Hindustan!? In the House!
Amritsar is the largest city in the Punjab region of India, a mere 30 KM from the Pakistan border.
For more Punjabi pictures of India, click here.
There’s a chorus of relief as we flop onto our bed in our spacious room in Amritsar. It’s expected that the overnight train from Delhi would wipe us out, our second class sleeper cars prone to loud noises, hot air, and plenty of foot traffic passing us with the exact opposite of quiet, respectful dignity. We each in turn crawl into a lovely hot shower, relaxing and coaxing the weariness from our aching bones. A warm afternoon nap soon follows.
The plan for the evening is a visit to the Pakistan border, where the ceremonial closing of the border, followed by dinner and a brief visit to the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh site. According to the guidebook, this is all that Amritsar has to offer. Of course, we’ll only be here one night before grabbing a bus or train North toward Dharmasala.
Delhi was oppressively hot. Amritsar is much better. Between the grandiose greenery and the smaller population of vehicles on the road, a fan is more than enough to keep us comfortable as we sleep. Sometime during our rest, the power goes out. I wake up hot and weighted with sweat. Our room is still cooler than outside, but it’s nearing the ambient temperature.
Everything seems to move slower here. I’ve heard Denise’s dad joke about Colored People Time, but it’s apparent that nobody has anything on Indian time. The trains run of their own accord, the people nap steadily throughout the day. And even we foreigners are forced to slow down, take our time, and seek shelter from the heat.
Lounging in the afternoon heat, we don’t notice the time pass. Seemingly without warning our auto-rickshaw driver appears at our door, ushering us toward our late afternoon appointment with tradition.
The border itself is 30 km outside of Amritsar, though it’s this station that’s known for the closing ceremony. Pathankot, another city in the Punjab region, lies almost directly on the border, but without the well-known fanfare.
It’s only 4:45 when we arrive, well before the 6 PM ceremony, yet all the buses and drivers seem to be pulling up and delivering their wards right about now. The parking lot is more a shanty town of drink stalls and souvenir stands, their makeshift roofs balanced precariously on quickly installed stilts. The muddy pathways are full of surprisingly well dressed children selling postcards, pictures, DVDs, VCDs, flags, fans, and water. Gina buys one of everything. I’m little envious of how obviously she wants these people to be better off, as I’ve long since forced myself cold to their pleas and demands.
Once we reach the border complex, the herd of children magically thins like a handkerchief full of watches pulled taut to reveal nothing within. For a moment I think we’re in the clear, but not a dozen steps in, the sales pitches resume. Despite the man’s claim that his was the last water available, the border crossing arena-and that’s the only way to describe the thick cement bleachers lining the road to the border on each side-has a snack and drink stand with tables and chairs. The sun is too hot to perch on cement for the next hour so we take a seat and enjoy a drink while we wait. Gina flashes her swag to warn off persistent salesmen approaching our little outpost.
The crowd is surprisingly thick as we ascend the stairs. On the Indian side, the women and men have been separated, a few children crossing lines as they’re wont to do. We, meanwhile, our passports safely at home, are ushered around to a VIP section of camera wielding tourists. They seat us from rear to front, leaving us perched far higher than I’d like on the steaming hot cement. We’re still a good half hour away from ceremony time.
“Looks like it would’ve been better to come late and get better seats,” I say to Matt. I can’t see or hear the girls as I’m squished against the railing on the near side of the Indian women’s section. There’s music playing, and every once in a while I can parse the word India. It’s hard to listen to well as the Pakistani side is blasting its own nationalistic music, the two fighting and clawing at the ethnic tones of the other.
Already there are men in strange uniforms intermixed with the rest of the military. They wear tall hats with 6 inch fans jutting vertically like webbed liberty spikes. Their pants reach their shins only, dangling over bright white rubber spats that loosely grab at their large toed boots. Every man in uniform sports that singularly Indian moustache that would make Ron Jeremy sting with envy. Already, I have a huge grin on my face.
Along the road, people are lining up in order to carry the Indian flag up to the gate and back, the formality exciting in the same way as a boy scout troop singing the national anthem at a baseball game. As time passes, they start having the flags carried by two people at once, and soon enough they have trios to get through more. The nearness of the event is palpable, the stands packed with nationalist fervor. Oddly, the Pakistani side seems near empty, despite the noise of their music.
A few of the guards halt the procession of flags, sending most of the people, save a few young girls, scattering back into the crowd. The girls mill around talking and waiting in the hot sun for their turn at carrying the flag, but the flags are gone. I didn’t see where to. The current song stops sharply in the middle, the traditional Indian music replaced by the thumping beat of bhangra. I can feel the cheer as the women start dancing, their joyous fervor lighting a fire in the crowd. Soon, the men, still roped off, have started flailing in their own form of dancing, proving once and for all that even in societies in which men dance, most of us have no rhythm.
