Early morning amble to St. John in the Wilderness
Waking up super early on my first Sunday morning (my compound gets locked at 10pm so I have a curfew earlier than most Western teenagers – won’t be staying here long!) I was set to explore my immediate surroundings of Mcleodganj. The first part of the walk, up to the ridge is undoubtedly the worst. It’s only about half a mile if that, but I swear you must climb about 500 feet and in some parts you almost feel the need to crack on some crampons. Hills, you don’t really appreciate them when reading about them but, with my legs and arse grumbling and calling me stupid for picking a mountain for a home for the next few months, I struggle on regardless. (My wish to drop a bit of weight in India maybe easier than I first imagined!)
Once up the final stretch of the steep hill from hell and alongside the temple, it becomes obvious that Mcleodganj is perched on the side of a mountain. After a bit more exploring, you realise that it is actually perched on a mountain ridge, roughly the width of two streets. The western side of the ridge, Temple Road, runs between the Dalai Lama’s temple cum residence and the Main Chowk (chowk being the Hindi word for square). Temple Road isn’t for the faint hearted with a precipitous edge dropping off sharply for two hundred feet or more. Walking along the street you’re more or less at eye level with the lofty Himalayan Cedars growing from far below your vantage point. It’s a less dramatic scenario on the other side of the ridge, edged by Jogiwara Road. Here the slightly gentler incline (still enough to bring on nosebleeds) is dotted with buildings squeezed tightly together down the side of the mountain and connected to Jogiwara Road by a warren of precarious steps and alley ways.
Across the Chowk, past the abandoned partially completed building (which I’ve affectionately nicknamed the Cow Hotel – more on that in future posts), past the bus station and you’re on the (thankfully) flat road to the next village, Forsythganj. The word ganj has raised a few titters in some corners (those with the munchies, presumably) like chowk it is a Hindi word but in this case it means village.
Forsyth is a much quieter affair than McLeod, it is home to the Tibetan Children’s Village – a residential community for Tibetan orphans & other child refugees; which I intend to visit, but not today. Today I’m only travelling about two thirds of the road to Forsyth; I’m going to the Church of Saint John in the Wilderness.
The walk to the church was an interesting experience. Walking through the forest of Himalayan Cedar peppered with rhododendrons so big I didn’t initially realise what they were; there were lots of monkeys, lots of cows and a peppering of Indian Kites. A “highlight” was stumbling upon one of the smelliest bins I’ve ever encountered (there’s going to be a whole future post dedicated to bins and sanitation in general) and said cows and monkeys fighting over the contents of the bin, like pirates fighting over buried treasure.
It wasn’t long before the church gates appeared in amongst the cedars and rhododendrons, the British influence was immediately apparent.
St John’s was, as Wikipedia will tell you, built by the British in 1852. It is a bit disconcerting and I’m unsure how I’m feeling sat here looking at a church that, save for its rusted corrugated tin sheet roof (no church roof appeals in this diocese obviously), would look perfectly at home in any British town or village. The buttressed walls, the gothic arches and obligatory crosses are all familiar but disquieting nonetheless
The bell tower makes for an interesting sight. The church survived the infamous Kangra (the name of this district) earthquake of 1905 (in which almost 20,000 poor souls lost their lives) with the exception of the bell tower’s spire. (A new bell was sent over from Britain shortly after the earthquake and now sits in a rather ugly metal cage a few metres from the church)
The octagonal font is located just outside the main entrance to the church. I’m not enough of a churchgoer (for that read weddings and funerals only) to tell whether this was ever used for baptisms but it made for an interesting enough sight.
The church is probably most famous as the final resting place of Lord Elgin, James Bruce 8th Earl of Elgin and Viceroy of India, who shuffled off his mortal coil while crossing a rope bridge not far from this very spot. It’s a stark reminder of Britain’s imperial past which, quite frankly, offends my liberal sensibilities. James’s glittering career in Canada, China and India are extolled on the grand memorial. The Victorian Earl was a big cheese when he died in November 1863. The connection with Elgin in Morayshire, north east Scotland is interesting as part of my mother’s family came from that area (and probably had the globe trotting Earl as an absent landlord).
Indian tourists are busy snapping away, taking pictures of the Bruce memorial. (I wonder how many Brits would do the same if the tables were turned?) It’s also apparent that the word selfie has entered into the Hindi lexicon in its existing format and without the need for any translation.
Almost as if to remind me this is India; from seemingly nowhere a man, clad in a vest with a towel wrapped around his waist and carrying a bowlful of dishes and plates, trots across the yard and proceeds to wash the dishes and then himself (and he was thorough, fair play) at the tap in the churchyard. I sat there, watching him soap his bits inside his underpants, wondering (a) where the hell did he come from (there’s no houses to be seen) and (b) thinking the water must be freezing. Hardcore!
Prowling around the church I came across several discarded piles of marble. Casualties of time and lack of attention paid to the colonial graveyard. I found it strangely fitting that this Lord Elgin also had marbles, albeit on a much smaller scale than those his father controversially pillaged from the Parthenon in Athens some decades before the death of his son in India.
I was getting a little bit bored acting as an impromptu (and unpaid) photographer for the steady trickle of Punjabi and Kashmiri tourists wanting group snaps alongside the dead Earl’s memorial, I decided it was high time to move on and see what else there is to be seen. So I headed off up the pathway and out of the far gates on the other side of the churchyard.
Just as I’m leaving, and feeling like I’d found a small part of home, India pulled one of her little tricks to remind me exactly where I am, when I spied a cow in between the grave stones happily chewing the cud, oblivious to the fact she was in the shadow of another god’s house.
For whatever reason, having seen a few graves around the church, I figured that would be it, until India surprised once again, when I stumbled into the older part of the cemetery; the only clearing in a forest of Himalayan Cedars with a breathtaking view duly burned into my brain forever.
The view was literally jaw dropping and stopped me dead in my tracks (my amateur photography simply doesn’t do it justice) and I spent many minutes looking at the time worn graves of my countrymen from an Imperial past. Walking back through the churchyard I came to the conclusion that this quiet place has evolved into something of a curiosity. A remnant of its former self and a strange, ghostly reminder of the pomp and circumstance that once tried to tame and define this beautiful, paradoxical dichotomy called India.