Subcontinental Drift: Chapter Sixteen - Amritsar

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July 28th 2008
Published: August 18th 2008
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Sikh PilgrimSikh PilgrimSikh Pilgrim

At Golden Temple...
For a woman who has never set foot in the Estes Park of India, Kiran made a huge pitch for me to spend time in Manali. We had sat down to discuss what would be my next move. The great thing about running my ideas past her is that she does not ever try to change my plans. Rather, she picks areas of interest along the way that might work for me. Even as I bade her good night after a late dinner in Naggar’s Lincoln Log castle, she was still pushing for Manali. It is more scenic than here, she insisted, a better part of the Beas River. She might have been right, but my mind was already made up. It was time to get out of the mountains and make a move to Punjab for the same short visit everyone else makes. Rumor had it there was a “direct” bus to Amritsar from Manali. If I made the connection, I would be en route to Punjab longer than the duration of the flight from Chicago to Delhi.
Oddly enough, it will probably be the only time that not taking her advice was a wise decision. Manali is no more
Gotta Do The DishesGotta Do The DishesGotta Do The Dishes

For thousands of people...
than a launching point for adventuresome tourists into the more remote regions of Himachal or the two-day, over-the-road crusade to Leh, in the upper Indus valley of Kashmir. It is a black hole of trinket dispensaries, loitering men, and mediocre restaurants serving bland, doughy pizza. The mid morning bus from Patlikul deposited me at the bus stand at which time the ticket agents behind the barred counter gave me the news I so wanted to hear.
“Is there still a bus to Amritsar today?” I saw a sweeper go by me. His wristwatch read just a little past nine in the morning. I fear the only one may have just departed forcing an overnight stay in this noisy tourist junction. Westerners are all over the place.
“Yes. One at two and another at three-thirty.”
I couldn’t slap the money in front of him quickly enough. “Both buses, deluxe? Or maybe a sleeper?”
“No, normal buses to Amritsar.”
I still paid the fare for the two thirty departure, but was wise enough not to ask the travel time. I resigned myself to a miserable, neck wrenching night journey on ripped padding and sharp, protruding objects of unknown origin stabbing me. The
Accommodation, Sikh StyleAccommodation, Sikh StyleAccommodation, Sikh Style

It's worth the price, so I am told...
bus behind me was just that type. The driver opened the throttle of the engine and it let out a smoky cough. It was going to be a long ride.
My lunch over a restless belly mildly increased my anxiety. I took a Cipro to settle my nether regions. I did not want to be in Manali. Outside the Peace Restaurant (Ugh!) where I had lunch I saw a string of shawl shops. Announcements and ripped pasted placards for “Free Tibet” are all the rage in Manali. Next to the convenient political remarks were notices for horseback riding, meditation classes, and a new discotheque…all geared to foreigners. As my chowmein arrived twenty-five minutes after I ordered it (pretty good for India) I found a wall clock near the stairs leading down to the street. Eleven fifty. There was still time to kill.
The bus ride through the Himachal hills and eventually into the flatlands of Punjab met my expectations of discomfort and inconsolable fatigue. I shared the fifteen-hour battering in the fetal position next to a man perhaps twice my age. His English was about as good as that of a light switch, moderately better than my Hindi, but we
Take My Picture!Take My Picture!Take My Picture!

They wanted to see what they looked like on the digital camera screen...
did look after each other at all the stops along the way. Through smiles and nods of the head, we ensured none of the other passengers commandeered our seats at the entrance. We kept an eye on our belongings. At midnight in a forgetful town, we ate a dinner of chapatti and dhal at a diner and he would not let me pay. We ran back to the bus together in a horrendous downpour, ankle deep through rushing currents of brown runoff. When short on legroom, he made more for me, especially when passengers took to sleeping in the aisles and, at times, on top of each other. Some had fallen asleep standing against the occupied seats, until of course the driver zipped around a sharp turn or slammed the brakes to avoid a cow. Rarely have I ever gotten on better than with this fit man in a plaid shirt from Dalhousie without ever speaking to him. Upon his getting off for the final time at Pathnakot at some insane hour, he shook my hand through the window from the street. Our partnership had ended and I was sorry to see him go. A woman with a sleeping infant
From Dishes to LaundryFrom Dishes to LaundryFrom Dishes to Laundry

Clothes dry in the dun fatser than at a laundromat...
took his place and I failed to hide my disappointment. Unlike my lost friend, she body-checked me into the window pane every time I dozed off and fell into her left shoulder. By the third shove, the black sky had evolved into grey; Amritsar was becoming a reality rather than a fictional Oz, but without the smoothness of the Yellow Brick Road.