As the music fades, the only song I recognized one of two I know from Punjabi MC, the master of ceremonies begins a call and response routine that echoes across the makeshift amphitheater.
“In the house!” I shake my head, wondering if I heard what I think I heard.
“In the house!” It’s not actually those words, but it’s so close.
“In the house!” I smirk at the obviously misheard words. This isn’t Martin Lawrence’s India, after all.
The chants continue in various form, the crowd trying to out loud the Pakistani side. It’s not hard. The Pakistani side is weak in comparison. Perhaps that’s the purpose of the ceremony: a show of strength. I don’t even notice that the guards have begun to take their places, the dancer cleared back into the stands.
It actually surprises me when the emcee walks over to a guard, a raucous cheer resounding from the crowd, and holds the mic up to his mouth. I can hear the guard take a deep breath as the crowd silences. And he lets loose a singular note, held for what seems like an eternity. I begin to wonder if they teach all their guards circular breathing, but the thought is caught in my head like a fly in a spiderweb when the second note rings out. It’s the Pakistanis. It’s not quite in tune. I can hear the beats of the two notes waver back and forth. The Pakistani doesn’t seem to want to hold the note very long, and despite the cheers from the Indian side of oral dominance, the Indian guards cry is still playing over the loud speaker.
The act is repeated 3 times before one of the guards huts loudly and two of the others take off marching so stiffly, they could be action figures with 8 points of articulation playing in sped up stop motion. Heel. Toe. Heel. Toe. Their legs never bend. The next 15 minutes is flurry of goose-steps, screams, cheers, flag waving, and strange marching worthy of a study at the Ministry of Silly Walks. The gates open, close again, reopen, the Pakistanis and Indians moving in mirrored unison, stomping right to the edge and kicking high in the face of the other without crossing the border. They stand there, posed like circus strong men, snarling at their bizarro selves across the border.
The Pakistanis wear green and black uniforms that are similarly like the red and tan ones of India. I begin to wonder if the two sides are friendly. Are they like the wolf Bob and sheepdog Sam of the classic Warner Brother cartoons, forever rivals yet sharing lunch and talk of the kids during breaks and after the whistle blows? Do they wave at each other and compliment each other’s high-stepping skills at the end of the day? It’s almost surreal, the oddity of the ceremony.
An entire troop of guards high step across the pavement in unison. Ropes are tossed unceremoniously across the group and then deftly picked up and looped on to the flags. With a trumpet call that can only mean the end is nigh, the two flags begin to descend their posted perch at a trickle, each of them trying to remain just a millimeter higher than the other while coming down as code requires. Just as the two seem ready to cross, the two ropes at 45 degree angles marking an X across the border, both flags go into overdrive and whip down to mass cheering. A quick fold, a few more yells, and everyone is smiles, the flags disappearing into their respective guardhouses.
The crowd piles down toward the front, snapping pictures with the stone faced guards. I see one of the guards smile and shake hands with a child after mugging his hard military face for a picture. It’s nice to see some humanity in these robotic seeming guards. The entire walk back to the auto rickshaw feels like an exodus, hundreds of people spilling from this small space, each one with a hopeful jaunt or tired drag in their step.
“Hindustan!?” I call quietly, trying to avoid detection by the locals. “In the house!” Matt starts laughing.
“It did sound like that, didn’t it?” agrees Emilie with a smile.
“From here on out, that’s going to be your contribution to this trip, Ben,” Matt tells me. “Hindustan!?”
“In the house!” We cry, smiling.
We get dropped off down the road from the famed Golden Temple, Amritsar’s crown jewel and the holiest site in all of Sikhdom. This area of the city is ringed with shops and stalls selling electronics, jewelry, fresh fruit, and more. In the guidebook, the Sikhs are sometimes described as bon vivants, living their lives more enjoyably than might be expected of the religious. The tenets of Sikhdom are downright elegant: preaching equality and decrying a caste system; requiring the Alcoholics Anonymous style admission that we are not in control; demanding a renunciation of physical goods; and necessitating a vow to protect the poor and weak, even if it means taking up arms and laying down one’s life.
The Golden Temple itself is surrounded by a large pool of holy water seemingly an acre wide, a walkway stretching centrally from one side of the pool. Around the outside is a wide marble walkway with a thinner dais separating it from a set of three stairs leading into the water. Many men bathe in the waters, children as well. Other sit quietly around the outside, their legs crossed and breathing steady, simply taking in the majesty of the scene. The walkway is ringed once more by a large white building full of small bath pools, places to sleep and study, and a soup kitchen. Small shrines of living people reading specific prayers are interspersed, people kneeling before them to pay their respects. Other shrines to important Sikh stories-one a beautiful tree under which a well-known holy man was said to have prayed during a pilgrimage years ago-intermingle with the dais.
