Amritsar. How am I supposed to think about this place? Is it the first place in India in all of my four visits where I have felt unwelcome and uncomfortable with a sense of underlying hostility? Or is it a place where people were understanding and patient as we encountered unique experiences with them? Or both?
We came to Amritsar to see the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs. We went to see the temple on our own the afternoon we arrived in the city. We went back the next day with a guide. Lora has written about the extraordinary difference in the two visits.
A side note about the Golden Temple. In 1984 it was occupied by a group of Sikh separatists. Indira Gandhi ordered the army to attack when the separatists refused to leave the temple. At least 350 Sikhs and 70 soldiers were killed and the temple was badly damaged. Four months later, Gandhi was gunned down in her garden by her two Sikh bodyguards. I asked our guide if the Sikhs had ever forgiven Gandhi for ordering the troops to attack the temple. “No, never!”
The other attraction in Amritsar is the Attari border crossing between India and Pakistan. A number of years ago the two countries initiated bus and train service through the crossing as a symbolic step toward improving their relations. Late every afternoon there is a ceremony at the crossing when the flags are lowered. So we drove to the crossing, 20 km. west of the city, to see the ceremony. I expected to witness something designed to promote good feelings between the two countries’ people. I encountered the opposite.
We found ourselves in a mass of people who had come to see the ceremony. According to our guide, an average of 15,000 show up every weekday, and many more on weekends. These numbers are probably exaggerated, but in any event they refer only to the people on the Indian side of the border, almost all of whom were Indian tourists, not foreigners.
The parking area is a good distance from the actual crossing, and vendors fill the road that people have to walk, selling everything from popcorn to trinkets to clothing and everything else that an Indian tourist visiting a border crossing ceremony might be induced to buy. When we finally reached the crossing, foreigners who showed their passports were directed to a separate bleacher in a prime location to observe the ceremony. The only observer area closer to the crossing gate than the foreigners’ bleacher was the VIP seating for dignitaries, politicians and families of the soldiers in the ceremony. The masses were in bleachers on the far side of the foreigners’ area.
The first image one gets on entering the viewing area is of the soldiers, members of an elite Special Borders Force. Aside from the ability to work up a great scowl to impress the crowd with their ferocity, the prime requirement for the soldiers seems to be their height. The shortest of them could not have been less than 6′ 2″. Adding to the drama of their height was their headware. Essentially, the headware is something akin to a rooster’s comb. Except in this case, it is 12″ high pleated fan, worthy (according to Lora) of being in the Mikado. So the average height of the soldiers in full regalia must have been around 7′ 6″.
The soldiers were just hanging around in front of the crossing gate, waiting for the ceremony to begin. Suddenly a man emerged from the group and ran out to face the crowd of spectators. His height made it clear he was one of the soldiers but he was wearing a white Nike running suit. He carried a wireless microphone and was the Special Borders Force’s version of the Dallas Cowboys “cowgirl” cheerleaders. Jumping up and down with upraised, waving arms, and moving back and forth along the length of the bleachers, he led the crowd in patriotic cheers, whipping them up into a higher and higher decibel range. Every once in a while he stopped, and we could hear the same thing coming over from the Pakistani side. It was as if we were at a soccer game between Manchester United and Liverpool, with two frenzied mobs of fans taunting each other as strenuously as possible.
The ceremony began when the crowd was sufficiently whipped up. It turned out to be a comical, but for me, disturbing pageant. The NBA-height, scowling soldiers in their Gilbert and Sullivan headware goose-stepped back and forth. The goose stepping was extreme, with each soldier almost kicking himself in the face. At the same time, the cheerleader kept jumping up and down in front of the crowd, leading them in patriotic cheers that kept everyone whipped up. My words don’t do justice to the scene; you’ll have to watch Lora’s videos: click here:
As the ceremony drew to a close, the border gate opened and an Indian soldier and a Pakistani soldier approached each other to engage in an exaggerated ceremonial handshake at the demarcation line. Then all the Indian and Pakistani flags were slowly lowered, very carefully at the same pace so neither was ever lower than the other; the Indian and Pakistani soldiers did some goose-stepping in the other’s face; the gate was closed; and the soldiers goose-stepped their flags back to quarters for the night. Throughout all of this, the cheerleader and the crowd kept up their feverish chant of patriotic slogans.
When we rejoined our guide, he asked if we liked the ceremony. Lora said she thought it was a case of “men acting like boys.” I said that it seemed intended to encourage continued strained relations between the two countries, not to nurture friendship. Our guide was taken aback and pointed out that the two sides had shaken hands.