Just when India couldn’t get more complicated, there’s Amritsar. The metropolis has all the sanitary magnetism of Agra, but without the cows. It is the first time in the past month I have not seen the bovines roaming a city with impunity. No matter how unsightly the Punjabi cultural capital is, this is where I wanted to be. Hounded by rickshaw sharks deaf to the word “no”, I hoisted my pack and circled a juice vending stand and a nearby closed information booth. After the fourth revolution, they got the message and I exited the station unmolested onto the vile streets. Amritsar had already awakened well over an hour ago. As I walked to the main boulevard, five or six black and yellow autorickshaws followed me like newly hatched ducklings.

In addition to the hideous filth, Amritsar also shares a few other traits with Agra. Foreigners come here for two main reasons. As with the Taj Mahal and Fort of the same city name in Uttar Pradesh, Amritsar has a pair of very distinct attractions. One is dedicated to India’s bloody struggle for Independence and the other is a stirring reminder of the power of faith, charity, tolerance, and devotion.
I do not know whether to equate it with the Boston Massacre or not. The firing upon and deaths of the few Massachusetts colonists was indeed provoked. The worst the British could ever be accused of in the American colonies was gross incompetence and military mismanagement. Yet the events of the 13th of April, 1919, go beyond any concept of justification, even by British standards.
General Reginald Dyer, now referred to Indians as the Butcher of Amritsar, was brought in to quell civil unrest and uprisings in response to the Rowlatt Act. As subjects of the Crown, the Punjabis protested nonviolently by holding one day work stoppages, or hartals. Tensions mounted; looting and riots followed.
Brought in from another cantonment, General Dyer entered the public gathering place known as it is still today, Jallianwala Bagh. Protesters had amassed without threat to the general public, though illegally. There, without issuing any warning, Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on the crowd to disperse them. Naturally, panic ensued. People scrambled, but there were no exits. The British fired at men and women trying to climb walls and over each other to escape the hailing bullets. Bodies piled up.
During a follow-up enquiry, Dyer stated that he was sent to teach the Indians a lesson; he had come to restore order. No single event more effectively galvanized the Indian’s resolve to rid themselves of their British masters more than Dyer’s lack of forethought and foolish planning. He made martyrs out of hundreds and handed Gandhi the lethal political ammunition he needed.
Formerly purchased as a vacant lot, Today Jallianwala Bagh is but a quiet park set in the madness of Amritsar’s Old City. Bullet holes on remaining segments of original wall are testament to the fallen. A reddish obelisk rises from the manicured gardens to memorialize the fallen. A small museum idolizes some who are now considered to be heroes, men who took vengeful action against the Crown. One went so far as to carry out a killing many years later upon a high British official in London. Many of the culprits whose portraits were displayed proudly in the hall were hanged.

