India & Nepal

November 2005

Part 9:

Punjab


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Introduction: Punjab and Sikhism

About Punjab

Punjab is a region in northern India that has its own language, Punjabi. When Pakistan was split off from India in 1947, this also split the Punjab region in two, with the capital Lahore ending up in Pakistan and the religious centre of the Sikhs, Amritsar, in India.

Punjab was the most heavily hit by the chaos and violence that accompanied the Partition of India. Over 5 million muslims moved from India to Pakistan, and over 3 million Hindus and Sikhs moved the other way. On both sides of the new border these refugees were slaughtered; estimates of the number of victims range from 200.000 to 1 million.

About Sikhism

Sikhism is a relatively young monotheistic religion based on the teachings of 10 Gurus who lived in northern India in the 16th and 17th century. The 4th of these Gurus founded Amritsar and the 5th built the Golden Temple, the holiest temple of Sikhism.

The sikh religion faced increasing oppression from the Mughal emperors and several of the gurus were executed. As a result the sikhs became something of a military force to defend their independence.

Shortly before his death the 10th Guru ordered that after him the holy scripture of the Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib which is a compilation of the writings of his predecessors and of other wise men (some not Sikhs themselves!), would be the ultimate spiritual authority. Hence that scripture is considered the last and perpetual guru, and is the centerpiece of each Sikh temple.

Nowadays there are about 20 million Sikhs in India, which means they're 2% of the population. However, since there are so many Sikh emigrants in Europe and the USA, they have come to set the image that many of us have of Indians.


November 25th-26th (days 28-29): Amritsar

We arrived in Amritsar by train from Delhi and checked into a hotel right across the station. The next day we headed straight to the Golden Temple, the main reason we'd come to Amritsar.

The Golden Temple

The Golden Temple was completed in 1601, but had to be rebuilt in the 1760s after an Afghan raid. In 1984 it was damaged again when the Indian army attacked Sikh separatists who were hiding out in the temple. Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was murdered by her own Sikh bodyguards in revenge for thisattack a few months later. These are events I still remember seeing on TV as a kid, so it was cool to come to this place.
Originally the Golden Temple was set in a lake, but now it's surrounded by an artificial pool of water which is in turn surrounded by white buildings. The complex looks fantastic on pictures like this, but in reality it's much less shiny and colourful due to the polluted air. Still it was a nice place and the constant chanting from the Sikh scripture through the speakers created a nice atmosphere.
The Golden Temple is really small considering it is the holiest shrine of a religion with 20 million followers. Still, while it was full inside it wasn't too crowded. The temple has three floors and on each there was someone reading from the scripture with people sitting around and listening.

The complex also has a museum of Sikh history which is more like a house of horrors, because it has a peculiar focus on the violence and torture that the Sikhs and their leaders have suffered throughout the centuries. Here is a small selection of the many paintings that show Sikh leaders being tortured.
There was also a series of photos of dead Sikhs who were killed by the British in the struggle for independance, but I'll spare you that.

There were also pictures of the Sikhs who killed Indira Gandhi, with an accompanying text that praised their courage and basically stated that she had it coming. Very remarkable to see that in a public museum, in my opinion.

Wagah border ceremony

In the late afternoon we headed to Wagah, a village some 50km from Amritsar which has what I think is the only border crossing between India and Pakistan. Every evening around sunset this border is closed with an extensive ceremony that attracts thousands of people on both sides, all of them cheering on their soldiers. When I read about it I knew I had to see it and it was definitely a highlight.

The whole thing had the atmosphere of a football match. On the road to the border crossing they were selling pop corn and drinks.
At the border thousands of people were waiting, most of them youngsters. Shortly after we arrived everyone was allowed to take a seat in the stands. Many people ran to get a good spot.
When everyone was seated the soldiers, dressed in ceremonial uniforms, began warming up the crowd with slogans which everyone happily chanted along. The most common one was "Hindustan! Hindustan! Bharat pataki! Bharat pataki!". Bharat is the official name of India, and Hindustan an alternative name; I don't know what "pataki" means.

Then the soldiers picked some people from the crowd who were allowed to run to the gate and back with a big Indian flag, loudly cheered along by the whole crowd. Meanwhile on the Pakistani side someone was standing before the gate and waving the Pakistani flag.
Then the actual ceremony began. It involved the Indian and Pakistani soldiers expressing contempt for each other with carefully choreographed and somewhat comical moves and shouts, all the while cheered along by their crowd.
I thought the whole thing was fantastic, so much so that it brought me close to tears. Consider the historic background. Hundreds of thousands of people were massacred when these countries split up, they fought several wars after that and they're still in a sort of cold war. And right here they're expressing all that in a most humorous and cheerful way, and one that the soldiers of both sides obviously had to practice together because all the moves were in synch with those on the other side. To see what it was like, check out this footage on youtube.com of the ceremony on the Pakistani side.

The Golden Temple at night

In the evening we returned to the Golden Temple for some pictures in the dark. The temple was beautifully lit and was still being visited by many worshippers.
The rikshaw rider who brought us to the temple was a very nice guy, so I asked him if we could switch places for a while - I'd wanted to try riding a rikshaw ever since we got to India!

Mata Temple

On our 2nd day in Amritsar we visited various places to fill the time before taking a train back to Delhi. Among these was the most amusing temple we visited, the Mata Temple, a Hindu temple dedicated to a 20th century female saint, Lal Devi. It's interesting to see religious worship of a contempary person for a change, rather than of some ancient figure about whom little is known with certainty. Religion at its most basic and perhaps its most authentic.
Now for the amusing part: this temple has a sort of religious obstacle course that winds through the building. Its simplicity and do-it-yourself mentality were most charming. Here are a few pictures made along the way.
When we were outside again Danny discovered he'd left our hotel keys along the way, so he had to do the whole thing again haha. Luckily he found them. Not the only thing he'd lose this day...

