Love that Bug: Spinal Beetle completes charity run across South Asia

Here's looking at you, people! The Love Bug had only two eyes, but the Spinal Beetle has four. Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

Deep down in our hearts, we are all Volkswagen Beetle fans: some of us have owned one (my first car was a red bug!), others dream of doing so. The world’s most enduringly popular car design has a particular appeal in South Asia.

And now, South Asian VW Beetle fans have a adorable new mascot. Move over, Disney’s Love Bug (thanks for tons of fun); welcome, Spinal Beetle!

My friend – and hero – Kanak Mani Dixit and his wife Shanta have just completed a 2,200 km (1,100 mile) journey in their nearly 40-year-old Beetle that took them from Kathmandu in Nepal to Peshawar in Pakistan. It was a 12-day, 3-country drive that was to raise funds for spinal injury treatment in Nepal.

By happy coincidence, I was in Kathmandu on 4 Nov 2011 when the President of Nepal waved off Kanak and Shanta on their journey from the President’s House. It was an informal gathering of friends and well-wishers — with none of the pomposity usually associated with heads of state.

So the photos in this post are all mine. The text that follows is from Kanak and his media team:

President Ram Baran Yadav about to send off Kanak Mani Dixit and Shanta Dixit on 12-day journey in Spinal Beetle - Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

The ‘Great Nepal-India-Pakistan Spinal Beetle Drive’ arrived in Peshawar on 16 November, ending a 1100-mile odyssey that took the 1973 VW Beetle from Kathmandu through Lucknow, Agra, Delhi, Amritsar, Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

“It was an exhilarating journey across the friendly landmass of Southasia, and I hope a pointer towards easy land-crossings for people from all our countries,” said Dixit. “Most of our journey was along the Grand Trunk Road, built originally by Sher Shah Suri in the 16th century. The 21st century demands that we open this highway for the people, commerce and ideas to flow.”

The journey of the sky-blue Beetle was conducted with three goals of promoting ‘land connectivity’ in Southasia, developing links between spinal injury institutions across the Subcontinent, and raising funds for the Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre in Nepal.

“The matter of land connectivity is important because airline links can never provide the mass-level contact that our people and economies deserve. One would want to see the same cacophony at the Atari-Wagah border as at the Nepal-India border of Bhairahawa-Sunauli,” said Dixit.

The trip was helpful in developing linkages between organisations such as the Spinal Centre in Nepal, the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre in Delhi (ISIC), the Mayo Hospital in Lahore, the National Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine in Islamabad, the Armed Forces Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine in Rawalpindi, and the Paraplegic Centre in Peshawar.

As for the goal of raising emergency funds for the Spinal Centre-Nepal in order to cope with sudden rise in demand for its services, Dixit said that a little over half of the USD 110,000 goal had been raised. “We hope to complete our goal through a retroactive campaign because the spinally injured of Nepal badly need support,” he said.

Dixit is a civil rights activist, writer and journalist who injured his spine in a trekking accident a decade ago. The Spinal Centre was started in 2002 and inaugurated by the late Sir Edmund Hillary.

Kanak and Shanta Dixit setting off on their long journey in Spinal Beetle from Sheetal Niwas on 4 Nov 2011 morning - Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

In the ‘Spinal Beetle’ driven by Dixit, he was accompanied by Shanta Dixit, educator and founding member of the Spinal Centre-Nepal. The back-up car, a Mahindra Bolero, included VW Beetle specialist Naresh Nakarmi, Spinal Centre staff member Suman Khadka and Eelum Dixit, doing videography and photography. Social worker Meera Jyoti is chair of the Spinal Centre-Nepal.

The Spinal Beetle drive was flagged off on 4 November by President Ram Baran Yadav of Nepal. In New Delhi, it was received by Maj. H.P.S. Ahluwalia, founder of ISIC, as well as journalist Kuldip Nayar and actor Om Puri. The physicist and peace activist A.H. Nayyar received the Spinal Beetle at the Wagah-Atari border. Throughout the Southasian drive, the team was graciously hosted by members of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy and other organisations, such as the Indian Doctors for Peace and Development in Agra, and Asha for Education in Lucknow.

Among the many interesting aspects of the trip, from the emotional to the historical, Dixit includes the following:

• The Spinal Beetle team responded to the request of 96-year-old Barkat Singh ‘Pahalwan’ of Jalandhar (Indian Punjab) that some earth be collected from his childhood village of Fatehgarh near Sialkot (Pakistani Punjab). Taking a detour from the GT Road, the team found the place, which had now become an urban suburb of Sialkot, and collected a jarful of agricultural earth for Barkat Singh. (for a picture of Barkat Singh and other images, go to ‘Selected Photographs’ on

• The memory of Sher Shah Suri, the Afghan sultan from present-day Bihar who ruled from Agra, followed the team through much of the route, which he had regularised in the mid-16th century as an administrative and commercial artery. His memory was revived by the ‘kos’ markers along the Delhi-Chandigarh stretch, a neglected postal station outside Wazirabad, the great roadside banyans providing shade to travellers then and now, and the Rohtas Fort on the approach to Rawalpindi.

