The Deccan plains (part 2) & Nanded

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The last posting (rather like all the others), tuned into a bit of a gigantasaurous, so I split it in two – here is the second part.

Nightmare to Nanded:
I reached Hampi train station sans ticket. A random friendly guy on the platform told me that this would not be a problem, all I needed to do was purchase a ‘general class ticket’ – so I did. After buying the ticket, he then proceeded to provide a vivid description of what general class was, which included exceptionally cramped conditions (likely squatting on the floor, so standing room only), shared with various animals and farm produce!

My original journey was scheduled to take 18 hours plus, but now as a direct result of the douff nut travel agents f*** up, it was now likely to take at least 28 hours! But that wasn’t the half of it. A statue of a venerated (long dead) defender of low castes had been desecrated a couple of days earlier, and there were riots all over Maharashtra state. I was going to Nanded, where unfortunately one person was killed, and the police had instigated a curfew. My train was scheduled to arrive at 23:30, that meant I would likely be holed up at the station till sunrise (7-8 hours later), taking my total journey time to a whopping 35 hours!

At this point any sane person would have thrown in the towel. When things get this hard, it’s usually easier to go around than bulldoze through. But I had made a promise (to my mum) to visit a venerated Gurdwara in Nanded called Hazoor Sahib. And I didn’t want to disappoint her, or incur the wrath of God because it was ‘too hard’!

When the train came I avoided the general class carriage and bounded onto one of the second class coaches, hoping the ticket collector would take pity on me as a dumb foreigner and just charge me the difference, and hey presto that’s exactly what happened. I sat next to a husband and wife travelling home with their two kids from a day out to visit friends. I sat and chatted with the couple for ages. They were like an Indian version of Homer Simpsons neighbours the Flanders! There is something incredibly innocent (perhaps even naive) about some Indians I had met so far on my journey. Like the hardness of life hadn’t quite touched their souls. I don’t know whether this is because life hadn’t been too hard (which I doubt) or whether there was some secret to the way they live their lives which allowed them to remain untouched. Perhaps they have an incredible support network which keeps them so seemingly carefree, trusting and confident in the future? Perhaps there is something in Indian society and values in general? It’s not something that has necessarily travelled with non-resident Indians in the west. This was something I pondered a great deal about on the long journey ahead.

At 23:30 the train pulled up at Guntakal station, I had a 5.5hr wait till my train to Nanded. For me, waiting for a train or plane connection is one of the most unpleasant things to do when travelling. And this place was no less of a hell than I expected. I found a seat (near the toilets) in the waiting room. And apart from the aroma of rotten eggs and wee which drifted my way on the occasional breeze, I had to suffer the incessant guttural hawking and spitting of men at the wash basin, and full volume station announcements repeated three times in three languages! I tried to sleep and managed to snooze a little, but it really was horrible. As it drew nearer to my departure time, I couldn’t figure out why the train hadn’t arrived, a chat with the station manager cleared up the problem, I was on the wrong platform (lesson: don’t trust Indian train signs!), and I rushed to the train two platforms away with moments to spare.

I got onto my (freezing) a/c carriage, and found my seat/bed, and settled down for a well deserved sleep. I thought I’d better put my ticket in my pocket to display to the ticket collector. And then gasped in horror as I checked my ticket and found that I was a day late for this train! Although I had left the day before (the 03/12/06), the 5.5 hr train wait at Guntakal had meant it was now 04/12/06, and I was 24 hours late! Well I can tell you I was pretty f***’ed off at that point, and was wondering what I had done to deserve this. I had visions of being booted off the train and being stranded in the middle of nowhere. I knew this train was booked out so I was basically in someones seat. And in that very moment I chose to let it go. There was nothing I could do to change anything, there was nothing I could achieve by panicking or worrying, so I chose to ‘try’ to forget it and see what would happen, when it actually happened.

After about 15 minutes, a ticket inspector arrived, all blazered and badged. I thought of weaving a story of woe, but instead gave him my ticket with down trodden resignation, and weary eyes. Then something amazing happened, he looked at my ticket, then at the passenger list on his clipboard, and back again, then looked at me, thrust the ticket back in my hand and walked away! I couldn’t believe it. I’m not sure if it was because the ticket was so bedraggled that he couldn’t read the details properly, or he got confused, or even just couldn’t be bothered. Either way he seemed to be content, and I had got away with it! I sincerley believe that this happened because I let it go before hand. Once you let go of something you really want, or really want to avoid, and just trust that things will work out, for some reason things get easier, and it actually works out for the best.

At this point I’d been awake for so long there was no chance of sleep, and by now I was hungry and thirsty. We stopped at station after station, at least 2-3 each hour, but not one had any food or bottled water. I didn’t get it, maybe it was because of the riots? On my two previous train journeys you had to practically beat off the people trying to sell you food and drink. Here, not a gram of food nor a drop of water on the platform or the train. 24 hours without food, water or sleep, and having suffered numerous panic stricken moments I was feeling absolutely rotten. There was only one other guy in my carriage (all the other noisy buggers having got off earlier), and although he had been studiously ignoring me the whole journey, I thought I would ask where I could get some food. He was called Sandeep (not a bad name!), and proceeded to tell me that this was notorious for being the worst train journey in India – and everyone bought there own food and drink so no one bothered to sell any on the platforms! Sandeep could see I was starving and offered me food and drink. Normally I would graciously decline, but in this case my hunger was too strong. He went out of his way to make me feel comfortable, even phoning his cousin to find out the current curfew situation in Nanded, and giving me detailed instructions as to what to do and where to go when I arrived at the station.

