Covering my journey from Chandigarh to Delhi, this blog post is dominated by my rather uncomfortable proximity to an intensifying caste ‘agitation’, which are made all the more unbalanced by local elections in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. With some luck, the problem won’t spread and I won’t have too many further problems.
Things started off pretty tranquilly. Chandigarh might have seemed to the American in my previous blog ‘the opposite of India’ but I, often the contrarian, disagree. Certainly, its expansive gridded boulevards, clean air, beautiful green spaces and appreciably more ‘West-orientated’ demographic sets it apart from the typical Indian cityscape. Except, of course, no such typical city exists. By now, I have visited dozens of Indian towns and cities, and whilst the similarities are themselves fascinating, it is of no great surprise in a country defined by ‘unity in diversity’ that they all offer something different. The same, then, goes for Chandigarh – not the opposite of India but merely a more drastic manifestation of this diversity.
I spent a day off after a full-on start to the cycling by switching into full tourist mode. Much is made of the Rock Garden, a sprawling abstract creation by Nek Chand that started life hidden from the public, and indeed the government, despite being positioned precariously beneath its nose, next to the High Court. It is a magnificent place, defying any consensus on its underlying ‘meaning’ (if, of course, it needs one!) One popular view asserts that it represents a nostalgic memory of pre-Partition rural Punjab, which is certainly supported by the babbling water features and stunningly landscaped mini-village communities of statues. What is perhaps more intriguing, however, is how it relates more broadly to Chandigarh itself. Now the joint capital of Punjab and the neighbouring state of Haryana, Chandigarh is a twentieth century imposition on the beautifully fertile wheat fields that surround it and the magical hills that loom to the north in Himachal Pradesh. In some senses, it therefore intrudes on India, and challenges its surroundings. Could the sprawling labyrinth of the Rock Garden, directly in contradiction with the rigid grids of Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, actually express not just a nostalgia for pre-Partition Punjab, but also serve as a critique for the specifically Western modernity that Chandigarh represents?
Strolling up to the High Court, barristers hurriedly bustled around in front of the intriguing, but hardly beautiful, Open Hand Monument, their robes billowing with a clear sense of self-importance that rivalled a magnificent peacock whose sudden appearance from behind a tree scared me shitless as I tried unsuccessfully to navigate a cycle route around Sukhna Lake. On my travels before and since this city, Indians regularly observe that Chandigarh is home to ostentatious markers of education and wealth. For instance, ‘every drive’ has a Harley Davidson rather than the otherwise ubiquitous Royal Enfield Bullet (the same Enfield, interestingly enough, that manufactured the rifles used before and during the 1857 Indian Uprising, and became associated with the beef and pork tallow cartridges that so angered the Indian sepoy soldiers that it supposedly ‘sparked’ their action). It therefore represents something of a Marmite phenomenon: people either love it or hate it. My new-found infatuation with tandoori chicken and this wonderful Punjabi chicken restaurant (which I visited no less than 3 times in my short stay) 2 minutes from my hostel meant I loved it.
That evening, itching to get back on the bike for a bit, I made the slightly reckless decision to cycle north to Pinjore, where the Maharaja of Patiala had built an impressive formal garden. In a couple of days, I would cycle to the city of Patiala itself, but it was once one of the biggest princely states in India (and famously one which signed a rather comfortable alliance with the British in 1808 as they sought to control the North-West Provinces). At night, they light the Pinjore gardens up and I was told early evening was definitely the time to go. They weren’t wrong, but it did raise the largely unconsidered challenge of getting back to Chandigarh in the dark. Fortunately, a short ride further north to Kalka enabled me to book my seat on a Toy Train to Shimla for the following day, and to load my bike onto a bus heading back to Chandigarh.
Getting to Shimla and back in a day is quite tricky. It is made slightly harder if as a history nerd you want to scour Simla for certain landmarks mentioned in novels such as Kipling’s Kim (I found them, don’t worry). It is made very nearly impossible if your train from Kalka to Simla is delayed by 3 hours and your bus back breaks down twice. Nonetheless, I just about managed it, getting back to Chandigarh just in time to check in to the travellers’ guest house at the bus stop. The Toy Train, built over a century ago and featuring hundreds of winding bridges and tunnels as it snakes up the Himalayan hills, is not just a magnificent feat of engineering but a thing of beauty, and the 5 hours it takes is spent staring at quite incredible mountainous vistas. I revelled in the idea that, for decades in the early 20th century, this was the means by which the Colonial Government shifted their operations for the 7 sweltering summer months. As I write, the humidity is picking up unseasonably early (a ‘winter heatwave’, I’m told), so decamping to what was the unspoilt freshness of Simla seems time and effort very well spent.
