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A City of Silly Walks and Sikhs

Asia » India » Punjab » Amritsar - 13 to 15 March 2013

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A lot of water has gone under that proverbial bridge, but my memories of the amazing things we did, the great people we met and the wondrous places we saw remain as clear as the day. Well, most of them do. Any that are a bit murky are quickly brought to mind by my camera, which has a photographic memory!

Copious photos and videos, you see, are my crutches as I don't write down things as I go along - perhaps I should as it's said that 190,000 brain cells die each day and, at my age, I can't have many of them left.

Anyhow...

Our incredible five-week tour of Incredible India was now drawing to a close.

We'd seen the slums of Dharavi and the opulence of the Taj Mahal. We'd enjoyed the relative tranquillity of wildlife reserves and the chaos of crowded city markets. We'd encountered the dust and heat of Rajasthan and the cool, thin air of Himachal Pradesh... It had been a very rewarding return visit for me and a true eye-opener for Janice and David, those India-virgins the 'Grey haired nomads'.

But we still had a few more days and still a few more of India's wonders to see...

*****

We couldn't wait to leave Pong. Moments after our luggage had been loaded into the car, the hotel manager had appeared in his night clothes and we'd paid the bill that he'd scribbled on the back of the restaurant chit (see: 'Pong stinks!'). Our driver had spent the night in his car and was eager to be on the road too - after taking us the 130 kilometres (80 miles/3 hours) to our final destination, he planned to drive the 200 kilometres (125 miles/5 hours) back up the winding mountain roads to Dharamsala.

So, waving a fond farewell to the trousers and t-shirt still hanging on the washing line outside the hotel entrance, we wound our way down the track to the main road and on to Amritsar in the state of Punjab.

We knew we'd reached the outskirts of Amritsar when the car started to do battle with a growing number of bicycles, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cycle rickshaws, lorries, buses and pedestrians.

At a particularly busy junction, our driver unexpectedly pulled into the kerb and asked us for the name of our hotel (Golden Tulip) and its address (GT Road).

'Ah, this GT Road. Which way?', asked our driver.

'No idea - it's our first time here!', we replied.

'Kolkata or Lahore?', the driver added.

It transpired that GT Road was short for Grand Trunk Road - an historic trade route, which starts in the east of India at Kolkata (Calcutta), runs through Varanasi and Delhi to Amritsar, then crosses the nearby border to Lahore in Pakistan, before continuing up through Islamabad, over the Indus River to Peshawar, and through the Khyber Pass to Kabul in Afghanistan! Hence the question, I guess.

Fortunately, I knew our hotel wasn't on the way to Calcutta - so Lahore it had to be!

We stopped several more times for him to ask tuk-tuk drivers the way to 'Gordon Toolup?', 'Gooden Truloop?', 'Gowdown Trawlap?', all his enquiries receiving quizzical looks and shaking of heads. Eventually, we asked someone ourselves (in English) and were soon at the smart entrance to the Golden Tulip Hotel.

The city of Amritsar is a mere 32 kilometres (20 miles) east of Lahore and thus very close to India's western border with Pakistan. Half its population was once Muslim, the other half Hindu and Sikh. The arbitrary line drawn on the map in 1947 by Cyril Radcliffe, the English lawyer working for the British rulers who were about to give independence to this piece of the Empire, went right through people’s homes, dividing fields, pastures and villages. This 'Partition', as it was called, resulted in religious clashes and the inevitable movement of Muslims to Pakistan. Similarly, Hindus and Sikhs were forced to move out of Pakistan, many settling in Amritsar. Today, all faiths live in harmony here, Islam now the minority, followed by Hinduism, but with the majority following Sikhism. Indeed, Amritsar has become the spiritual centre for the Sikh religion.

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When you've been cycling around in traffic jams all day, you need to put your feet up!

*****

The only road-crossing along the 1,800 mile (2,900 km) border between India and Pakistan is the Attari Border Post at a place called Wagah. It's a border with a reputation like no other and we simply had to see it for ourselves. So, after being escorted to our rooms by the Golden Tulip's effusive manager (who, it has to be said, was trying far too hard to create a good impression, gushing with politeness and eagerness to be of assistance), we had lunch in the open-air rooftop restaurant.

Later, a taxi took us to Wagah, about half an hour away. We needed to be there well before sunset, when the national flags on each side of the border would be ceremoniously lowered and the gates closed in what we knew to be an unusual fashion.

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The taxi took us as near as it could to the crowds now making their way towards the security checkpoints, one for men, another for women. We'd been warned not to take bags, bottled water, mobile phones or even cases for our cameras, although the security frisking turned out to be quite perfunctory and friendly.

