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Faith, freedom and India

A honeymoon-fail results in a reaffirming road trip through India, experiencing its many faiths

No matter how busy, the Golden Temple in Amritsar always wears an air of tranquillity. Photo: iStockphoto.
No matter how busy, the Golden Temple in Amritsar always wears an air of tranquillity. Photo: iStockphoto.

It was a dark and depressing December in Sweden, as usual. I looked out of the ceiling-high windows of Copenhagen airport to the tarmac, where planes that had queued up took off rapidly. Soon I would be boarding a flight to India, where my girlfriend of four years and I, both in our late 20s, were getting married. We had taken more than a month off, and I was looking forward to soaking in the warmth of Florida once the wedding was over.

Two days later, in India, my carefully laid plans came apart. I was unceremoniously denied a visa to the US. Vacant days stared back at me.

We got married; it was a casual, unassuming affair. The next few days disappeared in unravelling the web of new relationships. The possibility of a holiday seemed to be fast disappearing in the face of the ever-increasing number of engagements newly-weds are called for. Noting the absent look that crept into my eyes, my wife realized she would have to plan an escape for me. We stayed up late that night, looking for tickets and hotel bookings. But holiday season was on, and everything was expensive. Finally, I suggested we drive around for a month without any plans. My wife surprised me by agreeing instantly.

Next morning, we were on the road in my black sedan, which I had bought four years ago when we lived in India, to impress the girl sitting beside me. Leaving Gurugram’s chaos behind, I felt relief at finally being on the road and joy at being able to do that with the woman who was now my wife.

Three days later, having driven through Ludhiana and Jalandhar, we rolled into Jammu. We had headed to Jammu and Kashmir driven by a desire to see the beautiful valley carpeted in snow. But unexpectedly heavy snowfall had blocked the roads, truncating our journey in Jammu.

“Mata’s invitation is always unexpected," the receptionist at the hotel in Jammu said. At first, we couldn’t decode what he meant. Then we noted the busloads of visitors departing for Katra, a town 48km away that is the base for pilgrimages to Vaishno Devi. Neither of us is overtly religious, we even solemnized our marriage in a court, but we decided to act upon his suggestion. If nothing else, it would be a good hike.

Devotees on their way to Vaishno Devi. Photo: Reuters.

And so, the fourth day of our trip found us on the three-peaked Trikuta hill, walking for hours up an unrelenting incline. Despite the hard hike and the winter chill, the crowd around us was cheering loudly, shouting out its conviction in the deity settled in a cave at the hilltop. The cries of Jai Mata di were both an articulation of fervour and a mantra that kept them going. We roared along and climbed one step after another, hand-in-hand.

Finally, we entered the cave with folded hands and joined the queue, shuffling ahead in little steps. The crowd moved unhurriedly through the 100ft-long cave, but it was surprisingly airy and I didn’t feel claustrophobic. It took us half an hour to reach the main shrine where natural rock structures, called pindis, represent the goddesses Saraswati, Kali and Lakshmi. It was late afternoon by the time we emerged from the cave. We returned to town unhurriedly. We had no other place to go to, and nothing to rush us except the temptation of a hot cup of tea. Even going back to the bare room in Katra where we had reluctantly stayed the night before didn’t seem so terrible as we nuzzled close and walked.

Three days and 200km of driving later, it was still early morning when we walked through the streets of Amritsar to the Golden Temple. The bustle of the shops in the narrow lanes was yet to begin. The golden dome of Sri Harmandir Sahib glittered in the still-weak morning sun. The comforting notes of a solitary harmonium and the muffled shuffling of bare feet were the only sounds.

We sat for hours on the banks of the Amrit Sarovar, the water body that surrounds the temple, watching the activity around us. There were people of all faiths there, performing seva (selfless service). Some carried buckets of water to the community kitchen, some were scrubbing the floor, others were lost in meditation. Despite the horrific bloodshed the Golden Temple had once witnessed, it resolutely remains a secular place. We walked around, feeling the chill of the still cold marble floor through our bare feet. Words were not needed: We could both feel the tranquillity, infused with the soft notes of the Sikh prayer, ardās.

These spontaneous experiences affected us deeply, fostering a feeling of togetherness. Two weeks later, in crowded and dusty Ajmer, when my wife wanted to go to the Dargah Sharif, I went along more willingly than I would have usually. We walked with the crowd through curving slender streets, separating into two streams for men and women as we reached the dargah. Copper-green paint chipped off the walls and the marble floor was slippery. We walked cautiously and slowly, just as we had at Vaishno Devi. The air inside smelt of frankincense and flowers, and the more than 700-year-old structure reverberated with whispered prayers.

The simplicity of the place overwhelmed me. I sat in a corner as waves of people walked past me. Some stepped on my toes. I didn’t mind. They looked down apologetically. I smiled back. The place swirled around me, making me feel meditative.

We continued driving across Rajasthan, stopping wherever we wished—in small towns and big cities, staying in havelis and guest houses. We had been on the road for nearly a month when we drove into Mount Abu. The hill town was barren in winter and we felt we had the place to ourselves. We walked its streets in carefree abandon, savouring the last days of our vacation.

One morning, we drove to the Dilwara temples just outside town. Carved entirely out of marble, these 11th century Jain temples appear on the horizon in a swathe of white. We walked inside, tracing the fine engraving on the pillars with our fingertips, letting the architecture decide our path. We lost each other and found ourselves again at another turn. Sitting on the cool marble steps, recapping our journey, we realized that we had collected a lot during the month on the road: memories from the luxurious havelis we had stayed in, chance encounters with people who had treated us well, sights we had never seen before. We had driven for long distances in our darling car, filling the time by making plans for the life ahead. We were struck most by the golden thread that ran through our entire journey. A thread that wound through the shrine near Jammu to the gurdwara in Amritsar and the dargah in Ajmer. Pulling on that invisible thread, we had finally reached the Dilwara temples.

It was a strange honeymoon, but experiencing the different faiths had stirred us, made us value secularism and freedom. The whole journey required us to grow, to become more accepting of the differences around us. As the sun began to lose shape, we walked back to the car. And I savoured the thought that experiencing this diversity had cemented the foundation of my new relationship.

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