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The Queen rules the Commonwealth!

L.K. Sharma
24-04-2018

23 April 2018

Many epithets have been used to run down the Commonwealth. The London summit may even be called the Commonwealth Games II…

Queen Elizabeth II hosts a dinner at Buckingham Palace in London during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. April 19, 2018. Toby Melville/Press Association. All rights reserved.

It was a grand family reunion. The head of the family opened her magnificent home for the members coming from all over the world. She won them over by a charming smile and the display of her wealth. Her wish became her command.

The Queen and her Government, suspicious of revolutionary fervour, easily convinced the diverse family members that continuity and stability were more desirable. With great foresight, the Queen intervened politically to suggest her successor, since the office of the Head of the Commonwealth is not hereditary. The member-nations readily accepted the suggestion. So, it was formally announced that when the time comes, Prince Charles will be the Head of the Commonwealth. The decision was an excellent gift to the Queen on the eve of her 92nd birthday.

The Queen, as the Head of the Commonwealth, and her Government that hosted the London summit, felt victorious. The endorsement by 52 other countries should discourage the minority of Britons who keep talking against the monarchy.

The endorsement by 52 other countries should discourage the minority of Britons who keep talking against the monarchy.

This summit was to have “transformed” the Commonwealth, a voluntary inter-governmental organisation of Britain’s former colonies. There was much talk of its being reimagined, renewed and revitalised. It was to have been modernised. That was what its supporters and critics had hoped. The intense involvement of the royals has thus come in for some criticism.

The decision to have the Prince of Wales as the next Head of the Commonwealth was variously attributed to “strong consensus” and “unanimity”. The pro-democracy activists would like to know the process through which this consensus was secured. The dark secret may be revealed when a retired head of the state writes his memoires.

A British correspondent asked at the press conference whether it was democratic that an unelected leader selected another unelected person to succeed her in the Commonwealth office. A Head of the State did not respond to this question.  

There were hostile comments from ordinary people including a member of the Indian Diaspora. Some said Prince Charles was not fit for the job. Some criticised royal nepotism. Some felt offended. Some saw a trace of racism and gender inequality because the Prince is a white male. One saw it as a hideous and laughable reminder of the Empire.

But that was not what the leaders had felt. They were not sensitive about the royal relationship. The “royal show”, as it was planned, did not remind them of the Durbar. The leaders quite liked being in Buckingham Palace and in Windsor Castle. It was a great photo opportunity, and some clicked away their mobile phone cameras. The constituents back home will be impressed that their leader shook hands with the Queen!

Of course, how could they defy the head of the family. Family values are deeply ingrained in societies in which the young ones respect the head. And the Queen is quite a sweet old lady. Only a British author would move her from her palace to a bed-sit.

So, the Queen ruled the Commonwealth Summit!

And the Queen is quite a sweet old lady.

Money well spent

It was a big diplomatic victory for the British Government that had discreetly lobbied for such future transition. The Prince of Wales readily recalled his association with the institution from his childhood. The Government that ran a huge bill on hosting the Summit saw it as money well spent.

The Commonwealth is no longer called the British Commonwealth but then what is in a name? Call it just “Commonwealth” but even decades later, as the London summit proved, it still smells like the British Commonwealth!

A vociferous section of commentators in Britain minds it. The tiny group of the Republicans minds it. But the member states themselves don’t mind it. Not even the leader of the largest member-nation who rails against dynasties. The British shahzada was acceptable to all!

Those ideologically opposed to the monarchy and dynasties do not see the other side of the coin. Most feudal societies do not care for their advocacy of elections for every office. And at times, elections cause a lot of trouble and instability!

The pragmatists recognise that during her long reign, the Queen has provided the glue that has kept this unique family of diverse nations together. She sided with the wishes of the majority in the family when a dominant member such as her own Government went against it, as happened during South Africa’s struggle against apartheid.

There have been many suggestions from British Labour leaders and others about having an elected Head of the Commonwealth. Considering the political confrontation going on in some of the democracies and semi-dictatorial regimes in the Commonwealth, a decision for having an elected Head could open a can of worms. Headship by rotation! Some wonder: when will the nation whose name begins with ‘Z’ assume office?

