Sunday, July 14, 2013

Having a riot in Amritsar

 We were initially unsure whether we would make it up as far north as Amritsar in Punjab; however, we decided we could make the trip when we discovered that it was only 6 hours from Delhi by train and decided to omit Jaisalmer (farther west and far too hot) from our itinerary.

As Delhi had been pretty hot and this would be a daytime journey, we elected to splurge on seats in an air-conditioned carriage. This was a great decision. After we extracted the occupants from our seats we discovered that they were large and comfortable with plenty of leg-room. Even despite the noise caused by the numerous children (as ever, without any form of entertainment for the trip apart from playing music on their mobile phones without earphones) the journey flew by. When we arrived on-time we almost wished that we had an extra couple of hours of air-conditioned goodness.

There are two main reasons for visiting Amritsar: the Golden Temple, the most holy place for Sikhs, and the India/Pakistan border closing ceremony. Unfortunately, we took an almost instant dislike to the city. We had settled into the extremely large but basic room at our guesthouse, but the moment we left the premises Monique was met with staring on a whole new level to that experienced so far. Almost every man stared at Monique apparently unperturbed by her return glare, my presence, and—on occasion—the wife and children immediately next to them. These weren't 'innocent interest' stares either, they were lecherous, aggressive and combined with exchanges of words followed by laughter which made it absolutely clear their interest was sexual. Most disappointing was the number of Sikhs dressed in religious clothing, presumably on pilgrimage to the Golden Temple, acting in this was; not a great representation of the religion.

After a failed attempt to purchase train tickets to get out of the city a.s.a.p., and resisting the temptation to return to the guesthouse before the altercations I was finding myself in became physical, we visited the Golden Temple. The temple, unsurprisingly golden in colour (and with a dome made from real gold) sits in the middle of a square ghat surrounded by bright white buildings. The temple itself is very nice but it is the setting that is really genius; set against the pristine white background the temple really stands out and looks quite magical, and is also reflected in the surrounding water giving the impression that it is floating.

The temple area was packed with people who had made their pilgrimage to the sacred sight, with families sat all around, seemingly making the most of their trip by spending hours there to relax, appreciate the temple and enjoy the free food offered. Many people chose to strip off to take a 'holy dip' in the ghat. Although it is compulsory to cover one's head in the temple it is apparently ok to strip down to one's fake Calvin Kleins in full sight.

It was baking hot so we spent a good amount of time sat in the shade looking out to the temple and people watching. Unfortunately the queue for entering the temple itself was too long for us to go in before we had to take our pre-arranged car to the border-closing, however we planned to return before leaving the city.

The journey to the Pakistan border took around 90 minutes in a car shared with an Indian family. The purpose of the journey was to witness the ceremony which takes place daily to celebrate the closing of the border with India's not-so-favourite neighbour (anyone who has watched an Indian-Pakistan cricket match will understand there is not love lost between the two nations). But first we had to make it from our drop-off point to the border – no easy feat. The next hour and 15 minutes was spent scrumming with thousands of people incredibly eager to shut their neighbours out for another day. I have already hinted at my frustration with the complete inability of Indian people to queue; this was the anti-queue! Never at any sporting event, gig or festival have I had to physically battle with so many people to get somewhere. Fortunately for Monique there was a ladies only scrum to protect females from the inevitable male attention that would occur in such close confines, however that was only slightly more civilised. We were both happy for our extra height, because at least our heads were above the fray.

The scrum was patrolled by armed officials on horseback, however they were helpless to prevent a section of the scrum frustrated by the lack of progress from fording a barrier over and making a rush for the border en masse. Unfortunately I was part of that mass, and was faced with the choice of joining the riot and risk the wrath of the armed authorities or staying put and being trampled on. I chose the former (although it was a somewhat passive decision – I just went with the flow). The exercise was fairly futile as shortly thereafter we had to duck under another barrier and squeeze back into the scrum only 50 metres further to the front.

The reason for the hold-up eventually became apparent; at the front of the scrum was a metal detector which each person was required to walk through. As with every museum, mall and cinema in India, as each person walks through the detector emits a loud beep, displays a red light, and the person is waved through.

