Across four months’ travel in India and Nepal one constant, which might not have had the attention it deserves in my blog so far, is the friendliness of the people we’ve encountered everywhere we’ve been. From Kerala to Pokhara people have welcomed us into their country, their town, sometimes their homes, and made it clear they want us to have a happy, enjoyable time there. Sure, from time to time this manifests itself in ways that grate after a while, particularly the number of random, casual meetings (usually on or waiting for public transport) that lead to requests for selfies. But it all comes from a very good place.
For positivity, welcome and overall exuberance, though, the Punjabis might well take the crown.
Early signs of what’s to come appear during the second half of hour epic train ride from Lucknow to Amritsar. Once the train eventually arrives, Rebecca and I have berths in separate booths thanks to booking our tickets last minute. I’m still unwell, so sleep almost solidly through the first twelve hours. By the time I wake we’re approaching the North-Eastern state of Punjab, and the carriages are beginning to thin out. A succession of kindly visitors enter what has started to feel like my own personal sick bay to let me know that they’re happy to swap places with me if I want to travel in Rebecca’s compartment, and the ticket inspector tells me that if she wants to move into this one there aren’t going to be any other passengers for the rest of our journey. I of course know that she doesn’t want to share a booth with someone seeing out the end of a bout of Delhi belly, but I haven’t the courage to explain that to anyone. Plus, she’s asleep, and it’s generally prudent not to change that.
Having got in at 3am – impressively only three hours behind schedule, despite our train being six late to arrive at Lucknow – we sleep through breakfast and lunch, but take an afternoon walk down to nearby Neelam’s, rumoured to do a good Amritsari kulcha, the local delicacy of flatbread stuffed with potato. Sadly their tandoor doesn’t switch on until evening, but with my stomach starting to feel a bit more normal I tentatively munch at a pile of veg pulao and dal makhani.
Then we sit for a little while outside the Golden Temple, soaking up the vibes. This is what I wish all of India was like. Bright and bustling markets without being oppressive; everybody friendly without being invasive. Even the guard sitting atop an armoured jeep at the controls of a huge machine gun – a stark reminder that just six years before my lifetime tanks were sent into the temple complex – seems happy and carefree as he chats with bystanders. We decide to go inside the temple proper tomorrow morning at dawn, and buy ourselves the requisite headgear from a stand opposite.
The Golden Temple might be one of my favourite places in the world. There is a special magic about the centre point of Sikhism that, even when visiting holy cities like Rome, Jerusalem and Varanasi, I haven’t experienced anywhere else.
Everything about the temple symbolises the humility, inclusiveness and generosity of Sikhism. The man at the shoe stand outside gives a boiled sweet to everyone who leaves their shoes with him. There are four entrances to the compound, representing the fact that the temple is open to anyone, from anywhere, of any faith. When entering one of these, you first step through a shallow pool of water to cleanse your bare feet, then descend a flight of stairs to remind visitors of the humility that people should show when approaching God. Surrounded by the four outer walls of white marble is a large tank of water surrounded by marble walkways, over which the faithful prostrate themselves or walk in homage to the religion’s Gurus alongside tourists soaking up the atmosphere. In the centre of the tank is the Harimandir Sahib, the temple itself, splendid in bright, shining gold.
The complex serves food, for free, to over ten thousand people every day, again regardless of faith or background. Speakers project the prayers and songs being recited inside and, at the corners, large displays show the words translated into Punjabi, Hindi and English, creating a serene, meditative atmosphere that invites non-believers to savour the words, melodies and their meaning as much as it does the faithful. For somewhere so deeply spiritual it’s welcoming and non-judgemental in a way that makes you pause for breath.
Particularly so when we complete our circuit and head upstairs to the Sikh museum. Sikhism is the youngest of the world’s major religions, with its first Guru, Nanak, having been born in 1469. Its five and a half centuries have been painfully riddled with violence and persecution from Mughal, British and Indian rulers, and of course the brutal impact of partition. The museum is mostly a collection of paintings and, in more recent cases, photographs of gurus, martyrs and historical events (mainly battles) important to the history of Sikhism and the Punjab. It pulls no punches; there are paintings of Baba Deep Singh fighting Afghan forces with his decapitated head in hand, and in the most recent gallery grisly photographs of twentieth century martyrs taken after their deaths.
It’s moving, and it tells a tale of constant struggle for survival, but somehow the brutality of the Punjab’s history hasn’t led to bitterness, or xenophobia, or aggression. Something about the people here, more than likely to do with the teachings of Sikhism itself, creates a sense of happiness and goodwill that is completely entrancing.
