Amritsar: not all that glitters…

This is the reason that tourists find their way to Amritsar, in Punjab State: the spectacular Golden Temple that is India’s holiest Sikh shrine and a sacred pilgrimage for millions.

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The Golden Temple is the centrepiece, but it is set within a huge compound and surrounded by the Amrit Samovar, or Pool of Nectar – a massive tank of water kept clean by a school of koi. Refreshingly, there is not a speck of garbage around – not so much as  a gum wrapper is floating in the holy water, which is said to have healing properties. Pilgrims (men and children only) come from all over the world to bathe in the waters and wash away their mortal sins and bodily ills.

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The Golden Temple is free of charge and open to everyone, regardless of religion. To enter, you must first remove your shoes and walk through a foot bath ( kept clean by piped-in flowing water.)

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Dress is modest and heads must be covered.  With that protocol observed, the Temple takes on a home-away-from-home atmosphere for devotees; many of whom will spend the entire day there. It was not uncommon to see people simply flaked out in the middle of the pathways.

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Some devotees appeared overcome by emotion; many dropping to kiss the marble floors and others engaging in quiet prayer.

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One of the extraordinary features of the Golden Temple is the Guru-Ka-Langar – a gigantic dining hall where free meals are served to over 100,000 people every day. The Sikh principles of equality are at play here – everyone sits on the floor and eats together, regardless of caste, religion, colour or economic status. We were still nursing tender tummies and did not want to appear rude by not eating, so we didn’t partake, but we did gratefully accept bowls of filtered water being offered at stations throughout the compound.

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Stephen, with souvenir scarf,  in front of the Golden Temple. We were among the very few white faces in the crowds and attracted a fair bit of attention, especially from the children, who gazed at us with such curiosity.

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One does not have to be Sikh to feel deeply moved here – by the respect, the devotion and the awe that we witnessed from almost everyone around us. We could imagine how profound an experience it was for them, as it was for us.

The temple is made of white marble and encased in 750 kg. of gold leaf and is accessible by walking down a long causeway. But first, you must line up and with an estimated waiting time of up to two hours, we were just not up to the challenge.

We did hang around for a bit at an opening in the lineup and talked to a man and his son. He became quite animated once he found out we were from Vancouver – he is an NRI (non-resident Indian) living in Langley and back to India for a visit.

It was fun to watch the method of crowd control – once the lineup made it to the straightaway, there were large bamboo poles in place to measure out the next chunk of people allowed to move forward.  By now, they had been waiting for an hour and a half, so they were chomping at the bit.

They lift the pole, and they’re off…dashing ahead in a mad, albeit good-natured, pack. The pole comes down again and the next group will be let though in about 10 minutes time. The video didn’t pick it up, but about another dozen or so people shimmied under the poles and squished in, pushing ahead in the lineup. It’s the Indian way.

The prize – worth waiting for a chance to visit the inner sanctum.

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From the peace and serene beauty of the Golden Temple compound, our re-entry to the outside world was somewhat jarring.

Amritsar is doing its best to Keep India Chaotic – back to the world of beeping, honking, garbage-strewn madness. The side streets and alleyways are enticing, but we’re on a mission – we’re heading to the scene of a 1919 massacre.

During this time, Amritsar was the scene of protests and action for the Independence Movement, and it was at Jallianwala Bagh that 5000 people gathered into a public courtyard for a peaceful protest. The British army moved in and without warning, opened fire on the unarmed crowd. With just a narrow laneway as the only exit, most were trapped. When it was finished, over 1000 were killed and more than 1500 wounded.
It was a vicious and unprovoked attack that was widely denounced around the world.

Today, the courtyard is a beautiful space, filled with gardens, a memorial, a small museum and signs pointing out the bullet holes that are still visible in the brick walls.

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We also visited the excellent Partition Museum. This relatively new museum explains the tumultuous events leading up to India and Pakistan becoming self-governing countries, and the catastrophic fallout.

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The partition of 1947 coincided with the dissolution of the British Raj era, and the independence of India. The history and key figures of Partition are far too complicated to explain in a blog posting, but in a nutshell, this is what happened:
The state of Punjab was divided into East and West, and overnight millions of citizens found themselves on the wrong side of the borders and were forced to flee. A mass migration of 1.4 million people created a refugee crisis of epic proportions, and more than 800,000 people of all religions were killed in the riots that followed. The killings and hatred continued, creating religious-based conflicts that are not entirely over to this day.

It is a part of history I had only heard fleetingly about and knew very few details.  One haunting display in the museum was a recreation of a well – to illustrate how women would fling themselves to their deaths in the wells, rather than be captured, raped and killed. Yet another potent example of how we never seem to learn.

The interior courtyard of Town Hall – part of the stunning complex that houses the Museum.

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Our visit to the Partition Museum was a perfect set-up for our visit to the border-closing ceremony between India and Pakistan (we’re just 30 km. from the border), but more on that in a moment.

First, a couple of signs that caught our eye.

