THE FAR HORIZONS
CHAPTER 5: KASHMIR
We passed fairly swiftly through Pakistan, travelling on third class trains from Peshawar via Rawalpindi to Lahore. The trains had hard seats of close wooden slats and were crowded with pushing, turbaned figures who all seemed to be carrying clumsy mattresses and bed rolls wherever they went. At every stop there was babbling chaos and the aisle became full of noisy hawkers who shoved their way aboard with trays of nuts, and cuts of palm cane and other foods and drinks; all squabbling and arguing vigorously for right of way with the arriving and departing passengers. All the hawkers had framed identity cards clipped to their trays which proclaimed that they had been medically examined, but in most cases the photographs attached showed a marked dissimilarity to the bearers.
Lahore was mostly a city or frustration. We arrived after an all-night train journey which left us tired and irritable and spent most of our time chasing around various Government offices to get permits to cross into India. We went first to the Pakistani High Commission, where it was suggested that we try the offices of the Deputy Commissioner, who vaguely recommended that we approach the Superintendent of Police, who dubiously referred us to the Pakistani Home Department. It was all hopelessly muddled and confused, and although the Home Department was the end of the line there was still another long delay before the permits were actually issued. I was later to find that the Indians were even worse than the Pakistanis, but this was the first time that we had encountered the maddening bureaucratic incompetence which characterizes the whole of the Indian sub-continent. It seemed that officials on all levels of administration had absorbed and practiced only the worst aspects of the British system. All of them seemed to live in mortal terror of ever showing any kind of personal initiative, or of accepting any kind of personal responsibility and everything had to be referred to the book of rules. This would be done, and then the unvarying procedure was to transfer the unwanted problem to another department. It was difficult to tell where the farce became a tragedy.
To cross the border into India and reach Amritsar, which was only forty males to the east, it was necessary to make a detour to the south, through Ferozepore, which at that time was the only frontier point that was open. In all it entailed travelling four-fifths of a complete circle, but at least we heard some amusingly conflicting stories about the war which had closed the main road and made all these complications necessary.
In Lahore a Pakistani journalist told us seriously:
“Those lying Indians, they are absolutely not respecting the truth. When the war is taking place they are announcing to the western press that they have crossed the border into Pakistan. They are saying that their tanks and their troops are attacking Lahore, and that their airplanes are dropping bombs on our city.
But this is all lies I am here in Lahore at this time, and where are the Indian troops, and the Indian tanks, and the Indian airplanes? They are not here! Nobody in Lahore has seen an Indian tank or an Indian bomb. The truth is that it was the Pakistani tanks and the Pakistani planes which were attacking Amritsar. This is the real truth of the matter.”
And in Amritsar an equally sincere young Sikh explained:
“Oh, those Pakistanis are some terrible liars. When the war is happening between our two countries they are telling the world that their soldiers and their tanks have attacked Amritsar, and that their airplanes have dropped bombs all over Amritsar.
But this is not the truth! I am living in Amritsar, this is my home, and I have seen no Pakistani soldiers. I have seen no Pakistani soldiers. I have seen no Pakistani tanks in the streets and no Pakistani airplanes in the skies. It is the reverse of this story that is true. It was our Indian tanks and airplanes that were fighting in Pakistan and we very nearly captured the city of Lahore.”
The truth of course was not even important, for neither of those two gentlemen would have been prepared to believe anything but his own version on it.
Amritsar is the center of the Sikh religion, and the streets are full of these magnificently bearded men with their vivid red turbans. They all bear the family surname Singh, which means Lion, and they form a proud and noble race. The backbone on the Indian Army is comprised of Sikhs, and in a country renowned for its sprawling poverty and multitudes of beggars you will never see a begging Sikh. Their most sacred shrine, the famous Golden Temple, was situated here in the center of a wide, square pool, reached by a gold-railed bridge, and we went to see it on our first morning.