And what happens when an elected head of Government is thrown out of office in a mid-term election? So, howsoever outdated the concept of hereditary office in the context of the Commonwealth, no one has placed a better alternative on the table.

Civil society talk shows and other missed opportunities

Leaving the Queen’s role aside, some other steps could have been taken to modernise the Commonwealth and making it appear less tied to the royals and the British Government. In fact, in order to clinch the issue of succession, the Royals were made to play an even more dominant role this time. Most of its members of the royal family and their assets were deployed for impressing the guests from the former colonies. This had the desired effect. The Prime Ministers and Presidents walking on the endless stretch of the red carpet were overwhelmed by the images and statues.

The infrastructure for running the Commonwealth is largely British. The malady has been known for years. An old study had highlighted that the largest share of consultancy and aid programme contracts given out by the Commonwealth Secretariat were going to the British firms. There were case studies indicating how some projects in Africa had to be closed down because of the inappropriate technologies recommended or sold by British firms.

The sorting out of the succession issue may have ensured a measure of stability and continuity in future, but it distracted from whatever the London summit said to promote sustainable development, security and a clean environment.

The leaders’ meetings and the retreat were preceded by the civil society talk shows. The exchange of ideas among the activists belonging to the women, youth and human rights groups would have enriched the political perspective of any leader who could have spared any time to attend these meetings.

Moving tales were heard of discrimination and oppression and of suppression of the freedom of expression. A young successful woman politician lamented that she lost her first boy-friend and was having trouble with the second one because in her country it is believed that a woman cannot succeed in politics unless she has slept with a powerful leader!

While these fora were officially part of the summit, there was not much evidence in the official communique of any inputs received from these. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative or the Commonwealth Journalists Association, dealing with some of the burning issues today, have no reason to feel satisfied with the outcome of the summit.

The host Government, under domestic pressure to promote gay rights, felt afraid of displeasing the guests. So, The British Prime Minister had to remain satisfied by making a fleeting reference to this issue in her statement at the concluding press conference. She slipped in a comment about the use of nerve agent in the UK and the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

The summit highlighted the growing vulnerabilities caused by climate change and the rising sea levels. The issue concerns the Commonwealth even more since many of its member-nations are exposed to such natural calamities and being small states have no resources to deal with the tragedy. The summit sensitised the participating leaders to the pollution of the oceans by plastic. The issue was in the news because the host Government decided to do something about it like banning plastic straws.

The summit sensitised the participating leaders to the pollution of the oceans by plastic.

The leaders adopted a Commonwealth Blue Charter designed to cover one-third of the world’s national coastal waters and help sustain livelihoods and ecosystems globally. “They agreed on a bold, coordinated push to protect the ocean from the effects of climate change, pollution and over-fishing.”

Their communique inevitably covered cyber security, health and education and “Commonwealth values”.

Commonwealth values

The leaders expressed their concern over rising protectionism and reaffirmed their commitment to a transparent, rule-based multilateral system of free-trade. The issue of trade and investment was deliberated at length at the Business Forum. The leaders committed themselves to the vision of increasing intra-Commonwealth trade to 2 trillion US dollars by 2030 and expanding intra-Commonwealth investment.

Prince of Wales and Queen Elizabeth II greet Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Blue Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace. Matt Dunham/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Britain’s economic diplomacy in this context is under attack from two sides. The Europhiles say the Commonwealth will never make up the loss that Britain will suffer because of leaving the European Union. The Commonwealth supporters say Britain should stop looking at the member-nations just as trading partners! They want Britain to treat them as long-lost cousins who were betrayed when Britain joined the European Union.

This summit will be remembered most by the relief it brought to the Caribbean migrant families settled for decades in Britain who were facing the threat of deportation and some of whom had been deported as they could not prove their British citizenship. Known as the “Windrush generation” as their forefathers came by this ship to help a war-devastated Britain to rebuild itself.

The issue was taken up by the media and the opposition in a big way. Tragic stories of individual families were published and shown on the TV day after day. Migration is a sensitive subject in domestic politics: but despite that the newspapers and TV channels showed no bias in favour of the Government or waved the flag of nationalism. They all wanted to be “fair”.

The Prime Minister met the Caribbean leaders, offered apologies, promised immediate action and even agreed to the Labour Opposition’s demand for compensation to the families.

