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Holy Cities, Dirty Cities

Amritsar and Varanasi

semi-overcast 35 °C
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We caught a rickshaw to the nearest railhead at Pathankot, as we were trying everything to avoid any more Indian buses, at least over night. From Pathankot, we caught a train to Amritsar, and found ourselves back in the hot homeland of the Sikhs. Amritsar is home to the holiest shrine in Sikhism, the Golden Temple. The temple is a Gurdwara, plated with gold. The dome alone is said to be covered with 750kg of pure gold. This holy golden building shimmers amidst the pool of ‘nectar’ surrounding it. Visitors are asked to remove their shoes and wash their feet, as well as cover their heads, before entering the shrine. We walked round the marble walkway, surrounding the pool with the temple in the centre, and past the food stands there, where temple workers feed pilgrims and visitors for free. Community dining rooms are a feature of all Sikh temples, illustrating the inclusive nature of the religion. You don’t have to be Sikh to eat there, or even Indian, just show up.

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In the evening, we went to the India-Pakistan border at Attari, 30 km west of Amritsar. This border post is the only operating border crossing between the two countries, but we did not come here to cross into Pakistan - simply to witness the enigmatic and bizarre afternoon border-closing ceremony. Just before sunset, the Indian and Pakistani border guards perform a theatrical ceremony, involving a lot of posturing and running about. On either side, there are viewing platforms as if in a sports stadium, for spectators to view the ceremony probably. In preparation for the ceremony, some of the Indian spectators would pretend to charge the border, carrying Indian flags. A guy then turned up with a microphone, stirring the crowd into a frenzy by leading them in cries of ‘Hindustan Zindabad’ (Hindustan forever). From the other side came similar yelling about Pakistan. The soldiers then march up and down in front of the crowd, looking fiersome. The stomp their feet, twirl their moustaches and scowl left and right. Then they march up to the border gate, kicking their legs as high in the air as they can, nearly kicking themselves in the head. When the gates open, the commanding officers salute and shake hands, and the flags are lowered by soldiers on either side, standing shoulder to shoulder, so close they nearly touch. The flags are folded and carried to the guardrooms, and the border is officially closed.

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The whole thing is a bizarre display of fevered nationalism, with the crowd yelling and all the stomping and clenched fists. Yet at the same time, there are some several diplomatic elements, like the handshaking, and the fact the flags are lowered at exactly the same rate, so that one is never lower than the other. And the activities on either side are practically identical, each side in fact careful not to out stage the other - at least that’s how it seemed to me. Once the border was closed, we returned to Amritsar and booked a train ticket out of there.

We took a 24 hour or so train to Varanasi. This is another city which we missed out on last time we were in India, so we thought we would catch it now. Varanasi is one of the holiest places in India, where Hindu pilgrims come to wash away their sins in the waters of the Ganges which snakes through the city, or to cremate their loved ones on its shores. Varanasi is considered a most auspicious place to die, since expiring here offers ‘moksha’ - liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. All sorts of rituals of life and death take place in plain view of the ghats, or bathing steps, of the city. To me, the city was fascinating and revolting at the same time, an extreme and concentrated version of the paradox that defines all of India in my mind. The old city made up of tiny alleys, too narrow for traffic, which snake and turn into a disorienting maze. We got lost several times, but always eventually found our way back out. The alleys are full of colourful stalls, appealing little restaurants, and amazing hand silk weaving cooperatives. At the same time, they are covered in shit and piss, and packed with mangy dogs and naked street children, crippled beggars and drunken men sleeping on top of all the filth. The heat increases the smells to a nauseating level, and sometimes you feel like screaming and running away. As fascinating and intriguing the city is, it is matched by is disgusting and revolting sides.

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We stayed for three days, and walked to the various ghats, including the fascinating burning ghats, where bodies are continually cremated, and so on. But in the end, we’d had enough and escaped from here on another train, this time to Khajuraho.

Posted by monkyhands 03:31 Archived in India

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