Going home

In the early evening we took a train back to Delhi, a 6h30 ride. We arrived around midnight, and headed straight to the airport where our flight was to depart at 3am. As we got out of the taxi in front of the airport, Danny discovered he had lost his passport. Panic!

We first tried to figure out if he could leave the country without his passport, which wasn't the case, even though he had a photocopy and his ID card and didn't need a passport to enter the UK (we had a stop at Heathrow) or Belgium.

While Danny searched through his luggage for the x-th time, I gathered information about what he would have to do if he didn't find it. Getting a new passport would take at least 10 days of running between the police, the interior ministry and the Belgian embassy, a very bad prospect. The staff of British Airways were extremely helpful and already postponed his seat on the plane.

When I got back to Danny he had decided to call the hotel in Amritsar because he vaguely recalled having left his passport there, and it turned out they had found it, which was a huge relief. So we went back to BA and rescheduled his flight for four days later, which was the soonest possible. In the end he wouldn't have to pay anything for this, nice service.

So I gave Danny my bank card and the Lonely Planet guide and we split. I felt very sorry for him, because this had been the first time we'd actually looked forward to going home.

After saying goodbye I started the first of the three torturously long queues that you have to go through at Delhi airport: the security check. At the end of this queue they put my backpack through a scanner, bound something around it and then gave it back to me. After this check I was free to put a bomb in it apparently. Security was a joke here just like it was in Kathmandu.

I'd felt bad since the train ride and while standing in queue #2 (check-in) I got seriously sick - the disease I'd had on the last day of the trek in Nepal was back. I could hardly keep standing up and felt like throwing up, but if I left the queue I'd miss my plane. After half an hour of sweating I couldn't hold it anymore and with a small voice explained my problem to some airline chick who promised to put me back in the queue when I returned. Curiously I felt better by the time I reached the bathroom, so I just returned and the airline chick did as she promised.

Just as I was finishing the check-in that feeling came back though so I snatched my ticket and sprinted to the nearest bath room and threw up violently. That made me feel a bit better for queue #3: hand luggage check, where they found my fancy Leatherman pocket knife, I'd foolishly forgotten to pack it :( I asked if they could check it in for me, which they did, but they also said repeatedly that the chance of it not being stolen was about 1%.

I spent half of the flight to London in the plane's little bathroom, throwing up again and again so loudly that the passengers in the back probably didn't get any sleep. In Nepal Danny had thought I was deliberately making so much noise, but I couldn't help it even though I found it terribly embarassing.

Back in Brussels I didn't even bother to ask for my knife, My parents picked me up and called a doctor, and I was better two days later. But that wasn't the last of my nasty souvenir from Nepal. Two weeks later I got seriously sick again, for the 3rd time, and on new year's eve again for a 4th time. My stomach would remain in a constant state of disarray until April when another heavy shot of anti-biotics took care of it. I most probably had a parasite called gardiasis btw.

As for Danny: from the airport he went back to Delhi station and took a night train back to Amritsar, where he walked the 100m to the hotel to get his passport and then immediately took the same train back to Delhi. That's three 7 hour train rides in a row! Then he spent three days in Delhi, relaxing and visiting the places we hadn't been yet, before coming home.


Conclusion

On the train from Amritsar to Delhi we each made a ranking of all the places we'd visited in India, and our lists were almost identical. Here's mine, with some comments:

  1. Agra + Fatehpur Sikri: the Taj Mahal alone would earn this spot.
  2. Delhi: mostly for the fantastic Mughal monuments.
  3. Gwalior: great fort + rock-carved statues.
  4. Jodhpur: fantastic fortress.
  5. Khajuraho: beautiful but very similar temples.
  6. Orchha: deserted palaces that are fun to explore.
  7. Amritsar + Wagah: the golden temple wasn't that great but the border ceremony was.
  8. Varanasi: nothing to see except people bathing in the Ganges, but a special atmosphere.
  9. Jaipur + Amber: nicest city, but only 1 noteworthy monument.
  10. Sanchi: nice statues on the gateways, but that was it.
  11. Bodhgaya: more of a buddhist theme park than a holy place.
1-5 were must-sees in my view, and 6 and 7 were interesting experiences. I wouldn't have minded missing 8-11.

It's probably clear that I'm not as enthusiastic about this trip and about India as I was about my previous journeys. That is just my taste though, many other people fall in love with India and love traveling there. I had that with the Middle East. Tastes differ :)


<< Part 8: Rajasthan    -   Back to Index   -   





Godsmurf Sun 04 Nov 2007 @ 14:52
Assuming you're talking about Everest BC trek: I didn't see any snakes and can't imagine there being any that high.

Carole Davt Fri 02 Nov 2007 @ 13:59
Wonderful pictures and story-----a real girly question--are there any snakes up there??? and how tough is it to complete??


Della Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 23:55
Nice pictures and writing! Your photos really bring back to my mind the days i spent in Nepal!
Go ahead and share with us more your travel notes and experience in the future!

Godsmurf Tue 21 Mar 2006 @ 13:41
Hehe. Should be up within a few days!

eleni Tue 21 Mar 2006 @ 01:56
Great! i was anxious and still am for no. 7 :)
It's like you are reading a book and when it starts to get really interesting you realise that some pages are missing...


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