Amritsar 26.02.11

Amritsar 26.02.11

(Pictures at

I woke to find the streets still shell shocked, I hadn’t imagined it. It honestly looked like a war zone or at least a war had passed through a month or two earlier, the place still wasn’t yet awake properly a little bit like me really, I was train lagged and I wouldn’t shake it off all day. I stepped down into the rubble strewn street and over the rubble down the alley ways which were remarkably being swept into little piles of rubble and plastic which the stray dogs used as nests, some were curled up on them with litters of puppies fast asleep in the middle of the street.

The breakfast at the Kundan Dhaba was actually delicious, Stuffed Parathas (Chapattis stuffed with potatoes) with chick peas and Puri Chenna (Big Puff pastries) with a couple of delicious dips, the coffee wasn’t inspired but it was steaming hot and defiantly hit the spot. I had been contemplating moving hotel. But I’d slept so deeply and that was all I really needed of a room so I thought maybe I’d just stay where I was but on the way back I met Kuran the manager of the Bharat Hotel again and I’m a great one for a coincidence so that was that. I went back to the Skylark packed up and jumped ship. The rooms there were much the same as the others I had seen, though there were as I said windows in all the rooms, they did provide towels and hot water but the real gem was the manager Kuran who gave me invaluable information on bus connections, spoke really good English was genuine, honest and simply wanted to help somebody along the road.

The shame about India is that after you’ve been here for a few weeks you become very wary when dealing with money. From what I can tell most travelers get into a frame of mind where you barter for things you normally wouldn’t give a damn about because you know from experience that the price has gone up as soon as you walked through the door. After you have been stung more than a few times, and it really is only a pittance, but again it is being able to give rather than it being taken. The latter no matter how much for or you know the reasons why, still stings when it is taken from you one to many times. I’d bartered with Kuran and later felt mean as he had been genuine and I was lucky to have come across him. I was up in my room doing something later and mulling over in my mind the price and I clearly heard

“Treat him with respect” So I did do and tried to give him the original price he’d asked for, but he wouldn’t have it, shame really.

I’d started walking over to the Golden Temple but it was so grinding and filthy that a few minutes I jumped in a rickshaw, it was no pleasure walking through the fumes and dust in the baking heat. It was the same relentless grind in the other part of town. At one point going over the railway bridge the traffic was so clogged that the traffic cop was directing vehicles through the pedestrian walkway the people walking were ducking in and out of the on coming traffic, I could see the logic but it was mad. I was a little lagged as I said and the noise of the close blaring horns at head height in the rickshaw jarred my nerves. It was remarkable to see all the people on bikes, rickshaws, and motorbikes dodging in and out of the path of the great lumbering busses and goods carriers. Remarkably I haven’t seen a single accident yet everybody just seems to get how it is. It grinds, slowly.

The other noticeable thing about Amritsar is the highly visible and well armed Seikh police force who hold their guns more like bandit liberators than a police force. There are armed guards at the doors of the banks, shot guns laying nonchalantly over the turbaned guards laps. The police too on motorbikes with machine guns slung over their shoulders dressed in dark blue with a little red fringe tassel on the left hand side of their turbans. They all carried either long polished poles or shorter polished batons. There were numerous gun shops on street corners around the area I was staying in too. It was just highly visible to my eyes and just seemed polar opposite to what was being presented in the temple about brotherhood and equality but then again the temple walls around the pool were covered with the memorials of Seikhs who had been killed in action and there is a greatly revered shrine there to their greatest hero, a man who had gone on fighting and won even after he had been decapitated, generous and hospitable warriors I’m sure they would say.

