Sunday, 21 March 2010

Savoring the Taste of Amritsar's Holy Nectar

The Sikh Holy City and the India-Pakistan Border

Originally Published in the Jakarta Globe, 10/03/10

A roar rose from the crowd: “Jai Hind!” Up with India! From a hundred metres away an equally passionate response bounced back like an echo: “Pakistan Zindabad!” Long live Pakistan! The sun was slanting across the Punjab and I was pinned in the middle of a mass of flag-waving Indian patriots. Just to the west exactly the same thing was going on – except there the flapping flags were those of Pakistan. On the road beneath me abnormally tall Indian soldiers with ridiculous red headdresses were prancing, preening and high-kicking like cockerels. On the same road, just beyond an imposing gateway, similarly attired Pakistanis were going through the same theatrical motions.
 Something very strange was going on here. I was at the Wagah Checkpoint, the only official crossing in the entire length of the hyper-sensitive border between India and Pakistan. But the evening border-closing ceremony that I was watching looked more like an exercise in camp choreography than a display of bitter enmity...


 I had arrived that morning in Amritsar, the major city of Indian Punjab. The Punjab is the breadbasket of north India, and the train that brought me from Delhi had rolled over rich yellow plains. Irrigation canals stalked by long-legged cattle egrets carried water to fields heavy with maize and millet, and herds of dirty-white cows raised storms of pale dust on rutted tracks.
 Amritsar itself was the archetypal North Indian city. A mob of hungry rickshaw (pedicab) drivers besieged me at the colonial-era station and the streets were a maelstrom of bikes, trucks and buses. But there is something that makes Amritsar special. This is the holiest city of the Sikh religion.
 Sikhism, the newest major world religion, was founded in Punjab in the 16th Century by the man revered by Sikhs as the first Guru, Nanak. Rejecting both the major faiths of the Subcontinent, Guru Nanak declared “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim”. His new religion was monotheistic, rejecting idolatry and the Hindu concept of caste, but also many of the strictures of Islam. Today there are around 25 million Sikhs worldwide.

 After escaping the rickshaw drivers I headed for the old city, following a thickening flow of pilgrims to the heart of the Sikh religion, the Golden Temple.
 I left my shoes at the gate, covered my head with a bandana – as required – and stepped across the threshold into a world of gleaming white marble. Ahead lay a great square pool of water, shining in the midday heat. Pilgrims in saffron turbans fell to their knees on the polished tiles, pressing their palms together and bowing their foreheads to the floor. They were praying towards a building at the very centre of the complex: reached by a narrow causeway and seeming to float on the water was the Harimandir, the Golden Temple itself.
 Amritsar, meaning “Pool of Nectar”, takes its name from the tank that surrounds the temple. The earliest shrine here was built in the late 16th Century by the fourth Sikh Guru, but it was expanded and embellished repeatedly over the centuries. Today it is the most important pilgrimage centre for Sikhs from around the world.
 All Sikhs, no matter how wealthy, are expected to do charitable service in their gurdwarras (temples). In the halls around the temple cheerful volunteers were working in communal kitchens, preparing free meals for anyone who was hungry – pilgrims, tourists, and the local poor, regardless of their religion.
 Most of the men had tall turbans and thick beards. The final Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh, sanctioned five obligatory symbols that would make Sikhs instantly recognizable. Known as the Five Ks, these were kesh, the uncut hair and beard; kanga, a comb, worn tucked beneath the turban; kachchhera, a knee-length undergarment; kara, a steel bracelet, and kirpan, a sword or dagger.
 Guru Gobind also compiled the Sikh texts into the holy book of Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib, declaring that the book itself would be the eternal 11th Guru. A copy of the Granth is kept in the inner sanctum of the Golden Temple where a party of black-turbaned priests were keeping up a continuous recitation. The walls of the temple were lavishly decorated. It was like being inside a maharani’s jewel box.
 After being the centre of a powerful Sikh empire in the 19th Century, Amritsar and the Punjab fell to the British colonialists, and in the nascent independence movement that grew in the early 20th Century the region saw its fair share of unrest. In fact, one of the key events in India’s independence struggle took place just a few hundred meters from the Golden Temple.
 Shedding my bandana and recovering my shoes I made my way to Jalianwalla Bagh. This garden is an open space, hemmed by the close-packed walls of the old city – just as it was on April 13 1919 when a huge crowd, swelled by ill-fated pilgrims, gathered to protest a draconian new act passed by the British, which, amongst other things, banned protests of this very kind. After a short stand-off troops led by one General Dyer opened fire on the unarmed protestors. Hundreds were killed, but the massacre helped to galvanize the wider independence movement. 
 But independence brought bloodshed to Amritsar that made the carnage at Jalianwalla Bagh look positively tame. When the Subcontinent was partitioned between Muslim Pakistan and officially secular but Hindu-dominated India, the Punjab too was sliced in half and a new, arbitrary border driven through the belt of agricultural land between Amritsar and the neighboring city of Lahore. Across North India Muslim refugees headed west and Hindus and Sikhs traipsed east. The migration was accompanied by horrific communal massacres. Refugee trains from the west arrived in Amritsar station with not one passenger still alive; trains from the east arrived in Lahore in a similar blood-soaked state.
 Partition left Sikhs separated from many of their holy places in what became Pakistan, and it also left two huge countries with a shared history but a spectacularly troublesome modern relationship. Nuclear rivalry, religious animosity and a bloody past – none of it made the Wagah Checkpoint, some 20 kilometers west of Amritsar, sound like a place for a family outing. But as I emerged from Jalianwalla Bagh it seemed as if that was just where dozens of sightseeing Indian families were preparing to go. I joined them, catching a ride in a minibus out through the fields and villages, and soon found myself in the thick of the cheering crowd on the viewing terraces as the soldiers postured wildly down below.

 It was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen. The soldiers preened and puffed in a caricature of huffing fury. They stomped and strutted to face their Pakstani counterparts – with timing of such perfection that close, and friendly, cooperation was obviously required – then whipped around and marched away, noses in the air like teenage drama queens. All the while the two crowds cheered and waved their flags as if they were at a football match. And then, as the sun finally slipped down behind the sagging palm trees in the direction of Lahore, the two flags were lowered, the gate was slammed shut and the performance was over for another day. Pakistan and India might not be the best of neighbors, and the countryside around Amritsar might have a terribly blood-stained past. But amidst the rancor the daily border-closing ceremony at Wagah, with all its pantomime silliness, is still guaranteed to raise a smile – and smile I did, all the way back to Amritsar in the dusk...  

© Tim Hannigan 2010

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