The briefest of visits to the Punjab

Posted: January 16, 2011 in India
Tags: , , ,

To save precious time we opted for an intensive flying visit to the Punjab, the predominantly Sikh region in the north west that shares a border with Pakistan. I woke up feeling a little under the weather, perfect timing. We hopped on the 07.20 Shatabdi Express praying that this train would be the first to run smoothly. Although the chair class cabin was a little frayed around the edges, imagine our delight when the train left on time. We were practically speechless, though as you well know that is a literal impossibility for myself.

The train journey passed in unspectacular fashion but we had fun talking to a local chap on his way to Amritsar with friends. Inevitably the conversation turned to business as that is what most Indian men obsess over, though personal questions here are not considered intrusive, merely inquisitive and comme d’habitude. We said our farewells as the train rolled in to Amritsar only 15mins behind schedule. It was truly a miracle. We had initially planned to spend the night in a local budget shack but upon further investigation, realised that we could go full bore and return to Delhi the same day with the sleeper night bus. Endurance mission had begun.

Whistle stop tour of the Golden Temple

The Sikh culture is reputed for its inclusivity, so everyone is welcome at their holiest shrine, the illustrious Golden Temple that has featured in numerous Bollywood films (of which my jani can recount many). To enter the shrine you must walk bare footed and cover your arms, legs and head. Suitably attired, we strolled through the main gate and were instantly hit by the splendour of the temple. The inside is a feast for the eyes with the elaborate golden temple shining bright from the middle of the sacred pool.

The golden dome of the temple is reputed to be gilded with 750kg of pure gold, so the temptation to climb up and scrape a little bit off was overwhelming. However, not wanting to enflame religious sensitivities, I decided to remain on terra firma and simply admire the temple from the immaculate white marble walkway that surrounds it on all sides.

I have to admit that the temple was different to how I had imagined it. I thought, having only seen a few images, that the temple would sit within incredible grounds apart from the city. However, it is smack bang in the middle of the Old City and the approach is frenetic with a sea of rickshaws, motorbikes and people. Inside is tranquil and sacrosanct, outside crazy and tout heaven. Nevertheless, we’ll never forget the impact that the first sighting of this beautiful temple had upon us.

Ministry of Silly Walks

From the temple we took a shared taxi up to the Pakistan border at Attari/Wagah for the intriguing border closing ceremony. For this trip we entrusted our money (only $2 per person) and lives to a chap called Bunty. It reminded me so much of old school English names that I couldn’t resist using his taxi service. We lucked in with our fellow passengers, 2 aussies college kids on a 5 week pre-Uni tour of India and the ever so friendly Sikh aunt and uncle of one them. The Punjab has a reputation for friendliness and after our brief experience we agree – we had lots of conversations with local shop keepers keen to say hello without trying to rinse our pockets of dirty cash.

The system of sitting people for the border ceremony verges on the farcical. Nobody is really in charge and even though foreigners are allowed into the VIP section, we just ended up queuing for longer and having more security checks, then sitting down in the same place as the everday joes. Everything about the place smacks of pomp and posturing. The ceremony itself takes no longer than 30mins and is rather hard to put down in words. Seeing really is believing in this case.

For the first 10mins guards from both sides of the border (robed to sartorial perfection though somewhat over elaborately), separated by a closed gate, march up and down in a bizarre series of goose steps. It’s like watching John Cleese on acid. This is done to the cacophony of raucous partisans proudly flaunting their patriotism. It’s the equivalent of a male silverback gorilla beating his chest to show the ladies he’s top dog, or gorilla. After what seems like random marching, the gate is briefly opened and guards from both sides shake hands. It’s over in the blinking of an eye. There then follows much shouting and a bizarre bit of peacock theatre whereby members of the Indian army take it in turns to see who can make the longest continuous shouting noise into the microphone, ably held by a moustachioed man in a tight white tracksuit. Seriously, you can’t make this up! As the other members of the border force maintain a stern eye on the crowd, more goose stepping leads to the lowering of the flags and the closure of the border for the day. Indians and Pakistanis on both sides errupt into waves of fervant bliss. We left intrigued and having wet ourselves through laughter.

I don’t mean this to be disparaging or discourteous but what a load of self-important nonsense. Just close the gate when it’s time. If both Governments put as much energy into returning peace to those who used to be countrymen, a lot of lives could be saved. That said, I’m glad they have the ceremony because it was a unique experience for us both.

All aboard the night bus

Getting increasingly tetchy because my painful stomach meant I hadn’t eaten since 07.00, we waited for the 22.30 night bus back to Delhi. I had resigned myself to a shoddy, dirty bus with rubbish seats but was amazed to find that our ‘sleeper berths’ consisted of a raised platform above the seats on which we could both lie down fully, with curtains to block out the light and noise from the corridor. Exhausted I bade Muneeza goodnight and crashed, awaking about 07.00 after a night of furtive sleep. Despite the rumble of the bus engine it was the best night’s travel I’ve had on this adventure. Perhaps the sleeper bus is the way forward and night trains are so last year….

love jamer & muneeza x

  1. ZW says:

    hang on … have you not tried that ‘ garam garam chia’ they bring in the morning? your missing out if not!

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