Published: December 23rd 2009November 28th 2009
i was often asked in my conversations with the locals where i had been in india, and whenever i mentioned amritsar, the name would invariably draw a blank stare. i am pretty sure i nailed the pronunciation of 'amritsar' as i had heard it said several times by the announcer on the train and at the station. "it is in punjab," i said. ohhh, they went, although i suspect they were faking it. on hindsight, i should have told them the golden temple instead.
amritsar sits near the india-pakistan border. the northwestern frontier city holds little interest to the average tourist except for the facetious border closing ceremony at wagah and the holiest of holy shrines in sikhism - the stunning golden temple.
the border closing ceremony was a joke and not of the funny variety. as i arrived only minutes before the commencement (no thanks to the driver who was bent on filling every seat in the van before leaving for wagah), the vip section next to the gate, reserved for important guests and tourists, was already full. so, i had to sit with the general population, far from where the 'action' was. i had seen photos of
the risible antics of the performing guards. i knew i did not miss much, if anything worthwhile. watching the 'patriotism' of the fanatical indian audience was far more entertaining. the powers that be engaged a master of ceremony to whip up the crowd into a mad frenzy only to have them ordered by the menacing guards to sit down and behave with propriety. how farcical. compared to the pandemonium on the indian side of the border, the pakistani side was practically a ghost town. i wonder if the poor turnout and the lack of enthusiasm could be attributed to the fact that it was eid al-adha (or as it is known in this part of the world, hari raya haji) that day or that pakistanis were preoccupied with the current political turmoil brewing in their country. or perhaps, they too thought the ceremony was but just silly fun and entertainment only for those who had nothing else better to worry about.
the golden temple, on the other hand, was the true, and perhaps, the only highlight of amritsar. its much touted resplendent beauty is worthy of every praise ever showered upon it. i would rank the temple alongside the
taj mahal as the most beautiful monument i have seen in my month-long sojourn in india. i visited the golden temple thrice - at dawn, at dusk and at night - in my short thirty one-hour stay in amritsar. i could do that since my hotel was just across the road and frankly, there was little else to do in the city. besides, admission is free. in fact, everything, from food to lodging, is provided free of charge to everyone of all faiths and no faith, a true testament to the religion's all-inclusive doctrine, although i did not take them up on the offer. their kind generosity is made possible by donations of sikhs from the world over, and the temple is staffed almost entirely by pilgrims and volunteers.
splendor aside, the temple is a clean and peaceful sanctuary in the midst of a congested, polluted city. sitting on the bank of the 'lake' facing the temple and people watching at the same time had an inexplicably therapeutic effect. i would linger for hours during each visit. on the premises is a museum that showcases the history of the sikhs, from their point of view, of course. as i
know next to nothing about the religion and the people, i shall not comment on the veracity of the information. it was informative, nonetheless. i learned a fair bit about the origins of the religion, the martyrdom of its gurus and the bloody history, mostly about the persecution of the sikh people throughout the ages.
it was at the museum where i experienced the first of many warm welcomes of the locals. sikhs, their men especially, can appear aloof and fierce, but beneath their intimidating veneer were some of the friendliest souls i had encountered in india, always eager to strike a conversation and offer a helping hand. i was mobbed by a group of sikh children on a field trip asking me questions, shaking my hand and requesting for a photograph to be taken with me (but photography was strictly forbidden in the museum). interestingly, in his bid to make small talk or to even impress, one of the sikh boys pointed at a dog in one of the paintings and said to me, "that is a pakistani dog." his friends all burst into laughter. i just smiled politely. i figured that was neither the time nor the
place for a lesson on the evils of prejudice.
i also got to witness firsthand the inquisitive nature of the indians. i know the questions were innocuous, but what is with indians and their obsession with my educational qualifications? three questions almost always cropped up in our conversations - those pertaining to my good name, my country of residence and my educational qualifications. i noticed indians are inclined to use very formal, archaic english in their daily conversations. i mean, where else would you hear someone asking, "what is your good name, sir?" i also noticed well-educated indians with 'good' jobs like to volunteer information about their qualifications and occupations even without prompting. i could be wrong, but this preoccupation with societal status may well be linked to the caste system that had long been officially abolished and would likely remain in the deep recesses of the nation's collective consciousness for many generations to come.
next stop, agra.
There are more photos below