. No-one would think of going to India without visiting the Taj Mahal. Built as a shrine to the memory of his wife who is buried under the dome, Shah Jahan created one of the truly great man-made edifices in the world. What is paradoxical is the Islamic connotation forming the most famous national treasure in a predominantly Hindi society.

Two hundred kilometres to the north is Delhi, the seat of government. Again one finds reminders of the Raj. Along, wide straight processional drive leads up to the Parliament Building. One is mistakenly led to think you are on the Mall. The nearby Red Fort was the scene of what arguably was the most bizarre experience of my life. I actually witnessed a levitation. I saw with my own eyes a man laying prostrate on a bed rising from it following the machinations of the spiritualist, magician, call him what you will.

The north western city of Amritsar signified significant changes in the environment. A more vibrant feeling took hold. The fields appeared more fertile; people proj ected a more sprightly response to the world around them. This was the Punjab, the heart of the minority Sikh people. The men clearly identifiable by their smart turbans and beards. There was a distinct feeling that this was a more prosperous region of the country. Placing an orange cloth on our heads Mary, the children and myself were now ready to be admitted into the grounds of the Golden Temple but not before removing our shoes. The Sikh religion, it is sometimes said, is the nearest faith to Christianity.


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