Post-scrum we were invited into the V.I.P. Section which is reserved for foreigners. When we settled our very important selves into location we found ourselves in a horseshoe shaped seating area packed with Indian people waving flags. The seating faced a closed gate. On the other side of the gate was a similar, albeit more subdued seating area full of Pakistanis. It was not clear from our viewpoint whether our Pakistani equivalents had fought each other to take their positions.

On the India side it was a party atmosphere. Music blared out, people took it in turns to run towards the border and back with giant flags, and ladies danced in the open area in the middle. In contrast the Pakistani side was quiet and quite frankly didn't look like any fun at all.

India 1: Pakistan 0

However, if the purpose of the ceremony is a display of power by the respective border authorities then India scored an own goal. Already having failed to control the people entering the ceremony, the Indian 'authorities' subsequently demonstrated a complete lack of authority in the arena itself. People ran off with the giant flags, refused to sit down, and refused to move to where they were told. I witnessed one particular dispute where a border agent ordered a young boy to move from the ladies only section to the general section. When the boy was dragged to his feet by the agent his mother promptly told the boy to sit back down. After an exchange of words between the agent and the mother the boy looked from one to the other and sensibly opted to listen to his mother and sit back down. The agent then decided that that was where he wanted the boy to sit after all. On the Pakistani side of the border order was maintained and no flag was waved without express permission.

India 1: Pakistan 1

Perhaps the Indian authorities would have more control over their people if they didn't look so ridiculous. I'm not sure which element of their uniform is the silliest: the raised shoes (to ensure that their Pakistani counterparts aren't taller), the tapered trousers secured under each foot, or the cockerel-like hat adorning each agent's head. It goes without saying that all moustaches were pristine.

Words can't really describe the ceremony itself, hence the Youtube video below. After a lot of standing around and prolonged shouting over the loudspeaker each border agent takes it in turn to elaborately quick-march towards the border, kick his feet to, and sometimes above, head-height and stamp those same feet on the ground. Except it's even sillier than that sounds. One senior official in front of us busted out some moves that I can only describe as Brent-esque. All comments about similarities to the Monty Python Ministry of Silly Walks are entirely accurate.

We could only see brief glimpses of the Pakistani officials on the other side, however it appeared that they were wearing very similar uniforms except in black (are they the baddies?) and partaking in similar uber-cancan movements. On the ridiculous stakes it was a score-draw.

India 2: Pakistan 2.

The ceremony culminated in the gate being closed (for some reason it was opened during the border-closing ceremony – presumably because the Indian authorities would be unable to prevent their people from running over to Pakistan before the ceremony to pull moonies) and the respective flags lowered. After ensuring that no more Pakistanis would be entering the country for a few hours everyone left. Clearly tired from flag-waving there was no post-ceremony scrum.

Overall it was an insane and surreal experience, and one which I would thoroughly recommend.

Upon return to Amritsar we returned to the Golden Temple to see it at night, and I'm really glad we did. Without the extreme heat and with fewer stares it was a more comfortable experience and the temple glowed beautifully in the dark. Really quite a striking sight.

Around 11pm we attempted to enter the temple to see the inside. There was still quite a queue to get in even at that time (perhaps people were nervous to enter earlier in the day while they knew that Pakistanis were entering the country) and as we joined the queue a large section forced through the barriers and rushed en masse into the temple. Country border, place of worship, bus, train, restaurant...apparently it's just how one enters anything around here. We waited a while longer but the remaining crowd didn't move much, so we regrettably had to give the inside a miss.

The following day we had some time to kill before our sleeper bus to Jaipur, so we looked for something to riot. We ate lunch at a pretty posh restaurant and then made our way to a Jain temple popular for women seeking divine intervention to assist contraception. I can only liken the temple to a fairground fun-house only without the moving walkways. As with most Jain temples it was incredibly colourful, but unlike other temples it consisted of a winding path leading up and down stairs, through tunnels that could only be crawled through, in and out of animals' mouths, and through an area of ankle-deep water.

At various intervals there were the usual idols as well as coloured lights, patterned walls and wobbly mirrors. It was like something out of a cheese-dream about being re-born. After the border closing ceremony, however, it seemed positively sensible.

Overall Amritsar was a really quite unpleasant place with some truly remarkable sights which made the visit worthwhile and extremely memorable.

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