Saturday, October 26, 2019

Lessons in Humility at the Golden temple


To call it a structure symbolizing classic minimalism would be an oxymoron.


The Harmandir Sahib or the Golden temple of Amritsar is not only a photographer’s delight but also a place that can evoke feelings of serenity, awe and humility in you.

As you approach the main square of the city which is the main thoroughfare and the  entrance to the Golden Temple, you realize that the chaos, haphazardness and lack of aesthetics that signify ancient and crowded parts of most Indian cities including Amritsar, suddenly disappear and a new world emerges.
    
The side alleyways skirting the main precincts of Golden temple are a complete contrast to the main square. They, like any other ancient part of Indian cities are crowded and crassly commercialized.

Pink brick architecture and marble sculptures adorn the commercial outlets that lead to the Golden temple.  The signage of the shops, big and small are all uniform and aesthetically displayed.  There are no bill boards to ruin the aesthetics of the heritage site.  

(However, inorder to accommodate the need for modern commercial and consumeristic demands, at the center of the square has a huge electronic board, making it look like Times square in NY or Piccadilly circus in London.)

On the main approach road to Harmandir Sahib are sculptures of Sikh men and women performing Bhangra and Giddha which is a selfie hotspot among tourists and pilgrims alike.  




Eateries advertising ‘Asli Amritsari fare’ are dotted all along the way. The small hole in the wall shops selling Punjabi papad and wariyan, the Punjabi Lassi, Amritsari kulfi and the Kulcha outlets tempt you and leave you salivating.

Desperate salesmen from shops selling dress materials and intricately embroidered ‘Phulkari dupatttas’ beckon you to have a look. Just as you are getting seduced and stop by to show a faint interest in window shopping, a stray rickshawallah appears with his rickshaw and whispers into your ears.  ‘Ten rupees to the Phulkari wholesale market, just ten minutes from here.  Wanna take a ride?’

It is not easy, not to be overwhelmed. 

But the sound of the soulful kirtan from the shrine beckons you via the loudspeakers and reminds you about the main purpose of the visit. 

Hundreds of volunteers strive to keep the premises in and around the Golden Temple spotlessly clean.  At the free shoe depositing counter, well dressed and well to do men and women pick up your foot wear and deposit them in shoe racks before handing you a metal token acknowledging the receipt of your foot wear. The service is quick and efficient. Their humility and devotion strike you, the first thing before you enter the Gurudwara.  

As you enter the vast area that forms the outer sanctum of the golden temple, the clear golden reflection of the main sanctum sanctorum or the Darbar Sahib around the pool of water surrounding it makes you want to pull out your camera and capture the picture to preserve the memory for eternity. 

It would be much later that you realize, that there would be plenty of such opportunities, because the structure and the architecture of golden temple is very alluring and photogenic that one would just click away to glory from every angle and every direction at every available opportunity both in the broad daylight and well lit nights.         


The entrance to the main shrine is where you cross the pool of water. At any given time, early morning to late evening, devotees’ throng to the shrine from all over the world. There is always a queue at the entrance to the main shrine. 

Displays of the lyrics and the translation of the kirtan being sung inside the shrine are displayed on the TV screens in Punjabi and English that flash all over the shrine.  It renders an ambience that makes you want to sing along or at least hum the tune even if you are not familiar with the music.  Pious devotees who are regulars and are familiar with the Guru Granth sahib, sing along while waiting in the queue that is very well regulated.


As you enter the inner precincts of the Golden temple the walls covered with marble have intricate works of floral motifs that strike you at the eye level.  Above the eye level of course rises the huge walls and domes that are plated with gold on the inside as well as on the outside, thus giving Sri Harmandir Sahib its English name ‘the Golden temple’.
        
The Gurudwara, Harmandir Sahib more than 400 years old is built around a man-made water body, (Sarovar) and was completed by Guru Ram Das in 1577.

Guru Arjan, the fifth Guru of the Sikhs requested Sai Mina Mir, a Muslim Pir of Lahore, to lay its foundation stone in 1589.

