Monday, 16 May 2011

India - The first Ministry of (Indian) Silly Walks

May 7-8

Hello everyone!

So another weekend, and another excursion. I have been looking forward to visiting this particular part of India for a while. A five-hour taxi ride took me into the north-western state of Punjab – the home of the Sikhs. The main place of worship for Sikhs is in Punjab’s biggest city: Amritsar.

When many people think of this part of the world, they will think of the turban. Certainly, there are lots of them around, but other facets of Punjabi culture are famous too. Food is a good example. Tandoori chicken emanates from this region, as does dal makhni – black dal. The former is rather expensive, so we ate the latter. It’s like eating bread with thick lentil-tinged gravy. That’s a very good thing.

The turban is a fundamental part of a Sikh’s heritage. Within the old city of dusty, cluttered Amritsar is Sikhism’s holiest site: the Golden Temple. It is a sea of tranquillity amongst the chaos of its surroundings. It isn’t the largest temple you will see, but it certainly generates an atmosphere that is unique from any place of worship that I have previously visited.

You can see the pictures, so I don’t need to talk you through the aesthetics of the place. The golden centrepiece sitting in the sacred pool of water is the Hari Mandir Sahib, which is accessed on a causeway from the white marble edges known as the Parkarma. I don’t know if it’s only open to Sikhs, but with a line over 3 hours in length we weren’t going to find out. The Parkarma is what you walk around, observing the Sikhs bathing in the holy water and absorbing the peaceful aura.

It is peaceful, but that it not to say that it is quiet. In fact it is a rather noisy place, as many priests maintain a continuous, harmonious chant of verses from the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. The sheer volume of worshippers also generates a different humdrum of sound. We visited twice – once late on a Saturday night, and then very early the following morning – and both times it was swarming with people. Yet the din that is the result of these factors is strangely haunting and peaceful.

Another area of Amritsar is haunting, but in a less positive way. Nearby Jallianwala Bagh was, in 1919, the scene of a massacre of the unarmed local population by British forces. The park is now a memorial to those that were killed, and includes a wall which has numerous bullet holes from the firearms of imperial forces. Not a place that makes me proud to be British.

This wasn’t the only place I saw that involved guns. On Saturday afternoon we travelled about 30km west from Amritsar. There is no Indian state west of Punjab, so we were going to the national border. The border between India and Pakistan. Tension.

Every day the Indian and Pakistani military perform a bizarre event to close the border. It involves staring, shouting and high-kicking, and attracts thousands of people to watch and cheer for their country. Many more people are present on the Indian side than the Pakistani side, but both create a tremendous cacophony of nationalistic noise.

The border itself is closed when the flags are lowered as sundown approaches. The sun is the reason that the pictures are so bad (as well as me…well…not having my camera). Before this happens a lot of showmanship occurs. One example is scores of Indians dancing to that Jai Ho song from Slumdog in view of the Pakistani supporters. They also, in partners, take Indian flags and charge up to the gate, before walking back to enormous cheers.

I must stress that all of the cheering is good-natured, and it never threatens to spill over into something more serious. The soldiers are by far the highlight of this show. Each one will stomp up to the gate, performing a walk straight out of the Ministry of Silly Walks a la Monty Python, and then spin a bit and salute. Look closely at the second picture for an example. He will then match the strange footsteps of his Pakistani counterpart, who has probably done the same on his side, and then retreat slightly into line formation with his comrades. We were particularly amused when we saw one soldier stretching against a tree for this part of the play.

I say we – I once again bumped into Steph, Niamh and Bailey. That’s three times in a month that we have randomly bumped into each other without knowing that we were in the same place. Incredible. We sat together for this performance as foreigners get segregated from the more raucous Indian crowd. I came to Punjab with Vineet, who has seen this ceremony so many times that he instead opted to drink chai outside whilst it happened. Honestly, I could watch it every day and not get bored – it was an incredible occurrence of bravado. Imagine this on the border between Canada and the United States. It just wouldn’t happen. And they may get one of the highkicks wrong and boot themselves in the face. I would come back to this just to witness that happen.

Amritsar seemed to me to have similarities with Agra. It has one stunning attraction amongst a crowded, irritating, searingly hot city (the temperature was over 40’ C or over 104’ F in American lingo). It has another fascinating place a short ride from its centre. And it is definitely worth a visit. From the serenity of the Golden Temple to the showmanship of the border ceremony, Punjab is a fascinating region of India. And not a tandoor oven in sight.

Love you all


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