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India: The Day The Money Disappeared

Golden Temple at Amritsar
Indian Subcontinent India
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WF traveller Peter Heywood visited Amritsar before joining the Slowly Down The Ganges tour in November 2016.

Over breakfast in Amritsar I read the front page of The Tribune with mounting disbelief. The government had announced that, with immediate effect, all 500 and 1000 rupee notes (80% of all the cash in circulation) would no longer be legal tender. As I had just arrived in the country with several hundred pounds’ worth of nothing but 500 and 1000 rupee notes, I sensed trouble ahead. On the bright side, the government had also announced that all holders of ‘de-recognised’ (sic) notes could exchange them for legal smaller denomination ones at any bank or post office branch. However, having previously experienced the mayhem inside an Indian post office, this failed to quell my feeling of unease.

My hotel declined to exchange any of my worthless notes for legal ones. It also refused my pounds, dollars and euros until such time as the manager (along with the rest of the population) had worked out what to do in response to the news.

I gave up and decided to explore the city as planned and already paid for. My driver, the genial, turbanned Jaswinder, was late having spent longer than usual at his local petrol station where he had actually been lent legal currency by the owner so that he could re-fuel his taxi. We set off. I had 200 legal rupees (about £3.00) to last me for the next two days.

Border Closing Ceremony at Wagah

Outside the Golden Temple, I paid 20 rupees for a bright orange head-scarf which I would need to gain admittance. On leaving the temple, I was approached by a news crew. “How are you finding things as a tourist now that 80% of cash has been withdrawn?” asked the interviewer. I managed to answer him with a measure of stoicism and humour which seemed to go down reasonably well. Later, I spent an extended lunch break in The Yellow Chilli restaurant where I could settle my bill with a credit card. This was followed by a similarly cash-less excursion to Wagah to see the surreal border-closing ceremony.

Currency exchange queue in the State Bank of India at Amritsar Railway Station

The following morning, I managed to change 1000 of my de-recognised rupees into usable notes at a nearby branch of the optimistically-named Yes Bank, the maximum amount per person dropping from 4000 rupees from the time I had joined the queue. Flushed with success and recognised money I splashed out 100 rupees on an auto-rickshaw to the railway station where I caught a train to Delhi.

Maybe, just maybe, things were looking up.

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