Thursday, March 16, 2006

War and Peace: Wagah and Amritsar

After 3 days in bed and a day down the pub recovering from the famed Delhi Belly (not a laugh I promise you) I was literally bursting to move on from Delhi. A place with many great sites and some lovely people but in many other ways one of the biggest shit-holes I have ever been to in my life. I do apologise if this offends anyone, but when you can tell the vicinity of the uncountable shanty villages with your eyes shut you get an idea of the true depths of poverty. Serious and severe poverty of the likes I have barely witnessed before.


So we jumped on a series of cramped buses filled with friendly people insistent on conversation and headed to Amritsar. This is in the Punjab, the home of the Sikhs, and the Golden Temple within Amritsar is the most holy site of the religion. Hence a high proportion of wonderfully coloured turbans - quite a site from the back of a bumpy bus.

The temple is an utter shock after roaming through small dirty streets of the city, full of movement and congestion. After removing your shoes and donning a scarf to cover the head you enter a place of peace. In the centre of a large rectangular compound splashed in white and beautifully decorated is a large smooth pool with the most intrinsically decorated golden temple at its centre. On entering through a high arch my heart skipped a beat as I witnessed the beauty of the temple glittering across the water.

I had heard stories of this magnificent temple before but did not expect to be taken aback as much as I was. What I found was a place of greater peace (not to be used lightly), tranquility, and generosity then I have ever had the honour to witness.

Thilo and I spent two days walking around the pool (5 times is part of ritual), speaking with the charming people, taking the food on offer, and meditating. In the heart of the sanctum of the golden temple you can feel the spirituality of the place emanating out as the verses of the holy book are sung across the water inhabited my meandering coy. Whether in the inner temple itself, or sitting on the outside looking across the water, I found my mind wonder near and far with ease and clarity. I learned much. This is a very very special place!!

More has to be mentioned of the people. The colours on the dresses and turbans are astounding, but what struck me more was their acceptance, generosity and friendliness. From numerous people wishing to explain the beauty of their religion and wanting to learn about us, to the serving of free meals for all in some of the largest kitchens in the world serving thousands of pilgrims a day - it is more than a bit of fun to help wash up!

As an outsider I did not expect people to take me with open arms into their most holy of places, but here all are accepted. There are purposely four gates to symbolise that it is a temple open to all castes of Hindu (Sikhs did away with the caste system) and Muslims are similarly welcome. This is even more remarkable when you learn of the history of persecution and warfare that surround the Sikh.

From the mesmerising chanting, to the touching little details such as the trees of prayers and the mystifying sight of pilgrims dousing themselves in the water before a sight of such beauty and serenity. I shall not forget this place. Further, I intend to revisit it for longer and to visit a Sikh temple back home. A religion with such acceptance and beauty takes to your heart. I have much to learn!


Within just a few kms of the temple is a place of such utter contrast that it is, like the ceremony I am about to explain, darkly hilarious.

At the close of day at the currently only open border between the not so friendly neighbours of Pakistan and India, a quite ridiculous theatre unfolds. Thousands gather on each side of the border in stands to witness daily ritual insult. I simply can not explain the absurdity of the whole situation as soldiers from each side in matching silly chicken hats, frog-march towards each other at the gate and then stamp and wave strange hand gestures at each other while the people chant "Hindustan" and far more insulting things.

Here we have one of the biggest political flash points in the world reduced to a comedy show. Isn't humanity strange but wonderful.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, I have to say they come off a bit worse with smaller segregated stands and a uniform that is very noticeably darker, with black capes and chicken hats, in stark contrast to the bright colours of the Indian forces. You can not help but think a little of the Evil Empire vs the Rebel Alliance, not that I have any political opinions on this subject.

So as the flags come down and they insult each other a few more times to the delight of the incredibly nationalistic crowds, days of mind-shocking contrast come to a close. Despite the dark comedy in the WAR, my heart is well and truly with the PEACE.
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