A walled city and two caves

THE FAR WEST OF KUTCH (once an independent kingdom, now part of Gujarat) is very close to India’s border with Pakistan. We made an interesting day trip from Bhuj to this relatively wild and less inhabited part of Kutch.

The countryside west of Nakhatrana becomes hilly and dry with many rocky outcrops. It contains many large sites where lignite is excavated and a huge industrial plant that Gujarat Electricity use to convert it into electricity. The area is also liberally dotted with electricity generating wind turbines and pylons.

We left the main road and wound through undulating dry landscape to reach the Siyot Caves. These rock temples were carved into the cliffs to create Hindu temples sometime between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. They were later used by Buddhists and are amongst the 80 Buddhist cave temples in the Indus Valley noted by the 7th century Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang. Today, they are the abode of bats and there walls and pillars are covered with graffiti scratched into the red stone.

Our driver drove us through a sandy landscape with scrubby plants along dirt track with many potholes. We reached a small temple enclosure, where we stopped in order to visit another cave temple. This one, the Guneri Gufa Shiv Temple, was carved out of the living rock by a holy man, whose “spirit left his body about five years ago”, according to the present priest, a Sadhu from Hardwar. The temple, which is faintly reminiscent of the Amdavad ni Gufa (in Ahmedabad), contains a large Shiva lingam. After we had looked around, the picturesquely attired Sadhu prepared tea for us, which we drank from small metal bowls.

Lakhpat was our next stop. Surrounded by intact 18th century city walls, seven kilometres in length, this once thriving port used to be on an inlet of the Arabian Sea. Following an earthquake in 1819, the mouth of the River Indus changed its course and Lakhpat was no longer close to the sea. Rapidly, Lakhpat lost its importance and became depopulated. Today, the impressive city walls enclose a huge empty space with a few houses, a mosque, a few Hindu shrines, and a working Sikh Gurdwara. Staircases allow visitors to reach the ramparts. The view from the top of the walls is of an endless flat sandy area extending to the horizon. Before 1819, what is now the flat Rann of Kutch would have been a seascape with trading vessels.

One of the gates into Lakhpat, the Katha Nako, is still intact with one of its huge metal studded doors hanging on its hinges. The outer wall of the archway leading into the city has a sculpture of a guardian in European garb, such as can be seen at the Aina Mahal in Bhuj. The city wall and this sculpture are evidence of the influence of Ram Singh Malam, who lived for a decade in Holland in the mid 18th century.

Lakhpat is close to the Indian border with Pakistan. The road from the former port city to Narayan Sarovar runs parallel to the frontier. All along the road, there are signs to tracks leading to various Indian border patrol posts.

A causeway leads from the mainland to an island to the west of it. On one side of this is an inlet of the Arabian Sea and on the other there is a freshwater lake, the Narayan Sarovar. According to Hindu mythology this is one of the 5 Sacred Lakes and therefore an important pilgrimage sites.

We stopped near the Koteshwar Temple, which overlooks a pier that reaches out into the sea. We walked along the pier passing a small temple and an enclosure containing sculptures of various Hindu deities. Just over two thirds of the way along the pier there is a barrier beyond which members of the public are not allowed. At this barrier there is a Border Force sign and a smaller one on which is written: “Fishermen frisking point”. Beyond the barrier I saw small buildings in which soldiers were sitting. Several pairs of soldiers’ green trousers were hanging out to dry on a washing line between two small huts. A fleet of small fishing vessels were moored near the part of the pier beyond the barrier. As the tide was out, they rested on the shiny mudflats that glistened in the afternoon sun.

I saw several long legged birds, not flamingos, searching for food out on the damp mudflats. Near to the pier there were lots of amphibians, rather like fat newts, wriggling and scuttling about in the film of water covering the mud.

A short way from Koteshwar is the temple compound at Narayan Sarovar. Surrounded by high castle walls, this walled enclosure contains two large mandirs. A small gate leads to a tiny jetty projecting out over the freshwater lake on which we spotted a moorhen swimming. Some steps led from the outside of the temple compound’s enclosing wall into the lake to allow people to bathe. We left Narayan Sarovar, pleased that we had made the long journey to reach this beautiful, peaceful spot.