Continuing my journey, I now headed south west to Patiala, where I would have the absolute privilege of being greeted by not one friendly face but two. My good friend Uttam had rung ahead to his childhood mate, who now lived in Patiala, and he directed me through the city where, yet again, I had to find a welder to fix my bike. This welder seems to have actually understood the difference between steel and aluminium, so I’m much more hopeful. The second friendly face belonged to Simar Singh, whose wonderful family home was situated only metres away from a car scrap yard and the dusty streets of the welder (such is the way in cities that lack the planning of Chandigarh). After I had unpacked and freshened up in a god-sent warm western shower, we headed off with the rest of his motorbike club, the Royal City Riders. Cruising around the city and picking up members as we went, along with substantial quantities of whiskey and beer, they pointed out the landmarks on show and traded stories about life in Punjab. My introduction to the ‘Patiala Peg’, infamously large servings of whiskey, will forever be slightly tainted by the hangover that followed the following day, but my memory serves sufficiently to remember careering around the streets of Patiala which were by then thankfully nearly deserted, stopping by the Bakhra Nangal dam canal for more whiskey. In the daytime, the canal shines a brilliant blue with the Himalayan water that it carries all the way to the otherwise arid state of Rajasthan – one of Nehru’s big Post-Independence projects, a real symbol of an India gearing up to catch up internationally.
The following morning, the hangover refused to budge despite a magnificent spread for breakfast including masala scrambled eggs and copious amounts of chai. No time to feel too sorry for myself, we hit the road again, bike loaded in the back, to visit the Patiala School for the Deaf and Blind. This place was inspirational, and it was awesome to see another school doing such good work, much like the Institute for the Blind in Delhi. Somewhat incredibly, they have bought some tandem cycles, which will be manned by both a blind boy (pedalling) and a deaf boy (steering) all the way from Patiala to Delhi in the coming months. Watch this blog for updates on that – I think it is absolutely epic, and can’t wait to see it come off.
By now, news was beginning to appear more regularly about the return of Jat Agitations, a movement aimed at securing government reservations for the Jat caste. Although explicitly peaceful and lawful at the moment, the previous agitation last year had erupted into violence, with millions of rupees of damage and 30 deaths. I therefore made the call to head back on myself and join the Grand Trunk Road north of Ambala. As a major highway, the police are mobilised on occasions such as this to keep things clear. Settling in for the first real stint on the GTR, I was almost instantly rewarded by a classic sarai (travellers’ inn) built by Sher Shah Suri. Wandering around and picturing the buzz of travellers and merchants flowing up and down the GTR between these imposing inns, it was with a sense of entering a time trap that I chatted to a bunch of four leisurely Punjabi men playing cards in the shady entrance. Apart from them, the sarai was completely deserted and I wondered if they hadn’t been reminded to move on a few centuries ago.
As I headed into Haryana, I monitored the papers more regularly, constantly asking my new acquaintances about the risk. In keeping with true Indian hospitality, I was assured that there was nothing to worry about, and even introduced through a host to the local police who similarly reinforced the optimistic view that any violence would be well away from the Grand Trunk Road. I was happy to take this view while I could, cycling in quick succession through Kurukshetra, Karnal and Panipat. This was again aided by friendly locals riding up on motorbikes and chatting, and one even slingshotted me for about half a kilometre, which nearly dislocated my shoulder but was otherwise much appreciated.
In Kurukshetra, I hit the jackpot again: wandering around the Brahma Sarovar, two incredibly friendly local university students (shout out to Amit and Rahul) came up, and insisted that they show me around, whisking me off to their university where I chained the bike up before hopping on their motorbike for a whistlestop tour, which culminated in lunch back in their family homes, watching their impressive homemade Bollywood music videos. They joked lightly about how they were merely fulfilling their historical duties as servants to the British, but had seriously held views regarding the complexity of that historical relationship, and it was invigorating to engage with people who didn’t blame all of India’s problems on the theft of the Kooh-i-Noor diamond. We even visited the banyan tree in Jyotisar, where Krishna first preached the Baghavad Gita some 5000 years ago. The Baghavad Gita, coupled with the Mahabharata epic, are unmistakably the key in beginning to understand the rich history of ideology and culture of Northern India, but the latter’s length, easily the longest epic ever written, might dissuade you as it has with me so far!
