On The QT

Amritsar and the Pakistani Border

Blogger: Katie Burke

My first port of call on leaving Bir was to travel to Punjab and visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar. I don’t know why but I presumed Amritsar to be a sleepy little town with nothing really there except the Temple….boy was I wrong. There were people and traffic absolutely everywhere in crazy mix of horns, shouting and general bedlam. What I had failed to note was that The Golden Temple is actually an important pilgrimage site in the Sikh religion and so thousands of Sikhs descend upon the small town each weekend, so arriving on a Friday afternoon may have been a bad move.

Once we located the central area we set off in pursuit of lodgings. Someone had heard somewhere that people were welcome to stay on Temple grounds, for a certain donation, so we set out to do that. Quite lost and a little tired, as well as constantly being stared at, photographed and the direct target of anyone who was selling anything, we eventually found aid. In one of the more strange situations that I’ve been in in India, eight of us plodded into what appeared to me to be a bank but I’m still not quite sure what it was. Three Sikh men sat behind a large desk and welcomed us. We sat on some couches and they instructed another man to bring us some chai. Then they spoke to us about the temple, gave us some leaflets and directed us to where we needed to be. With renewed vigour on finishing our chai we set off and quickly found what we were looking for. It did help that once on Temple grounds we stuck out even more so everyone that came across us pointed us in the direction of  “The Foreigners” accommodation. 

After we’d claimed our space, changed our clothes and ventured out in search of food we were finally ready to visit The Golden Temple. Our heads covered (even the men) and our feet bare, we tentatively walked through some “cleansing” water and towards the temple. We were eight white people in a storm of thousands of Sikh men, women and children and so, though it was done mostly in a pleasant, friendly fashion, we were followed, questioned and photographed the whole time we were there. The Temple itself was stunning, sitting afloat the clear blue water, completely reflected by the light of the setting sun. We took lots of pictures of our own and I found the whole experience of being there to be one of the most beautiful and, despite the attention we drew, peaceful I had had in India.

Later that evening some of us decided to avail of the free food the Temple had to offer. This involved re-covering our heads, re-entering the Temple area, grabbing some plates and joining the long queue (chaotic mass) of people heading towards the dining hall. When we eventually made it, we took our places amidst rows and rows of Sikhs sitting cross legged on the floor. First a man came and dropped chippattis into outstretched hands. I watched as one person after another clasped their chippattis in their hands and bowed their heads in thanks. Then came the various large pots of dahl that were ladled expertly onto each plate. And finally a nifty little golfcart-esque contraption with a water tank on the back sprayed water into everyone’s bowl. People watched us with interest but I was much more encapsulated bu them and the whole sense of occasion that went with the meal. I was also very much intrigued that the whole service was somehow provided free of charge with everyone from the cooks to the dishwashers volunteering their time.

That night as we returned to our room we were drawn to the hustle and bustle coming from the courtyard next door. On inspection we discovered that hundreds of people were happily and seemingly legally bedding down for the night right there. With the vast aray of colorful blankets and chattering families it was quite the sight to behold. 

The next evening we took a trip to the Pakistani border to witness the changing of the guards. This was without a doubt one of the most bizarre spectacles I have ever witnessed. We arrived in a taxi and joined the separate “foreigner” queue. This queue was about  1/100th of the size of the Indian queue and led us to much better seats right next to the gate where all the action was happening. I thought this seemed quite unfair but the Indians did not seem the slightest bit perturbed as they ran to claim their seats, Indian flags slung over their shoulders like capes fluttering in the wind.

When we were finally seated things got even stranger as an MC, dressed head to toe in white began rallying the crowd. A group of women and children formed a queue behind the MC. Then the MC shouted, the crowd roared and in twos the women and children began to run towards the border gate and back, while holding a large Indian Flags over their heads. This went on for awhile. Then suddenly, out of nowhere Bollywood music burst from the speakers. Women of all ages, shapes and sizes jumped up, formed a circle  and proceeded to dance their socks off. Then just as suddenly as it began, the music stopped and  things got serious.

The MC began shouting again and some guards appeared from the wings. First in pairs and then one by one (presumably the more important guards came last), they marched quickly to the border gate, kicked out their right legs in a spectacular fashion and saluted. Each time a guard was about to march the MC introduced them in the much same manor as W.W.E. wrestlers are introduced to a fight, it was a little surreal. After some more high spirited crowd rallying I realised that the Indian MC was in direct competition with his Pakistani counterpart, who was busy rallying his own crowd on the opposite side of the gate. After much nonsensical crowd hysteria the gate was finally opened. Then after some more marching, kicking, saluting and a brief handshake all to the backdrop of two screaming crowds and two manic MCs, the gates closed once more and it was time to leave. Bizarre, hilarious and somewhat underwhelming are the only words that come to mind to describe the experience, but it really had to be seen to be believed.

There was not much else to see in Amritsar but we spent another day there just to wait for a train to Jaipur. To pass the time I ate lots of delicious street food and contemplated purchasing a Sikh Dagger which though dangerous looking appeared to be for sale everywhere and were cheap. The food although rough and ready was fantastic, even though I am pretty sure that I ate noodles from what was basically an old Frisbee at one point. But such is India.

When we boarded the 12 hour sleeper train to Jaipur I was ready for somewhere new and exciting. Little did I realise that the train journey itself would provide plenty of the entertainment I was looking for.


Blogger: Katie Burke - Adventures in India
Katie is an aspiring writer who is originally from Galway. She has been travelling in India for the past two months. She has had an eclectic journey including everything from experiencing the culture shock of Delhi to teaching baby Buddhist monks in Dharamsala and so much in between. This blog covers the highs, the lows and the hilarious of each site and situation visited and reveals the madness that is India from the naked eye of a first time visitor.
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