This doctor’s office was just down the street from our hotel, and this sign stopped me in my tracks.  India leads the world in TB cases, with an estimated 2.2 million out of a global rate of 9.6 million.  (Canada had just 1600 cases). (WHO 2011)

We’ve both had phlegmy, rattly coughs for the past couple of weeks, so this sign was not reassuring. Mind you, everyone has phlegmy, rattly coughs here – the air is just so dirty.

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We passed this sign on the walls of a military installation – long, clean walls with this sign every 200 yards or so.

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It’s not a friendly sign, and we won’t be the ones to put it to the test. As in Jaisalmer, Amritsar is close to the Pakistan border,  and relations between the two countries are still uneasy. The hundreds of troops and tanks and armoured vehicles are not there for show.

The famous border-crossing ceremony at the Attari-Wagah border, on the other hand, is pure show.  Part Monty Python Silly Walks, part military showmanship, this 30-minute spectacle draws 20,000 – 25,000 people every afternoon.

The suspense begins as we make our way from the parking lot to the border. Cycle rickshaws are on hand for those who don’t want to walk the final kilometre.

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We are instructed to bring our passports, just in case. (they were checked), and we all pass through a security scanner and a vigorous patdown. No bags allowed – just a small purse and camera.

Then, once past the military and the police dogs, the games begin. Vendors hawk flags, fans  and hats with “I Love My India”. We brush past them to race for the stadium – trying to get the best seats, preferably in the shade. Several military are on hand to direct traffic and in our case, to encourage me to stay put, after I had been told (with several blasts on the whistle) to sit down. Down we sat, and watched the hordes flow in and fill up the seats.

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The whole point of this ceremony is to take down the flags on either side and close the gates for the evening, but what started out as a semi-formal, military drill has turned into a theatre of the absurd.

On the Pakistan side, the crowd was being warmed up with a somewhat sedate performance.

On the India side, it was raucous. Jai-Ho (the famous song from Slumdog Millionaire) brought the crowds down for an impromptu Bollywood performance.
Vendors worked the stands, selling ice-cream, popcorn, and drinks. The crowds kept streaming in.

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And then…with military precision – the dancers were scooted back to their seats, the vendors shooed away and at 5:00 pm on the nose – showtime.

It began with officers running smartly with their dogs, and the crowd went wild.

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Actually, the crowd went wild for the entire 30 minutes, and amazingly…they were otherwise very well-behaved. At the first sign of trying to stand up (and block everyone else’s view while they got their photos), they were sternly told to sit down, and didn’t need to be told twice. Subsequently, everyone got to see and everyone got their money shots.

A lot of to-ing and fro-ing and perfectly choreographed arm-swinging and leg-lifting.

And then, the chest-thumping, teeth-baring finale. Flags were lowered, carefully folded and carried away.
Soldiers on both sides carried out a provocative show of force – first from India:

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Followed by a call and response from Pakistan:

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And the India-Pakistan border was peacefully closed for another night.

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Now we’re in Chandigarh, which could not be more different from Amritsar.  It is still in Punjab state, and is  India’s first planned city – by Le Corbusier, no less.

Tiny Pushkar brings us back

We had hit that point in our travels where the heat, dirt, noise, garbage, cows, dogs, beggar kids and marauding motorcycles were taking their toll. We were losing our energy and worse, we were losing our interest. Emails and photos from home were making us homesick – not just for friends and family but for cool, clean air and toast with marmalade. We were planning out the rest of our trip, saying, “Just four more weeks and we’re home“, as though our remaining time here was an obstacle to be endured.

And then we arrived in Pushkar, a cattle and camel trading town of around 20,000 souls, perched in a valley and ringed with low hills, and something switched in us. There are still the unrelenting touts and throat-closing smells and starved dogs, but we realized we have an incredible opportunity now. Our trip no longer stretches ahead without horizon, with days to be frittered. Now, we don’t want to miss one thing – good, bad or sad.

Pushkar is a holy town; many Sikhs and Hindus make a pilgrimage here at least once in their lives.  The town centres around a small  holy bathing lake, ringed with 52 ghats. Some of Gandhi’s ashes were scattered here. One must remove shoes to walk around the lake and photography of temples or bathers is strictly forbidden, but we did sneak in a couple of long shots of the buildings on the other side.

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Our first evening in Pushkar, we spent a couple of hours by the ghats until we were driven away by the touts. There is a well-documented scam that exists here – there are even official signs posted for tourists to beware of anyone “offering gifts.” What happens (dozens of times) is this: you will be approached by young men trying to press small flowers into your hands for “good karma”. If you refuse to take the flower, you are angrily accused of being disrespectful. The whole idea is to bully the unaware tourist into approaching the lake with the flower, and then the sales pitch for a hefty donation begins. Because we knew about this ahead of time, we cut them off every time and each time we were met with anger. It is the downside of Pushkar and casts a deep shadow on the holiness of the place.

We discussed this concept with another young man, Sandeep, who has no use for these characters. As he said, “karma cannot be bought.” What can be bought from Sandeep however is chai tea.