In all of India neither Muslims nor Hindus have an equivalent to the Sikh pilgrimage experience of the Golden Temple. It is a rectangular complex of considerable scale where the devout gather to revere their past Gurus. In a small way, the site is a microsm of India itself: nothing can prepare the first-timer to the visuals, melodic repetitive chants, sensation of awe, and sense of community of which the Sikhs take much pride. The peace and serenity within the Temple is inversely at odds with the bedlam that consumes the rest of Amritsar.
From the get go, it is clear that the Sikhs have adopted characteristics from both Islam to the West and their Hindu neighbors to the East. Adult men wear turbans, bound together at the top of the forehead unlike the Rajasthani style which is wrapped in a circular fashion. Meanwhile boys cover their heads with a smaller, tighter fitting material with a large knot bulging from the middle of the forehead. As with most of India, Sikh women wear saris, and it is hard to distinguish them from Hindus or Muslims at first glance. The only observation I have made, a tacit one, is that there is no Bindi in Sikhism. It just goes to prove how much more I still have to work through.
Unlike Hindus and Christians for that matter, the Sikhs worship no icons and have no deity but God. They do not believe in killing in the name of God, a fact that I immediately identify with. It appears as if Sikhism at first glance is a fusion of the two neighboring religions and certain characteristics have either been carefully selected or excluded to suit their spiritual goals.
The Sikh’s inclusive nature does not go unnoticed; all are welcome at the Golden temple. The Sikhs require no admission fee nor does the faith of the guest concern them at all. A Muslim is as welcome as a Christian as is a Jew. Though vigilant to an extreme and not particularly outgoing, the Sikhs trust their guests; pilgrims are not followed or badgered to give alms or participate in any ceremonies if they are not willing. Pilgrims are offered free accommodation at an adjacent three-storey apartment complex. While not luxurious, the barebones accommodations underscore a willingness to unconditionally receive all regardless of background. Less than a hundred yards away is a massive kitchen and serving area where all who visit may eat a simple meal on the floor with thousands of others, all free of charge.
From the initial moments of entering the complex, it is clear that the whole operation is as organized as it is pious. Overwhelming, low, methodical chants from the Sikh holy book, the Granth Sahib, flow throughout the facility through Bose speakers. As I enter the outside gate, I pass a tall, bearded man in a blue robe. Suspended over his shoulder is a kirpan, the traditional Sikh sword. Given his advanced age, I hope he does not have to use it. Though for show, other younger guards survey the gate with spears. Many are rusty and dull and attached to a bamboo shaft. They are not menacing, but send a message that it is in everyone’s interest to behave while inside. I walk through crowds of pilgrims until there are so many I cannot pass on either side. I look behind and see nothing but increasing turbans and saris indiscriminately pushing me forward. I quickly surrender to the flow of the masses until I turn to the right and reach a raised marble platform to take off my shoes. At a nearby counter is a cloakroom for footwear, about the size of a small department store. At eight in the morning, all of the cubbies are taken and hundreds of pairs have been placed on the ground. The next step within sight of but just before the archways leading to the marble walkway around the interior of the Temple, the Parkarma, is a footbath of running water for all to enter. Like a lot of the other requirements, the footbath is more a ritualistic than hygienic stop. I make my way to the arches and onto the Parkarma and behold the stage before me. It is everything shown in posters, but now injected into the experience are sound and emotion. No corner or nook is free from the singing, deeper in base than the Gregorian style but with a higher range. The centerpiece of it all is the Hari Mandir Sahib, a palace in the middle of the Amrit Sarovar (from which Amritsar gets its name) pool, connected to the Parkarma by a footbridge.
From behind, I feel a tap on my shoulder. I ignore it. And then another tap, but this time on my back. Before I can turn around, a little Sikh boy positions himself at my chest to stare me down sternly. I am mildly amused at his disapproving scowl. He is very short, hardly reaching my navel. He calls out something to me in Punjabi and I offer him the same I-have-no-clue-what-you’re-talking-about smile I have employed since Delhi. Then he slaps his head. Wow, thanks pal. Why did you do that for me? And then he does it again, but this time he holds his hand atop his head cover while pointing to my head with the other arm at the same time. Then I realized, much to my embarrassment and ignorance. I peer at the thousands strolling the rectangular Parkarma, all with a head cover or turban…except me. I am none too pleased with this oversight and before I can find out what to do, a Sikh guard escorts me outside the arches and points to some orange cloth head covers in a white bucket. Without uttering a word, he takes one out and ties it on my head much like a bandana, which until now I have never worn. When secure and knotted in the back, I face the guard and pull down on my earlobes, a gesture of considerable regret I learned while in Jaipur. I assume it will be accepted the same way here…I hope. “Sorry” I call out to him. “Very sorry.” The guard, while still holding his spear, smiles, and tilts his head to the right in an approving manner. He steps aside so I can enter the Parkarma and continue, now able to blend in just a little better with the thousands of others.
Where the pool and Parkarma meet on all four sides, men disrobe down to a cotton pair of underpants for a ritual bath. Their furry backs are familiar to me and they are not self-conscious about the appearance of their hairy bodies or rotund waistlines. At some spots along the platform, younger men bathe in groups, never too far from the edge; a submerged metal barrier prevents anyone from floating away. All enter the pool quietly; none make so much as a splash.
The scene is repeated all over the Amrit Sarovar, and I am told at all times of day and night. The Golden Temple never closes. The powerful chants originating from the gilded island shrine incessantly pulsate in back-and-forth waves. I listen intently and cannot help but sing in my head the tune Old McDonald Had a Farm. Hundreds of pilgrims amass on the Gurus’ Bridge to encircle the Hari Mandir Sahib, where a copy of the Granth Sahib and other sacred relics are kept. They move forward in organized block waves until permitted to make a single file through the edifice. There is no panic or pushing. An amazing level of order is maintained where under any other circumstances in the filthy streets of Amritsar bedlam would break out.
The Golden Temple is the only place where the multitudes actually sharpen and enliven the emotion of a visit. Put a busload of devotees in a French cathedral and the feeling is gone. Synagogues and churches in the States are used as bingo parlors. Even at mosques in India men spend time on their cell phones and informally converse. In Amritsar, there is a seriousness about the Temple without the severity; it’s very hard to articulate. At the main entrances to the Parkarma, fathers push their one-year-old babies to the floor, their first lessons on how to prostrate themselves when they are older.