We made a brief stop at the popular pilgrimage place Mata no Madh, home of the Ashapura Temple that was first established in the 14th century AD, but completely rebuilt after the 1819 earthquake.

Back in Bhuj, we ate dinner at Noorani, a restaurant that serves good non-veg food. Many of the servers are young men. Out of the blue one of them asked my Indian wife, who speaks fluent Gujarati, whether she was Japanese. We were taken aback; she has no features that make her look Japanese. I had noticed that a couple of Japanese women had occupied a table in another section of the restaurant and wondered whether seeing us, a European with a woman who was clearly not a local, made the boy think that we were as ‘exotic’ as the two Japanese ladies.

A FEW MOMENTS IN NEPAL

THERE IS A SMALL BUDDHIST TEMPLE (a ‘Gumba’) next to our homestay in Darjeeling. It was built by the grandfather of our host. When I took a look at it this morning, our host’s aunt was walking around it clockwise, chanting and fingering a bead necklace, rather like a rosary. After she had been around the square gumba several times, she opened it up to reveal an elaborately decorated effigy of Buddha.

Moni, our driver of Nepali origin, collected us and drove along a picturesque road to Ghoom, whose railway station at just over 7400 feet is the highest in India.

A narrow rutted lane led through the centre of Ghoom up to the Yiga Choeling Buddhist monastery, which, having been built in 1850, is the oldest in the area. The interior of the inner sanctum contained a large seated Buddha and many smaller effigies of him. The sanctum was beautifully decorated with wall paintings. Butter lamps were burning. There were glass fronted cupboards containing numerous bundles of strips of paper with scriptural texts in Tibetan script. Words are inadequate to describe the beauty of this Buddhist equivalent of a chapel.

Offerings had been placed in front of the various effigies of Buddha. These included banknotes, packets of biscuits, fruit, and a bottle of Pepsi Cola.

A part of the monastery was a meditation room dedicated to the memory of Woody Strong (1914-2000), an American lover and helper of Nepal, whose papers about Nepal are stored in the Archives of Purdue University. When diagnosed with inoperable cancer at the age of 77, he visited Nepal where a Buddhist priest told him that he would be healed. Miraculously, the tumour disappeared.

We drove from Ghoom along narrow, winding mountain roads to a recreation area called Jore Pokhri. On the way there and later on, we passed through small woods of trees with tall straight trunks topped with leaf bearing branches. These trees, a type of conifer, are known as ‘dhupi’ (in Nepali language) and are very valuable. Their value lies in an oil that can be extracted from its timber.

We stopped at Simana Viewpoint near to a small tourist market housed in corrugate iron shacks overlooking a steep drop into a deep valley. Where we were standing, at Simana, was only a few feet from the border between West Bengal and Nepal. A village with a name beginning with M lay on the opposite slope of the valley in Nepal.

We continued to drive close to the border until we reached the Indian frontier crossing post at Pashupathi Market. Moni parked the car and we went up to the immigration hut to show our British passports and our Indian residence permits (OCI) to two ladies sitting behind a desk with a large ledger.

Our documents were passed between numerous plainclothes agents and men in uniforms whilst a lot of heated discussion took place between all concerned. After a few minutes, more officials arrived and joined the conversation, the outcome of which was that we were petmitted to proceed into Nepal, which neither of us had ever visited.

We walked into Nepal past a small Nepali police or army barracks along a winding street lined with decrepit shacks an occasional colourfully decorated more substantial buildings. After about 150 yards, we turned round and walked back towards India.

About 50 yards away from the Indian frontier post, while we were still in Nepal, we heard drums. We looked back and saw a procession of people in colourful Nepali costumes approaching us. The march filled the whole width of the road and occasionally moved aside to allow cars and numerous taxi vans to pass. We learnt that the procession was something to celebrate tourism. As it was a Saturday, there were plenty of Indian tourists paying a brief visit to Nepal.