We were expertly hauled into his stall and before  we knew it, we were sitting on stools and waiting for our tea tasting tray to be prepared.

Sandeep’s chai is not served with milk,  “a hangover from British rule”, he said. He prepared 6 small cups of chai – rose, lemon, mint – among them – all of them refreshing and healthy. We bought a tin to bring home – paid way too much for it, but you can’t keep your guard up all the time and he was charming. Good karma.

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There are over 400 temples in Pushkar (many of them tiny shrines, really), and non-Hindus are not allowed to visit inside most of them.

This is as far as we could proceed, but it will give you an idea of the intricate lacy design.

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Everyone is welcome to visit the Sikh temple – a massive white pile on one end of the lake. I had my head covered, but Stephen’s ball cap was not allowed, so they tied a dirty old dewrag on him. We washed our hands,  removed our shoes, bathed our feet and proceeded. It is a somewhat strange thing to visit temples – we have no context of it being a religious building, so it is not always clear what we’re looking at.

On a purely aesthetic basis, this temple was worth the visit.  Stunning, pure white marble and immaculately clean.

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The town of Pushkar is made up of twisty, tiny laneways that lead down to the main shopping bazaar and beyond that, the lake.  Our hotel is well tucked away from the hubbub, and this is the lane that leads up from our front door.

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There are so many shops and stalls and impromptu markets all over India. We’re trying to figure out the business plan. In little Pushkar,there may well be 400 shops or more selling almost identical merchandise. How do you bring enough tourists in your door to make it work? One enterprising young man offered me cigarettes and when I told him I don’t smoke, he was undeterred. “You can start!”  Refreshingly, there seems to be less of a hassle here than elsewhere in India – often the shopowners just sit and let the world go by.

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The produce market is also low-key. They’ve got all day. We watched this old gent park his bike, walk slowly over to inspect a bunch of parsley, make his purchase and head back again.

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On one of the India forums I follow, I had noticed a query about a good place to get a tattoo in India.  I can’t get my head around why anyone would run the risk of getting a tattoo or piercing in India, with the lack of sanitation and uncertain standards of hygiene. Here in Pushkar, I found my answer. If you’re going to get a tattoo in India, you’re already a badass.

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We stopped by a shady garden restaurant yesterday for a cold drink and had a most interesting chat with the young Russian manager Olga who has lived in India for six years. We admired her tattoos – an airplane on one arm ( to express her love of travel), and these sayings from Mother Teresa on the other arm. I had not heard them before – and I love the way they can be interpreted a number of ways.

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Today was International Woman’s Day and we were delighted to come across this march. These young girls were loudly and proudly yelling out as they marched along; no cowed and covered girls – these are the faces of modern India.

They belong to a school that was created just a few years ago, with 60 girls. Today, there are over 500 students.

The alleyways bring such surprises – you have to remember to look up, backwards and sideways to see it all. Much of the paint has a chalky quality to it – almost as though it would wash off in the next monsoon.

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Many teeny little doors or windows like this one. Yes, I am quite sure those are urine drips running down the wall.
Stephen and I were sitting on a shady ledge today, minding our own business, when a dog came over to us, lifted his leg and peed on my foot. A woman walking by told us that it is good luck (I think she was making it up to make me feel better.)

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Beautiful carved doors, filigree, stained glass on the second floor – all set above a nondescript ground level.

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Art imitating life – this scene repeats itself countless times across India.

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Part of Pushkar’s raison d’être is the camel trade – each year the Camel Fair draws thousands of buyers, traders and tourists. The rest of the year, camels are available for safari or for a cart-drawn ride around the outskirts of town.

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We passed a number of camel carts on our way to grab the cable car to Savriti Mata Temple – a Lego piece precariously perched on the narrow top of the hill. There are two ways to get up and/or down – the cable car or a 45-minute to 1-hour walk up very high uneven steps. We chose to ride up to begin to watch sunset, then head down and catch the full sunset before we reached bottom.

The panoramic views from the top were amazing, especially to watch the shadows lengthen on the mountainside.

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We watched a young photographer chase down a number of tourists for photos. He  did snag a few shots, including this family.

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We were kept company by dozens of black-faced monkeys, who according to everyone we speak to, are the “good” monkeys. They will approach if you are offering food, but otherwise are not aggressive. The red-faced macaques are trouble – they’ll jump on you, grab your glasses, bite and scratch if provoked.

We had the chance to really observe them – they are tender with their babies, they groom one another and except for a couple of squawks, seem to get along.

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Our photographer friend was demonstrating to his customers how to feed the monkey out of his hand; the little boy did not look convinced.

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As we made our way down the steps, we met a donkey train on the way up. The first two were labouring under the weight of dozens of water bottles. The last one fairly skipped up with his load – potato chips.

These items could easily have been transported up in the cable car, but as is often the case in India this small job creates work for someone.

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Our reward for the long climb down.

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Pushkar came just at the right time – we really enjoyed our stay here, and tomorrow we head south to Udaipur – billed as the most romantic city in India.