Tuesday 26 August 2014

Days 132-133: Amritsar - The sublime and the ridiculous

An Indian BSF guard at the
Wagah Border Crossing
As we descended towards Delhi airport we signed an unusual declaration on our customs form.  Visitors are not allowed to bring maps or books into India showing the boundaries of the country incorrectly.  Really?  I thought customs forms denied the presence of agricultural products or ostentatious amounts of currency in your baggage?  But when I read the statement again I realised it probably meant something like: 'you may not bring maps or books into India that show Kashmir as a state of Pakistan or as an independent nation'.

A day and a half later Guy and I arrived by train in Amritsar, in the Punjab, and took a taxi to the Wagah Border - India's sole border crossing with Pakistan.  Even before I had fully emerged from the taxi, I was pounced on by four young men wielding green, white, orange and blue paint.  It took less than thirty seconds for my arms and face to sprout four Indian flags and I had to shout 'no more, no more' or I might have ended up with more flags than fingers.  When they finally put down their paint brushes, I naturally had to pay for my 'purchase'.   Welcome to the Wagah border ceremony!

We were ushered towards a grandstand by an Indian soldier whose name, embroidered on his uniform, was 'Surender' - a little unfortunate for a soldier.  I can only hope he didn't notice when I surrendered to the giggles.  In front of the grandstand read a sign saying 'India's first line of defence' with a drum kit stationed immediately above it.  I love the idea that India's first defence is to blast pop music at its opponents.  But it was a good symbol of the ceremony, which was something between a disco and a military parade.

The Indian side looking well-attended
The Pakistan side needs a few more people to fill the
ridiculously-sized grandstand they have built!
First, the border became a dance floor with an open door to all female participants, while girls ran up and down with the Indian flag.  Meanwhile, music blared, fighting with the soundwaves emanating from the Pakistani side of the border - the endlessly repeated words 'Pakistan, Pakistan', using only three notes of the octave.  As you can probably tell, my ears weren't exactly wowed, although it was something of a spectacle.

(What would we do against the French, I wonder?  Say: you're playing Debussy, are you?  Well then, we'll play Elgar.  Oh, so you're wheeling out Faure now?  Fine, I give you Vaughn WIlliams.  What, Poulenc too?  Well Benjamin Britten can easily match up to him. ... Or would the Spice Girls just wail across the channel, sapping the morale of all those in their path?)

Flags get lowered in sync at sunset
I digress ... It was something of a battle of the bands for a while, then members of the army marched up to the Pakistani border, performed a series of moves resembling a mock-fight, then lowered the flag and marched back again.  Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, but surely there's something contradictory about enacting a mock-battle yet co-operating with each other fully in order to choreograph it.  Is this ceremony a demonstration of co-ordination or enmity?

Feeling slightly foolish, we returned to the hotel to wash numerous Indian flags off our bodies before heading into town again.

Our next stop was Amritsar's most famous site, the Golden Temple.  By night, its gold and marble buildings shimmered in the water, while tourists and pilgrims alike circled around, taking photos or sitting and praying.  I liked the way it felt 'lived-in' - as though it is primarily a place for worship (an odd thought for a devout atheist?) rather than just for gawping at.

A guard gazes across the water at the golden temple
We returned to it the next afternoon, to see it in daylight, after a visit to Jullianwala Bagh.  This is a garden commemorating the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, where bullet holes remain visible in the walls and a small museum narrates the history of the massacre.  It included statements by General Dyer, who commanded his troops to fire on unarmed protesters in the gardens, killing over 350 people (possibly many more).  His statement, in summary, said that his response to the protest was the minimum that the situation required and that if he'd had more troops at his disposal he'd have made damned sure to kill more people.  What a lovely chap.  Yet he was never even court-martialled.  (What a lovely colonial regime, to think this unnecessary.)

Jullianwala Bagh, the scene of the 1919 massacre
We wandered around the garden, stopping at times when people asked if they could have their photograph taken with us.  We had met with the same request numerous times in the previous twenty-four hours, first at the Wagah border ceremony where I assumed people found us a hilarious spectacle with Indian flags painted on our cheeks, melting in the sweat of our pasty white skin.  But the same requests came thick and fast at the Golden Temple, where I felt uncomfortable posing as a minor celebrity in a place of worship.  And here in Jullianwala Bagh it was an even stranger experience - the countrymen of General Dyer posing for a photoshoot.  Bizarre.

After a final curry (about the sixth of the trip?) we left Amritsar by train for the five-hour ride to Chandigarh.  A seat in the 'AC Chair Car' (the rung below first class) cost us about a pound an hour each (approximately £99 an hour less than the fee extorted by Richard Branson?) and provided us with at least double the leg room of a Virgin train.  Tomorrow will be another day of train journeys as we head into the foothills of the Himalayas.

A lady bearing the Indian flag runs past a BSF official dwarfing his massive hat. 
Mary was cooking beans! Susan queuing to get into the temple. 
The causeway lined with pilgrims
Susan with some new-found friends
Wonderful outfits on display! 
Apparently it's every Sikh's duty to work for a week at the golden temple.
These women are helping out with the washing up.
Cycle rickshaws plying the streets of Amritsar

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