Monday, May 02, 2005

the road to dharamshala

in india, those travelling to points north from delhi invariably spend time on the pride and joy of the indian highway network, "national highway number one" (nh1) . . . for accuarcy sake it ought to be named national killer number one (nk1) . . . i'm told that four to seven fatal accidents occur everyday -- that's right, a minimum of four -- on the stretch i travelled from delhi to ambala, which is no wonder because everyone is driving at (their own) breakneck speed, the road is narrow, has no shoulders, is two-way, has numerous dug-up construction zones and is shared by (in order of the speed of which they travel) trucks, busses, cars, vans, motorcycles, motorscooters, mopeds, auto-rickshaws, bicycles, bicycle-rickshaws, buffalo-drawn wagons, mule/donkey-drawn wagons, pedestrians, buffalos, monkeys, cows, dogs and small children . . . all travelling on the same narrow paved strip, those motor-powered using beep-beep horns in lieu of turning signals, attention divided by events on the road and the moveable bazaar of roadside stands and attractions, going at their own speeds, in their own directions, and in that most wonderful of indian ways, (seemingly) oblivious to every other traveller.

I travelled on this road, most of which was paved, for about eight hours before turning onto smaller roads for the four-hour climb into the mountains to dharamshala. i was not driving, but was the passenger in the backseat of a small hired car.

The road travels through three distinctly different indian states, the first being the heavily hindu state of haryana (in which delhi is located) and then through the sikh-dominated state of punjab. haryana was heavily agricultural, with wheat and rice being primary crops. punjab is the "richest" of all indian states, and this was evident by the many industrial parks, and cleaner, more fertile countryside. the third state, himachal pradesh, which is where dharamshala is located, is the state in which one transitions from the plains to the high snowy peaks.

The road took us through Panipat, famous for it's three battles, Karnal (named after karan, the disowned son of queen kunti in the mahabharata), then through Kurukshetra, where the sermon of the gita was delivered by lord krishna to teach arjuna about 'selfless' action prior to the battle between he and his cousins. so nh1 travels through some of india's most spiritual, mystical and historically violent areas.

But on the day i was on the road it seemed the scene of battle had shifted to the highway itself, where the only rule that applied was "might is right" and it's the truck drivers that consider themselves the "might" aka the masters of the road. the name of the game is "overtaking" (as in passing in usa), and that's all the drivers do, is overtake the travelers in front of them, almost always veering into the oncoming traffic to do it . . . oddly enough, after about an hour, you no longer care what's happening, you try not to look, you just put confidence in your driver, try to relax, enjoy the scenery and (for those who really do believe in the divine) try to sleep (which i did).

It was remarkable how quickly things changed once we crossed the border in the punjab, and after we paid the 800 rupeee ($20) state road tax . . . clearly we were in a region of india, that although still part of the plains, was very different in terms quality of everyday life, but this whole "upscaling" phenomena turned ridiculous when we stopped for tea in the city of Chandigarh.

Chandigarh is unlike any place in India, in fact, it looks with small exceptions as though it belongs on the outskirts of (my dear beloved) orlando . . . it is suburban, orderly, fairly modern, landscaped, road-signed, strip-mall'ed and prosperous. No beggars. No animals in the streets. Just western-dressed people driving to western-looking stores in a western looking town.

The reason (for Chandigarh's cosmo/suburban design) is that it is a planned town. With the capital of Punjab dangerously close to kashmir/pakistan, in the late 1940's the state government decided that Punjab needed a capital city that was safely closer to the state's center, so this site was chosen . . . and an american town planner, in conjunction with a polish architect, was brought in to design and build the city. In the project's very early days the architect died in a plane crash and the city planner subsequently withdrew, so the famous swiss architect Le Corbusier was appointed to take over the project, which he completed . . . so the city is divided into various utilitarian sectors, and rather than being in any way an indian city, looks like something my son john would build with 60,000 legos and a half-million small plastic trees/bushes/toy cars.


i'm writing this from a little town called "mcleod ganj" which is up on the ridgetop overlooking dharamshala. this is where the dalai lama's complex is, including temples, monastery, library, etc. mcleod ganj ("mcleod" was a british officer here during the occupation, "ganj" means market) is a combination of buddhist, kashmiri and eurpoean dhama-bum influences (vastly mostly tibetan buddhist, it's estimated there are more than 4,000 of them living in this small town).

i've been here for three days now and am enjoying it . . . beautiful, it is perched on a ridgetop, not far from the snowline, surrounded by thick green fir and rhohodendron forests and dwarfed by the great snowy, himalayan mountain wall called Dhauladhar (where wander the legendary sheepherdesses the "Gaddi maidens") . . . it is culturally unlike much of india, called "little lhasa in india" by those clever tourbook writers . . . and while a little funky in town, it is a short walk to some of the most beautiful and peaceful places i've ever been to . . . it's a place in which "heart space" is never more than a few minutes away . . . and chance encounters with monks, tibetan "officials" and other interesting folks happen frequently . . . and yes, there's tibetan restaurants serving those delicious momo's (on wed, two days from now, am planning to take a class in "tibetan momo making") . . . and oh yeah, have become a "devotee" of hot water with lemon, fresh ginger and honey . . .

i've decided i'm going to remain here until the trip back to delhi (yep, nh1) and flight home. (i was going to go the garhwal himalaya region, but that will just have to wait until the next time . . . uhh, louise sweetie, pack the car, we're going on a long road trip . . . )

will soon write more about dharamshala, the tibetan buddhists, hhdl (who is in town) and whichever of the 100 interesting, potentially life-changing things one encounters each day on this unique himalayan ridge-top pops into my head.