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There's a special entrance for VIPs and foreigners - alas, we were the latter. VIPs showed their paper passes to BSF (Border Security Force) officers - who were grossly overdressed in neatly-pressed uniforms, spats and ridiculous cockscomb hats - and were given star treatment with seating right next to all the action.

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We jolly foreigners showed our passports and were ushered into another area with tiered concrete steps a little further away, but with a far better view of the event than most of the thousands of Indians now streaming onto the neighbouring terraces. What followed was a show to rival patriotism at the FA Cup Final, although lasting only a little longer than the 45-minute first-half.

A cheerleader in a white track-suit provided the warm-up act, making announcements and whipping up the audience to make more noise. Groups of women and children ran up and down in front of the crowd carrying the national flag. Popular tunes, including Hindi film themes like the 'Slumdog Millionaire' hit 'Jai Ho!' were played at ear-splitting volume for everyone to sing along to. Women danced their socks off in front of the cheering crowd, smiling brightly and energetically waving their hands in the air.

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Chants of 'Hindustan Zindabad!' (Long Live India!) were echoed with 'Pakistan Zindabad' (and the occasional 'Allah ho Akbar') from behind the the green and white crescent-moon flag on the Pakistani side.

The Indian BSF officers pranced around at quick-march pace, adding high kicks that dancers at the Moulin Rouge would be proud of and which rivalled those performed by John Cleese in the Monty Python 'Ministry of Silly Walks' sketch. Women officers participated in the performance too - but only on the Indian side, of course. The tall, all-male Sutlej Rangers on the Pakistani side of the border, clad in sombre black outfits with matching silly hats, tried their hardest to emulate their Indian counterparts. Unfortunately, they lacked encouragement from a much quieter Pakistani crowd, whose numbers were a mere shadow of those on our side of the frontier.

Commands and bugle calls were long and monotonous. Crotch-splitting kicks from the BSF performers got higher and higher. The Indian crowds cheered and shouted 'Hindustan' at every opportunity.

Finally, with pompous, exaggerated gestures, the national flags were lowered in unison. Guards on each side then gave the briefest of handshakes, before slamming the gates shut in each other's face!

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Quite what all this had to do with border security I'm not sure, but it was an hilarious piece of pageantry and theatre that we wouldn't have missed for all the tea in Darjeeling!

Afterwards, it took longer for us to return to our taxi amid the huge and happy crowds than it had to get into the spectacle!

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If you have five minutes (and one second) to spare, take a look at some highlights of the amusing proceedings in my video at the bottom of the page - but don't do it yet, there's still more to come about what we saw in Amritsar!

*****

A small aside: In most Indian towns, giant hoardings and banners strung across the roads carry often bizarre advertisements. Some of them are more interesting than others:

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I noticed my follically-challenged brother taking a keen interest in this!

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Very 'interesting' for us oldies

*****

In addition to the religious strife caused by Partition, Amritsar has also been the site of some of Punjab's darkest moments.

In 1919, during the British Raj, there'd been a fear among Europeans living in Punjab that plans were afoot to overthrow British rule. A strike had been called by Mahatma Gandhi and this had turned violent in some places. Convinced that a meeting of up to 20,000 people in Amritsar's Jallianwala Bagh public garden was about to become a major insurrection, the local British army chief, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, took a troop of army riflemen to the gardens. Inexplicably, and without warning, he ordered the soldiers to shoot directly at the crowd of men, women and children. Many hundreds were killed by the time the ammunition ran out - the precise number of dead is still unknown, but one estimate put it at more than 1,500. Dyer's disgraceful and never-to-be-forgotten action is thought to have been a contributory factor in eventually ending British rule in India.

We visited Jallianwala Bagh, now a well-maintained memorial garden with lawns and colourful shrubs, but left after only a short while. Wire sculptures in the form of riflemen, reminiscent of topiary, were strategically placed among the lawns. A sign in English and Punjabi script stated 'People were fired at from here'. An explanatory tablet described 'the non-violent and peaceful struggle for freedom of Indian people' and 'the tyranny of the British'. We're from a different generation of Britons, but felt decidedly uncomfortable being there.

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*****

The nearby Harmandir Sahib - the 'Golden Temple' - had been the site of a tragic event too, in 1984. A Sikh militant, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, was accused of amassing weapons in the temple in order to start an uprising in his quest for a separate Sikh state. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, sent in tanks, artillery and helicopters, killing around 500. This, in turn, lead to increased tension throughout the country, assaults on members of Sikh communities and resignation of Sikhs in the Indian army and civil service. Ultimately, it lead to Indira Gandhi being assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards and more than 3,000 Sikhs being killed in the anti-Sikh reprisals which followed.