However, unlike many other 400-year-old structures, the Golden temple looks new, clean and resplendent even after all these years. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the devotees who clean and polish every nook and corner with devotion everyday of the year.  

One of the experiences that one should not miss while visiting the Golden Temple is the ‘Langar’seva. 


Helped by hundreds of volunteers, the world’s largest community Kitchen at the Golden temple serves free food to more than 75,000 - 100,000 pilgrims everyday of the year.   Two halls each with a seating capacity of 5,000 are used alternatingly to serve the steady stream of pilgrims and visitors to the Golden temple.

While the food is prepared by permanent staff (sevadaars), 90% of the staff who help in its preparations are all volunteers.  One can volunteer at the Harmandir sahib to do seva for an hour, a day or even a week. In keeping with the tenets of Sikhism, ‘Seva’ or volunteering helps one to keep one’s ego in check and the humility that it emanates sends across a sense of peace and satisfaction among the devotees.

At the entrance of the ‘Langar’ hall, the volunteers seamlessly hand out plates, spoons and cups, serve daal, rice, vegetables and kheer for the people sitting in a line (pangat) for the langar. In the Kitchen other volunteers are busy rolling out the dough to make roti. There is also a huge machine donated by a Lebanese devotee for making rotis which doles out about 23000 Rotis in an hour that is used on important occasions or when the crowd is large.  On other days women volunteers manually make the Rotis, while others clean and chop huge quantities of vegetables. The stronger ones stir the food that is being cooked in huge vessels. A stream of volunteers collect the used plates, empty them, soak them in water and wash them, all in an assembly line procedure. 
The steel utensils used by the pilgrims go through five rounds of cleaning and another round of drying before they are used by another set of pilgrims at the Langar. 

One never need to worry about hygiene and cleanliness at the Gurudwara. Even the round and shallow water dispensing cups (yes not glasses or tumblers) go through several rounds of cleaning using ash powder by volunteers before the next round of water is served in them.

The service is quick and seamless at the Langar. The food is always tasty although simple and healthy.  In order to keep up with the dietary requirements of all pilgrims the food served at the Gurudwara has always been vegetarian.
This was before veganism caught up as a way of life. 
Vegans beware. Food at the Langar is laden with ghee (clarified butter) even if you skip the kheer (rice and milk pudding) that his served at the Langar.

A visit to Golden Temple is incomplete if you haven’t had the Kada Prashad. As you emerge out of the Darbar Sahib, or the main sanctorum where the Guru Granth Sahib is kept, volunteers dole out a handful of hot brownish colored sweet that is oozing out with ghee (clarified butter).

As you put it in your mouth and it melts, you delight at the mildly sweet and smooth texture of the simple sweet that is an offering from the Gurudwara. Many a devotee cannot resist a second helping. 

For those who cannot resist the temptation to a second helping, a counter that opens from the outside of the entrance also serves a handful of warm Kada Prashad.  As the sweet melts into your mouth, you realize that warm ghee is dripping down from your hands. Just when you want to reach out for that tissue or towel to wipe your hands, you observe others around you. You realize that they are wiping their entire hands with the molten ghee. Not wanting to take the trouble of reaching out to a tissue paper or a handkerchief you emulate them by wiping your hands too.

Whoa!!!   slightly warm clarified butter or shudh desi ghee is nature’s own moisturizer and an effective lip balm to soothe dry lips. Your skin automatically softens and happily soaks in the moisture, much like your soul that soaks in and seamlessly dissolves in that pious and serene atmosphere of the Gurudwara.                          

(Try making and eating Kada Prashad at home, uh … it does not quite give out the same feeling.)

You have had your fill of the Langar seva, have clicked enough and more photographs from all possible angles of the stunning Golden temple and yes… you have possibly had a third or fourth helping of the Kada Prashad.



It is now time to exit.

