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Published: March 30th 2006
After a 42 hour train journey that even had me jaded about my favoured form of travel, I finally reached the north of India. Here the northern weather was devoid of the heat and humidity and the first kiss of winter was a welcome change.
The major destination was Amritsar, the capital of the Punjab and the home of the Sikh religion. The Golden Temple is the focus of their devotions and it is truly a beautiful and serene place - reminiscent of the Mahabodhi Buddhist temple in Bodhgaya. A massive quadrangle surrounds an enormous sacred pool where the Hati Mandir Sahib - the temple supposedly gilded with 750kg of pure gold. In here is located the Sikh's sacred tome - the original version of the Guru Granth Sahib - and it is thus a very important place. Holy music reverberates around the stark white walls surrounding the area as rows of cloistered holy people read aloud from their blessed book, while devotees pay homage to those uttering the sacred words.
I felt a real peace pervaded the area and the atmosphere changed depending on the time of day or night. At one time, I joined the queues and
entered the Hati Mandir Sahib and was witness to musicians playing holy music and singing prayers, whilst television cameras broadcast their performance across India and the world. Many other holy men read holy texts and the original Gur Granth Sahib was a massive book of a least one metre wide and it was indeed an object of great reverence. The whole interior of the area was adorned with gold and semi-precious coloured stones and it is one of the most beautiful temples I have visited.
By the time I left Amristar, I felt a genuine warmth for the Punjabis and the Sikh religion. The Punjabi Sikhs, and particularly the men, are a most contrasting people. Their physical presence would guarantee them as my choice for filling an army most likely to instill fear into the enemy - yet their nature is very warm, accommodating and generous - in fact amongst the friendliest people I have encountered in India. The women are quite striking in their beauty, and are more reticent in approaching foreigners such as myself, but it does not prevent them from casting coquettish eyes in my direction. Most impressive were the Nihang warrior of the Sikhs. The
grizzled Nihang, with long beards and penetrating eyes, carried an awe-inspiring aura that demanded more attention and respect than is usual for mere mortals.
Whilst in Amritsar, I was fortunate whilst here to meet a gentleman called Mark from a group called Friends Without Borders. Some genius within their group formulated the idea of getting thousands upon thousands of Indian children to write "Friendship Letters" to children in Pakistan, who would then reply in kind. The object is to tear down the barrier of suspicion and distrust one letter at a time. Once that barrier is removed - what will be the effect when these children are older - and how will they instruct their children about the sub-continental neighbours in the years to come? Friends Without Borders has received support in both countries from the political, sports and entertainment sectors, as well as the media. I visited the group's webiste at: www.friendswithoutborders.org and found it most informative.
Friends Without Borders reminded me of my first stop in northern India - at Haridwar, where the Har-ki-pairi (the Footstep of God) is located - legend says that a footprint of Vishnu was left behind when he dropped a portion
of heavenly nectar. The fast-flowing Ganges was most clean and even I bathed my feet in the refreshing and cool waters. At night was the beautiful 'ganga aarti' (river worship ceremony) where much music, chanting and fire was on offer. Whilst here, I visited the Shri Ram Ashram, which is home to over 50 orphans, a school for the local community, and a health service. I met a few of the orphans, who, like children everywhere, can be quite precocious. It is so heartening to see such work being undertaken to enhance the peace and welfare of this part of the world. Whether it is Friends Without Borders or the Shri Ram Ashram - these groups provide a vital role that would otherwise be unfulfilled. Interestingly, it mostly seems to be foreigners who are the driving force for such activities - I wonder why the Indians do not address these challenges more often?
Prior to leaving this part of India, I attended the closing of the border ceremony at the Attari/Wagah border with Pakistan, where much bravado and machismo is on display for the nightly closing of the border. Total disorganisation on the Indian side saw us not only
queue at the entrance gate, but then again at the entrance to the stands - a ridiculous situation since by opening the stands up at the same time as the gate would not have seen the incredible crush that developed to ensure the best seats. Deciding to avoid this scramble I someone managed to secure a seat in the VIP area which had the best views of the ceremony - though I was not a VIP, nor did I have the ticket for this area. How I manage to repeatedly mould the surrounding world to suit my travels better still amazes me at times. All this while, the Pakistanis (only 200 metres away) were already seated and looked more restrained and ordered - they must have been quite bemused by the chaos on the Indian side of the crossing.
Finally after a build-up from the MC, when a small group of Indian and Pakistani citizens who strode to the border gate to furiously wave their nation's flag at each other, the ceremony began. Complete with bugles, crisp uniforms, goose steps and exaggerated strides, it was a combination between a military parade and Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks. Even
more incredible were the crowd - as soon as an Indian border guard was required to do anything - whether march to a position or some other action - the Indian crowd broke into rapturous applause. Not to be outdone, the Pakistani side did the same when their soldiers commenced their goosesteps, and though it probably was inappropriate, I spent most of the ceremony laughing or shaking my head in disbelief at these antics.
After the simultaneous lowering of the flags, a shake of the hands between the two 'combatants' and a slamming of the gate - the 30 minute ceremony was over. Even whilst writing this, I am still smiling in amazement at a ceremony that was just too ridiculous to be taken seriously. It may me think back to the work of Friends Without Borders and their attempt to forge a bond between nations with a deep distrust of each other. If they can be encouraged and supported, than perhaps there will be a time when the only national aggression on the sub-continent will be confined to border displays filled with unintended comical theatrics.
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