This was another example of an incredibly kind and humble Indian who had offered to help on my journey, with pure generosity of spirit. Something I doubt happens very often on the tube in London.

24 hours after leaving Hampi, I arrived in Nanded. The curfew was still on, but it had been relaxed enough to allow a poor weary western traveller to take an auto-rickshaw to the Gurdwara’s residence. We put-putted through the deserted city, twisting and turning through dusty lanes lit by eerie white phosphor. The Gurdwara had rooms for pilgrims to stay, and I went through the scrupulous check-in procedures with a surly guy. I called my mum to get instructions as to what to do for the next day, then hit the sack, sleeping a lacklustre dreamless sleep.

Hazoor Sahib Gurdwara (Nanded):
In the morning I ventured out of the residence and walked the 3 minutes to the temple itself. It was much smaller than I had envisioned, having pictured something akin to the Golden temple, I was a little disappointed. It shone bright white as the morning sun reflected off the carrera marble. Volunteers quietly swept the entrance, and washed the marble steps with cool clean water. I walked up, head covered, paying my respects by bowing and offering a small donation to the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh holy book). Here is some more info if you’re interested in Sikhism. I then wandered round the main building admiring the inlaid designs in the stonework, and architecture of the building. Inside the Gurdwara was a beautiful glass, gold and tiled mosaic ceiling, and in the centre was a large sealed room with four (closed) carved doors covered in gold leaf.

Hazoor Sahib Gurdwara

It was nice to be around Sikhs, there is some comfort in seeing other Sikhs when you’re away from home. But here, no one really seemed that friendly, not that they were hostile, just not too warm. I suppose this is because it’s such a busy place and as most Sikhs in India have long hair and turbans I suspect they didn’t recognise me as one, or recognised me and thought of me as a traitor!

I had quite a bit of cash (relative to most Indians) to donate, so I headed to the donations counter. It’s clearly big business here and there were three large signs with suggested donations for various blessings, and six counters. I chose an Akhand Paht (three day prayer) for my family, and an Ardas (a general blessing performed by a Giani). With the remaining money I paid for the up keep of the Nishaan Sahib (the Sikh flag at the temple), as well as for one days Langar (free food) for all visitors.

Next to the Gurdwara was a small building, with a brief history of Sikhism (in pictures)! It covered the major points of reference, tragedies and areas of pride. It wasn’t very detailed and was inevitably a little skewed, but I did feel rather proud at that moment. From the onset, Sikhism was quite radical, promoting equality between men and women, a direct connection to god (no priests), a good honest life, and eschewing aestheticism and extravagance for the middle path.

The brief history covered the spirituality of Sikhisms early years and tragic episodes in the later years (primarily persecution, massacre and martyrdom, under the Moguls). But it also covered points of chivalry, honour and incidents of helping others such as the ‘coming to the rescue’ of 2,000 Hindu girls and women who were spoils of war. They didn’t need to do anything, but on hearing of it they set off and defeated the Mogul army freeing the women, and taking them home. Ah, it brings a warm glow to the cockles.

From about 16:00-19:00 I stayed in the main section of the temple, sitting, watching, and listening to the prayers and devotional songs. Not understanding a word tends to give one an aura of deep contemplation and concentration to others, so hopefully I blended in quite well.

For such an important temple it was tiny. Barely able to hold more than a hundred people. But, this being India, it stretched to a couple of hundred at the end of the day, and I started to find it claustrophobic and hard to breathe in the crush. There were fierce looking Gianis urging people to keep moving. When a guy with angry eyes and a big ass sword tells you to move on, people tend to listen. That is except some of the women who just ignored them.

It was all getting a bit aggressive, and I started to tire of the general atmosphere. It was one part awe, one part (overcooked) piousness, one part pleading mania, and one part righteousness. Not at all the peaceful, contemplative and holy experience I’d envisaged. There was a bit of a weird ceremonial moment towards the end which I felt a little uncomfortable with, where they displayed objects owned by various religious and historical figures. I felt people were forgetting the ‘true’ spirit of Sikhism as espoused by Guru Nanak, but perhaps I was just born 600 years too late, on the wrong continent, with not enough religious education.

I left to visit the Langar, the area where free food is served to call comers. Again I felt a sense of pride, more than 50% of the people there were clearly not Sikh, and included large numbers of ‘poor’ or people in need, as well as visiting Hindus and others. This helping the needy, coupled with the fact that everyone cooking, serving or cleaning were all volunteers showed what good can be done by making service to others a central philosophical pillar in ones life.

I left at about 20:00, and took a long circuitous route back to the ‘pilgrims’ residence. The roads leading up to the temple were chock full of stalls and shops. Many selling religious artifacts; paintings, books, karas, and incredible swords and kirpans. But away from the temple the roads were in incredibly poor condition, and there were ‘sad asses’ everywhere. To clarify, I don’t think there are sorrier creatures on earth than donkeys, they looked utterly miserable. I quickly tired of wandering and headed off for another night of dreamless sleep.

Well, that’s it for now. Stay tuned for the next episode of Sundeep’s India, when I update you on my travels to Aurangabad and Mumbai!

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