Since the issue had the potential to disrupt the Commonwealth event, the host Government went into fire-fighting mode to minimise the damage. The Prime Minister met the Caribbean leaders, offered apologies, promised immediate action and even agreed to the Labour Opposition’s demand for compensation to the families victimised by what was officially described as a “hostile immigration policy”. This lowered the anxiety of the concerned Commonwealth leaders and the summit was immunised against any ill-effect.

It was an unprecedented Commonwealth summit. It was the biggest such meeting. It got more than usual media coverage. Thanks to the distribution of Commonwealth information packs in schools, ignorance about this institution may reduce.

The summit was held amid extraordinary fanfare as well as trenchant criticism by the opinion-makers angered by the Brexit politicians flourishing the Commonwealth as a counter-veiling economic force to Europe! A book, launched to coincide with the summit queered the pitch. Ironically, it is written by the director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Philip Murphy. The book is called The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth.

A book, launched to coincide with the summit queered the pitch.

The summit turned him into a media star and he let out a flood of comments about the Commonwealth facing “an existential crisis”. Many epithets have been used to run down the Commonwealth. The London summit may even be called the Commonwealth Games II.

The London summit did push the organisation towards tradition, frustrating the endeavour to make it modern. The dream of reimagining the Commonwealth will remain a dream for some time.

About the author

L K Sharma has followed no profession other than journalism for more than four decades, covering criminals and prime ministers. Was the European Correspondent of The Times of India based in London for a decade. Reported for five years from Washington as the Foreign Editor of the Deccan Herald. Edited three volumes on innovations in India. He has completed a work of creative nonfiction on V. S. Naipaul.  

https://www.opendemocracy.net/openindia/l-k-sharma/queen-rules-commonwealth

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features

The Everest Experience

Sumeer Kalyani
05-03-2018

1. Introduction

If we’re talking in the traditional sense, I’m not an adventurer, a trekker or an adrenaline junkie.

But in my own personal and humble world that is my heart, soul and psyche, I am all of the above.

Taking out three weeks from my stable work and home life, to travel solo in a part of the world I know little about,  is something out of my comfort zone.

This really isn’t me.  Having said that, I’m already doing it, so I guess that’s the first thing I’ve already learned about myself.  I’m sure I’ll discover much more – about me and about the beautiful country and people I’m visiting too.

The decision to take three weeks out to travel in North India and Nepal is credited to my cousin, Vivek.  He sadly pulled out of the travel plan, but he left enough excitement and inspiration in me to forge ahead on my own.

So a few months on from sitting in front of a laptop screen and checking flights, here I am in the beautiful city of Shimla – a lush landscape high on the hills at over 6000 feet above sea level.  Tranquil, peaceful, no honking horns – everything I’ve so far haven’t imagined in India.

As I relax in my gorgeous Homestay, hosted by a local family, I have continued my recent pattern of ‘firsts’ – this time by writing a blog about my journey.

I’m hoping it’ll be a frequent account of what I’ve seen, experienced and observed.  I find that many things can be learned by simply being there to see, listen and talk.  They’re merely my own thoughts based on my personal travels.

But I do hope they might give any interested readers (I’m sure you’re out there!) with an entertaining and insightful journey that pretty much reflects my own.

So here’s to the start of what for me is a big adventure. With the excitement, fear and buzz it’s giving me all at the same time – I guess it’s also my own way of being an adrenaline junkie.

Here goes!

2. A STEP FORWARD BACK IN TIME

“You should go to see the museums today.” That was the suggestion of my Homestay hosts over a delicious breakfast of aloo (potato) parathas, yoghurt and fruit.

On the outside, my face showed signs of agreement at a wonderful idea. My mind, however, wasn’t in the least bit interested. As I took another (and this time a much bigger) bite of my paratha to avoid any awkwardness, I wondered why I’d want to go to stuffy museums when a) it’s gloriously hot; and b) I’m in the middle of natural scenic beauty.

The deal was pretty much sealed when the elderly father of my host decided he’ll accompany me. At this point I must say Mr. Sharda is an amazing man – a retired senior civil engineer hugely responsible for making Shimla more accessible for locals and tourists alike (I might even dedicate a blog chapter on him later on). But his austere way of living shows through in his friendly, helpful and humble manner. We get on very well with our chats on all things political, current affairs, history and sport. Mr Sharda is the sort of bloke you’d love to have a couple of pints with in a local pub (he’s so well respected that he’d know everyone there!). But sadly for me, he doesn’t drink. The pub is off the agenda.

