Mother Goose to The Golden Temple
07.05.2010 - 09.05.2010 40 °C
John:....The last time Jackie and I saw the Pakistan-India border was from 33 000 feet looking down at the brightly lit line cutting its way through the dead of night; black and floodlight white the only colours. The only noise was the whine of the jet engines, the temperature carefully controlled and everything the model of order. How different from our next visit to the border.
We arrived in Amritsar on the Delhi-Amritsar Express Train two hours later than scheduled. The delay was due to a bomb scare on the express causing the train to be stopped and searched. To avoid any major inconvenience we were loosely assembled only 5 metres or so from this potentially explosive device and the train was stopped at a station right in the middle of a small but densely populated township just outside Delhi.
Armed police (there is a large number of arms on the streets here and the security police on each train are armed with light machine guns) with the aid of a sniffer dog searched the train. The sniffer dog was a very fat black labrador. Amanda thought he might well be able to find a lamb chop OK but a bomb....? A little while after we disembarked local traders came across the tracks selling chai, water and snacks. We chatted to a Bacardi salesman who had just moved into the north-east of India as other trains passed us, their passengers hanging out from carraige doorways...some of the passengers from our train, frustrated at the wait, climbed aboard the other train as it rumbled past us. As suddenly as the train stopped we were told to get back on and service continued as if nothing had happened.
Our car driver from Amritsar, Raman, collected us and after a brief luggage drop at the hotel whisked us away to the nightly border ceremony at Wagha, 40 minutes from Amritsar. What we saw was a piece of pure theatre, conducted by the Border Defense Force of the Indian Army, dressed up in military costumes and with the remains of ceremony and pomp from pre-independence days. We were directed to our seats in the visitors area, right at the front of all the action. To our right, an arena, divided down the middle into male and female seats. Accomodating several thousand people, the arena was packed full. We sat next to the women's section, ablaze with colours from the most spectacular saris. Between the men's and women's sections and directly in front of us was the road leading from Pakistan into India, leading out towards Amritsar through a large concrete archway surmounted by the distinctive orange, white and green of the Indian Flag. In the other direction Lahor, through the gate and under the green and white Pakistan flag...only a short distance but a whole ideology away. On the road in front of us, people were dancing as if it was club night. Bollywood hits were pumped out at high volume as the women and girls (no men) danced furiously. JAI HO, the big hit from the film Slumdog Millionaire was played as were other Indian favourites.
Keeping order were soldiers from the Indian Army Border Security Force. Despite the flamboyance of their ceremonial dress these were serious looking soldiers, clearly enjoying the occasion but also looking like the kind of people not to be messed with.
In between songs an Master of Ceremonies urged the already fervent crowd on with chants of (M/C) HINDUSTAN (CROWD) ZINABAR (long live India), directing the crowd to shout their response to the Pakistan gate. On the other side of the gate the same thing is happening (although I'm not sure about the dancing bit). We could just see the Pakistan crowd, less colourful but equally vociferous, shouting back in response to their M/C. Soon the music stopped and the Indian soldiers, resplendent in their khaki uniforms, brilliant white gaiters and braiding and, most spectacular, their headgear consisting of a turban (Sikh soldiers) or hat crowned with a fan like structure in red and gold rising up out of the hat. The result being that already tall men seemed even taller. There was a great deal of peacockery, preening, posing, stamping, strutting and shouting going on. Ceremonial marching involving high kicks, very fast marching and extraordinary and prolonged military barking followed on from the Indian senior officer and the Pakistan senior officer marching to the border point, briefly shaking hands (blink and you would have missed it). The chanting continued, flag waving....the nearest thing to this I have seen that was as primal was at Cardiff Arms Park many years ago. For just a few minutes we were all Indians!
The whole ceremony lasted about 45 minutes and with the appropriate respect due, both flags were lowered together as the sun set over Pakistan.... and it was all over. Despite the shaky relationship between India and Pakistan, this type of spectacle could only happen with close collaboration between the two of them. Part sporting event, part solemn ceremony, part noisy theatrical spectacle.