As you walk out of the Golden temple, you observe that people old and young, rich and poor, but most importantly from all religions and nationalities visit and are welcomed into the Gurudwara.

When you walk back to the free shoe counter and reach out to hand over your token, once again a prompt service awaits you.  A Sikh volunteer takes your token and brings out your shoes and hands it over to you.

As I sit on the nearby bench to put on my shoes, I observe something and there are goosebumps all over my body. Yes, that mud strewn, dust laden, dirty Nike shoes of mine, weather beaten and weary from a recent week long trek in the Himalayas had been thoroughly cleaned possibly while I was clicking away pictures or having my second helping of the Kada Prashad.

That kind of selfless service by a faceless stranger moves you.   



Thursday, October 17, 2019

Hurt and Healing rituals @ the Attari Wagah Border




More than seven decades after that bloody and Chaotic Partition that left the landscape and more importantly the mindscape of the Indian subcontinent torn into pieces one would assume the fate has been sealed and people have healed. By now the survivors of that horrific partition have either died a natural death or are now too old that time should have healed them.

Photo courtesy : Google free images


In 1947, before the British left India, they added the fuel and fanned the fire for carving out a separate state of Islam from the Indian Subcontinent.

Sir Radcliffe who was commissioned to redraw the map of Hindustan and Pakistan, that separated the two countries apparently had no idea of the complex diversity, demography and the dependence that people living out there across faith and religion had. Nor did he understand the kinship ties that spread far and wide across the sub-continent and the havoc that his carelessly drawn out border lines would create.  

Photo courtesy : Google free images
Plenty has been written about the havoc that followed and the horrors of partition. Rich aristocrats and well settled businessmen were forced to flee from the yet to be official border line that would find them wrongly settled in the Islamic state of Pakistan.  Hindus and Sikhs from Lahore and other part of the yet to be christened Islamic state of Pakistan fled along with their families carrying with them their jewelry, children and whatever possessions they could hoard up within a few days.

Many perished physically and mentally in this brutal act of sudden uprooting and fleeing what they rightfully considered their homeland. Riots, starvation, ill health and mental trauma struck others in refugee camps as they tried gather up the shattered pieces of their lives and tried to settle in places alien to them all over India.
Photo courtesy : Google free images 
Millions were men were slaughtered and women raped in Broad daylight.  Those who survived came begging to seek refuge in the houses of relatives and friends in what would be a Hindu state to be called Hindustan.

To be fair, the Muslims in India particularly those living in the adjoining states of Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi also found themselves caught in the chaos and were at the receiving end of the anger and mob violence that the partition caused.  
The Secular India’s Muslim population was too spread out and vast to relocate to Pakistan.  The anger that brewed as an aftermath gave rise to riots and mindless violence that polarized the people based on their faiths despite India’s proclamation as a secular sovereign nation that accepted people of all faiths and religions.   

They say time heals everything.  A generation passed by.

The dispossessed Sikhs, Sindhis and Punjabis who fled from Pakistan, started all over again on the Indian side literally from the scratch and owing to their enterprising attitude and hard work, did well for themselves, economically and socially in India. 

Books were written on the travails of these people during partition.  Movies were made and Television soap operas kept the memories and wounds of the past alive and reminded us of what could have been and what did and did not happen during the course of history.

More than seven decades hence, the survivors of partitions have passed on. The survivors are too old and have moved on in life.

But the fracture lines between Hindustan and Pakistan still run so deep that decades of diplomatic effort between two nations to make peace have seen little progress. 

***

I have boarded a train and am on my way to Amritsar eager to visit the Golden temple and witness the retreat ceremony and the Attari- Wagah border where every day the security forces from both the countries, simultaneously down their flag at the time of sunset in the 10 meters of ‘no man’s land’ that separates the Indian border from the Pakistani border.
It is a ritual that has been carried out every day ever since the two countries promised to make peace and strengthen their diplomatic ties.         

