– BRUAH! –
You guessed it – I did just return from a weekend in Punjab. Amritsar to be exact.
The best way to travel in and out of Amritsar is to fly to either Chandigarh or Delhi and take a train – it gives you the most flexibility in terms of timing and also allows you to explore one or more additional destinations. Since we didn’t know this (and we’re divas), Kevin, Katie and I figured out a way to fly directly to Amritsar – unfortunately this required a 5am, Saturday morning, departure from Mumbai. Friday night wasn’t exactly tame. I had a Wharton/HBS/LBS mixer to attend (you can just imagine b-school kids, PRE-b-school) + we had scored invites to the Willingdon Club’s monthly “party” (an old and exclusive sports club/gymkhana) so getting approx 30 minutes of sleep that night added a special element to our journey.
There are exactly five things to see/do in Amritsar: Wagah border ceremony, Golden Temple, Jallianwala Bagh, Eat, Shop. Upon landing, we lazed around and did the latter two – ate and shopped. Punjab is famous for insanely delicious stuffed kulchas and parathas with extra ghee, lassis with extra malai, and chole with extra spice. I thought it best to have all three of those things in my first meal. This was a bad choice. I was so stuffed I basically couldn’t eat anything the rest of the trip. I didn’t get sick exactly, but the combination of lack of sleep and 7,000 calories in one meal did me in – my stomach seemed to be churning/digesting what I had eaten for the rest of the day. The lassi was overrated in my mind, but the breaddss (THE BREADS!!) were to die for!
Next on the docket was the Wagah border ceremony. Wagah is a town about 45 minutes outside of Amritsar that sits on the border of India and Pakistan (this town was split in half when the boundary demarcation line was drawn between the two countries). During the day, flags of both countries fly high at the border. Since 1960, every day, at the approach of sunset, a flag-lowering ceremony is conducted. The program was expected to start around 7:30pm so we thought we’d get there early to snag a great seat. At 5pm it was us and thousands of other people…
Getting these people seated proved to be nightmarish. On the India side, there were three seating types that I could identify; Regular (free seating for Indian nationals), VIP (this requires purchasing a ticket in advance and provides slightly closer seating), and Foreigners (for some inexplicable reason the free foreigner seating is better than the regular seating and situated right next to the VIP section – yes, this did feel wrong). We immediately began looking for signs to figure out where we should be waiting. Nothing of the sort existed. We tried asking people where to go and received some unconvincing pointing and waving. Finally we resorted to searching for white people. Success – kind of. It turned out that this exercise was useless as there was a common security checkpoint before we could all be seated in our respective sections – what a bottleneck this was. After about an hour of standing around, gates are opened, and the entire crowd pours into the event grounds. We were expected to self divide into male and female lines. Of course there were zero signs requesting this so Katie, Kevin and I ended up in the boys line (there are five-ish other women as well). Gender separation occurs everywhere in this country (security lines at the airport, security lines to enter a hotel, seating in temples, and so on) so we should have predicted that we would have to split up at some point. A woman from the Border Security Force (BSF) started to hysterically yell at us in Hindi saying we needed to stand on the women’s side for check-in. There were only two BSF women that were processing a very long female check-in line (I use “line” very loosely here – in actuality we’re talking about a herd of people). Once on the other side we finally figure out where to go and take our seats but the process could have been 90% less stressful with some signage. Just offering some constructive feedback…
A guy in a white BSF jumpsuit was waving Indian flags around as we were entering. As far as I can tell, white-jumpsuit-guy (WJG) is supposed to rile up the crowd similar to at a sporting event (I was on the lookout for some Indian flag tube socks). He then invited Indians from the regular and VIP sections to come down onto the road and arranged them in a single file line. The first few folks take the flags form WJG and run up to the border laughing and waving the Indian flag before passing it off to the next patriot. This is literally the only time that I have seen a line of people work as expected in India. After the flag-running segment came a dance party segment. Oh I should mention that patriotic songs were playing this entire time. WJG invites only women to come to the road to dance. There may have been a few other fun such activities that allowed for audience participation before the Jawans (soldiers) came out. At this point it becomes a little unclear what exactly is happening at the border but from what I understand, the Jawans on both the Indian and Pakistani side aggressively march, one by one, towards the border. When the border gates open, the Jawans shake hands and proceed to, with exact precision, slightly lower the flags until both India’s and Pakistan’s flags are taken down and taken back to their respective home turfs. All the while there is a lot of cheering and chanting from the crowds – Pakistan: “Jive Jive Pakistan” and other things I couldn’t quite make out – India: “Jai Hind” and “Vande Mataram.”
I can’t quite describe how I feel about this ceremony, mostly because I haven’t decided how to feel. On the one hand, as someone who is Indian (and also because there was a giant portrait of Mahatma staring at me), you can’t help but feel a swell of emotion and patriotism. This is my history. On the other hand, with WJG especially, it felt very staged, almost as if it was meant to be a tourist attraction more than an act of duty or symbolism. That said, the Indian nationals seemed to be full of pride and excitement. Maybe it’s OK to be both?
Most everything else happening in Amritsar is centered around the iconic Golden Temple – the holiest of Sikh Gurdwaras. The water surrounding the Golden Temple is known as the immortal nectar and is how Amritsar got its name – Amrit meaning nectar. More than 100,000 people visit this temple everyday making it a more popular destination than the Taj Mahal (learn a little something everyday). Leading up to the Golden Temple there is such a cluster of street stalls, motor rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, vendors, etc. It’s almost shocking to go from the commotion outside to the peace inside the fort walls. The building itself is magnificent. The fort walls surrounding the temple are also very ornate. Everything is made of marble, gold and precious stones. Inside the fort area a four person band was playing religious music in one corner. A prasad station was open. People were bathing, or at least dipping their feet, in the holy water. Some folks were eating and chatting. Others were sleeping (apparently pilgrims are allowed to stay for free at the temple). So much activity and yet the divinity and spirituality within was palpable.
Our final stop in Amritsar (in addition to more eating, shopping, and a second visit to the Golden Temple) was to see Jallianwala Bagh – a massacre site, turned memorial, near the Golden Temple. In 1919, at this site, there was a gathering of townspeople who were peacefully protesting the passing of the Rowlatt Act which would allow the government to arrest, without trial, anyone they wanted (the law was created because the British were afraid there were native conspirators planning a revolt against the government). General Dyer and his men (80+ people) surrounded the site and began to shoot at the people, brutally killing over 1,500.
I had only learned of this massacre after researching Amritsar. Standing at that memorial was another moment on this trip that made me appreciate the horrors and struggles borne by those who came before me and helped me further appreciate how privileged my life is.