The rickshaw dropped me as near to the temple as vehicles were allowed and I joined the thousands flowing right past the Jillianwalla Bagh memorial, a place of shame and infamy as far as the British army are concerned. On April 19th 1919 there had been a mass demonstration called by Ghandi to protest against a law called the “Rowlett act” and the Indian legislative council. It was an act introduced after world war one to clamp down on anti British activities, it meant that if more than I think it was 4 people gathered in the street they could be arrested and held. An estimated 20,000 people had gathered on that day and were a little noisy by all accounts. A bright aristocratic spark called General REH Dyer had banned the meeting but they’d gathered anyway so in response he ordered his troops to open fire without warning on the closely packed demonstration. Jullianwalla Bagh is a space enclosed by walls and the back of houses it only has a few narrow alleys for access and escape, so the unarmed masses were sitting ducks, there were officially 379 dead and 1200 injured though unofficially there were 3 times that many.

Some of the pictures of British troops flogging bound and spread eagled Indians were very uncomfortable, photographs of a thing called the “Crawling order” where Indians of any cast sex or age were made to crawl along a certain street if they were found on it or needed to pass along it, shameful. Winston Churchill called the massacre “a monstrous event” though that was on July 18th the following year, can you imagine today something like that taking over 6 months for the news to break. I was glad I went and in fact was again a school kids play thing for a while I posed over and over again shaking hands with them, it was the least I could do and I was acutely aware that I an English man was shaking the hand of all those bright eyed Indian school children in that place.

Back out and in the flow towards the golden temple, I bought myself a handkerchief to cover my head and checked myself in a car window to see if I looked like a plonker and yeah I did. I put my boots in the shoe place, paused for a little while watching all the hundreds of Seikhs walking through the water trough, then I  joined them.

I walked down the steps and it was again one of those wow moments. There in the middle of an enormous pool the Amrit Sarovar or the pool of immortality was the golden temple, built to look like it was floating on the waters that reflected it and the blue skies. It is covered in real gold leaf and to the right of where I entered across the pool was the walkway called Gurus Bridge that leads from the main entrance pool side to the shrine itself, it was absolutely rammed packed with pilgrims waiting patiently to pay their respects at their holiest place and to see their holy book the Adi Granath which was compiled by a man called Guru Arjan Dev and contains teaching from all the Seikh Gurus.  Around the edges of the pool thousands of pilgrims walked in a clockwise direction.  I just went and sat down at the waters edge, I was soon corrected by a straight faced bearded man dressed in a long dark blue tunic, yellow turban and holding a long spear, he told me that you are not allowed to sit with your legs hanging over the pool side. It was a peaceful place enhanced by beautiful piped music that floating through the noticeably clean air and above the clear waters of the pool of immortality.

I noticed a that people were bathing  in the pool across and had read that it was part of the pilgrimage to bathe there, so I checked with an older man who was also meditating nearby.

“Take no notice of what anyone says” he said “You are entitled to bathe here if you wish”

So I did.  Stripped of to my primarks and walked respectfully down the steps into the waters. I saw the guard do a double take, but it honestly meant a great deal to me to be able to bathe there.  I have bathed in rivers and sacred places where ever I have travelled so it was a great moment for me. I ducked under the cold waters 4 times and said my grateful thanks for those who have helped me along the road in this life so far. I meant it, then on the last time I happened to put my hand on the bottom and pulled out of a steel Seikh wrist band, I was surprised and thrilled and will certainly treasure it. As I stepped back out I noticed that I defiantly drew approving looks from Seikhs sat close and those walking by.

I got dressed and sat a while longer letting the warn sun dry me and my now wet clothes and a little later on just wandered along observing the shrines, people praying and bathing and families just being together.  I came across the Gurudwara’s which are rooms in 3 story courtyards for Seikh pilgrims to stay in when they arrive in town, there is no fee and  they let non seikh travelers stay too though a small donation is encouraged. I was tempted but had already decided I was leaving the next day.