Peace reigns at the Golden Temple now, however, and we were welcomed at this, the city's most important Sikh shrine (known as a gurdwara) where more than 100,000 people come to worship every day. It's said that it attracts even more visitors than the iconic Taj Mahal. It certainly seemed that way when we visited it yesterday. I'd be lying if I said we'd planned our itinerary to be here on 14 March - the first day of the Sikh New Year - but what a fortunate coincidence it proved to be!

The roads were more crowded than ever as the faithful made their way to the temple to celebrate the start of the year 544 in the Nanakshahi Calendar (named after the Sikh religion's founder Guru Nanak).

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Most forms of transport aren't allowed to go farther than the entrance to the street leading to the temple.
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In nearby streets, dozens of small shops sold trinkets, religious paraphernalia of all kinds and framed pictures of the Guru and the temple. Devout Sikhs follow what is known as the 'Five Ks': Kesh - the unshorn long hair; Khanga - a small comb used twice a day to keep the hair tidy; Kara - an iron or steel bangle worn on the wrist to symbolise life as never ending; Kachera - a type of underpants that double as shorts; and Kirpan - a small dagger to defend those in peril. These apply equally to men and women, except that women never publicly display their Kachera! Many of the shops on the way to the temple were selling Karas and Kirpans alongside a miscellany of other goods.

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People - us included - stopped to tie bandanas onto their heads as a mark of respect (hats won't do!), some having been bought from itinerant salesmen for a few Rupees.

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Nearing the temple, shoes had to be removed and left for safekeeping in a huge repository, from where we walked on coir mats to wash our feet in a small trough of water beside one of the entrance gates. The temple complex has four entrances, intended to symbolize the openness of Sikhs towards all people, regardless of race, religion, sex or creed.

Whichever entrance you choose, It's likely to be a bit like the 'ooh' moment at the Taj Mahal - such a wonderful first sight.

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Inside the complex, Sikhs prostrated themselves, gazed longingly at the shining temple building, and men stripped down to their Kachera to take a ritual bath in the fish-filled pool surrounding the gurdwara. Women too could bathe, more discretely, in a pavilion reserved for that purpose on one side of the pool.

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A queue of thousands bearing offerings waited patiently to reach the gurdwara along a covered causeway. There they would pray at the holy inner sanctum containing a copy of the Adi Granth, the earliest compilation of holy Sikh scriptures.

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All around, with barely a handful of tourists in evidence, was a wealth of bright orange bandanas, flowing costumes and a positive riot of colourful turbans - red ones, blue ones, black ones, yellow ones, small ones, tall ones, and absolutely blooming massive ones! Sikh men don't cut their hair, so there was an abundance of beards and moustaches too.

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We lost track of time here, walking at least twice around the complex with the sun glinting brightly on the pool, the gold roof of the temple and the surrounding white buildings. The marble beneath our bare feet was sometimes too warm for comfort. The colour was vibrant. The atmosphere was tranquil, reverent and joyful.

It was one of my favourite places of our entire five-week tour. And, it was a photographer's paradise!

Accommodation:
We pushed the boat out to spend the last night of our holiday at the 4-star Golden Tulip Hotel, conveniently located on GT Road within easy reach of the airport, the border at Wagah and the Golden Temple. It was a great choice.

The service was outstanding, with the management team making a point of speaking to guests and offering whatever assistance was required - somewhat effusively, as mentioned earlier.

It has around 50 rooms. Ours were spacious, clean, well-furnished and extremely comfortable, although a little strange in that the large picture windows, when the full-height curtains were pulled back, looked out onto an almost full-height white wall. Tea and coffee-making facilities, a fridge/mini-bar with two small bottles of water daily, and high-speed WiFi were all provided in the rooms free of charge.

A buffet-style breakfast was included and other meals were both excellent and reasonably priced. We paid Rs.3,500 (£42/US$65/€50) for a double room and Rs.3,000 (£36/US$55/€43) for a double used for single occupancy. Good value for money.

*****

You'll find that video of the ceremony at the Wagah border mentioned above by clicking HERE.
It's guaranteed to bring a smile to your face!

*****

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This sums up my feelings about Amritsar!

Posted by Keep Smiling 04:12 Archived in India Tagged india amritsar punjab wagah_border Comments (3)

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