In the far north-west of India, just 28 km from the border with Pakistan, is the Punjabi city of Amritsar. It is home of the Harmandir Sahib, otherwise known as the Golden Temple, the spiritual and cultural centre for the Sikh religion, and which apparently attracts more visitors than the Taj Mahal.
It is a six hour train journey from Delhi, six hours which passed remarkably quickly, but didn’t quite live up to expectations. There was no sign of anyone sitting on the roof, or swarms of people hanging on to the sides, or food vendors climbing through windows. There were no spectacular views, no moody, contemplative moments, and no prize-winning photo opportunities. It was all a bit like travelling on what was once British Rail except that the train was even more decrepit. On the one occasion I did step off at a station to take a photo I was hastily shoo’ed back on again by one of India’s army of unsmiling officialdom.
There were no dramas at the hotel, and as it was only a few yards away, we were outside the Golden Temple within an hour of arriving in the city. As we stood there looking bewildered about procedures and etiquette, some large, swarthy and quite frankly frightening Sikh bloke marched over, and in a broad Mancunian accent explained the protocol for removing shoes and covering heads to offer the appropriate respect. He looked big and scary, and was politeness personified.
And good Lord, his temple is magnificent. A large square complex of gleaming white palatial Persian-inspired buildings and a wide marble walkway, bordering a similarly large and similarly square man-made lake, and majestically alone there in the middle at the end of a mini causeway, is the most golden of golden temples, radiating grandeur as it glimmered in the afternoon sun. The lower level is an elegant white marble, above which rises a shimmering second level, encased in intricately engraved gold panels, and topped by a gilded golden dome. It is simply stunning.
In the inner sanctum priests and musicians keep up a continuous chant from the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book), which is piped out around the complex over their Bose loudspeakers, and which adds to the atmosphere of sanctity. It is possible to access the inner sanctum for a few precious moments, although we opted out as the queue was just a few thousand pilgrims too long. The gurus who initiated the temple decreed that the lake, the tank of nectar, the Sarovar, should be God’s home, and whoever bathed in it shall obtain all spiritual and temporal advantages. And so we watched as numerous Sikhs strip down to their undergarments and take a devotional bathe from the purpose-built, steps, or ghats.
And everyone is welcome at the Harmandir Sahib whether they’re Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, or anything else. The four entrances to the temple complex are apparently indicative of the inclusive nature of the Sikh religion. The temple is home to the largest free kitchen in the world, serving some 3,000 vegetarian meals a day, although for some reason, we didn’t partake, despite my usual predilection to take advantage of free food under any and all circumstances.
Mind you, the Sikhs themselves don’t look quite so welcoming. It must be something in the water but most of them are huge. Bearded. Turbaned. And huge. The guards at the temple carry an assortment of medieval weaponry while even on the streets they openly display their traditional daggers. They look fearsome, noble, warrior-like; although for some reason I couldn’t shake from my mind the image of Bernard Bresslaw in Carry on Up the Khyber – with real menace of course. The whole experience was so enchanting that what was supposed to have been a little taster prior to a lengthier visit the following day turned into an entire afternoon, and we were still happy to visit again the next day.
The history of the Golden Temple is not all serene however. In 1984, in Operation Blue Star, Indian troops, under the orders of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, stormed part of the complex in an attack on Sikh militants. Official reports put the number of deaths among the Indian army at 83, with 493 civilians and Sikh militants killed. Operation Blue Star was included in the Top 10 Political Disgraces by India Today magazine (an odd Top Ten if ever there was one). Four months after the operation, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards.
But nowhere is Amritsar’s grisly place in history more pronounced than at Jallianwala Bagh, a public park just a short walk from the Golden Temple, where on April 13, 1919, 90 British Indian Army soldiers under the command of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer opened fire on an unarmed gathering of men, women and children. The firing lasted for ten to fifteen minutes, until the soldiers ran out of ammunition. Official British Raj sources conservatively placed the fatalities at 379, with 1,100 wounded. The scene features large in Richard Attenborough’s Ghandi, where the violence of the British sits in stark contrast to the peaceful-by-all-means protest of India’s most famous son.