A Nepali on wheelchair watches Spinal Beetle about to depart on a long journey to raise funds for people like him - Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

• Having started in the Lumbini region of Nepal, where the Buddha was born more than 2,500 years ago, the Spinal Beetle ended its journey in the Gandhar region around Peshawar, a vast centre for Buddhist learning, art and architecture where the Sakyamuni was first etched in human form a few centuries later. In the Potohar Plateau near Islamabad, the Spinal Beetle visited the gigantic Buddhist stupa at the village of Manikyal.

• Arriving in Agra, the Spinal Beetle visited the Taj Mahal on the day of Eid ul-Azha. It arrived in Amritsar and visited Harminder Saheb (the Golden Temple) on the Guru Nanak’s birthday. Passing Gorkha District of Nepal (named after the Gorakhnath temple situated there), the Spinal Beetle traversed Gorakhpur, the base of the Nath sect, and ended its journey in Peshawar where the team visited the Gorakhnath Temple there, opened only a month ago after 60 years of closure. The Delhi-Amritsar leg of the journey was started with a visit to the dargah of Nizamuddin Aulia.

• After watching the mock-militarist show at the Wagah-Atari border between the Indian and Pakistani goose-stepping men in khaki, that very evening the team attended a play on Bhagat Singh and his fight for independence, put on by the Ajoka Theatre of Lahore.

• The Bharatpur government hospital in Chitwan District of Nepal was the first stop of the Spinal Beetle out of Kathmandu. The Bharatpur hospital sought help for setting up a spinal injury rehabilitation unit, which is in line with the Spinal Centre’s belief in decentralising rehabilitation. As a gesture of goodwill for the Nepal-India-Pakistan drive, the hospital committee donated NRs 50,000, which was gratefully received.

• In New Delhi, Maj. H.P.S. Ahluwalia of ISIC suggested that Dixit work to set up a Southasian network for spinal injury rehabilitation, given the specificity of the need. There was an enthusiastic response to this idea throughout the rest of the trip all the way to the Paraplegic Centre in Peshawar.

• At the Mayo Hospital in Lahore, the Medical Superintendent Dr. Zahid Pervaiz and Head of Rehabilitation Medicine Dr. Waseem Iqbal provided information on spinal injury and trauma response that had been developed in Pakistan. They graciously offered four-year full fellowships for two doctors to be sent by the Spinal Centre-Nepal.

Only a Nepali team and a German Bug could get past border babus like this!

• In Islamabad, the Nepal team got specific information on the response to the 2005 earthquake which hit Kashmir and the Hazara division. The team invited Pakistani specialists to Kathmandu to share information on the medical, rescue, social work and humanitarian aspects, so that Nepal would be better able to tackle the mega-tremor that is projected to hit Kathmandu Valley and surrounding areas before long.

• In Islamabad, activist and politician Nafisa Khattak introduced the team to the Melody Theatre, which had served as a staging ground for the sudden rush of victims from the 2005 earthquake. Poignantly, this only cinema hall of the city had been set to torch by a radical mob some years earlier.

• In Agra, members of the Indian Doctors for Peace and Development reminded the team that while there were 8-9 neurosurgeons in the city, there was no rehabilitation centre.

• The Volkswagen Club of Pakistan (VCP) took the Spinal Beetle under its wings in Islamabad and made sure that the car was made ship-shape after the climb up from the Punjab plains. Discussion was started with the club members about organising a VW Beetle rally from Islamabad all the way to Dhaka through India and via Kathmandu, as an exemplary means to develop people-to-people contact in the Subcontinent. This would require cooperation between the VCP, the Association of Nepal’s Beetle Users (ANBUG), the Volkswagen Club of Bangladesh and the Volkswagen Beetle community in India.

• At a meeting organised by the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy and the Islamabad Cultural Forum, Dixit spoke on the theme of ‘land connectivity’ in Southasia. “If on an old VW Beetle can do the Kathmandu-to-Peshawar trip with ease, imagine how easy it will be for everyone else.” At this time of geopolitical rapprochement between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, a special push must be made for land connectivity, he added. “Let a hundred thousand networks bloom across Southasia, in the spectrum from spinal injury to VW Beetles and beyond, to bring the people together.”

More on the Spinal Beetle drive: The sudden rise of the number of patients over the last year has forced the Spinal Centre-Nepal to raise its service from 39 beds to 51. We seek to raise USD 110,000 from the 1,100 mile journey of the Spinal Beetle, at the ‘rate’ of USD 100 per mile from friends and supporters worldwide. By the time the Spinal Beetle arrived at Peshawar on 16 November, a little over half that amount had been raised. The Spinal Beetle Rally is also an effort to raise awareness of spinal injury prevention, rescue, care and rehabilitation in the Subcontinent.

The Spinal Beetle has done the Kathmandu-Dhaka stretch twice, in 2002 and 2005, and touched base at the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP) in Bangladesh. The CRP would be a key institution in the networking of spinal injury rehabilitation institutions that is proposed.

The Spinal Beetle will carry their hopes and dreams across three countries, driven by that small man standing behind - Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene