I liked Indian trains. Didn’t need First Class or Tourist Class or anything like that.
Second Class was fine.
I mean, Second Class Reserved.
But not Third Class Un – Reserved.
Here’s the deal for Third Class Unreserved: an unlimited number of tickets are sold. Once you have a ticket, you get on the train anyway you can. Your options are: being crammed inside a carriage like sardines in a tin or sitting on top of the roof or hanging off the side of the train along with hundreds of others.
Third Class Unreserved is for poor Indians (ie, the great majority of India’s billion people).
I got on that train because I didn’t have any choice. Like, none.
Located in the state of Gujarat in the west of India, Junagadh was a pilgrim town with a difference.
A few kilometres outside of town, on top of a high ridge, were famous temples.
But to reach the temples, the pilgrim had to climb stone steps: 10, 000 of them.
That was a lot of steps.
I didn’t have a problem with the idea of ascending all those steps. A pilgrimage, as far as I was concerned, wasn’t meant to be easy. My conviction on this point emerged after previous visits to the famous pilgrim towns on the coast of Gujarat: Dwarka and Somnath.
In Dwarka and Somnath there were temples which were famous all over India and which every year were visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims – and their number was increasing rapidly. It was in these sacred towns that I got to see the contemporary Hindu pilgrimage industry first hand. The pilgrims came in luxury coaches or cars, stayed in luxury hotels, dined out and bought souvenirs – and in between visited the temples. They were a part of a corporate pilgrimage industry.
Vendors did a brisk trade selling trinkets and souvenirs and in the temples, the priests had thoughtfully installed ATM’s to facilitate the donation cash flow. The spirit of consumerism had scored a complete triumph in India – supposedly a ‘spiritual’ land.
At the outskirts of Dwarka and Somnath, armies of peons worked like ants to build new luxury hotels and kitsch parks full of statues, avenues, ponds, swings and rides.
The Holy Site converted into a theme park.
In the past, pilgrims who went to sacred towns like Dwarka and Somnath had to endure great hardships to get there. More than a few of them would have perished on the way.
Of course, climbing ten thousand steps wasn’t the same as experiencing the ancient pilgrim’s uncertain, primordial world, but it did at least put more emphasis on the notion of the pilgrimage involving physical effort; of the means of getting to the end destination being at least as important as the end destination itself……..
It must have been during the early 1990´s. I´m not sure.
In any case, it´s still stuck in my mind after so many years, that night on the rooftop of a sleazy budget hotel in Old Delhi.
Anya and I were sitting on fold up aluminium chairs taking in the view and what a view it was: a panorama of dilapidated buildings of every size and shape interspersed with ghostly partially illuminated streets. From below came the noise of milling crowds this at a time when there were people on the streets of India, along with holy cows, oxen drawn carts and bicycles. A far cry from today with its seething masses of cars plus the world’s worst air pollution.
Standing on top of that hotel today you’d be lucky to see anything.
We had arrived late that afternoon after a long bus journey from the Indian Himalayas and on the following morning were flying to Amsterdam.
He suddenly appeared on the rooftop, grabbed a chair, and came over and sat next to us uninvited, and began talking. We weren’t really in the mood for socializing. All we wanted to do was take in one last glimpse of India.
He was a young Nepalese man who had just flown into New Delhi from Munich, Germany and on the following day was getting on a bus to Kathmandu. He had a story to tell and he had to unburden himself and he didn’t mind who he told it to. We never even got as far as exchanging names…….