While I, the only European in sight, was taking photographs, a man in colourful garb approached me and shook my hand before inviting me to join the joyful procession. Then, he placed a garland of yellow flowers around my neck.

We left Nepal and Moni drove us back to Darjeeling, a journey of just over an hour. The road ascended and descended a series of hills. We drove through occasional clouds, that enshrouded the road in thick fog. We emerged from the clouds onto bright sunlight before encountering the next patch of cloud.

We ate a good lunch at Glenary’s restaurant, an establishment founded in about 1910 and housed in a picturesque colonial era building.

Before returning to our homestay, we heard the sound of drums and bagpipes. The Darjeeling Police Band was giving a spirited concert of Scottish tunes on an open air bandstand overlooking The Mall. The pipers swayed from side to side as they puffed away on their bagpipes. I imagine that long ago when Darjeeling was a recreational resort for the British imperialists, it was likely that a band used to play for visitors promenading on The Mall as the sun set on Saturday afternoons.
Thus ended a wonderful day during which we saw many exciting things, superb scenery, and set foot in another country, Nepal, for a few moments.

DRIVING AROUND DARJEELING

OUR WONDERFUL DRIVER picked us up at 9 am and took us and our new friends from Lincolnshire sightseeing in the area around Darjeeling for over seven hours.

We began at the Japanese Temple and close by Peace Pagoda (a stupa), both Buddhist places of worship set in a well tended garden.

Next, we drove along the Hill Cart Road, following the track used by the Toy Train. This road links Siliguri with Kathmandu in Nepal. The Nepalese border is about an hour and a half’s drive from Darjeeling and Kathmandu is about twelve hours away.

We stopped to wander through a park that is laid out around the Batasia Loop which is where the Toy Train loops the loop. The centre of the park contains a monument to Ghurka soldiers who have sacrificed their lives for India since 1947. There were many Indian tourists, who were enjoying dressing up in colourful Nepalese and other local costumes that were available for hire.

Although many people disapprove of zoos, I do not. Some animals, especially the big cats and wild dogs – wolves, jackals, and so on, give the impression of discontent. Other creatures show their unhappiness, if any, more subtly. The highlight of this beautifully laid out zoo was for me seeing the rare red pandas, whose long striped bushy tails and appealing faces make them very attractive. A black panther looked like a very large pussy cat. The clouded leopard has fur colouring that resembles magnified snakeskin markings. We saw many other eye catching creatures.

A visit to a Tibetan Refugee Centre established in the 1960s was moving and fascinating. A large collection of photographs depicted the sad history of Tibet during the twentieth century. We could not see any pictures or even mentions of Heinrich Harrer, who lived in Tibet after escaping from a British POW camp in 1944, and then tutored one of the Dalai Lamas. His book “Seven Years in Tibet” is a good read.

The Refugee Centre contains a children’s home, a souvenir shop, a general store, and a Buddhist monastery. We climbed up to this, passing lines of prayer wheels, and reached a shrine containing a Buddha and religious figurative wall paintings. The shrine abuts a room containing two huge metal prayer wheels, taller than most people. We met an old man, deaf and over 90 years old, who showed us how to rotate the heavy wheels. As they rotate, bells ring.

We stopped to look at a tea garden. The bushes were flowering with small whitish blooms. At a small stall nearby, built with corrugated iron sheets as are so many other structures in the district, we drank delicately flavoured Darjeeling tea.

The large house where Sister Nivedita, an Irish born disciple of Swami Vivekananda, “breathed her last” is called the Roy Villa. It contains the room where Nivedita died and a poorly lit museum.

Tenzing Rock was our final stopping place. This rock and others close to it are used by the Himalayan Mountain Institute to train mountaineers. Enthusiastic visitors can pay to climb the Tenzing Rock which, I guess, is no more than 30 feet high.

I have described the main sights of our excursion, but not the endless series of spectacular vistas and glimpses of aspects of the lives of locals. But, rest assured that even without seeing any of what I have related, the district around Darjeeling is fascinating and photogenic.

All along our route our driver, who speaks his native Nepali as well as Hindi, Bangla, and English, greeted people we passed. He is a very popular person in and around Darjeeling.