As I came back towards the great pool I passed the famous communal dinning hall where pilgrims are invited to eat with one another. It is again free to everybody, no matter who, and was designed to re enforce one of the central laws of the Seikh faith which is the principal of equality and was designed to break down the caste barriers. There was such a noise being made by over energetic men collecting the stainless steel plates from the sittings. There were rows of Seikhs splashing around and washing them in great long troughs it was all done with great drama and speed. There were groups of people sat around chopping onions and others peeling garlic. I was in there nosing about and just got swept along and ended up stood in the crowd in front of 4 great brown doors, I wasn’t sure what to expect as more and more people began cramming in behind, then suddenly the doors were flung open and everybody rushed into a great hall and found a place to sit on long mats that were laid out ready. In minutes the place was full and the doors closed behind. Men came along the aisles and gave everybody a tray they were closely followed by men handing out fresh warm chapattis, which I was instructed I had to hold up both hands to receive. They in turn were followed by men with silver buckets and ladles who dished up a lentil broth with such speed and accuracy it was startling this was followed minutes later with rice pudding done in the same way, they came around a few times until everybody had eaten your fill. It was incredible, within about 15 minutes roughly 300 people or more had been served main course deserts and were on there way out the door as the next 300 or 400 were queuing up outside, men came along the rows with scoops and mops and within 5 minutes it was clean and ready for the next sitting I was in awe at how organized it was. The man sitting next to me told me it went on night and day.

“Done to praise God” He said.

I came out with a full belly and left a donation, then went to sit down by the great pool again. I had planned to meditate but was simply so tired I dozed off leant against the wall.  I woke to the sound of a prayer being sung. The whole place had stopped moving and everybody had turned to face the temple, people echoed what was being sang over the speaker system and when finished just about every body in the place either bowed or knelt and gave their thanks. Soon after a group of men came by and threw buckets of water across the marble floor which was closely followed again by the guys with the scoops who cleared all the water away. Then mats were rolled out around all 4 sides of the place, leaving it sparkling clean and dry. it was done with such precision and professionalism, the men doing it were doing a thing for god it. It did cross my mind how they could be so motivated, take such good care and such pride in the beautiful temple, when to me the whole earth is a temple. I could see it wouldn’t take much to motivate India to take some pride in their beautiful country and clean it up, as outside of white walls was a grinding dirty place. I still don’t know why they can’t they see it. Perhaps they do, but where to start.

I sat there for the whole afternoon listening to the beautiful mournful prayers being sung, watching the golden carp patrolling the waters edge for scraps of food. I watched people from all walks of life and all parts of the world passing by, I heard American, British Birmingham and French accents and obviously people from all across India, it was an amazing place and an amazing spectacle, I was at peace there but I had to get back and get my self together for the next day.

I walked back through the streets, did a few detours up crowded narrow claustrophobic alleyways, I loved seeing all the different shops crammed to bursting point with all you could imagine. I loved all the different types of turbans and the way they were tied, a lot of men had a turban on and a cloth tied over their mouths with their beards hanging out the bottom some had another tied under their chin, on the train later a guy walked in and looked like a mummy. Some wore shades as well and so looked like desperados as they shot by on big motorbikes. A remarkable place for sure, but not one I wanted to stay too long in as I feared for my lungs.

To tell the truth it could have been fatigue but that night I sank a little for the first time since I had been here, I missed company, I missed clean sheets, smooth skin and soft lips. I simply missed holding somebody’s hand, laughter and decent conversation with a familiar friend. It felt like I have been running pushing, constantly moving and working hard, the room was I’m afraid to say was a little grubby like the town. I could see that the people here didn’t see it anymore, the old hotel had been painted sometime last year Kuran told me but somebody didn’t understand about straight lines and had slapped paint all along the edges of the nice old slate tiles, why should they care, I supposed when as I said outside looked like a retreating and disrespectful army had marched through here recently there was of course very little money down on the street and nobody was expecting change any time soon, I was new to town, fresh eyes and I could see it. Was it lack of money? Maybe, but I have begun to suspect there is lack of will here. I sat up writing again that night until again I was seeing double then crashed.

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