So off we went (three parathas later!). First stop – Viceregal Lodge. Immediately I thought of it being a small house built by the Brits as part of its colonial empire. Some kind of administrative building I thought. What’s in a lodge, I asked myself.

We arrived some 20 minutes after setting off. It wasn’t a lodge. Or a house. It looked more like a palace. A huge building created 129 years ago to house the Viceroys of India during the summer months. It was from within these very walls that Britain ruled India for a few months each year.

This Lodge has seen several different Viceroys stay here and make key decisions about the governance, and later independence, of India.

As I walked through its immaculate gardens and through its grand hall and rooms decked with Burmese teak and Kashmiri Walnut, I could feel I was stepping into a small but significant chapter of Indian history. The same corridors once walked upon by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Lord Mountbatten and Sardar Patel. And now here’s little me walking that same floor.

That feeling of being in a place as awesome as this is simply a buzz. Even for those who aren’t historically-minded. It’s difficult to explain how emotionally amazing the visit was – but it’s fair to say I felt like a right plonker for even thinking twice about coming here. One nil to you, Mr Sharda.

The second half of the day was to include a visit to the Indian Army Museum. I wasn’t so bothered anymore and certainly wasn’t in any position to believe my own pre-conceived thoughts.

Even better that the musuem is free to all visitors and is run by the Army. So no worries here about security!

Walking through the informative exhibition, I could feel a sense of India’s military history and a sense of pride for my heritage here and my association with Britain.

I learned India’s military values stem from the ancient scriptures such as the Mahabharata, Gita and the military strategy book by Chanakya, Arthashastra, which pre-dates Machiavelli’s guide.

The museum highlights India’s military history and key moments in a brilliant way – with lots of artefacts, costumes and armoury to tell its stories. There’s so much about its role with Britain and how it has taken in many aspects of its former master’s military culture. I can now see and understand why people in India show so much respect and pride for their armed forces.

Having walked off my three aloo parathas in the space of a few hours, I felt like I’d been bathed in Indian history. Not the sort you’d see or read about in national museums or history books. It wasn’t forced down me – but it was a gentle invitation to glimpse into a part of India we so seldom hear about. And boy am I glad I accepted that invite. Two nil to Mr. S. Game over.

3. THE SHARDAS IN SHIMLA

It’s my last night in Shimla. An early morning journey awaits, as Ashok the cab driver picks me up at 6am. Yes, 6am – to head down and across to Rishikesh. You’ll learn more about Ashok in a later post – he’s been driving me around Shimla for the past three days. His English isn’t great and my Hindi is muddled.

The evening’s highlight is a traditional vegetarian meal with the Shardas, who have been tremendous hosts. As we sat on my terrace in the late afternoon sipping on masala tea (it’s a teetotal house, remember), Mr Sharda senior presented me with a souvenir mug on behalf of his family.

I have no idea how I’m going to fit it into my already-bulging suitcase and even if I did cram it in somewhere among the socks and shorts, I’m slightly sceptical of it returning to the UK in one piece.

But what I do know will remain intact is the memory of Shimla and with it, the Sharda household.

There’s a Sanskrit saying “Athiti Devo Bhava” which means “Guest is God.” Not literally, of course – or else I might have found myself being bathed in milk or sang to before a feast.

No, but for this family, like many Indian families here, treating a guest as no less than a God is the ultimate hospitality.

Nothing was ever a problem, and every moment spent with them has been met with a smile.

Mr Sharda’s son, Asheesh, took care of all logistics – taxi cabs, itineraries, food timings. His wife and mum were pretty much in charge of feeding me with the most amazing breakfasts and evening meals. Despite all the hill-walking and steep climbs, I fear those extra aloo parathas, a cheeky pakora and a few veggie patties have hampered my efforts on weight- watching (but certainly didn’t stop me, such is my willpower).

So you’ll remember me talking about Mr Sharda in my previous post. A short and slim man who reminded me of an elder uncle, he is a font of local knowledge and spent many moments talking with me about anything and everything.

