Wednesday, July 8, 2009

CC: Jammu

“Oh yeah, I am still in India.”

When you’ve been sitting in a backpacker town like McLeod for a month and have find yourself repeating the above statement more than a couple of times a week, you’ve come across a fairly good sign that it’s time to move on – if only for a short expedition.

And what better way to seek out a bit of adventure than a trip through Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh! The minute I stepped off the bus after my seven hour trip to Jammu every single thing that I saw seemed to scream out at me “Yeah, you better believe you’re still in India.” Not a single white person in sight for the next two days. There’s not even a map of the city in my Lonely Planet book so I have no idea where I am or where to go. Perfect!

After escaping my rickshaw driver’s attempt to stick me in an overpriced hotel, I leave my bags in a more reasonably priced place and head out onto the street. I’ve only got one afternoon here, and I’m gonna make it count.

A policeman on the street who can’t seem to believe his luck at meeting a Westerner fills me in on how to get to the station tomorrow morning and recommends the best spot to eat in the market (later that night I was able to confirm him to be a man of discerning taste). I then spend the next couple hours wandering through the endless sea of stalls and shops selling everything from the coolest imitation Western fashions to air conditioning units, to new sets of teeth.

The most ridiculous street stall in India!

On my way down, I notice a small looking entrance to what looks to be a temple, but I decide to pass it by since I’ve already been to too many Hindu temples to count, this one doesn’t seem anything special, and you have to leave all bags and cameras in a store room – Jammu gets more than it’s fair share of terrorist attacks from Kashmiri separatists and radicals from Pakistan.

As I passed by the second time on the way home, something made me slow down for a second though. I recalled reading Paulo Coelho’s list of advice for a meaningful travel experience. Number 9: A journey is an adventure. It’s far better to discover a church that no one’s heard of than to go to Rome and feel obliged to see the Sistine Chapel surrounded by two hundred tourists.

Alright, let’s give it a try. This is the self proclaimed city of temples after all. And what ever happened to my decision to have one excellent night in Jammu? I step through the dingy entryway into a small room and walk through a door in the back corner. It feels like I’ve just walked through the wardrobe door into Narnia!

I’m standing in a courtyard the size of an entire massive city block. It’s surrounded by outward facing shops along the perimeter which protect it from the view of passers by on the street. The spires of the temple are covered in coloured lights and the moon hangs in the sky right over the central courtyard. The courtyard is full of Indian pilgrims sitting under the trees and wandering from room to room, but it’s nowhere near as busy or frantic as any other temple I’ve seen.

Dimly lit rooms with mysterious statues of strange gods performing unintelligible feats and walls painted with mystical symbols. Strange rituals performed with peacock feathers, lingams, necklaces of flowers, and other things I can’t quite understand. Walking around the temple between alcoves, each dedicated to and containing statues and images of a different god, a sense of mystery and adventure surrounds each new discovery.

An hour later, I walk out of the temple complex, necklaces of flowers around my neck, marks on my forehead, and no idea where I’d been (no map after all), what it was called, and without a single photo. It sunk away back into the night as I walked away for dinner - as mysterious and unexplained as ever and without any idea of where I’d been. Talk about romantic!

Thank you Paulo Coelho! The rest of you tourists can keep your Taj Mahal, I’ll take my unheard of inner city temple complex any day!