Friday, 19 December 2014

Incredible India: Part 16: Delhi–The National Railway Museum & Indira Gandhi’s Villa

world-map delhi

This post deals with one of my very favourite topics: railways. More than any other country perhaps, India is united by its railways and the national railway company is the largest employer in the land. A lot better that way than the army say, which is the case in North Korea where I’m due to visit soon.
But on the theme of rail adventures, I must admit that I’m rather excited as in two months’ time I’ve got one coming up as I shall be travelling with my son and ex-wife by Eurostar to Paris, our first-ever trip both on that famous train and to the French capital. After years of visiting obscure and far-flung capital cities, I’m finally going to a famous one that’s nearby.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt
Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

map_india_northwest 8


From old to new, my next destination was in the heart of Lutyens' New Delhi. I emerged from the bowels of the earth at racecourse Station and then took a tuk-tuk along the broad avenues of the model city to the National Railway Museum. My trip took me past the embassies of a dozen or more countries, something which I found fascinating since one can tell a lot about a country's political history from the foreign embassies in its capital city.[1]

The major countries all had huge complexes in prime locations. I never saw the British Embassy, but its American counterpart was enormous as American embassies always are. Strangely though, one of the largest belonged to Serbia. At first I wondered why an impoverished and pretty insignificant Balkan nation of but several million souls should be so respected in India, but then I realised: Serbia had obviously inherited the old Yugoslavian Embassy and Yugoslavia, along with India, had been a prime mover in the Non-Aligned Movement which dominated Indian foreign policy during the sixties and seventies.

Next up was Pakistan's which was very ostentatious and very Muslim, a declaration of difference and defiance in stone and stucco to its old enemy. My favourites though belonged to Bhutan, (which was built in the style of a Himalayan Buddhist temple), and Indonesia, (which sported a rather fine Balinese gateway).

I am British and I have long held a fascination for trains. Therefore, the fact that a visit to the National Railway Museum was on my agenda should come as no surprise. Arguably more than any other country on earth, the railways – Britain's finest gift to its greatest colony – have held India together, a vast, multi-lingual, multi-cultural mammoth of a state. To celebrate them is both relevant and worthwhile.

And the museum did just that. The collection of locomotives on display was impressive including a working Punjabi engine ('Lion of the Punjab') and a strange monorail engine unlike anything that I have ever seen before or since, with a miniature train to ferry you around.[2] And there were some cool exhibits too: the skull of an elephant that had lost in a collision with a train and some models of locomotives and carriages from days gone by. I left feeling glad, picking up a tuk-tuk to take me the short distance to my next culture stop.

The Lion of the Punjab

The strange monorail loco

The name of Indira Gandhi is bandied around a lot by the Sikhs and normally in the same tone that I reserve for Margaret Thatcher. That is understandable for she was the PM who ordered the tanks into the Golden Temple complex during Operation Blue Star. By desecrating their holiest shrine, she has earned their eternal enmity.

But in the peaceful Lutyens villa that I was walking around, quite a different picture of India's first female Prime Minister was being presented, more Joan of Arc than Margaret of Grantham. In the house where she once lived, she was portrayed as a diplomat, a great leader beloved by her people yet humble in her lifestyle, a family woman, intelligent yet sensitive and above all, a martyr. I wandered past her study, the lounge where she entertained world leaders,[3] past her bedroom and the place where she made her daily puja and through the garden where she oft took tea with her family.

It was a picture of domestic and political bliss until we came to the spot in-between her home and the house next door where she was violently gunned down by her own bodyguard. A strange glass sculpture marks the spot and the exhibition dwelt on the immense grief of a nation at her passing. What it did not explain however, was why she was murdered. Having strolled round the Golden Temple and talked to many Sikhs, I knew full well why her Khalsa Sikh bodyguard turned his gun on the lady that he was paid to protect, but the museum itself gave no indication and nor too did it talk of the thousands of Sikhs who were murdered afterwards in retaliation for her death or why her son Rajiv Gandhi was also gunned down in 1991. For me those unanswered questions was one of my lasting impressions of the villa along with images of some of the presents given to Mrs. Gandhi by foreign leaders, (including two incredibly naff glass bowls from Poland and Yugoslavia which I wouldn't look twice at in a car boot), and the sense of a great Indian revolutionary and political dynasty that was slowly corrupting just like the lineage of Jadis, the mythical Empress of Charn in C. S. Lewis' 'Chronicles of Narnia'.[4]

The day being a Sunday, I headed out that evening to the Roman Catholic Sacred Heart Cathedral. Being in the most British of all the cities in the greatest of our former colonies, I'd hoped to be able to attend an Anglican Communion service at either the cathedral or St. James' Church, the two high temples of the Raj. But once again, my church showed its weakness by refusing to provide anything other than Evening Prayer on a Sunday evening and so, for the second time on the trip, I went Roman.
I cannot say that the Mass was particularly inspiring. It wasn't bad, but after the spiritual superbowls of Amritsar and Pushkar, the oh-so-familiar liturgy seemed mundane and everyday. Keeping one's faith as a Christian might be difficult in India I suspect, and I admire those who succeed.

On the way back to the Metro station, I called in at the adjacent Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, one of the holiest Sikh sites in the capital, built on the spot where the Eighth Guru, the child Guru Har Krishan spent some months in 1664 as a virtual prisoner of the Mughals but who gained a saintly reputation in that place for his work amongst the poor and for his healing powers. In that gurdwara, pristine white and spotlessly clean like the others that I had visited, I found a spiritual beauty and energy that had been lacking in the cathedral and as I circumambulated the sacred pool, I felt at peace.

[1] For more on this subject, see my 2007 travelogue of a trip to Berlin where I discuss the embassies in the German capital.
[2] On the trip that I took I was sat behind a fifteen-month old toddler on her very first train journey: one of life's seminal moments.
[3] Ho Chi Minh, one note informed me, once described her as a “sister”.
[4] It should be noted here that the Mahatma Gandhi was not a member of this family; the surname is a coincidence. They are descended from Nehru instead.

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