The clanging and crashing of stainless steel trays makes it impossible to concentrate, but even that cannot diminish the entrance into the Golden Temple’s dining hall. From atop a short flight of stairs, volunteers pass each other side to side thin metal trays in two relay lines downward. At the bottom one man smashes the tray into a trash can to separate it from any dangling food. The plates are then tossed by the last person into a wheeled bin where they are taken away for washing. All the while they pass and smash to the cadences of the omnipresent pious chants; the crashing smothers its sonorous competition.
The plates are hauled over to the washing area, about twenty yards away. It is an open space of several long troughs, perhaps fifteen yards in length, of soapy water. Volunteers, mostly women, squeeze in as many as they can to increase their efficiency and turnover. During downtime they chat over the racket and the noise until a cart arrives and the plates are unceremoniously dumped into the trough. The women postpone their conversations and engage in a frenzy of scrubbing and smashing the clean plates atop a rack above the watery channel. Their pace is steady and movements very mechanical. Hundreds of dishes get washed in a single dumping. Just in front of them even more pilgrims have lined up for dinner, as it is nearing nine in the evening.
The next morning, the temple’s dormitories are already awake and buzzing by seven. Many pilgrims are returning from an overnight of ceremonies on the Parkarma. In the center of the courtyard, men and women bathe in close but separate showering stalls. They are aware of each other yet overall are unconcerned. I peek into the men’s and see six or seven lathered up and scrubbing from ankle to head. All enter the showers in underwear; none strip completely. I have heard, read, and seen that in India complete nakedness is rather uncommon. In fact, I have heard stories that in remote regions of the country some spouses have never eyed each other fully unclothed even after several years of marriage. Outside the circular shower stalls, men and women separate themselves at different sets of spigots and finish what they started inside or tend to their laundry. The ladies are less gentle with the clothing. They smash their attire to the ground and beat the dirt senseless out of soppy shirts and trousers. From mid morning to late afternoon, all spread out their wash on the stone floor and let the stinging sun take care of what an electric dryer could accomplish in the same amount of time.

I have found an adjacent beer bar at the Hotel Aroma. It is among the few places I have been that served my favorite delectable beverage well below room temperature. Given Punjab at the end of July, this is a blessing. As with most nocturnal cafés, it is an establishment frequented solely by men. Those I have invited to join me to share snacks or a bottle of Kingfisher make it clear that their wives would never seek them out here and are home with the children…where they should be. The Aroma is a lounge of dark smoky corners; the patrons’ faces only illuminated by the display of their cell phones. Like other large Indian cities, I do not long to test Amritsar’s nightlife. It tends to be limited to hotels and restaurants where guests linger after dinner to enjoy a bottle of whiskey with friends.
Two Punjabis from Ludhiana offer to bring me back to my hotel, as theirs is also nearby. I follow them out to their motorcycle, and squeeze on between the two. I disregard the numerous violations that everyone would find objectionable or unfathomable back in the States. To allay fear, I clung on to the driver’s hip and the one behind me did the same to mine. For most of the way back, I kept my eyes closed to avoid any panic or baby-girl screaming. I had my pride to uphold. On the few instances when I did crack my eyelids open, I deduced that by his maneuvering, my chauffeur had kept his closed about as often.
Now in Amritsar, I have geographically boxed myself into a corner. Rajasthan lies to the south and to the northeast is Himachal, from where I have just descended. A thin corridor leads up to Jammu and Kashmir, which could easily occupy my time in India until my final days. Yet so much closer is another traveler’s elixir too close to resist. To employ yet run away from the tired cliché at the same time, now is undoubtedly not as good a time as ever to satisfy an itch that for the better part of the last ten years I have been dying to scratch.


18th August 2008

That was cool
I think its one of my best reads of a blog about India. Someone has been observing quite a bit. Hope to be there soon myself. Cheers
19th August 2008

Thank you!
Hi Sandy... The whole work is a bit sloppy. It needs revision in many reas. Nonetheless, I am very pleased with your feedback That alone makes it worthwhile. Pls. spread the word and contact me if I can be of help to you with this area of the world or mine. Cheers, Rich.

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