We had to wash our feet and cover our heads before we were permitted to enter, and the young Sikh student who had told us about those terrible liars, the Pakistanis, had politely offered to be our guide. He showed us first around a small museum, which was mostly an art gallery depicting scenes from Sikh history. Ever since their religion was founded in the fifteenth century the Sikhs have been continuously fighting wars, first with the Mogul Emperors of India, then with the Moslems, and ultimately with the British, and the paintings were all violent and bloody. The one that stands most vividly in my mind was of a battle for Multan against the Moslems. The center of the canvas showed a large iron cannon with one missing wheel and in order to aim and fire the cannon it was necessary for a Sikh soldier to brace himself and support the axle across his shoulders. Each recoil smashed in the skull of the volunteer so that a Sikh died for every shot that was fired, but our informant told us that the cannon was kept firing steadily throughout the day with no shortage of volunteers, and on this occasion the Sikhs won the battle.
We emerged from the museum to visit the temple. The sunlight was brilliant on the golden roof, dazzling our eyes, and the surrounding lake-like tank was a calm pool in which we could dimly see large golden fish, possibly carp, gliding lazily through the blue depths. Above the gateway that gave access to the connecting bridge long, orange pennants curled from the shafts of two tall spears, and a white-robed Sikh guard politely took charge of our two small duffle bags before we were allowed to cross. The temple itself was not over-large, but it was set like a gold-leafed jewel in the center of the lake, and the marble walls were beautifully designed. Inside elderly Sikh priests with flowing white, prophet beards sat on piled cushions reading continuously from massive volumes of their scriptures. The reading never stopped throughout the twenty-four hours of the day, although the readers were changed every two hours.
When we left the temple we walked all around the white- tiled courtyard surrounding the lake, and I noticed that many of the passing Sikhs stopped to touch their hands to a large, octagonal tile on which they were careful to avoid placing their feet. Having touched the tile they would either kiss their fingers, or rub the hand briefly over their faces. Here was written another episode of their savagely-persecuted history, for legend says that this was the place where the head of one of their most famous Generals fell in battle. The luckless General was actually decapitated some four hundred yards away, but the story relates that he picked up his own head and hurled it high over the wall into the temple grounds where it has landed upon this now-sacred spot.
Our student guide was a mine of information, and told us many tales about India in general and his own people in particular. Many of the older Sikhs we saw carried sheathed swords, and he told us that even today many of them will not break from the once necessary habit of never travelling anywhere without arms.
There was one aspect of the Sikh religion which we considered really fortunate, and this was the fact that they offered free hospitality and shelter to every passing traveler. Behind the temple was a large courtyard, surrounded by bare, cell-like rooms, where we were invited to stay while we remained in Amritsar. We accepted the offer and brought our luggage up from the station in a bicycle rickshaw, a cheap form of transport but one snag was soon made clear. At all the hills passengers with luggage were expected to get out and push.
There was also a very poor soup kitchen that provided free meals, but it looked far from appetizing and we decided to eat out. Before we left we found that we were not the only Overlanders to have arrived to take advantage of Sikh hospitality. George, Allan and Caroline had come up by bus from Ferozepore that same morning while we had been braving the trains, while Doug, Dick and Dilys had been staying there for several days. We all went out in a convoy of bicycle rickshaws to eat at the Chrystal restaurant and made it another reunion. As I journeyed across India I was to continually cross paths with old friends and reunions became a common occurrence.
The Chrystal proved to be an inexpensive night club, which boasted a four-piece band and a girl singer. The atmosphere was pleasant and it was a good meal, and to add to the entertainment a Sikh customer got annoyed with the guitarist and offered him a fight. The dialogue sounded like a Peter Sellers comedy routine, fists were brandished and bushy beards bristled, but the only damage was a couple of broken strings on the guitar which its owner improvised somewhere between a club and a shield. The fiery Sikh was removed, and the guitarist had to sit down until he could stop quivering.
When the bill was presented we became involved in a pantomime of our own, for everything had been lumped together on one unreadable scrap of paper. To add to the confusion Doug, Dick and Dilys had left early to catch the night train to Delhi and although they had left sufficient money behind them, nobody could remember which dishes they had had. Eventually we had to get the manager to read out everything so that we could copy it down legibly, and only then did we get it all sorted out into separate bills.
On the way home we made up another convoy of three bicycle rickshaws, and even managed to instill the competitive spirit into our drivers and get them racing through the darkened streets of Amritsar. The man pulling Margaret and myself puffed himself out so much going over the railway bridge that he couldn't stop coughing for a full five minutes.