At the Ludhiana junction as most of my co-passengers alight, two old Punjabi men board the train and are seated opposite to me. They are on their way to Amritsar.  One of them wears a Turban and I am guessing he is a Sikh.
The other one is bald and is chewing perhaps Ghutka or Paan. 
We strike conversation. 


The old man chewing Ghutka stares at me (below the shoulders) repeatedly and I start to feel uncomfortable.  A little while later I realize that I am wearing a badge that reads Valley of flowers, Uttarakhand, that I brought as a souvenir when I was there.  He is prying his eyes to read what is written there possibly owing to his poor eyesight.

I am relieved when I realize that his stares do not arise of out a sense of perversion but out of plain curiosity in a funny ‘country bumkin way’. 
I remove my badge and hand it over to him to have a closer look. 
I tell them about my trek from the lower Himalayas, in the recent past.      
First of all, they are intrigued that I am a solo traveler and surprised that I would come all the way to visit Golden temple (since I am evidently not Sikh by religion) and would want to visit the Attari-Wagah border.

They repeatedly warn me to be careful with my belongings and not to trust anyone in Amritsar. 
According to them people from the hills are far more straightforward than the ones in these parts of the plains. Amritsar according to them is abound with cheats and crooks and a woman like me could easily be taken for a ride if I were not careful. 
The man once again stares at me, and this time I realize he is looking at the gold chain I am wearing.  He tells me all this display of bling may be the norm down south, from where I come. Out here I would run a risk of having my chain snatched if I went about flaunting it.

My urbane upbringing finds that remark a little crude and judgmental, but I adjust to the culture shock, take it in my stride and promise to be careful while out on those treacherous streets of Punjab.

They tell me they have never visited the Attari-Wagah border despite having lived close by all their lives.
Whenever they have had visitors at their home, they would take them to see the real border.
The real border according to them is not the Attari-Wagah border. It is the one that runs miles and miles across their fields separated by electrified barbed wires where no Border security forces patrol, day in and day out trotting their guns.  

The India- pakistan border fence - courtesy Google free images
The electrified barbed wires were erected and the fences strengthened a couple of decades ago when the diplomatic situation between the two countries got a little too tense, what with India openly proclaiming its nuclear warfare capability, with the underground nuclear blasts in Pokhran.

The old man in the Turban reminisces how in his youth he and his friends would walk over to the open fields by crossing over the broken fence wires (which was not electrified in those days) to take a dump or a leak on the other side. 

Disbelieving what he said, I Ask him if they would not risk getting caught by the patrolling Border security forces on either side or more importantly would that not have been a dangerous breach to national security?

It is too big a geographical terrain for a few thousand men from the Armed forces to patrol on both sides.  How many soldiers can you realistically deploy, he asks?

Right from the gulf of Kutch, the deserts of Rajasthan, the vast Green fields of Punjab on both sides and the Long stretch of LoC in Kashmir, that is a very long border we share with them.

Mustard fields along India- Pakistan border in Punjab
Courtesy : Google free ianges

In his youth, it was really easy to cross the border, he says sometimes to just take a dump or pee out there.

Why else would one go there, the bald man laughs and asks and then spits his Paan out from the train window.   

I sense some hurt pride and sarcasm glowing in him as he laughs and tells me this. 

I laugh along.                 

***   

With the city of Lahore, a mere 22 kms from the Attari-Wagah border, citizens of both countries gather at the huge stadium like structure that separates the border of India and Pakistan.  Between the two heavily guarded gates is a space about ten meters wide called the no Man’s land where on two Flag poles at either end of the gate the Indian and Pakistan national flags are hoisted every day from dawn to dusk.   


At the end of the day around the time sun sets on the Pakistan side, the soldiers of the two countries march past and display their Military histrionics before unhoisting their respective flags.






 

 On the Indian side a very enthusiastic Border security force (BSF) Soldier is holding the microphone and welcoming the people who are arriving in by buses and cars to witness the ceremony. 

