Great Indian Railway Journeys – BBC 2


Having watched Michael Portillo’s railway programmes from the off, I’m really chuffed (pun intended) that they’ve proved so successful. You wouldn’t believe that a series involving a garishly-dressed ex-politician going around on trains could be quite so entertaining, but it really is: he does an absolutely fantastic job.  Of course, it helps that he gets to go to such interesting places, and this time’s it’s India, with a copy of Bradshaw’s 1913 Handbook of Indian, Foreign and Colonial Travel.

Just as an aside, I’d quite like to see a programme about George Bradshaw himself, the man who, although he died sixty years before the publication of the 1913 guides, initiated the Bradshaw’s Guides, in 1839. He definitely sounds like my kind of person: he was born in Pendleton, was associated with the Anti Corn Law League, and did a lot of work in promoting education amongst the working-classes of Manchester and setting up soup kitchens for those in need.  Definitely deserves at least one episode about his own life!

Back to India. This first episode saw Michael travelling from Amritsar, home of the glorious Sikh Golden Temple, to Shimla (formerly known as Simla), which was the summer capital of the British Raj from 1864 to 1947.  All under beautiful blue skies!   The Golden Temple complex, which apparently received around 100,000 visitors a day, was absolutely stunning.  You rarely see a pool/lake at a religious site.  I suppose that’s because they’re usually in city centres.  What a beautiful complex – but, as Michael pointed out, the temple itself, for all that it was so gloriously golden, was actually quite small, and was reached by stepping down from the buildings on either side of it: despite being golden, it symbolised humility.  I’d never really thought of that before.  And it had an enormous free canteen, where all visitors could get a free meal.  I’ve come across places where pilgrims are supposed to get free meals, but the idea of providing free refreshments to all visitors, rather than directing them to tea rooms charging extortionate prices, was rather lovely.  I really liked that.

Of course, he couldn’t have gone to the Golden Temple without mentioning the horrific massacre which took place in the neighbouring Jallianwala Bagh garden in 1919, probably the most shameful moment in the history of the British Raj. I thought he might also have mentioned the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984, but, especially given their association with the assassination of Indira Gandhi, maybe that would have been too politically controversial.

Then it was on to Ludhiana – and he got a free cup of tea on the train. Yay!!  Free cups of tea all round, please.  Mind you, if it tastes like the disgusting apology for tea that Virgin Rail provide on the Manchester to London trains, maybe not!  Hopefully the stuff on Indian trains is better 🙂 . In Ludhiana, we got to see a more positive side of the legacy of the Raj – a medical school founded by a female British missionary doctor in the 1890s, with the aim of training women to be doctors and midwives at a time when female medical personnel in India were in very short supply and cultural taboos made it difficult for women to seek treatment from male medics.  I’m afraid I don’t have a particularly positive image of missionaries, because I find it hard not to think of them as being like St John Rivers in Jane Eyre – arrogant men who were convinced that their religion was better than everyone else’s and that it was their mission to go around trying to convert people – and so it was heartening to hear about someone who had made such a positive contribution to another country and culture.  It’s not something you often hear about, in anything about the Raj.  It’s usually all romances and culture clashes!

Next up was Ambala. The town in Haryana province, not the Indian sweet shop on the Curry Mile!  As he headed from the Punjab into Haryana province, Michael discussed the horrors of partition with an Indian historian.  The horrific tales of attacks on trains are well-known, but don’t get any less horrific with each additional time you hear about them.  The historian clearly took the view that Britain should have done more, but, as has been said before, things were in such a mess by 1947 that I just don’t know what the alternative was.  The time for action was long before then.  But what a tragedy that British rule ended and independence began amid all that bloodshed.  It’s all been said before, but that doesn’t make it any better.

Ambala looked like a shoppers’ paradise. And all the signs and adverts were in English!  There are plenty of stalls on Bury Market where you can take your pick of gorgeous Indian fabrics 🙂 , but you can’t just order an outfit and have it made to measure in a matter of a couple of hours, as Michael did in Ambala. I particularly liked the jacket.  Michael was laughing at himself over his penchant for bright colours.  I wish I had the nerve to wear them in England, like he does!   I’ve got a lovely Peruvian shawl that I bought – in my best GCSE Spanish – in Cusco, but I never wear it because I’d feel such a complete prat walking round town in something quite so bright!

His next stop was Chandigarh, which is now the capital of both Punjab state and Haryana state, but isn’t actually in either. This was certainly different: it was built in the 1950s, by a French-Swiss architect, and was designed to look modernistic and futuristic.  Clean, tidy and orderly – well, OK.  But it looked so soulless.  It made somewhere like Milton Keynes look like a centre of history and culture.  It was interesting, but … well, I want India to look Indian!  Like I want France to look French, Austria to look Austrian, etc etc.  Totally beside the point, but apparently more hamburgers than baguettes were sold in France last year.  Er, what’s that about?!  Whatever next 🙂 ?

He did do some dancing, though, just to liven things up. Finally came the climax of the journey – the famous train ride through the Himalayas from Kalka to Shimla, in Himachal Pradesh province … formerly, then known as Simla, the hill station which was the summer capital of the British Raj.   I really fancied that train ride until he mentioned that it took five hours.  And I bet you can’t guarantee getting a seat facing forward and by the window.  I was OK on the Bernina Express, but I’m not sure how I’d cope with five hours on a narrow gauge mountain railway, however many travel sickness tablets I took!

Anyway, it did look spectacular, and Michael clearly enjoyed it! And, as he said, it’s incredible to think that Simla was the administrative centre of the Raj from April to October for nearly 40 years before the railway was even built.  They were shlepping the entire paraphernalia of the administration of the British Raj up the Himalayas on elephants, carts drawn by bullocks, and palanquins.  One-fifth of the population of the planet were being ruled from this little town up in the hills, with nothing to link it even to the nearest decent-sized place but a mountain path.  It’s completely mad!  But it worked!  That’s even madder!  And, up there in the Himalayas, a lot of the buildings really did look like a corner of a foreign field (well, mountain) that was for ever England.

I’m not sure where else he’s going in this series, but I’ve always really fancied the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. I think it’s the thought of the tea plantations.  Plus I remember once seeing a TV programme about it, presented by the late, great, Victoria Wood, who got very excited over the fact that the oldest steam locomotives on the railway were built by Sharp, Stewart and Company, originally of Manchester.  That was so exactly what I would have done!   I think I do quite fancy the Kalka-Shimla trip as well, though.  And Amritsar.  Oh, it’s nice to see somewhere different!  I love the British, Continental and American Railway/Railroad Journey programmes, but this series is going to be a bit different; and it’s got off to a really good start.  Bring on the next episode!

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