The next morning Margaret and I rose early to catch a plane north to Srinagar. Margaret wanted to see the silver Jhelum, and I was sure that Kashmir would make an ideal setting for another thriller. The area had been the cause of the recent war between India and Pakistan and the question of ownership was still under dispute. Kashmir is part of India, but eighty per cent of the population are Moslems, and, according to the Pakistanis, should become one with their religious brethren in Pakistan. However, Kashmir is a rich and fertile valley, often called the Switzerland of Asia, and a useful source of tourist income. Add to that its strategic military value, the fact that it contains the sources of all the main rivers on which the thirsty plains of Pakistan depend, and that together with Ladakh it forms a mountain barrier against the north, and it becomes clear why India is determined to retain control. Also the Chinese had already made hostile moves over the Himalayas into Ladakh, and with their giant, threatening presence hanging over the whole area all the ingredients for a thriller were there. That thriller was eventually written and appeared under the title Strangler’s Moon.
At the last minute George decided to join us so three of us made the trip north. The plane was a small Fokker Friendship of India Airlines, which left Amritsar at nine o'clock and took forty minutes to reach Jammu, flying in a wide eastward loop to stay clear of the Pakistani border. Below us was a perfectly flat plain, divided into green and brown squares, and dotted with small mud villages. The land was well irrigated and the pools of water reflected the morning sun in brilliant flashes like signaling mirrors, while along the narrow channels the sun’s rays travelled like molten mercury flowing parallel to the passing shadow of the plane. There was a hazy mist and the horizon was lost behind bars of lingering cloud.
A river appeared in a twisting sprawl of descending silver that was born somewhere in the far distance. Our flight followed its course until it had almost soaked away into a wide bed of patterned yellow sand, and then we flew on above rising brown hills dressed in green. The hills had a serrated pattern and seemed to lean backwards, and the layers of brown and yellow soil made them look like half-eaten slabs of chocolate cream cake, all piled half on top of each other. Then, far away beneath the plane's wing, we saw our first glimpse of the Himalayas, the soaring peaks glistening white with ice and snow.
We came down over another flat plain to land at Jammu, and when we took off for the second time the brown hills became higher, with their northern slopes dusted white with snow. The Himalayas came closer with their frozen, knife-like peaks spiking the incredibly blue sky. Another river wound through a rugged gorge far below, and after another thirty-five minutes of flying time we dropped down into a wide, flat valley, ringed by the magnificent mountains; the beautiful vale of Kashmir.
An airline bus took us into Srinagar, and here it was autumn again and the trees were covered in all its glory. There were thousands of tall slender, silver-bark chenar trees, small orchards in golden-brown leaf, and huge red-leafed maples that overhung the road. The outskirts of the city were reminiscent of a charmingly dilapidated Switzerland, with little brick and wooden houses and barns with overhanging eaves and balconies, and all of it mellowed by age and time.
The bus deposited us outside the Tourist Reception Centre and here we were smartly marshaled inside to be allotted accommodation, mobbed all the while by a horde of clamoring house-boat owners. I have a natural resentment against being organized, and especially do I detest getting caught up in the tourist roundabout. I consider myself a World Traveler and not a tourist, and there is a vast amount of difference, but this time there was no choice. A house-boat was the specified tourist accommodation and a house-boat we had to have. There were thousands of them floating on the lake, along the river, and in the many canals that threaded through the old part of the city, and as the warm tourist season was over they were all empty. The competition for our custom was too much to refuse, although we insisted on the cheapest house-boat available.
However, when we saw our house-boat we were quite pleased. It floated with several others like a ramshackle collection of Noah's Arks in a quiet corner of the lake, shaded by a high bank of tall autumn trees with the distant mountains beyond. It was very picturesque, and the successful owner, a cheerful little man in baggy trousers, an old khaki jacket and an astrakhan cap, led us proudly down the steep, grassy bank. A very narrow and rickety plank spanned the gap between the bank and the first boat's prow and we crossed it gingerly. Inside was a tiny kitchen with a fire burning in a hole in the deck, and beyond the cramped sleeping quarters used by the little man and his family, simply furnished with rush matting and nothing else. Next we had to step on to the larger guest-boat, and I all but stepped through to the lake when a board snapped under my foot. Here there were three separate little bedrooms and a miniature dining room and lounge. In summer it would have been ideal, but now it was mid-November and the nights on the lake proved damp and bitterly cold.