Afterwards, we head to Neelam’s for breakfast. The tandoor is firing and the kulcha are delicious.
In many respects we’re a bizarre species of animal, with an insatiable desire for the unnecessary, the over-the-top and the extravagant. Something about the Wagah border ceremony really hammers this fact home.
On 15th August 1947 the Punjab was torn apart by partition. Lahore and Amritsar, two cities about thirty miles down the road from each other – think Manchester to Liverpool, or York to Hull – suddenly found themselves on different sides of a national border. It happened literally overnight; for reasons I struggle to wrap my head around, the border lines were kept secret even from the new heads of state being created until two days after India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain. The ensuing chaos displaced as many as twelve million refugees and may have caused up to two million deaths. Relations between India and Pakistan have remained fraught ever since, with war already breaking out three times in the seventy-odd years both countries have existed; only the other month, dogfighting jets took to the skies over Kashmir.
With all this in mind, the Wagah border ceremony is beautifully incongruous. A display of feel-good patriotism every bit as flamboyant as Eurovision, it epitomises the positivity and tolerance of the Punjab. For me, it’s North India’s must-see cultural event.
Of course, the performers are soldiers first and foremost, and if this and the scores of tank barracks we pass on the way to the ceremony aren’t a stark enough reminder that this is the meeting point of two nuclear superpowers the succession of signs describing the Border Security Force as “India’s First Line of Defence” do the trick.
Nonetheless, the ceremony is a party from start to finish. For half an hour before it starts, the women in the crowd are invited into the central area to dance to thumping pop songs; jubilant arms wave through the air as Jai Ho blares out. An assured master of ceremonies in BSF camo gear whips the audience into a frenzy with military panache and swagger, before the border gate opens and the real show begins.
In essence the ceremony is a symbolic contest between India and Pakistan, apparently manifested as a trial of whose sergeant can hold a note the longest and loudest, and whose troops can goose-step the highest. Complete with outrageous headgear, the parade is often compared to Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. I remember it being referred to in a lecture for some reason back in university, and I crave more knowledge about its origins and meaning, but in the moment it comes across more than anything as a spoof of the notion of military strength, a raucous, celebratory middle finger to the spectre of armed conflict.
It’s cloudy, so we venture out in the middle of the day to see the Jallianwallah Bagh memorial.
In 1919, after escalating tensions between the British colonial administration and the nascent Indian independence movement, the British passed the Rowlatt Act which limited the civil liberties of Indians and allowed the authorities to arrest and imprison suspected “terrorists” (covering a broad range of activities) for up to two years, without trial.
The Act led to widespread protests across India, especially in the Punjab, and on 13th April a large crowd gathered in the walled garden of Jallianwallah Bagh. Some of the crowd were peacefully protesting against the act and deportation of two Indian leaders; some were celebrating the Sikh festival Baisakhi.
Acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered a battalion of soldiers into the garden. They blocked the main entrance and opened fire on the crowd for ten minutes.
The British didn’t conduct a body count at the time, but estimated they had killed two to three hundred people and counted 1,650 rounds fired. Indian estimates put the victim count much higher; the Indian National Congress estimated over one thousand people were killed, and another 1,500 injured. Despite its being denounced as “monstrous” by Winston Churchill in 1920, a “deeply shameful event” by David Cameron in 2013 and a “shameful scar” by Theresa May this year, shortly before the event’s centenary, the British government has never formally apologised for the massacre.
I want to visit the site, expecting a reflective space in which to contemplate and pay whatever respects seem appropriate. But like so much of India it surprises me. It’s full of happy, chattering families. Yes, there is a plaque at the entrance outlining the context of the massacre and remdinding visitors of the “everlasting tyranny of the British”, and a large stone memorial in the centre commemorating the victims. There are also eerie topiary sculptures of soldiers aiming rifles into the garden, but it otherwise looks like a corner of Victoria Park on bank holiday weekend.
Rebecca and I find a space in which to sit down and chat, and soon notice a group of young lads loitering with intent. There’s a pre-amble to the selfie request that I can now spot a mile off; it involves a few minutes of staking out, from a distance of ten feet or so, walking back and forth while eyeing up the target. I don’t know if the people doing this think they’re being subtle, given the massive gulf between what is considered an acceptable level of staring in Indian and Western culture, but this little manoeuvre leads after a few minutes into one of two opening gambits: either “Which country?” or “Where are you from?” Never, repeat never, will the exchange open with “Hello,” “What is your name?” or “How are you?” Always, without exception, the initiator will ask your nationality first.
Sometimes, this is followed up with questions about your employment and/or marital status, and especially curious people might even get round to asking your name towards the end of the conversation, but in this as in the majority of cases once the kids discover we’re British they skip straight to the last and only important question: “Can we take a selfie?”
