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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 September 2005, 23:42 GMT 00:42 UK
Fond farewell to modern India's father
By Gerald Priestland
BBC News, India

This From Our Own Correspondent was first broadcast on 13 June, 1964.

Jawaharlal Nehru became India's first prime minister after the country gained independence from Britain in 1947. He died while still in power 17 years later. Travelling on the train carrying the prime minister's body, Gerald Priestland describes Nehru's final journey.

The body of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru
Nehru died aged 74
"You must be mad to go on that train," they said.

"Why spend 24 hours in a cattle truck when you can fly there in just over one hour?"

Well, that train was the funeral special, taking the major remains of Mr Nehru for immersion in the holy Ganges at Allahabad.

I am glad I went on it, not because it was not uncomfortable, it was, but because it reminded me of what India's really all about.

They packed on to the platforms of country stations to bathe in the reputation of a man whose constant urgings to become scientific, secular and socialist they must have considered far above and beyond them
As we rumbled across the sandy flatness of the north Indian plain, bleached and corroded by the sun, people came down to the side of the line to have darshan, to be vouchsafed vision of the sacred relics.

This was the heartland of Mr Nehru's Congress Party, and they came down from villages that one could see were still untouched by the first, second or third, five year plan.

They stood among fields where peacocks strutted in flocks as evening gathered.

They packed on to the platforms of country stations to bathe in the reputation of a man whose constant urgings to become scientific, secular and socialist they must have considered far above and beyond them.

Such advice was for the learned, for them, there remained the spiritual emanations from his ashes.

Searing heat

I managed to climb out on to the roof of my coach and stumble along the top of the train, jumping the gaps till I reached it
In the press coaches it was suffocating. Officialdom did its best.

There were free issues of explosive fizzy lemonade. In every compartment there were earthenware crocks of drinking water.

Sweepers crawled on all fours mopping up the dust that swirled in, and at one stop, great blocks of ice were dragged aboard in galvanised baths and set under the ceiling fans, so that the blast they circulated would become a little less searing.

At every stop it was like the rush hour on the London Underground.

Those lounging on the seats inside stared with wonder through securely barred windows at the shoal of humanity pressed against the outside.

Once, the Indian reporters in my compartment told the curious peasants who peered back at us, that a French correspondent was President Nasser of Egypt.

The peasants replied that they were grateful for the honour his Excellency was doing them. They meant it, and I am glad the Frenchman gave dignity to a bad joke by bowing in reply.

Sensory aroma

It was impossible to get on to the platform to make one's way to the white funeral coach where the urn was displayed on its floodlit pedestal.

But at Cawnpore, I managed to climb out on to the roof of my coach and stumble along the top of the train, jumping the gaps till I reached it.

It was like observing the very bloodstream of India, hot and throbbing, every head below a human corpuscle
It was one of the most enthralling sensations of my life, one that invaded every physical sense. I squatted there, wedged between the roof of the station and the roof of the coach.

Below, the crowd surged to and fro like a heavy sea against a cliff, uttering a continuous wordless roar. They were men, all of them men, not a woman in sight.

I was battered by the sound. Stifled by the heat that rose up with a strange mixed aroma of sweat, spices and flowers, the flowers they had brought to toss before the urn.

I was rocked by the beating of thousands upon the side of the heavy coach.

And so, Hinduism took its wandering son back to its bosom
It was like observing the very bloodstream of India, hot and throbbing, every head below a human corpuscle.

Then on through the night, with every now and again a chant of "Chacha Nehru amar hai", "Uncle Nehru is immortal" swelling tip and tapering off from the trackside.

Religious farewell

The final scenes at the confluence of the Ganges, the Jumna and the invisible Sarasvati River, the holiest of Hindu ends for this agnostic Westernised leader, hammered it all home, the unalterable Indianness of India.

As one Indian pointed out to me, it was inevitable that Mr Nehru, despite his wishes, should have had a religious funeral.

The New Delhi electric crematorium is still not operational after eight years' work on it, and the priests are the only people who know how to set about a cremation.

And so, Hinduism took its wandering son back to its bosom, with the Indian army's amphibians handling the transport, and the Indian air force scoring one direct hit and two near misses with showers of petals.

On shore, a million people joined in the public holiday.

There was hardly a wet eye to be seen, and the weird triangular banners of the holy men fluttered over their encampment on the sandbanks like a goblin army ready to invade the nation.

SEE ALSO:
Country profile: India
03 Jun 05 |  Country profiles


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