We settle down next to the water and before I get a chance to relax I’m chided by a Sikh to sit cross-legged, my feet firmly planted on the thin shelf below me an obvious affront. For a long time we simply sit there, basking in the moment like so many pilgrims. The marble feels cool to our bare feet-shoes are barred from the premises and head coverings required, though I did not bring my yarmulke after the near loss at mosque in Delhi and am instead wearing a handkerchief purchased outside the doors.
We finally stand up and begin to circle the temple, the cool breeze making me smile as much as the friendly children who come up to use their one phrase of English (What is your name?). A number of young men stare at Gina, an obviously sexual leering that would seem out of place in such a place of worship were it not for the reasonably lax code of conduct enforced. All around us, people nap, children play, and even in the darkness the entire complex seems alive with the sounds of joy and contentment.
I’m not sure when it started but I begin to notice a soft chanting echoing across the cool waters. A sitar and table soon join in, seamlessly adding beautiful layers of light, airy harmony and rhythm to the glorious word. It’s so natural to the setting I can’t help but wonder if it hasn’t been there the entire time. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I know it’s a new layer to the mystical awe the place inherently inspires.
“Should we kneel?” asks Emilie as we walk up to the entrance. We aren’t even onto the walkway yet and people are kneeling, bowing, and kissing the ground before this temple. Every look I get is one of kindness, openness and respect.
“I’m not going to,” I reply. “Showing respect and learning about another’s belief is very important to me. Falsely mimicking their rituals with a hollow lack of belief seems more insulting than respectful.”
“Yeah, I agree,” she says as we step over the precipice and begin to slowly slip down the covered walkway. There are literally hundreds of people here in the temple area alone. A large stick lies across the path blocking our way and allowing people to filter through and exit before sending the next batch of honored guests into the golden arms of the temple. From here, the ornate building is even more impressive, its detailed carvings as impressive as the stark cleanliness of the compound as compared to the dirty Indian streets outside.
The bar is lifted and, for the second time today, I find myself thrust forward with the crowd, carried toward the temple’s entrance like a drowning man carried out to sea by the undertow. Before I know it, I’m inside, staring at the white bearded holy man waving his huge feather in kind waves at us. To his left sit a three man band, the sitar player’s voice carried out to the masses through a microphone. I get the distinct desire to sit down and listen for as long as I can, but already the crowd is dragging me out the side and back onto the white marble floor by the pool.
At the back of the temple, people bend down, collect holy water, take a step back and drink. Koi nip at the surface as children stare over the railing at these bubbling fish, rapt by the way they seem to stay as close as they can to the temple proper. The music is still flowing like a meditative heartbeat from the center of the structure. I’m unsure if it’s the same song or prayer that it was twenty minutes ago. I begin thinking about Ravi Shankar’s ragas, which I remember stretching into hour-long performances. There was that one time Becky and I went to see the tabla player at CU and left at the first hour and a half song cause one of our friends couldn’t take it anymore.
As we leave the pathway, Emilie is handed a glob of a strange sticky substance that looks a little like cookie dough. I decide not to try any, though I don’t regret it until the following morning. Everyone seems tired and content, our most delectable dinner still warm in our bellies. Gina suggests napping beside the pool and it’s amazing how tempting the idea seems. Looking around, we certainly wouldn’t be the only ones.
The others lie down. I stand and watch all the worshipers. One Sikh has a friend take his picture by the pool, his curved knife clearly tucked in his belt. Tears well up in his eyes as he examines the picture in the tiny LCD screen. I envy his joy a little. Not even my pilgrimage to Israel could provide me with such an utterly overwhelming moment, though I doubt I’d trade it for one that had.
Each wavering note that arches across the water lulls me a little more toward sleep, the voices now twined in a subtle duet, the table player or another musician spelling the sitar players aching voice a stanza at a time.
“We should’ve stayed here,” Gina says, my heart aching with agreement in time to the music. Arriving in Amritsar, we had the option of staying for free (with expected donation) at one of the pilgrim’s lodgings around the temple courtyard, but we chose not to due to baggage security concerns. I can’t say we made the wrong decision, but I somehow wish I had it to make again.
It’s here, with the music swelling and waning, the light glancing off the rippling waters and the breeze leaving us more perfectly acclimated than ever before that our day truly ends. From the moment we walk off the premise until I finally slip into sleep, I hear the haunting beautiful music playing in my head, the ghostly golden visage of the temple flickering on my cornea like the sun, burned in for hours after.
For how little Amritsar has to offer its few attractions are more impressive and enjoyable than many of the sites I’ve already visited combined. In Amritsar, Hindustan is truly in the house.