The park is now a memorial to those who died, with a museum, a martyrs gallery, a martyrs well into which people leapt to flee the bullets and from which 120 bodies were retrieved, several sites showing bullet holes in walls, and a memorial. It’s a moving tribute to a shameful episode in British colonial history, which, being British, made me feel a little guilty and something of an interloper. Mind you, they’d have done better to preserve the sanctity of those who perished had they opted not to make the memorial decidedly phallic. It brings a smirk to the face of those of an immature disposition such as one’s self.
Amritsar sits just 28km from the border with Pakistan, but there can be few border posts aroun the world which have become such a tourist attraction. So we hired ourselves a driver, Rohit, as dodgy as dodgy can be, and headed off to Wagah. Every evening there is a retreat ceremony called the ‘lowering of the flags’, during which troops of the India Border Security Force and the Pakistan Rangers perform ceremonial bandstanding and patriotic posturing before border gates are opened, flags are lowered with diplomatic equanimity, and the border gates are closed again for the evening. Comparisons with Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks are inevitable, and I shan’t be the first or last person to draw such parallels. High kicking (and groin pulling), high-speed marching and serious foot-stomping are all part of the ritual, coupled with full traditional military regalia and fanfare. All very impressive, if a little ridiculous.
But the Indian and Pakistan authorities have then contrived to turn the whole she-bang into a circus. There are grandstands set-up on either side, and various forms of entertainment made available for the huge crowds who turn up to celebrate their patriotism. We were treated to a wild-eyed young girl doing some frighteningly energetic traditional dancing, a Tibetan-looking choral troupe being drowned out by the Pakistani’s superior sound system, a bunch of traditionally-dressed ladies performing a traditionally-crap song-and-dance routine, and the crème-de-la-crap, a pub-band doing Judas Priest covers. Living After Midnight. At the historic India-Pakistan border. I kid you not.
An Indian MC with an enormously inflated sense of self importance indulged in a tug-of-war with the soldiers on crowd control duty, as he whipped the crowd into nationalistic fervour while the soldiers ensured they remained firmly seated. And then the moustache-twitching and face-pulling began. Think the Changing of the Guard stage managed by DisneyWorld. Speaking of Monty Python, Michael Palin gave the whole thing a far better critique in his Himalaya series, which had served to pique our interest in the first place. With hindsight, the circus overwhelmed the ceremony, and a trip to India would be no worse for not having experienced it.
Back in Amritsar, and we took a stroll around the streets of the old town which, similar to Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, are fascinatingly beautiful for their decrepitude. There must have been some magnificent structures back in the day – or maybe it’s only their decay which makes them interesting. Sadly now, along with so much of India, they’re knackered. One particular building resembled a bomb-site, entire walls having collapsed to reveal hearths and mantelpieces, peeling wallpaper and kitchen cupboards.
And after ten days in India I never did quite my head around that most important thing, the licensing laws; where and when I could get a beer, and where and when I could not. There seemed to be a severe lack of pubs, most shops and restaurants didn’t have liquor licenses, bottle shops were few and far between (and best avoided) and hotel mini-bars were dry. All of which is a far cry from the likes of Thailand and the Philippines where anyone and everyone will happily sell you a Singha or a San Miguel at the drop of a note. Dinner at the Crystal Restaurant in Amritsar, described by the Lonely Planet as ‘Amritsar’s classiest restaurant’, saw a surreptitious and deliciously illicit beer, conveyed by whisper, delivered wrapped in napkin, with the whispered instruction not to remove said napkin.
But, beer or no beer, nothing in Amritsar could detract from the beauty of that Golden Temple, and the inclusiveness it represents. Perhaps the world could do with a little of that these days.