He has this formality about him which is so quintessentially British in many ways – polite and well mannered and so eloquent in his speech. As he handed me the gift, he said, “We think of you as part of our family now.”

Great, I look forward to the family wedding invites and Diwali presents.

Overnight rains and thunderstorms (I kid you not, I’ve never seen such prolonged lightning strikes, heavy rain and thunderclaps – it was as if Heaven was having a party and as I wasn’t on the guest list, I could only watch from the outside.  So the morning plans to explore outside the city were suddenly looking bleak. But in true Shimla spirit –  and my jammy knack of getting things right in the end – the sightseeing was back on.  Hurrah!

Having spent some of the day on an old but well-maintained golf course once owned by a former Viceroy – and finally a much-craved pint of cold beer in its colonial bar – I arrived back ‘home’ and sat on the terrace with Sharda senior and junior.

They epitomise Indian hospitality in every sense. I’ve learned how people like the Shardas will go out of their way to make a total stranger feel welcome – almost to the point where you feel embarrassed but humbled. But it’s so welcome in a country where inconsiderate driving, pushing and shoving, spitting or showing little courtesy when driving is commonplace.

Whatever the Indian might be like out on the roads, once they welcome someone into their home or even their heart, there is nothing but respect, courtesy, care and kindness – way beyond our expectation.

Shimla is special. Way different to down-town India in terms of geography, culture and scenery. But it was made even more special because the Shardas took in a stranger travelling solo and turned the trip into what felt like a visit to see family.

To make another reference to alcohol (which I realise is beginning to become a common trend in my posts and so I will stress at this stage I’m not alcohol-dependent) I raise a toast to the Shardas for living by, and teaching me, the most ancient of Sanskrit values – Athiti Devo Bhava.

4. FAITH AND FILTH - RISHIKESH

It had all the makings of a road trip. Lads on tour. Me, Ashok (the cabbie from Shimla) and his younger brother who came along for the ride and to give Ashok company on his return journey.

After all, Shimla to Rishikesh is around an eight hour drive, inter-state. And with bends and curves that even Pamela Anderson would be proud of, having a second driver option after dark isn’t a bad idea.

For most of the journey, the younger sibling sat at the back suffering from motion sickness. We had to make a few stops along the way and he really wasn’t up to the banter.

So it was left to me and Ashok to prop up the road trip. Taking turns to plug in our phones to the sound system and chatting about what many guys talk about. Life, cricket, women, marriage and travel anecdotes. At 23, Ashok is full of life experiences. Already married with a young baby, he works 7 days a week during tourist season. Unlike many Indians, he’s punctual. He’s a good guy and I wish him all the very best for the future.

As we finally arrived into Rishikesh at 3pm, I was dropped off to my hostel. Ashok and I said our byes – we’d spent the best part of three days together in and around Shimla and he became a mate of sorts. So off he went and here I was – in one of India’s most sacred towns. Rishikesh – which literally means the land of the Rishis (great sages).

It’s a town so sacred to Hindus that alcohol and meat aren’t served here. But I already knew what I was letting myself in for and so was was prepared for a dry run.

What was totally alien to me was the hostel scene. It’s a far cry from the usual hotel option I’m more used to, and certainly different to the comfy Homestay back in Shimla. I chose the hostel for 2 reasons. The first is cost – it was about £9 per night for my own room with ensuite.

Secondly, I wanted to push myself to try something different and out of my comfort zone. In all honesty, it’s probably something I might not always go for in the future, but I could certainly see its merits.

The room was very basic and dated – and made Travelodge seem like a 5 star.

But it had everything one really needs. A comfortable bed, working shower and toilet, a ceiling fan and a TV. There really wasn’t much else in the room. Apart from the odd cockroach that met its end with the end of my shoe.

But of course, my trip wasn’t about the hostel. On the first morning in Rishikesh, I ventured towards the Laxman Jhula (footbridge) which towers across the enormous width of the mighty Ganga (Ganges) river. The water provides not only sustenance to millions of people and animals that live along its banks, but it’s also the salvation of many Hindus and Sikhs who regard the Ganga as a mother figure and Goddess.

Ganga Mata, or Mother Ganga, as she is affectionately known, is visited by tens of thousands of people every day who come to bathe in the river they believe will wash them of their sins, and perhaps even provide a fast-track entry ticket to eternal salvation (Moksha).

