False Dichotomies

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Bam Bam Bholi (1)

“Bam bam?” asks the man at Srinagar’s Tourist Reception Centre. “Bholi!” I reply, for the third time. All I want is my permit for the 2011 Amarnath Cave Yatra, but he is more interested in making sure that I say the right words once I get there.  Said to be over 5,000 years old, the Amarnath Cave is dedicated to Lord Shiva, and contains an ice stalagmite which is said to resemble the Shiva Linga. According to Hindu mythology, the Amarnath Cave, which sits at an altitude of 12,756 feet, is where Shiva explained the secret of the universe to Parvati.

I warmed up for the yatra by walking from Pahalgam to Chandanwari, one of the two starting points for the yatra. But there is no karmic benefit to be drawn from walking this stretch, which is why on Friday morning I was the only person to be seen doing the sixteen kilometers on foot. It took me three and a half hours, meaning I was in Chandanwari by two in the afternoon.

Imagine Glastonbury with everything but the live music, but held in the Himalayas for a month and a half, and you should have some sense of the Amarnath Yatra’s scale At Chandanwari, a tented town had sprung up, with food, shops, and tents to sleep in. But I wanted to plug straight on to Sheshnag, another twelve kilometers up the mountain. Unfortunately, in a premonition of what was to come, the route was closed for the day, forcing me to slither off down the hill to find a tent. Read more

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First Date

I was told by a Kashmiri friend to exercise caution in Srinagar. “You’re from London,” he told me. “Not Israel.” I was disappointed. Despite the ongoing conflict with India, Kashmir  has always had a reputation as a tolerant place. True, there have been atrocities, some of which have been targeted at foreign tourists, but my understanding has always been that these were perpetrated by non-Kashmiris. In any case, since arriving I’ve exercised caution, judging each situation on its own merits, saying Israel where possible, and London when wanting to play it safe.

As I walked around the grounds of the magnificent Jamia Masjid, built in 1400 years ago by Sultan Sikandar, I was approached by a thin old man in a black sherwani. He asked me where I was from. I said London, to which he responded that he had an uncle in Manchester, before inviting me over to his house to talk some more. I politely took his number, but I didn’t give him mine, sensing that there was something not quite right about him.

As I crossed to the grass quad, a serious-looking young man in a white shirt came up to me, his head down and his voice muffled.”Don’t listen to him,” he said. “He’s a psycho.” He then invited me to sit with two of his friends. Each of them were students in their early twenties: Abdul, Rahman, and Showkat (I have changed their names). Showkat, the only one wearing traditional clothes, was their unofficial spokesman. “Where are you from?” he asked. “London,” I replied, without hesitation. Read more

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The Return

Second time’s a charm, huh? But travelers speak like sexual predators, always concerned with finding new places “to do”, and return is viewed with suspicion. After all, life is short, and we are constantly exhorted to look to the future. Why would we go back to somewhere we have already been?

I am back in India, three years after my last visit. That first journey, narrated at wanderingsatlan.com, as a three month post-army whirlwind during the monsoon months, through that most difficult of jump-of points, north India. Now I’m back. Back in the apocalyptic summer heat of Delhi, back at the Golden Temple, and back on the Jammu-Srinagar road, where a driver must go about his business with the same intensity as a formula one driver, despite the narrow bends and the vertical drops. And right now I’m back on the stoop of a Dal Lake houseboat, in Srinagar, the capital of arguably India’s most troubled state (and arguably not even India’s at all), Kashmir. Read more

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What India can Teach Israel

“What Israel lacks, though, is a robust culture of pluralism, and it is this that India has in abundance. During my first visit to India, in the summer of 2008, I was struck by the country’s religious diversity. I hiked with Sikhs to the pilgrimage site of Hemkund, sat with Muslims at the 13th century Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya’s shrine in Delhi, and walked with Hindus through the famous temple town of Khajuraho. This diversity characterises the entire country, whether it be the language, the food or the literature. Even though the majority of Indians are Hindus, the way each group practices their religion is remarkably diverse and pluralistic – and all this in a country with a robustly secular constitution.” Read the rest over at Common Ground News Service

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