We had barely settled in before we were rushed off to see a wood-carving factory. The manager of the place had been sticking to us like a hungry vulture ever since we had left the tourist office, and until now had naively believed him to be some kind of official who was looking after our comfort. At my age I really should have known better.
We spent some ten minutes in the barn-like factory, watching some fruit bowls being carved and polished, and some carpets being embroidered by hand, and then, as always, we were invited into the adjoining shop where the manager waited hopefully for us to buy. However, World Travelers have neither the money nor the baggage space to clutter themselves up with local arts and crafts and endless souvenirs, and although we examined his wares at great length we were unmoved by the sales pressure. We had played this scene too many times before. We later learned the reason for all his undue haste, for his special cheap factory prices were double those asked in the shops, and we were well-pleased that we had wasted his time. No doubt he had fleeced plenty of common or garden tourists, and I always find it gratifying to watch the drooping scowl of disappointment replace the oily smiles of a frustrated shark.
We had also had a free car ride into the old part of the city and although the factory managed made no offer to return us to the house-boat we were uncaring. We wanted to see the old city anyway. Our little house-boat man had come with us and although he spoke no English he grinned widely all the time and proceeded to take us on a guided tour. He led us on a zig-zag course back and forth across the bridges of the winding Jhelum River, and in and out of a jumbled maze of crazy narrow streets and cluttered shops. There were seven bridges in this old part of the city and all of them were quaintly supported by old fashioned wooden struts, while the shanty town houses again very Swiss-styled, with balconies, eaves and beams poking out hap-hazard at all angles. Apart from the silver wriggle of the main river there were branching canals and waterways everywhere, all filled with long rows of moored houseboats, and sometimes with rafts of heavy, floating logs.
In fact, Srinagar managed to combine scenes from all over the globe; a delightful mixture of the canals of Venice, the floating markets of Bangkok, the lumber towns of Canada, the encircling scenery of the Alps, and just to remind you where you really are the silver temple spires of Hindu India.
On our second day our little houseboat man led us to the top of the one-thousand foot Sankaracharya Hill where stands an ancient stone temple to Shiva. The twisting path was steep and rugged and we toiled up slowly. At first the valley and the encircling chain of the Himalayas were obscured in mist, but as we climbed higher so the air gradually became clearer. The distant snow-caps became distinct against the blue sky, and the large, sprawling hill, crowned by a high fortress that dominates Srinagar and the valley, emerged slowly into detail.
From the summit the view was panoramic. The slender, ash-like chedar trees formed a forest of silvery spears thrusting up through the roof-tops of the city, and the houseboats lay like elaborate white toys along the floating gardens that fringed the Dal lake. The lake itself was a placid dark blue, reflecting the snowy grandeur of the mountains, and forming a romantic playground for the lazy shikaras, the famous gondolas of Kashmir.
Later the three of us hired bicycles and cycled all round the Dal Lake. It was the first time that I had mounted a push- bike since the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, and as a change is as good as a rest I thoroughly enjoyed it. The weather was clear and sunny, for only the nights were cold, and the lakeside scenery of Kashmir in autumn is something I shall always remember. The soil was dark and fertile and the apple orchards had shed their leaves into bright carpets on the grass. On the quiet edges of the lake little patches of tiny red and green vegetation floated on the blue surface, and everywhere were the silver chedar trees, great red maples, and the unforgettable mountains.
As we circled the lake we had the road to ourselves, but as we re-entered Srinagar from the north the peace was broken by great crowds of people swarming towards us. Some of them rode in jogging, horse-drawn tongas and some rode bicycles, but most of them were on foot. It looked like a mass exodus with everybody heading for the hills, but then we realized that this was merely Friday and we had run into a massed congregation leaving the mosque. Prayers obviously drew a good attendance, for it was like trying to force our way through an English football crowd, and even when we had got past the mosque and through the mob we were menaced all the way back into Srinagar by overcrowded buses dashing dangerously back and forth, and belching out smoke and huge clouds of dirt as they endeavored to shift the population back into the city.
