FT : Distant Voices, Sacred Stillness : Where India Shines

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Amritsar was the first place to which Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India, travelled after convalescing from heart surgery earlier this year.  The dignified Singh, India’s first Sikh prime minister, went from New Delhi to Amritsar, a dusty city in north-west India, to give thanks for his life.  Amritsar is to the Sikh what Jerusalem is to the Christian and Jew, Mecca to the Muslim and Varanasi to the Hindu.  The Golden Temple, or Darbar Sahib, is the holiest Sikh shrine.  So it was that early one morning, dressed in white kurta, black tunic and characteristic light blue turban, Singh and his wife Gursharan walked slowly along the marbled quadrangle surrounding the Golden Temple. They entered the ornate, jewelled sanctum and listened to plaintive hymns for half an hour. It was possibly the most transported moment that Singh, or “lion” in Punjabi, had enjoyed since his deep anaesthesia under the charge of 11 doctors.


(click for full image)

The Golden Temple sits in the middle of a sacred lake, or sarowar, reached along a canopied causeway.  To wander around its edges surrounded by devotees – many of whom are pulling their clothes off for a divine dip – is to enter a slow time of gentle reverence.  Singh, set apart by the close protection of commandos, was just one of hundreds who pour into the precincts of the Golden Temple every day.  Shoes are left at a stall outside, heads covered and bare feet washed in runnels.  Visitors are eyed by burly pikemen at the imposing gates.  The stillness of the place, and yellow, orange and red marigold colours made more vivid by the bright sun, evokes a Punjabi version of the painting in London’s National Gallery of “The Bathers at Asnières” by Georges Seurat.  The immortal pool, and its delicate, burnished centrepiece, is transfixing.  The steady flow of pilgrims starts predawn and continues past dusk.  Their chanting echoes across the waters surrounding the temple around the clock.  Inscriptions on pillars and commemorative plaques, similar to those found in churches in England, recall donations or sacrifice on the battlefield.  As in many other holy cities, considerable blood has been spilled over Amritsar.  With spiritual and martial features, this citadel embodies the independent, even fearsome Sikh character forged in defiance of the Mughal empire, and later British rule.  It sat precariously on a highway of armies and traders between central Asia, Persia, Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent. 

Today, the centre of Amritsar is a sometimes formidable chaos of pedestrians, cars, cycle rickshaws and domestic animals.  On the approach to the Golden Temple, a semi-pedestrianised thoroughfare is lined with crowded bazaars and shops selling religious merchandise and kirpans, curved Sikh swords.  At a bend in the road, near the temple complex, is an easily missed narrow alleyway between two buildings.  This is the way into Jalillianwala Bagh, a large park where British rule in India was shaken to its foundations long before independence in 1947 and the negotiations spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah.  On an April afternoon in 1919, several thousand people had gathered to hear speeches and to celebrate the New Year festival day of Baiskahi. Some were there in defiance of a proclamation by the Punjab government preventing residents from leaving the city and banning processions and assemblies; others had simply come into the city for the festival.  Punjab was uneasy: martial law had been imposed; a series of general strikes were underway.  Local tensions were amplified by the loss of many Punjabi soldiers in the first world war.  In a deadly misjudgment, General Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to fire on the crowd without warnings to disperse, killing about 309 people in 10 minutes.  There are still tiny pock marks from the bullets in a brick wall here. A deep well, where many flung themselves to escape the bullets, also survives.  The incident was hushed up by the British administrators; news of it came weeks later.  Dyer was quietly relieved and pensioned off.  But there was outrage in India and the colonial project was thrown into disgrace.  “Even though it took another 28 years for India to become free of imperial rule, the countdown to independence had begun that day,” wrote Patwant Singh, an eminent Sikh historian, of the event that put Amritsar prominently into the history books of India’s independence movement.  Amritsar also bears more recent scars.  In 1984 the late premier Indira Gandhi launched military action to quell a Sikh uprising.  The fight, called Operation Blue Star, ousted armed Sikh separatists who had holed up in the Golden Temple, killing 490 civilians and about 80 soldiers. 

Punjab was divided in two 62 years ago, when Pakistan was set up as a Muslim homeland, at the end of British rule.  This meant that Amritsar was cut off from Lahore, its close neighbour, little more than 40km away.  Today, the two are separated by the Wagah border, the closest equivalent in south Asia of Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie.  Only a trickle of people and trucks of onions cross the border every day.  In Lahore, women speak warmly of the sari shops of Amritsar and their good value.  But the reality is that the 40-minute drive from the Pakistani border to Amritsar’s airport passes barracks belonging to tank battalions and the Border Security Force.  The soldiers on both sides have ceremonialised into pantomime the animosity between their two nuclear-armed countries, which have fought three wars in six decades.  At dusk everyday, in a theatrical gate-closing ceremony, sentries on both sides huff and puff and glare at each other with exaggerated parade-ground routines.  Enthusiastic locals and tourists cheer in approval from specially provided seating.  In recent years the Sikh diaspora (spread across western Canada, the UK and the Gulf) has helped to make their holy city more cosmopolitan.  Even the local villages have posters advertising study courses in the UK and Australia.  The city itself is prosperous and increasingly welcoming to visitors, with better infrastructure, transport links and accommodation.  Over the past year, Amritsar’s airport has been transformed from sleepy aerodrome into steel-fronted international terminal. Flights land here from central Asia, the Gulf and Europe.  The ambitions of Sikhism’s beating heart do not stop there.  The road to Wagah, until now a single track plied by ropey taxis, is being turned into a double highway.

Reference : http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/ff70c156-cfe0-11de-a36d-00144feabdc0.html

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