Shortly before Karnal loomed into view, I caught sight of my first Kos Minar. Fairly unimpressive otherwise, these large pillars in fact represent one of the most thorough and advanced systems of late medieval infrastructure ever established… but in a nut shell, they’re road markers all along the GTR. Niche, but it excited me. On arrival in Karnal, I stayed with another welcoming local, again courtesy of the wonderful website warmshowers.org. Karan,a genetics scientist, and his wife live in a gated community for scientists, and on arrival he suggested I take a wander around the place. Very shortly, an excitable boy ran out of his family home and invited me in for some chai, which I actually cannot say no to. The regular recurrence of unsolicited hospitality was a wonderful thing, although the cups of chai almost always accompanied a stark warning that such friendliness to strangers would be much rarer when I entered the approaching states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Time will tell!
Zooming around Karnal the following morning, we explored a practically derelict Catholic Church, situated just next to the GTR. Its state of disrepair, along with tombstones marking the burial of British generals I had read about throughout the nineteenth century, led me to conclude that, like much along the road, this too was a frozen snapshot of history, but further investigation of a slightly better kept neighbouring graveyard showed in fact that a small Christian community continues to worship and commemorate their dead on this site, well over two centuries after the church was first built.
After this, we met up with Karan’s cycling club, posing for photos and meeting a dancing troupe whose performance had just concluded the weekly town sports fair. A couple of days later, I was pretty chuffed to hear our photo had made the local newspaper, although what the accompanying Hindi text says about me I can only speculate. It might well mention the accompaniment of a fairly ripe odour emanating from my cycling kit, which after only 2 weeks in a pannier bag was not faring well.
On to Panipat, and if this section feels fairly stop-go from city to city, I had only the Jat agitations to blame, as I looked to keep moving in order to get to Delhi quickly. Panipat has a reasonable claim to being one of the most significant sites in north Indian history, but the weary tourist signs and even less informative locals would give no indication if its former importance. Instead, it was left to my South Indian host, Ashwin, to show me around. He too was somewhat hesitant about Panipat’s past (although surely the city expert when it came to the delicious Keralan food he served up, which features 3 of the most pivotal battles in India’s turbulent history, leading to the eventual establishment of Mughal rule, which invites the question of querying Indians’ ambivalence towards their glorious history. If the Colonial period is more understandably avoided as a dinner table topic, I do still wonder why more is not made of places like Panipat, without which it is absolutely impossible to fully appreciate more established sites like the Taj Mahal. If I was the boss, Panipat, Kurukshetra and other essentially anonymous places would get one hell of a funding boost. Only then can proper sense be made of the rise and fall of such great Indian Empires.
By now, the data networks had been cut by the local police in a cautious preventative measure to restrict the Jat agitations, and even local advice now tallied with the voices from Delhi. Although there was no immediate threat (army vans infrequently populated toll booth plazas on the GTR), a train to Delhi for the remaining 80km was the only viable option. Somewhat disappointed, this frustration was only magnified as I did battle once again with the train station officials, explaining the need for my bicycle to end up in the same place as me, ideally on the same day, and even better, in working order. Ashwin’s invaluable help again enabled me to navigate the absolutely ludicrous levels of bureaucracy and I set off for a sweltering Delhi.
On the three previous short stays in Delhi, I won’t pretend I’ve enjoyed it too much. Fascinating, but a difficult city to love. This began to change almost immediately this time. Cycling out over the Yamuna to Noida, I stayed with Akash and Danny – cycling nutters and just more generally crazy. Akash and his family are Jain, so insist on not harming any living organism and are therefore strict vegans. Danny and his family live downstairs, and are 5th generation Anglo-Indians, so I can pop down there for my meat fix! Do check out Know Your Bicycle on Facebook and YouTube, an awesome new initiative designed to educate people about the world of cycling, and to inspire! Being in Delhi has also been great because I’ve been able to catch up with Save A Child’s tour de force, Louise Nicholson, who has been vital in getting my expedition planning going. Our catch-up took place over breakfast in the most salubrious hotel I’ve ever been allowed into, despite my ragged appearance after a lengthy spell on the bike, and I am pleased to announce I demolished my record for a breakfast buffet, quite easily surpassing 5 main courses with eggs had 4 ways. I’m now waddling around Delhi burning it off before heading to a big hockey match here in Connaught Place this evening!
Thank you for making it this far, after a marathon post. Please do let me know if you’d prefer a Little And Often approach rather than this weekly dump of words, and I’ll see what I can do with the patchy wifi on the route! And please do follow the blog by clicking the link on the website so as not to miss my updates, and share it with your friends. I would love to pass the £1000 mark before Agra at the end of the week, with all going to the amazing cause that is Save A Child!