 After the security check where you are frisked and bags are checked by some friendly BSF staff you enter a stadium like structure that opens up on the other side to a similar stadium like structure with an Arch that says Pakistan and a portrait of Mohammed Ali Jinnah prominently displayed out there.


  



As the crowd goes about to grab the best available seats in the stadium on the India side, one notices that there are fewer people on the other side. Understandably so, because India is a huge and a populous country and a stadium with seating capacity of 25,000 may be just about sufficient on some days. But today was just another normal day. 

The microphone is at the hands of the BSF soldier and he is whipping up the Patriotic sentiments of the crowd gathered to witness the retreat ceremony.  Not very far away, a Pakistani soldier dressed in Dark green uniform is similarly whipping up the patriotic fervor on the audience gathered on the Pakistani side.  The women covered with Chador (head scarf) are seated on one side of the stadium and the men in Shalwar kameez on the other side of the stadium.  On the center are some seats reserved for dignitaries who have come visiting along with their family members. 



On the India side, there are special (read VIP seats) reserved for foreigners (read White skinned people) in the front rows.  The courteous Female BSF soldiers (I guess a female solder is still a soldier and not soldieress or something like that) escort them and treat them with utmost care and respect.

The entire atmosphere is electrified with Patriotic fervor on either side. 
The BSF have called out for women who would want take the tri colour flag and run up to the Gate that forms the India – Pakistan border. 

The hot afternoon sun has now mellowed down and is now a glowing Golden orange in colour. 

There are Patriotic songs being played out by the two countries on the loudspeakers. It is so loud that you cannot hear anything from the Pakistani side unless you strain your ears to hear and look out for what is happening out there. The Pakistan side of the stadium is also reverberating with patriotic songs and the audience is seen punching their fists in the air in keeping with the mood of the time and place.    


Soon on the Indian side, the BSF soldier on the microphone calls out for women in the audience who would like to dance.  A great cheer emerges from all over the stadium as hundreds of women, young, middle aged and some old walk towards the road and near the gate as patriotic Bollywood songs burst out of the loudspeaker.  While the Indian women are going wild and are dancing in gay abandon to Shah Rukh khan’s song from ‘Swades’ and beckoning the audience on the other side, you would not see the same action emulating from the Pakistan side.  The women out there are pretty restrained seated on one side of the stadium possibly reserved for women.

Every other action is emulated by the soldiers on either side with equal pomp and pride.  If there are two BSF women soldiers marching past on the Indian side, there are two on the Pakistan side as well.  If there are four soldiers with huge lustrous well curved moustache, dressed in dark green uniform from the Pakistan side marching ahead to salute their flag, there are four soldiers with huge lustrous moustache soldiers dressed in khaki on the Indian side. They curl up their moustaches and show angry and proud faces to each other as they march past with their legs going high up and reaching up their foreheads.

Well, to put it mildly it is a lot of well-rehearsed display of drama and histrionics on both sides.





The border gates are once again closed as the ceremony comes to an end.           

The audience linger around and watch and wave to the citizens of the other country from afar while the soldiers cajole them to vacate the stadium. 

Soon the sun will set in the west. It sets on the Pakistani side of the border.  The Attari border gates from the Indian side and the Wagah Border gates from the Pakistani side are opened and the no man’s land is laid bare where the two flag posts bearing the Indian flag on the right extreme and the Pakistani flag on the left extreme are fluttering in the evening breeze. Citizens of both the countries stand up as a mark of respect while the soldiers in uniform salute their respective flag as it is unhoisted while the sun in setting down.      


So near, yet so far…
So familiar, yet so unfamiliar…


Could our present have been different if there wasn’t as much animosity, hatred and anger between us? 

Would our history have been different if the then leaders in 1947 had been more reasonable, or had thought through the sequence of events before unleashing it on the people and carving a destiny who effects would linger on for many  decades to come?   


Lessons in Humility at the Golden temple

To call it a structure symbolizing classic minimalism would be an oxymoron. The Harmandir Sahib or the Golden temple of Amritsar...