Originally posted April 6th, 2014
A glimpse of Pakistan
I’ve been eager to visit Amritsar ever since I started reading about Punjab in preparation for my time here.
There’s a magnificent golden temple and the city offers the unique opportunity to walk right up to the dividing line between India and Pakistan.
With only two weekends left here, the trip could be put off no longer and, with a very last-minute visit to a travel agency, we figured out the bus schedule, and I somehow found 5 other people willing to commit to a 4am taxi ride to Dharmasala with no real notice.
An hour or two of sleep and then our 3:30am alarm went off and we made our way to the main road in Naddi hoping that the taxis will actually show – I was far from convinced that the driver I talked to on the phone knew what it was he was agreeing to. They arrived, after giving us a bit of a scare by showing up 10 minutes late, and off we went to the bus station. The daily 5am bus is the only one going to Amritsar, and it’s an ordinary bus, so we were happy to be there early and all chose window seats to avoid constantly being walked into and having to brace yourself around every turn. I didn’t manage to sleep at all for the 6 hour ride but had an amazing time watching the scenery change as we descended from the mountains.
First thing was first when we arrived in Amritsar – breakfast. It was hot and it was sunny and we took a large rickshaw to the area around the Golden Temple, stopping at the first place we saw that served food. There were fans going from every corner of the restaurant and we quickly got through some cold coffees and ordered local specialties. I got Amritsari Kulcha, a stuffed bread with channa and vegetables on the side. Others got Dosa, a type of crepe found throughout India.
Then a beggar threw a banana at me. This woman came up to us saying how hungry her baby was and asking for money for food, and as I happened to be putting bananas in my bag at the time, I gave her one. As soon as I started walking away she threw it at me and came back to ask for money again! Not overly surprising that she didn’t actually want food, but disheartening nonetheless. Still, it’s amazing how easy it is to say no now compared to the guilt I felt when I first arrived and these kinds of experiences just harden you even more.
After that little welcome to the city, we found our way to the temple dorms to store our bags and we were led to the foreigners’ room. Many people visiting the temple stay there for the night, but while Indian tourists can sleep outside in the courtyard and around the temple itself, we as foreigners have to be segregated indoors in our own area. While I do understand why this is done, and our area was lovely and simple with cots and fans and cabinets for storing our possessions, looking at everyone prepare for bed in the evening, mattresses filling every inch of spare floor space in the courtyard, I couldn’t help but be the tiniest bit jealous.
Amritsar itself was quite a bustling and not overly attractive city, but somehow to me it didn’t feel as gritty or aggressive as Delhi. The colours were amazing and being in the sun was refreshing. Most people in Amritsar are Sikhs and our group definitely got a lot of curious stares. But to be fair, I was staring a bit myself. Everything was very different from Himachal Pradesh; most men wore turbans and had impressive beards and women were in headscarves – this added to how beautifully colourful the city was, and all these colours stood out wonderfully against the white marble which was common near the temple.
At 2:30 we got ready to go to the Wagah border ceremony. This occurs every evening around sunset between Indian and Pakistan as they put on a nationalistic ceremony before the lowering of the flags. The cars stop a kilometre from the border and you have to walk the rest of the way, bringing nothing with you but passports and cameras – no bags allowed. Being foreigners we were instant VIPs for the ceremony and got to stand in our own line and had our own designated section in the stands. They don’t even check passports, just let you through after a thorough look at your face to make sure your features betray your status.Which was slightly uncomfortable, especially at the end when we were allowed to leave first and they wouldn’t let the Indian visitors go take pictures by the border until after we were finished.
After passing through several security points we were ushered into our section by guards in elaborate uniforms, including dramatically plumed hats. The stands were eventually packed with Indian tourists and then this strange ceremony began. It was not even remotely what I expected. I thought I was about to witness some kind of somber military event, like the changing of the guards – impressive but very structured and formal. Instead what followed was more reminiscent of a sports arena with incredibly intense – almost comical – gestures of aggression towards Pakistan.
While Pakistani guests were still filing in, the Indian side started. Women and children came out from the crowd to line up for the chance to run down to the gates separating the border with the Indian flag. It was quite touching actually, seeing how excited they were to show their patriotism. I was surprised to see that this was an interactive ceremony and found the informality at the start quite beautiful. Then music was blasted into the stadium and women came out to dance. That was unbelievable to watch; it felt like being on the set of a Bollywood movie and the colours were surreal. Still, while I loved watching this, it was clear that the guards there were very much in control and this “spontaneous” joy seemed to me to be a calculated attempt to show that women in India are freer than those in Pakistan. It felt like this was done purely for the purpose of setting themselves above Pakistan – “look, our women are less repressed than yours – we let them participate in public events”.
Then the real military part of the show started. There was a kind of shouting match between both sides and Indians in the stands were screaming and waving flags. It was quite intense and I felt weird not knowing what was being chanted. And then guards began to do these crazy high kicks, stomp and march up to the gate and then theatrically kick at it. It looked really aggressive, but it was so coordinated and over the top that I couldn’t quite take it seriously either and I wasn’t sure if I was meant to. I’ve also read that the ceremony is less aggressive now than is used to be. They then opened the gates and there was nothing separating the two countries anymore. The two top military commanders (I believe) stood there and had a stare off. Other guards kept coming up and kicking and eventually the flags were lowered simultaneously and then the gates were slammed in an amusingly childish manner.
I couldn’t help but think that this immense amount of coordination, which clearly requires much practice, and the fact that they do it every single day must mean that the soldiers on both sides probably know each other really well and that this unfriendly attitude is at least partially just for show. Whatever the real relationships, however, the ceremony kept the crowd wildly and passionately involved every step of the way.
This is an interesting article on how the ceremony reflects the actual relationship between the two countries.
After an hours ride back, we went to see the Golden Temple at night. We stored our shoes, walked through a pool of water to clean our feet and put on our head scarves. The temple was glowing and reflecting on the water surrounding it while everywhere else you looked was white marble. People were sitting and praying or quietly reflecting, some preparing to settle down for the night. It was all stunning and so shockingly peaceful for a place with so many people. It was an unbelievable experience and a great way to use up our last remaining bits of energy from the day.
A quick and silent dinner followed and then, delirious from sleep deprivation, we went back to our rooms and the four of us girls sharing a room rolled around giggling in bed like 12 year olds at a slumber party until the fan lulled us to sleep. After missing an entire night’s sleep for travel, it felt spectacular.
The next morning we returned to the temple in the daylight and found it much less impressive. Suddenly everyone looked more like tourists on a mission to see the place rather than spiritual experience-seekers. Still, it was quite amazing even in the light of day and it was a shame that we didn’t have time to actually enter the temple itself, but we had a bus to catch.
7 hours later we were back in Dharamsala; it was a short visit and exhausting travelling, but well worth it and I’m so glad I didn’t leave this area before I got a chance to see Amritsar.