While the river keeps giving, as much as a mother would for her children, sadly her kids aren’t so appreciative.

The river is facing a huge challenge from pollution. I saw piles and piles of rubbish strewn along the river banks, in amongst the faithful many taking a dip. In the Ganga river, plastic bottles floated by alongside flowers and clay diva lamps resting on a leaf boat.

In some parts, the river would also wash away people’s own waste, given the shortage of toilets.

So my biggest confusion was how people could regard the river so highly, and yet openly throw rubbish into and near it.

I saw one child throwing his crisps wrapper out from the car window – clearly a mindset that littering is absolutely fine as long as the mess isn’t in one’s own personal space.

The government faces a huge challenge here. It wants to clean up the Ganga – but it also needs to change the habit of millions. And maybe a few bins along the roads would help too. I didn’t see any public bins along my walks, and the public toilets were filthy.

In a land so holy, I was disturbed at how careless people and authorities are at keeping the town clean. I’d decided there there was no way I’d be dipping even a toe into the river Ganga. I’ll take the sin over cholera, thank you very much.

The filth in Rishikesh is far outweighed by the level of faith and devotion here. In spite of the many environmental issues, people still throng in their millions to worship Ganga. I saw men, women and children praying devoutly in the shallows of the water, and holy men clad in saffron meditating along the banks. I’m not sure how many are the ‘genuine’ article – but because it’s India and making a quick buck is common, my guess is there are a few who aren’t as saintly as they might appear.

Rishikesh is also a hotspot for the new age hippie traveller. Those young ‘uns and a few older, coming to find themselves, learn yoga and other mystical Hindu practices. So many of the cafes are a bit too ‘out there’ for me. The food wasn’t up to scratch in most places but passable if you’re on a budget.

One of the highlights in Rishikesh was attending the evening ‘Ganga Aarti.’ At dusk, many of the Ashrams along the ghats perform a fire ceremony in worship of Ganga Mata. I was fortunate enough to get a front row seat at the ceremony at an ashram called Parmarth Niketan. It was the most peaceful and exhilarating experience. The Aarti was conducted so divinely, with no rushing, impatience or unprofessionalism. The volunteers were incredibly helpful.

One of the most striking things was how a group of young ‘priests in training’ conducted themselves. Some were as young as 9 or 10, with shaved heads bar a small pony tail, and dressed immaculately in crisp orange and green traditional clothes. They took part in all the hymns and prayers, and assisted in preparing for the Aarti ceremony. In-between, they shared a giggle or joke among themselves. Kids will be kids after all.

After the Aarti ceremony, which really was a beautiful moment, the head of the Ashram, Swami Chidanand, or Swamiji, spoke to the congregation. He was eloquent and charismatic – yet sounded genuine and humble. He spoke of the urgent need to clean up the Ganga. He said India doesn’t need any more Temples – people should clean and maintain the ones we already have. He wants India to create Toilets – not Temples. With such a strong belief in environmental matters and all things practical, it’s hard not to agree with Swamiji. I hope his dreams of a cleaner Ganga and cleaner India are realised.

The next day, the exhilaration moved further into the Ganga. On a spur, I decided I wanted to try my hand at whitewater rafting along the rapids in the Ganga. It looked fun enough. And it was another first.

We started off 11km away from the Lakshman Jhula bridge, in active waters which also looked a lot cleaner being away from the throngs.

I loved rowing through the rapids and even the calmer waters of the Ganga. It was a good way of getting up close and personal to the river that my daughter, Jahnavi, is named after. Jahnavi is an ancient Sanskrit name for Ganga.

Thinking this is as close as it gets was a wrong thought. Midway through our ride, the instructor encouraged us all to jump into the river. We had lifejackets, a helmet and a safety rope to cling on to. The 7 other members of the group were all in the water in an instant. Just me and the instructor left on the boat. The lads in the water urged me to join them and the instructor told me to jump in too. So I did. I took the plunge, and suddenly found myself floating in the Ganga.

Wow – it was cold for about five seconds. Then as the midday sun beat down, I began to enjoy the experience. The water was clean and fresh too. We eased along the gentle current for a fair while. I chuckled as I recalled my thoughts from the previous day. What was that about not dipping even a toe in the Ganga? And here I now was, fully immersed in Her. Toe and more.