They don’t seem to care that we’re British in a garden dedicated to an atrocity committed by our nation against theirs, and even though it’s just beginning to rain we’re far too embarrassed by that salient fact to refuse, so we pose awkwardly in the middle of the huddle while our photos are taken.
This turns out to be a mistake. My mum, who first visited India twenty years ago and returns from time to time on business, advised me before we set off not to give money to beggars in the country because it would lead to being beleaguered by crowds of others that see us doing so. It’s a sign of the economic progress the country has made over recent years that this hasn’t been the case for us. But the fast-growing middle class do a very similar thing when they see you’re willing to pose for a selfie.
Three families that had been happily sitting and nattering are on their feet in a flash, and a rough queue forms with Rebecca and I unwittingly at its endpoint. The heavens open, but nobody seems at all bothered; a lady fastidiously positions her daughters either side of us after she’s finished taking the group shots while my shirt is gradually drenched. Eventually, the impromptu photo shoot is over and Rebecca and I are permitted to leave the garden, soaked and faintly embarrassed but happy not to have caused offence.
We emerge into central Amritsar, which is much busier on a Saturday afternoon that it has been so far. Every few paces we’re pressed to sign up for trips to the Wagah border, and I crave to know the Punjabi for “Saw it yesterday, mate.” Getting more and more annoyed by the constant attention, and ongoing selfie requests, we pick through the crowds to a splendid statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and nearby collapse into disbelieving laughter when the eighth cabbie in a row tries to persuade us to take a ride somewhere. I ask incredulously if he didn’t see us palm off the last seven, and he laughs, I think sensing our exasperation.
“Have you seen the partition museum?” he asks.
I roll my eyes. “No. Where is it?”
“Two minutes’ walk, over there.” He points to a large, impressive building of ochre red in mock Indo-Saracenic style, just across the road. It looks well worth a look. We thank him sincerely and make our way over.
In my life so far I’ve seen plenty of museums dedicated to the misery and suffering that the British and their empire have inflicted on the world. Particularly fresh in mind are the Yasser Arafat museum in Ramallah and the Gandhi memorial museum in Madurai. Partition, though, ranks for me as perhaps the most tragic, negligent episodes of the lot, despite fierce competition.
To start with, the religious strife between Muslims and Hindus that even now plagues Indian politics and defines the country’s relationship with its closest neighbours was stoked by the British in the hope of undermining the independence movement within the country. Then, when independence became inevitable and the need to divide the new countries along religious lines clear, they sent a man who had never been to India before to carry out the estimated five-year task of deciding the new boundaries in just six weeks. Still, at least we learnt our lesson and no longer try to enact massive constitutional change within stifling, arbitrary deadlines.
What the museum makes clear is that the human cost just wasn’t a consideration of those making the decisions, who were more concerned with saving face than saving lives. Because the precise location of the borders was kept secret until after independence, what might have been a measured, peaceful movement of Muslims into the new Pakistan and Hindus into India took place in a whirlwind of panic, confusion and suspicion. It was the largest mass migration in human history, and thanks to appalling mismanagement by the British the death toll reached seven figures. The museum chronicles the events leading up to partition itself, and is especially moving thanks to its nuanced depictions of what partition meant for different minority groups; women, Jains, Dalits, even newspapers and cricket teams. A heart-wrenching plaque explains that, more than seventy years on, families that were separated from each other in the chaos of partition are still yet to regain contact, and includes advice to help people searching for long-lost relatives get in touch.
We’re very reflective afterwards, and Rebecca suggests I go for a walk around the Golden Temple to process my thoughts while she waits outside with our bags. It’s even more wonderful at dusk than it is just after dawn; evening prayers are beginning, so around the outside of the walkway hundreds, possibly thousands of Sikhs gather to join in the prayers broadcast through the complex. I spend a wonderfully tranquil twenty minutes walking slowly around the space, enjoying the inclusivity of it even during a communal service.
I emerge to find Rebecca sat awkwardly between two chuckling women, one holding her hand and the other with her arm around her. It turns out that Rebecca, a sitting duck guarding our bags and unable to move, has spent the entire time I’ve been inside posing unwillingly for selfies, and at one point she had a crowd larger than that in the garden earlier queuing up for their turn. She doesn’t fully appreciate my rapt explanation of the wonderful time I’ve just had.
Partition was a shambolic rush job that led to suffering on an unimaginable scale. Between that and the Amritsar massacre, Punjabis have every right to detest the British, to resent our presence here with a passion. But they don’t. They want to take pictures with us.