Saturday, February 5, 2011


And so on to Punjab - home to the best beards and turbans in all of India. In contrast to the Rajasthani penchant for a traditional red turban, Punjabi men opt for the technicolour approach resulting in what resembles a street heaving with bobbing M & Ms. Amritsar was my base for 24 hours for a twin pronged assault on two of Punjab’s premier sights - the Golden Temple and the border closing ceremony at Wagha, some 30km from the city. I travelled from Ajmer to Amritsar aboard one of the draughtiest and noisiest trains (a combination of a stream of never-ending chai-wallahs, chattering Indian ladies and the inevitable snore’n’fart show) I’ve been on in my 2 months here. Amritsar has little to recommend it other than the Golden Temple but what a recommendation it is. The temple itself is magnificent and as large as the temple complex is, it‘s downright impossible to avert your gaze from the warm glow at the centre of the artificial lake in which it‘s constructed. But for me it’s the warmth of the Sikh welcome which is just as overwhelming. Visitors from every caste, creed and colour are invited to stay at the temple complex (a maximum of 3 nights) and eat breakfast, lunch and dinner there and all for free. It’s a remarkably hospitable place and contrasts sharply with the truculence and unabashed greed I’ve encountered at many a mosque and cathedral over the years.

I arrived there with three Americans - Stevie, Ruby and Mike - and, upon arrival you’re asked to remove your shoes and bathe your feet before you enter the temple complex. After a cursory glance at the wonder that is the temple we make our way to check out our accommodation for the night which is to be in a pretty cramped dorm but there are warm blankets aplenty and literally hundreds of Sikh pilgrims lying out under the stars by night so no-one’s complaining. We try out the dinner experience if for nothing else than the novelty factor and I’m enchanted by it all. It’s run with military style efficiency - upon arrival you’re handed your plate, spoon and cup and directed to the main dining hall.

There you join the madding crowd on the floor, legs crossed sitting upon the carpet, looking across as the other pilgrims who, rest assured, are looking at you looking at them. Within seconds of sitting a man comes with a bucket of rice which he shovels on to your plate, followed by the dal, the curry and the chapatis. I hold out one hand to grab a chapati and he barks “TWO HANDS” at me. Dinner is not to be lingered over and almost before we’re up and away the floor is being dampened, the mops are out and the next serving is imminent. And so it goes 24 hours a day. Everything is done by pilgrim volunteers; the cooking, the food preparation, the serving, the washing up - it’s a remarkable show of community spirit.

After enjoying the delights of the temple we make our way out to the border closing ceremony at Wagha. None of us knew much about it in advance other than the fact that it was quite over the top. On arrival in the stands - yes, they’ve erected stands there which is remarkable in itself - our wandering eyes become fixed on a man dressed in a white tracksuit whom it’s impossible not to dislike and whose job it is - remarkably - to rally the crowds. He bears the demeanour of a man completely unused to failure and who probably trounces his kids at chess in order to teach them valuable lessons about life. He spends the entire hour, encouraging the crowd to cheer, and not just that, but to cheer VERY LOUDLY INDEED. On a couple of occasions when the din does not reach the decibel level he’s seeking, he goes forward to the crowd and barks instructions, quite clearly berating all and sundry for their paltry attempts. This isn’t so much a show of patriotism as barely concealed jingoism.

Once the ceremony is underway, the man in the tracksuit, after each cheer, looks immediately to his left across to the Pakistani border as if to say “Beat that motherfuckers”. And the ceremony itself? A quite ridiculous show of military pomp and preening, featuring soldiers wearing hats which would make Elton John blanch. There’s goose-stepping and high-kicking straight out of the Monty Python school of choreography.

As I watch I’m thinking that here we have two nuclear nations who, with Kashmir just a matter of hours away, are performing some bizarre and utterly futile pantomime for a partisan and sycophantic audience. I’m torn at the end of it all as to whether what I’ve just witnessed was amusing or downright depressing. The stands quickly empty and the man in the white tracksuit goes home to beat his kids at chess. Probably.

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