For those who believe in fate and the mystical lure and power of the mighty Ganga, I guess She got me to take a dip after all. Sin slate clean. See you in Heaven.

5. KATHMANDU - VALLEY OF KINGS

The first thing that struck me en-route from Tribhuvan International Airport to my hotel is the aftermath of Kathmandu’s massive earthquake in 2015. It was the biggest quake this valley had seen for more than 70 years, and evidence of the destruction left in its wake is still visible.

Huge piles of rubble, scaffolding on partially-collapsed buildings and the sheer amount of dust creating an uncomfortable atmosphere.

If India is beset with smog, her neighbour has major dust issues. Many people went about their business wearing face masks to guard against the dirt – it’s either that, or breathing in asthma.

That offers a tiny glimpse into the resilience of Nepalese people – still piecing together their lives as they re-build the city brick by brick.

Although culturally different in many ways to India, both countries share many things. The language might be different but both Hindi and Nepalese are derived from Sanskrit – so a lot of road signs and shopfronts reminded me of being back in India.

And they use the horn far less here – a much welcome respite for my ears damaged by the constant and often unnecessary tooting from just about anything on wheels across the border.

While predominantly a Hindu country, Buddhism is also widely practiced here, with both faiths living side by side and making room for each other. A fine example of how communities can co-exist and a lesson for others to perhaps take on.

As I wandered through Kathmandu valley on a sightseeing tour (it’s very hot here in June and you find yourself sweating buckets!) I saw a huge number of Buddhist stupas and Hindu Temples. It’s as though they’re competing with India on who can have the most!

Former royal palaces belonging to kings and queens of old, and even those from more recent years (the monarchy was abolished only a few years back) are plentiful.

The most impressive one is in an area called Patan, whose people are famed for their art, craft and architectural skills. Generations of families have passed down the art which includes stone and wood carving, metalwork, and painting amazingly intricate designs on cotton paper with natural stone colours.

Not surprising then that the old Hindu palace here is crafted and intricately carved, surrounded by even more ancient Temples – 12 in total, each dedicated to a different deity (there are 33 million to choose from, so you never really run out of choices).

I took on the services of an official local guide called Raj (a rather apt name for someone working on royal property) who initially decided he’d charge me 2000 Nepalese rupees.

The Indian blood in me will always mean I’ll haggle for a good deal, and we eventually agreed on 1000 NR. That’s about 8 pounds.

The tour of the Temples and palace was very informative. Raj showed me the different royal chambers and their uses, including a central one that’s still used to hold an annual ancient ritual during the festival of Navratri in Sept/Oct.

As a Gujarati lad, I’m no stranger to Navratri. A festival of nine nights where people dress up and dance every night in large circles – dancing to the tune of Gujarati folk songs and using their hands to clap and also Dandiya sticks.

So when Raj explained how some holy women would dance around the circle here too, I thought the Gujaratis have made an impression here as well (I think we’re in pretty much every country now).

Except I was far off the mark. The chamber sees the ritual slaughter of 108 bulls during the nine day festival each year, and the dancing women would drink the fresh blood of that animal in order to re-energise themselves. That would explain the dried bull intestines hanging over the door frame, then.

To cut the bull, I’m not sure I’d particularly want to see a live slaughter but it is a public event and anyone is welcome to witness the ceremony. I bet the local yaks are relieved.

Another highlight of the city tour was a visit to a Shiva Mandir said to be thousands of years old. Pashupatinath, one of the deity’s many names, sits on the bank of a river, where traditional Hindu cremations take place in full sight. No coffins or furnaces here. It’s back to basics with the body covered in a wooden pyre and burned till all that remains are the ashes – which are then scattered into the river. I suppose with the cost of funerals going up, it’s not such a bad way to go up either.

Next stop was a Buddhist stupa called Swayambhunath. The Nepalese and northern Indians clearly like building things high up on hills. Which means having to climb hundreds of steps. Again. In the scorching heat.

The sight of the city is spectacular. You’ve only just managed to catch your breath when it’s taken away again by the view.

Buddhist rituals are fascinating – many feel similar to Hindu customs too but distinctively different are the deities, symbolism and spinning prayer wheels. Each stupa has 108 wheels which devotees would spin in turn as they walk around the stupa and chant a prayer.

