With a fairly early departure from Palampur, we had a few visits along the way - a great way to break up and enhance the lengthy, slow taxi rides. The average speeds were bout 25-30kmph in the north on the mountain roads. This, together with the twisting and turning combined too with a lot of bumping around on the sections of road that are either unfinished or damaged by landslides in the monsoon season, meant that no reading could be done in transit.
Jawalaji Temple was our first stop. First off, I was in the middle of what can only be described as the mother of all colds. It had been settling into my head from the time we left Dharamsala, but I had put it down to a reaction to the dust and altitude. The Treasurer (Sarah) and I discussed just ditching the stops and taking the 5-hour journey in one hit and going straight to bed but we had been told about the Jawala Ji temples and Chintpurni a few times as they were both important holy places and well worth visiting. They must have been pretty popular as the taxi driver knew exactly where they were - we had become rather sceptical when told ‘I know this place’.
I was very pleased we decided to visit them. It was a hot day and the climb and steps to the temple where steep but it was worth it for the view. The famous natural flame which is caused by burning natural gas from underground and that sits just above the water in the temple is given holy significance by the Hindus. We didn’t queue up to go into the temple - an ordeal only really for Hindus or the most die-hard tourist happy to be shoved and pushed about for an extended period of time (as I’ll explain later). Plenty can be found online that shows the very small flames inside the shrine.
As with many religions, many shop-keepers use the believers’ passion to flog many things on the approach to the temple. This can become tiresome but we had got used to it by the time we visited here but frequent ‘no thank yous’ to the shopkeepers, sometimes requiring about 5 repetitions, usually gets you through unscathed. This was the first place we noticed many men, dressed in orange (as holy men) offering blessings on the way up to the temple but the same men beg on the way back. It was not until we got to Varanasi that we learned what a common trick this is for unsuspecting tourists to think they are getting a ‘blessing’.
Chintpurni Temple was another Hindu temple and again, situated up a bare foot climb (we had to drop our shoes a the bottom) among crowded shops with people trying to encourage you to head in and buy some offerings for the ‘end of the line’. In this case, the end of the line was shrine beneath a large tree at the end of a huge, cramped, hot and uncomfortable queue. It had not been our intention to queue up for the shrine but we were handed tickets by a guard at the gates and before we knew it, there were about 40 people behind us, pushing up the flight of stairs. Whether we wanted to or not, a bit like Pooh Bear in his hole, we were stuck.
I am no good in confined crowds. The kettling was such that Sarah and I couldn’t stay together as I had hoped as in situations like that, she is a very calming influence on me. I also had a boy of about 10 kicking my achilles tendons in a effort to inch closer to the entrance and another man, of about 40, desperate for a selfie with me. Like in Amritsar, for some reason, we’re targets for friendly indians who want to have a photo with us - we still aren’t sure why. I had spotted this man at the other side of the stairs - you know, that uncomfortable eye contact, like noticing a friend from a while away when you’ve arranged to meet somewhere and not knowing quite what to do with yourself while they walk their remaining 30 metres or so to get to you. Anyway, this guy pushed and shoved his way over when there was still room and no railing to prevent him from getting to me. I must have shaken his hand about 15 times by the time we got to the front. Signs said photos weren’t allowed (largely ignored based on all the smartphones in the air) but I was behaving and the cameras were safely in my bag.
As we made it to the front, there was a large bell. As each person made it into the main area, this would be rung, once by some but about 7 or 8 times by others and with varying ferocity. It just so happened that as I was standing just below it, a very passionate man decided to belt it with all his might about 10 times. To say it was loud was an understatement!
Once at the shrine, I wasn’t allowed to leave without giving an offering. Now this is somewhere where I am afraid my opinion may differ from others and I want to make it clear that, for me, this applies to them all. Religion is a choice. I have chosen not to follow one as I have more interest in the actual and tangible universe and that which can be rationally proved or explained. I am of the opinion that to be forced to make a donation goes against the entire point of freedom of belief. This irritated me. Not only because on principle, I think any offering or donation should be a matter of choice but also because as many of you may know, I am not trusted with money in our marriage and The Treasurer had already made it through bowing to the compulsory donation and I was stuck, with just my cameras and no money, next to a gun-wearing guard with a big stick in my way calling for my Wife to ‘settle a bill’.
Being ill is likely to have had a negative impact on my state of mind but in hands sight, while I am unlikely to queue again for a shrine, I am pleased that we made the stops along the way.
I don’t have much to say about the hotel here apart from that fact that is was excellent, a little tired in places but the bed was comfortable - something Sarah was happy with as she had inherited my cold and was now resting to get over it, accompanied by Carl Pilkington’s An Idiot Abroad, leaving me to wonder about photographing the hotel.
About 5 minutes on foot from the hotel was a marvellous small heritage village. Just as I arrived, Mr Kapoor was walking up the street and kindly introduced himself and let me take his portrait. He was 90 and proudly told me he was the oldest and only registered tour guide for the Paragpur heritage village.
It was a beautiful and colourful, and the people were so friendly, it was a fantastic opportunity to quietly photograph the surrounding area while Sarah was recovering.
The locals were some of the friendliest people I have ever encountered. Happy, when asked for photos and once I had shot a few, they were practically queueing up and finding their friends to get in on it! Even when I hadn’t asked (like the card game), once shown, they were only too happy to have been in them.
As the light failed, I carried on until it was too dark to continue (and I was getting hungry). I shot a few more frames before returning to the hotel to check on The Patient and tuck into another great meal.
The following morning, we had a chat with some of our fellow guests (also from the UK) and embarked on yet another lengthy taxi ride!