Mark Tully in Himal Southasian. Himal‘s cover theme is travel, and as always it’s a great read.
Starting a journey without knowing where it will end has its problems. When I set out with Nick Lera, a remarkable cameraman-director and an authority on railways, to make a film called Steam’s Indian Summer, we could not be sure where steam engines still ran.
The last known steam-hauled express had run from the railway junction of Jalandhar, in Punjab. The only steam we found there was a wonderful Heath-Robinson contraption, a coal crane with no coal to lift any longer, operated for us by a railway worker who explained, ‘I am the superintendent of steam locos without a loco.’ Standing on a rusty turntable on which the majestic steam locomotives that hauled historic trains such as the Frontier Mail and the Punjab Mail had changed direction, a former steam driver talked scornfully of diesel and electric locomotives. ‘Anyone can drive one of those,’ he said. ‘To drive a steam engine you need four eyes, two in the back of your head as well as the two in the front, there’s so much going on all the time.’
When we reached Delhi we visited the Railway Museum. I was filmed standing beside one of the sturdy little engines that are still pulling trains up the mountainside to Darjeeling, my favourite Indian hill-station. It is my favourite partly because I used to travel on the narrow-gauge railway to school, partly because my father was a director of that railway, and partly because of the magnificent view of the Himalaya seen from the town. On top of all that, of course, there are the picturesque Darjeeling tea gardens that produce the champagne of teas. More:
Also in Himal travel issue:
Pallava pilgrimages by William Dalrymple:
They were a family of Brahmins from Hyderabad – or Cyberabad, as they liked to call it – and they were all computer programmers. They talked proudly of the booming high-tech industry that had sprung up in their city: of the outsourcing deals they were negotiating with US companies, of the programming contracts they had just closed with a group in Houston, and of the ‘health-care software solutions’ they were finalising with the National Health Service in the UK. None of this, however, had in the least bit altered their desire to do darshan – to glimpse the gods – in all the most ancient Shiva temples of Tamil Nadu.
The Venkatramans were two weeks into their tour when I met them – heads bowed, palms raised just outside the main image-chamber in the Ekambareswarar temple in the great South Indian temple city of Kanchipuram. All around stood some of the finest medieval sculptures in India. The shrine at the heart of the temple was built by the great Pallava kings who ruled over much of South India during the seventh century AD, and around us superb mithuna couples – beautiful divine lovers – were entangled amorously around the jambs of the doorway. This did not, however, seem to be of much interest to the Venkatramans, who were all too busy with the temple’s evening aarti (fire) ceremony. More: