We decided to take the 6 hour train ride north to Amritsar, in the hope of finding cooler weather than Delhi (this was an epic fail, it’s even hotter here) and more relaxed vibes (success on this front).
The train ride was great – we actually got time to be productive for a change, something we never could do on all the buses in South America… trains are so much more civilized – even in India!
We spent the rest of our first day just walking around the alleyways of Amritsar, which are cool but kind of scary the way motorbikes cruise through there – way too fast to give anyone enough time to get out of their way. We had dinner at “Amritsar’s best restaurant”, which was very tasty, but so full of ghee (lard) it made both of us feel pretty queazy for the rest of the night. Our first bout of India Belly… or should we call it Punjabi Belly?
The Golden Temple
The Golden Temple of Amritsar is a Sikh temple made with over 750kg of gold, surrounded by a man made pool where worshipers bath in the ‘pure holy nectar’. It is one of the holiest places for Sikh people in the world, and being there we could really feel the spirituality of the place. Everybody there was super friendly, and very much there to connect with their God.
The temple complex is magnificent, day and night, and the general vibe in there was one of acceptance and love.
We even joined the Sikh worshipers for dinner – they offer free food to the community, in the world’s biggest eating hall – Langar. We were part of the group filling up the second (upstairs) hall, which we counted to have at least 1000 people in it, and within minutes we had food on our plates.
They feed around 50,000 – 100,000 people per day there, and as much as 150,000 per day on big holidays. What an incredible operation.
The efficiency with which they fed the people, as well as cooked the food and cleaned the pots, was astounding. In about 20 minutes we were seated, fed with a plate full of dahl, rice, naan, curry and water, and cleared out of the hall ready for the next group.
The Attari-Wagah Border-Closing Ceremony
Back in 1947, as part of the partition of India into 2 countries, the state of Punjab was split into 2 – half in India and half in Pakistan. This resulted in the rushed relocation of millions of people – Hindus and Sikhs to India, and Muslims to Pakistan – with a massive death toll of hundreds of thousands of people in the process.
In 1959, India’s Border Security Force (BSF) and the Pakistan Rangers choreographed this routine, known as a “Retreat Ceremony”, and it has been running every day since then. It has become so popular that a stadium has been built to hold the tens of thousands of Indians and tourists that attend to watch it every day. Pakistan’s side is more modest, with a metal grandstand in place to seat the thousand or so people on their side.
Comedian and travel writer Michael Palin described it perfectly as “chauvinism at its most camp”, and one would be forgiven for thinking it was a competition to decide which country has the highest kicker, rather than an official border-closing ceremony.
To say this whole thing was bizarre would be an absolute understatement.
Personally, I think they took much of their inspiration from Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks”, but the patriotic shouts from the 10 or so thousand people in the crowd would attest otherwise – this is a serious affair.
The contrasts between the 2 countries is fascinating to see. With the countries separated by just a fence, the Indian crowd can easily observe what is happening in Pakistan, and vice versa.
On the Indian side there were scores of ladies and children running up and down carrying flags, followed by an impromptu dance party with a couple hundred ladies bumping and grinding and having a great old time to the latest Bollywood music hits. On the Pakistan side – 2 polebearers (one of them with only 1 leg) spin around endlessly, and a young boy prancing up and down the centre in a bizarre kind of marching dance.
On the India side, a master of ceremonies encouraging the 10,000 strong crowd to get up and dance, chant and show their enthusiasm, on the Pakistan side, nothing of the sort.
The whole thing lasts for about 45 minutes, and ends with the lowering of both countries flags in a well-synchronized routine throughout. I’m still not sure what the significance of it all is, but one thing is for sure: the crowd on both sides seem to love it, with thousands of people coming to witness this ceremony every day.
At this site in 1919, British forces opened fire on a peaceful Indian protest at this private park in Amritsar – Jallianwala Bagh. The British troops blocked the entrances to the park where thousands of unarmed and innocent men, women and children were gathered, then opened fire. Hundreds of people were killed, and over a thousand injured in a matter of minutes.
The park is now a memorial to the people killed here. Bullet holes can be seen in the walls surrounding the park, and a museum has some interesting depictions of how the park looked after the massacre – bodies strewn all around. Such a sad and sobering thing to see, and an important reminder of a dark part of India’s past.