Amritsar, the north western state of India is, for lack of a better word, shocking.
I left Jaisalmer feeling a little shitty for obvious reasons and possible even a little down; I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Rajasthan and was sad to leave but, as always, I had to press on. My first impression of the Sikh pilgrimage city (after a hellish bus journey) wasn’t the best; dusty, s**t covered roads being rolled over by rickshaws, buses, cyclists and, of course, cows (yes, more cows). My guesthouse, and many others in the area, had a lovely view of a flyover and was without a doubt the most depressing guesthouse I’ve been in so far (and I’ve been in some really bad ones). There was nothing wrong with the place itself; everyone was friendly, the food good and the price OK but if you were unaware of what time it was, you’d think it was nighttime; this perpetual darkness seemed to cover most areas of the city which, coupled with the general atmosphere, left me feeling really down.
Now, it’s not just the lack of light in the streets of Amritsar that make it a dark place; it’s the city’s history that really breaks the place. Two major events have happened around the Temple complex area, both of which led to irreversible changes further down the line; the first of which being the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh by the British Raj in 1919. Under the command of Colonel Dyer, the exits to the Bagh were blocked and, without warning of dispersal, British troops opened fire on 1000’s of peaceful Sikh, Muslim and Hindu protesters who’d gathered in the area (some of whom were simply passing through on their way home). Hundreds were killed after 10 minutes of constant firing and the understandable stampede that followed; it is strongly believed that this was the beginning of the end for British rule in India and, along with other smaller incidents, ultimately led to the end of the British Empire. Now, throughout my time in India I’ve been asked countless times where I’m from and I usually, almost proudly, say England; not in this place though; it was the first time I had to force myself to admit where I’m from and, well, it was shameful…
The second and equally horrific incident in Amritsar is Operation Blue Star, which occurred in 1984. Not to go into too much detail; the operation was an attempt, and success, at driving out a movement leader who, with the support of many Sikhs, had made the temple complex his base of operations. He was killed, as were many of his armed guard and innocent Sikhs (nearly 400) during a near-warlike gun battle (involving tanks, heavy artillery, and helicopters) within the complex itself. The aftermath resulted in an uproar from the Sikh community, causing mutinies and an opposition to the Indian government. The revenge came in the form of the assassination of the Indian prime minister by her two Sikh bodyguards; this fueled a mass anti-sikh set of riots which claimed more than 3000 Sikh lives across the northern states of the subcontinent, and is remembered today as ‘the great massacre’.
Now, besides its dark history, the city itself just has a troubling atmosphere; comparable maybe to sights during the blitz. I could taste the stench and the smell in the air was unbearable; the sight of rats running between cows eating bags of waste beneath flyovers was very hard to ignore. The mini empires of rickshaws and dirty street food flood any space between the main roads (I say dirty street food because I saw one vendor washing out his utensils with the flow of black water flowing down the street).
As I was walking back to my guesthouse at night (actual nighttime) all I could see was the dimmed headlights of rickshaws, scooters and cars trying desperately to guide their way through the smoggy atmosphere; I could see sparks lighting up the underside of the flyover from either sides of the road and, thinking there was a problem, tried to avoid them as best I could; it actually turns out that these are men working on power lines- not with any form of protection though you must understand; these guys are sat on a plank of wood (which itself is balancing on cables), doing some sort of soldering or welding work, with the sparks flying off in any direction, including their unguarded faces.
No, this was not what I expected from Amritsar, a Sikh holy city; but as always, with the media and other blogs, you’re overrun with pictures of the Golden Temple and the hoards of Sikhs that flood the place selling it like a bad Thomas Cook ad. Don’t get me wrong; the temple complex itself is impressive and encourages a short period of reflection or even a brief moment of understanding of a complex religion, the temple (Harmandir Sahib) is beautifully situated in the centre of a sky blue man made lake (the ‘holy water’), but outside the area the place is dilapidated, run down and poor; it reminded me of the worst parts of Mumbai.
So, other than struggling to breathe and dodging various ill-sighted animals and transport, what else is there to do in and around Amristar? Well, there’s the Wagah border (the Indo-Pakistan border) and the official ‘closing of the borders’ ceremony which, as I found out, will cheer up any fed up traveller to no end. Firstly, after a quick, not so thorough passport check, you’re guided into an area of concrete stands; it’s like being at a sporting event (one thing of note here is that the Indian side of the border gate is far more built up and crowded than the Pakistan side). After being hounded to buy drinks and snacks, it begins. A warm up by a microphone yielding Indian version of Dermot O’Leary is followed by several military dressed men and women marching out, rifles in hand, to a repeating drum beat.
The small military group take their turn in trying to march with some sort of authority towards the border gate (all of which is simultaneously happening on the other side, the whole thing coming across as more comical than serious). They all meet at the gate, which is opened, and both sides exchange a show of light hearted one-upmanship on the other (though I’m sure the actual feelings are of a strong dislike).
This, plus repeated cheering calls from the very lively master of ceremonies, creates a very jovial atmosphere; everyone is in high spirits and you’d think you were watching a game of cricket or football; it really is a great place to be. Finally, the gate is closed and the border ‘officially’ shut for the day; the crowd starts to disperse and some passports are checked again (you can imagine that during such a show some people may fancy their chances of crossing). The whole thing is enjoyable to watch and I highly recommend it. However, there’s the underlying feeling that there’s a little bit of dignity lost on both sides.
Following a tough battle of weaving in and out of meandering sky starers and a long, traffic lengthened journey back to the city, I wanted to get out of the city as soon as possible so, after waking early, I headed to the bus station for a way of getting to my next destination: Dharamasala, home of the Dalai Lama…