Raj the tour guide had explained how each spinning wheel (cylinder shaped – a bit like a biscuit tin) contains a scroll of that same prayer hand-written 1,008 times. Makes copy and paste seem like a Godsend.

The evening was spent along the streets of Thamel district, where my hotel was situated. It’s the main tourist hub with hundreds of cafes, restaurants and bars to choose from. It has a real old charm to it, with much more personality than staying in a newer or more cosmopolitan area. You get a real sense of how locals here socialise too, and not just the tourists.

Kathmandu is a bustling city with a sprawling population, and horrendous traffic. The honking horns might not be a feature of roadlife here, but there’s no escaping the by-product of rapid urbanisation – with the number of wheels on the road fast catching up with the spinning wheels of Buddha.

Tomorrow, I treat myself to an overnight stay in the more scenic, peaceful and tranquil town of Pokhara valley. It’s eight hours by road, or half an hour by flight. I’ll get my passport and boarding pass ready, then.

6. NATURE'S PARTING GIFT

As far as life experiences go, it’ll take something special to come even close to beating the splendour of seeing Mount Everest.

The last time I felt this euphoric and overwhelmed was when I saw my newborn daughter for the first time. Just as she was a gift of nature, Everest and the Himalayas are nothing short of nature’s generosity to mankind either.

Having found the constant climbs up Buddhist stupas and temples on hills a bit tedious, it wasn’t likely I’d be reaching Everest base camp anytime soon.

So the next best option was to see it from the skies. A mountain flight at 6.30am which takes passengers on what, it’s fair to say, is the flight of their life.

Just 16 passengers in a small plane – each of us with our own window seat ready for the one-hour journey.

I could sense the real buzz of excitement and anticipation around me. As the engine blades began spinning, it wasn’t too long before we were thousands of feet up in the morning sky.

The airplane rose above the cotton-like clouds, and there soon emerged the mighty Himalayas. The range of snowy mountains that are truly the jewel in Nepal’s crown.

The country may have abolished its monarchy, but here in its skies stood the royal family of nature – kings and queens of natural earth – and they’re not going away any time soon.

One by one, we were all invited to the front of the plane – in the actual cockpit – to see the head of this royal family of mountains. I eagerly awaited my turn, camera in hand. It’s a bit like being told as a kid that you’ll get to go to the park if you sit still for just a bit longer.

The park visit finally arrived. I walked up towards the front of the plane, directly behind the seat of the pilot. From the windscreen, I caught my first glimpse of Mount Everest.

There she was, in all her glory, looking even more majestic than I’d seen on television and in photographs. If the Himalayas are royalty, then Everest is undoubtedly Her Majesty the Queen, taking her place in the throne of a stunning landscape which so few of us are privileged to witness. At 29 thousand feet tall, it’s no wonder the Nepalese call her Sagarmatha (head of the skies).

The entire range of mountains in this towering range show just how small and insignificant countries, cities, buildings and even people are when compared to their sheer size and beauty. With all the technology, science and engineering prowess in the world, we’d never be able to replicate Nature’s creation.

A nice touch at the end of the flight was being given a certificate which says “I did not climb Mount Everest but touched it with my heart.” One to add to my Record Of Achievement folder for those of you old enough to remember. But the certificate really took the words right out of my mouth.

My admiration and respect for those who’ve managed to scale these stone giants to their peak has grown ten-fold. The challenge first set by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953 has since seen more than 4000 people conquering the summit. Many more have attempted the feat and some have even lost their lives trying. I remain in awe of these courageous men and women who’ve had the honour to touch the mountain with their hands and heart.

It’s my last day in Nepal and I fly back to the UK tomorrow. There are many things one could point out about Nepal and India’s shortcomings, frustrations and annoyances. But I won’t. The countries have welcomed me with open arms, allowed me to immerse myself in their cultures and their way of life.

I’ve come out unscathed but certainly more richer from the knowledge gained. If I set out to learn about these great nations, and about myself, along the way, then I couldn’t have asked for better teachers.

It’s the end of an adventure but I hope it won’t be the final one either. Many menories have been etched into my mind along the way. But this Everest experience really was Nepal saving the best till last.

e.mail : sumeerkalyani@gmail.com

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features