When we returned George was saddle-sore, but Margaret and I still had enough energy to spend the last hour of daylight in cycling round in circles to see as much of Srinagar as possible before we left. Tongas and bicycles were the main traffic and there was the frequent smell of horses. The people seemed to be typified by our little house-boat man, for they were all small, dark and cheerful. It was a busy, noisy hotchpotch of often dirt streets and criss-crossing waterways, where the house-boat roofs were colorfully sprinkled with red peppers drying in the sun. The shops were all open hives of activity, and for some unknown reason most of them seemed to house little tailors, all of them squatting energetically over their hand- operated sewing machines, and looking up only for bouts or gossip and quick puffs at their bubbly-bubbly pipes of hashish.
It had not been too expensive to fly up to Srinagar but even so we preferred to return by road in order to view Kashmir from all possible angles. It was a magnificent twelve hour bus ride to Jammu, lasting from eight in the morning until eight at night, and it was well worth the effort. There can be few scenic drives that can compare with the foothills of the Himalayas. First the road lay across the golden paradise of the Kashmir valley, and then it climbed and twisted through stupendous gorges with sheer drops of a thousand feet into a vivid blue river that foamed white over barrier cocks. There were steep, soaring slopes, heavy with evergreen pines as the bus heaved itself up into the Banihal Pass. Then came the Marbul pass and a long, one-way tunnel cut through the mountain at 11,570 feet.
Like the Khyber Pass and the Kabul Gorge it was all too vast and sweeping for any photograph to do it justice. The small square that could be enclosed by a camera lens meant nothing compared to the panoramic whole.
It was dark when we rolled into Jammu but we found that we could spend the night at the Tourist Reception Centre where the bus stopped. We also learned that there was a direct bus to Delhi from another bus station, so George and I set off to make enquiries, leaving Margaret to watch our luggage.
Jammu was another dimly-lit, untidy sprawl of cluttered streets and on our way we encountered a large mob of noisy youths who seemed to be on the verge of starting a mass riot. We by-passed them warily, and it was not until we found the bus station that we learned the cause of the explosive atmosphere. All over India there had recently been violent disagreement on the question of whether or not cows should be slaughtered for meat. To the Hindu the cow is a sacred symbol of motherhood, and everywhere they freely roam the streets, yet at the same time India is over-populated and under-fed and millions starve. In Amritsar we had seen a large number of smashed windows in the office buildings, the handiwork of protesting rioters, and now the issue had spread to Jammu. Our informant added that tomorrow there would be no buses anywhere, because everyone was on strike.
I asked whether the strike was in favor or against the question of killing the sacred cow, but there he didn't know. I then asked him whether he personally was in favor or against, did but he didn't know the answer to that question either. He just grinned in blissful happiness and repeated that there was going to be a strike. George and I walked back in disgust, and on the way a skinny, loose-fleshed sacred cow arrogantly shifted its haunch into our path. I had never before kicked a dumb animal, and I hope that I never shall again, but for once I relaxed my British principles. I swung my foot and the cow got the shock of its sacred life as my irreverent shoe slammed it squarely up its sacred backside.
The next morning George and I roused ourselves at half-past four, for in India a strike is as hopelessly disorganized as everything else and it was still possible that the Delhi bus might be leaving at half-past five. We walked back to the main bus station beneath a starry sky, and now the cows had the streets to themselves, either standing sleepily in the gutters or lying on the pavement. At the bus station the strike threat appeared to have blown over, for there was a bus leaving and there was a noisy queue for tickets. I quickly joined the straggling line, while George hurried back to fetch Margaret and our luggage.
It was a waste of time, for he had barely gone when the solitary Indian in the booking office waved his hand casually at the clamoring mob, pushed the outstretched hands with their grubby rupee notes back through his window, and then closed shop. The tickets were all sold, and there were no more buses until tomorrow. Filled with more exasperation I had to hurry after George and tell him not to bother.
However, later in the day we did manage to get a bus to Pathankot ,some sixty miles further south , where we were able to take a train to Delhi