We pushed our way back through the still-jubilant crowd to find Raman and our car before and, from the cor blimey to the sublime, we made our way through the late evening to the holiest of places in the Sikh faith, The Golden Temple at Amritsar. We walked the short distance through the busy streets of night time Amritsar, past the postcard and DVD sellers, past the food stalls and beggers, the rickshaw hustlers and taxi touts, towards the temple complex. Removing shoes and washing feet before entering, past the tall, turbaned guard with ceremonial pike who asked if we had cigarettes (strictly forbidden) in our bags, we walked up the short flight of steps and suddenly, as if from from nowhere, the temple appeared, glittering and gleaming in the lights, seemingly floating on the surrounding rectangular lake of sacred water. All around us Sikh pilgrims, the men bearded and turbaned, the women in flowing silks, children, some only days old, accompanying their parents.
Around the lake is a white marble colonaide, inlaid with darker stone and on which the faithful, and visitors, walk in a clockwise direction. As we walked people around us bathed in the waters or knelt and bowed towards the temple. Old men sat in small glass fronted rooms reading from the holy books and the sacred chanting and music from the temple was broadcast around the colonaide. We made our way to the dining area.
Amritsar is a place of pilgrimage as well as a place for local Sikh worship. As such the temple offers food for all visitors irrespective of their faith. Around 70 000 meals per day are served and food is provided 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. A total of approximately 25 500 000 meals per year. In order to meet this demand the methods of serving are rudementary. As you make your way towards the dining area a volunteer hands you an indented steel tray...further along and a spoon is provided. The dining area is a large room, perhaps 20 metres by 15 metres with, running along its length, strips of fibre carpet. Diners sit in lines, facing each other and cross legged, with the carpet in the middle. The visitor places the tray on the floor in front of them (those experienced in this place the tray a little distance from themselves) and volunteers with gleaming buckets and ladles splash a serving of dhal on to the tray and some water into a steel bowl. Another volunteer drops some chappatis into your outstretched hand.
We sat next to a young Sikh man and his father, both from Amritsar. The younger man welcomed us to his temple, emphasised that all were welcome and asked a little about us. Having used up his English and my non-existant Hindi we were content just to sit and eat, enjoying the devotional music and the unique experience of thios beautiful place. The logistics of the whole catering side of the temple are staggering. Volunteers wash up in a busy, clattering way whilst others sit on the floor in groups chatting away as they prepare vegetables, herbs and spices to add to the dhal.
Somehow the noise of the catering arrangements didn't intrude into the atmosphere of quiet contemplation in the rest of the temple complex.
Rather like our visit to Machu Piccu earlier in the trip I was worried that The Golden Temple would be unable to live up to its reputation. Like Machu Piccu it exceeded my expectations by a huge margin and is one of the most beautiful places I have seen. We revisited the next morning. In the daylight it looked very different; equally beautiful but different.
We visited several other places in the bustling, crowded city of Amritsar. Of note was the garden shrine, bought and developed by the Sikh community, to commemorate those killed and injured in 1919 following protests about the Rowlett Act. Casualties estimated at 1500 followed the British army opening fire on protesters with in excess of 400 deaths. The shrine is an oasis of peace and tranquility. Just through the doorway is the heaving, noisy, steaming market stall laden main street and, like stepping through into a parallel universe, this shrine is a world away.
Every bus ride and stroll in the park India has the potential to be a blog posting in its own right. I am trying hard to edit events down so the blogs don't get too long but it is harder to do here than anywhere else we have visited. I'll end this blog here, slightly frustrated at how difficult it is to convey the experience of being in India.
The next posting, probably tomorrow, will relate some of the sights, sites and sounds from the next part of the excursion; to McLeod Ganj in Dharamsala, home of the Tibetan Government in Exile and seat of the Dalai Lama. In the meantime lots of love and best wishes to family and friends.