Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Amritsar and the Pakistan Border

After Shimla, my next destination was the golden temple at Amritsar. Though I've always thought the place looks magical, it wasn't in my original plans as it was so far from Delhi (almost on the border with Pakistan). But, with the success of my train journey to Shimla, I decided I would give it a go.

Though the train was hours late and arrived at 3am, I was still glad I'd made the journey.

The Golden Temple at Amritsar is the holiest site in the Sikh world. Sikhism began in the 15th century and is the fifth largest religion in the world. Sikhism advocates the pursuit of salvation through disciplined, personal meditation on the name and message of God, and has its roots in Northern India.

From a personal point of view, I found the Sikh temples at Amritsar to be the most relaxing place I visited in India. Hospitality is a central part of the Sikh religion. And this extends further than you might expect...

On arriving at the temple I was offered free accommodation in a building near the temple. I politely accepted and was shown to a section which is reserved for foreign tourists. The night I stayed there I even had a room to myself in the dorm-style accommodation. There was absolutely no pressure to make a donation (as a result of which I gave a bigger donation than I would have done) and I was made to feel very much at home by the Sikhs working there.

Even more exciting (for an economist) was the fact that there was a free lunch! I met two German girls in the dorm - Eva and Kiki - and we joined thousands of pilgrims at the lunch hall. In a fairly well organised scrum, we grabbed a tray, a spoon and surged with the crowd into the huge dining hall where everyone sat cross-legged in long lines on the floor. Volunteers then came round and slopped some vegetarian curry from a bucket onto our trays. This was followed by a dollop of rice and a piece of naan bread.
(The perfect hotel for when you need to give your inner-ned a holiday...)

It was a great way to get to meet some nice local people as there were very few foreigners and we were definitely objects of interest! And how was it? It was delicious! As well as which, we got offered extra naan, curry and rice. One of the best lunches I've had and an experience that still has me smiling now!

That evening, the three of us went to Wagah, Amritsar's other - and much more recent - draw. As you probably know, relations between India and Pakistan have been strained since partition in 1947. Hostilities between the two flair up from time to time (especially over the border regions) and there is always at the least an extreme 'competitiveness'. Nowhere is that better illustrated than at the border town of Wagah.

The two governments have actually built small grandstands adjacent to and on either side of the border at Wagah. Every evening soldiers on each side perform elaborate marching routines, marching up to their counterparts and making jesticulations and stamping while patriotic music blairs loudly on both sides. This was all led by a portly Indian chap of about 40, in casual gear who bore a remarkable resemblance to Peter Griffen (or Peter Griffen's black grandaddy) and marched up and down waving a giant India flag as if he'd gatecrashed the event and taken over.

I had wondered whether it would be a stage-managed and rather touristy event without much substance to it, but even though we didn't speak Hindi, it was obvious that there was more to it than that. The vast majority of the couple of thousand people there were Indian and it was clear that they took the slogan-shouting, patriotic singing and flag-waving very seriously. And from what we could see, the crowds on the Pakistani side of the border were equally in earnst.

It was quite a sobering display in the end, when you consider that both of these nations have a nuclear arsenal and have engaged in a major conflict in Kashmir within the last 10 years.

I've just finished a superb book set in northern Pakistan. Three Cups of Tea tells the story of an American mountain climber who 13 years ago started building schools for girls in the remote mountains of Pakistan. The book is a great read. It's also a textbook for how we might really resolve the 'war on terror'. The contrast between the ineffectiveness of American foreign policy in Afghanistan and the benefits of educating poor people in these remote areas is absolutely stark. And if you like that book, the similar Mountains Beyond Mountains is even better.

Footnote: As I arrived at the station to take the train from Amritsar to Agra, I asked a bloke on the platform if this was the right train. Just as I opened my mouth, i felt sure I recognised him. But, he being a portly Indian chap of about 40, that didn't seem possible. Then I recognised him as the conductor from the Wagah event! He was chuffed I'd recognised him and there followed much back-slapping and hand-pumping. That made my week!

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