Amritsar: a city of incongruence

IMG_4412Incongruence was a word that came up time and again while we were in Amritsar. The juxtaposition of chaos with calm, serenity with edginess was has left me with mixed feelings about this city. On the one hand it was dirty and congested and unsettling, and on the other there were oases of peace and tranquility.

The approach to the Golden Temple—the holy place for the Sikh religion in—was through a congested marketplace, decrepit buildings, with a mix of hawkers and vendors vying for our attention, with the main product being orange headscarves. It is necessary for both men and women to cover their hair, and the unprepared were descended upon by hoards of street sellers. Everywhere, the smell of incense was heady and sweet, and the delicious aroma of fresh curry dogged out footsteps. Cycle rickshaws and autorickshaws and motor cycles bicycles and cars and carts competed for space with pedestrians and sellers.

The marketplace opened abruptly out into a beautiful marble plaza, white, which reminded me architecturally of San Marco’s Square in Venice. There were thousands of people—many of the Sikhs, and not many foreigners—in that space but it had an aura of calm.

Once shoes and socks had been removed, heads covered and feet washed, we made our way to the temple area. The Golden Temple—it is an originals building—sits at the end of a 200 metre walkway in the middle of a large square lake. The lake is surrounded by a marble pavilion, where people, mostly Sikhs, bathe in the lake to cleanse themselves. The pavilion is probably a good kilometre all the way around.

What I loved about the Golden Temple, apart from the peaceful atmosphere, was the communal kitchen. The Sikh religion believes in community, and that communal kitchen was staffed by entirely by volunteers. The food to make the meal of a simple Dahl, vegetable curry, chapati and rice—which I partook of and was basic but delicious—is also donated. The lunch is free, but you are able to make a donation. (After the meal, we each paid 100 rupees, traded for a very proper, hand-written receipt.)

You knew you were nearing the kitchen by the clatter of metal plates and the hum of chatter. We progressed through the line quickly; we were each given a plate, a spoon and a water cup and we made our wary into a large room, where we were ushered into near rows, where we sat cross legged on worn rugs. We only had to wait a few minutes begin we were given our chapati—accepted with both hands—our Dahl and curries and our water. It was a very efficient operation. When we finished our meal, we simply picked up our plates and gave them to the dishwashers—all volunteers—who scraped the plates and washed them.

All around the kitchen area, volunteers were busy with the tasks of literally feeding the masses: washing and stacking thousands of never ending plates and spoons and cups. Onions and vegetables were being chopped in another area by at least 100 volunteers. It was an amazing sight because of the sheer coordination of the numbers of people involved. I was in awe.

Contrast this experience with watching then border crossing ceremony by the India-Pakistan Border Security Forces. Located at Wagah, a 30km drive from Amritsar, we were driven in a tired mini-bus to the border by our driver who had nerves of steel. The scenery was odd to my eyes: run-down resorts and theme parks were located next to wheat and mustard crops which were located near street vendors and schools.

IMG_4431As we approached the Pakistan border, we had our first check. A tall man, handsome, wearing military fatigues and sporting a semi-automatic weapon boarded the bus, and checked our bags. When he was satisfied, he waved us on, and we stopped at our next checkpoint, where another military man, again bearing arms, checked the passport of just one of our group before waving us on.

We parked the mini-bus and proceeds through another four more security checks, including passport, bag check and a physical pat down. A few thousand people were there to see the crossing, but the lines moved quickly, with the women’s—for a change—moving more quickly than the men’s.

All the security checks and military men and women carrying guns gave the area an edgy, dangerous feel, not helped by the threat of rain from the dark gray clouds overhead. Once we arrived at the stadium area, we were ushered into the “foreigner” area and were subjected to excruciating music screamed over the loudspeakers. India was competing for auditory space with Pakistan who were also pumping out their equally as excruciating aural torture. The only song I knew—and liked—was Jai Ho from Slumdog Millionaire.

We waited about an hour for the ceremony to start and were entertained by dancing, flag running and more excruciating music. I batted away the odd mosquito, acutely aware that I didn’t have my mozzie spray and praying to all the gods that had ever existed that I wouldn’t be bitten. I did not want to return home with malaria!

The ceremony itself was entertaining, but it started raining—plump, wet drops—and I prayed to all gods that existed that it would be short. We weren’t allowed to bring out bags in, so none of us had jackets. Umbrellas were out of the question because of how we were seated, basically on concrete steps. The ceremony finished in around half an hour, and we walked the kilometre back to the bus, dodging boys who wanted to paint our faces with Indian flags for a few rupees. Give me money, they said. Money.

We drive through the rain, back to Amritsar and its flooded streets, rubbish like dirty boats floating in large, murky puddles. We had dinner and prepped for the next leg of our journey: the overnight train to Delhi.

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