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Long route home Our trip all the way home, trying to catch no planes and stay on the ground like civilised people. It's taking us via India all the way to Europe from Japan, the furthest of the Far East...

Sikh-ing the real India

INDIA | Thursday, 30 September 2010 | Views [1207]

Fun and games with visa red tape meant that we arrived in Amritsar a day later than we'd hoped, leaving us a fairly short time to cram in the sights. We stayed out in one of many cantonments in India - another visible sign of the the army presence everywhere and especially in the Punjab, next to Pakistan and with grim memories of 1947.  The Sikhs are of course very much warrior folk and so they contribute far more than their fair share, even today, to India's army.  We've also passed a number of recruitment centres, the Indian equivalent of 'Your country needs you' or 'Discover yourself with the army' being a little more graphic and grusome with real battle images. Your happy go lucky vagabonds avoided the military compounds and stayed in yet another institution: Mrs Bhandari's guesthouse. the centagenarian owner passed away recently, leaving her daughter in charge of this peaceful piece of the 1950s carry-on Butlins. The swimming pool, sunshine, lawn and lack of hoped-for morning buses running to Chandigarh tempted us to shrink our sight seeing schedule still further.

We've been reading two different India books, both with accounts of Partition and the horrors perpetrated by all sides. Nowhere in India was more affected by Partition - one million Punjabis died. Trains of dead bodies were almost traded tit for tat across the border, the river filled with corpses and neighbours/friends killed one another.  With this in mind, and knowing the depth of anti-Pakistan feeling in much of the country, it was with more than a little trepidation that we drove to the nightly border ceremony. It was surreal, you may think that the following account of the border ceremony is one of Oli's made up tales to check you are paying attention. Let me assure you that Emma's writing this bit, and it's all true. We arrived to a festival atmosphere, the myriad snack stalls selling samosa were outnumbered by those selling Indian flags/hats/wristbands, women were dressed up in fine sequinned saris, groups of school children ran around, and people made their way through the security checks towards the border.  Men, women, tourists and VIPs were divided at the gate, pockets and bodies searched and food/water jettisoned. 4 security checks later, and we found ourselves in what can only be described as an amphitheatre, divided by a wall and the gate with Pakistan - that arbitrary line drawn by the Brits that brought hell to the subcontinent. Indian music blares from speakers as the audience grows and the expectation mounts. There were between one and two thousand people there when the ceremony began. 

A group of women formed a line and the front one was given an Indian flag. With much cheering from the masses, she ran as fast as she could towards the gate, flag held high. Several more flags were presented, and the ladies flag relay charge began in earnest. Soon they carried the flags in pairs so that more would be able to run. After a time, the flags were intercepted by the guards and dispatched to the top of the audience. Flagless, the women began to dance various huge (and more elegant) hokey cokey type jigs. More time, and many songs passed before the guards broke up the dancing.  The guards then began a series of Monty Python-esque walks up and down. One guard was skilled in holding his 'ahhhhhh' for a long time, competing with the Pakistani guard on the other side who was similarly vocally gifted. (Yes, this commotion was going on on both sides of the border, though they didn't have as many people!) The MC called out in Hindi, and the crowd chanted "Hindustan jaihind, Hindustan jaihind'.  The gates opened. From each side, guards marched to the centre and shook hands. More high leg marches on both sides. In unison, they lowered the Indian and Pakistani flags. Queue more cheering, more marching, more shouting and it was all over.  It is hard to convey the surreal atmosphere at the border that night, the jaunty celebrations overseen by fierce armed guards wearing jaunty red fans on their helmets. And so many questions remain: Was there an undertone of violence to this happy, almost carefree celebration of each country's edge? How in the world did the ceremony evolve? Is there some one-upmanship among the sets of border guards to outperform the other side each night? Don't the guards of this difficult border have anything better to do?

Hanging over the whole affair was the spectre of Ayodhya.  In 1992 a dispute over a mosque supposedly built on the site of a former Hindu temple which was allegedly the birthplace of Ram centuries ago turned particularly ugly and the mosque was torn down by a mob, setting off further mobs and hundreds of deaths throughout India.  Once calm, or at least a merely simmering rather than furiously boiling tension, had been restored, the courts decided to clear up for once and for all whether the site should belong to Hindus as the birthplace of Lord Ram or Moslems as a mosque.  This decision was due to be announced while we were in Amritsar, which was a jolly sensible place to be - all the Moslems are across the border in Pakistani Punjab, so no chance at all of 'communal tension'.  To give you an idea of how serious the issue is, bear in mind that the government took out ads in all papers for a week preceding the verdict pleading for calm and sanity.  It turned out to be a bit of a damp squib - the land was divided up two parts Hindu and one Moslem, pending the inevitable appeals.  What surprises us most about it is that the court appear to have ruled that a fictional Hindu god-being was actually, as recognised by a secular court, born in this particular place.  In other words, faith (of Hindus) has been given legal basis.  A worrying precendent for law perhaps...but a good one communally in so far as there were no problems and nothing more than vague indifference broke out.  Now of course the pressing issue should be the bringing to book of the fellows that tore the mosque down in broad daylight and were caught in numerous pictures. 

The other major sight in Amritsar is the Golden Temple. This beating heart of the Sikh faith is another attraction that really delivers on the hype. Byeond the shiny and awe inspiring glittering gold temple, reflected in the surrounding water and set against the white outer walls, we were impressed by the thoughtful organisation and careful design which gives a calm, cool, reflective atmosphere. There are places for people to sit and read scriptures, listen to the music and store their change of clothes so that they can bathe in the holy water.  It is a multi-faith venue, and non Sikh visitors are welcomed and gently guided. There's no entry fee, head coverings are provided and there are clear, well-run and free places to leave one's shoes, and wash feet at the entrance.  It is much more than a temple, it's a place where free water and food are given to worshippers and those in need - an interesting example of a religious site practicing what it preaches. Thousands of meals are served up each day, those who can afford it make a donation.  The whole place was so peaceful and pretty it was like being back in Japan for a moment.  Just up the road was our final stop. The Jainwallah Bagh Memorial to those massacred (379-2000, depending on sources) by the British in 1919.  Many people had gathered for a spring fair, unaware that assemblies of more than five had been declared illegal.  The gentle rulers of India, the Brits, unloaded all their ammunition into them.  Even here, people wanted to shake our hands and take pictures.  The memorial is laid out with great care and obvious sadness, a lovely garden, the bullet holes on the wall marked with white paint, the well that people jumped into rather than be shot and a candle burning in memory of the dead. The lack of bitterness at what was a particularly ugly and vicious moment in a very ugly and vicious rule was striking though unsurprising, as it's been the same throughout India.  Souveniers came next - and the realisation that swords are surprisingly cheap out here with so many blade-carrying, martially-minded Sikhs.  Weapons bought, we headed off onto the bus to Chandigarh.

If you are going:
_ Mrs Bhandari's - full of character and characters
- The border ceremony takes place at sundown, get there on reasonable time. You will need your passport, but don't take a bag as you're not allowed to take it in. Cameras are OK.
- We enjoyed both Sanjeev Bhaskar's India, accompanying the BBC series and Kushwant Singh: the Train to Pakistan
- Don't fret about the golden temple, it's really easy to see and hard to cause offence

Tags: amritsar, border, sikhs, sword, turbans


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