Although it is the most emblematic place, going to Amritsar is not only about visiting the Golden Temple; the border with Pakistan is just one hour drive away and the Jallianwalla Bagh is right next to the temple! Besides, the city is well known for its delicious and not-so-healthy typical dishes so don’t miss the Amritsari Kulcha. But let me retake the story!
After walking around the Golden Temple until 3 a.m. my friends and I found the famous ‘Foreigners Room’ inside the complex; those visiting from foreign lands can sleep, freshen up and even wash clothes inside a big room with beds, quilts and a bathroom. After hours on the road and walking around the Harmandir Sahib, those six hours (time established so everyone can enjoy it) felt like heaven! The room was full of stickers and little messages from all over the world and when the guard asked for a little donation at the end of our time, we felt more than happy to help maintain the place; it is fair enough! We finalized our visit by signing the huge book of visitors and went back outside: there was still a lot to see and learn!
Our day started with a kind old man who offer to give us a tour inside the kitchens of the Temple, where we could see lots of people volunteering to make the food we would eat –FOR FREE!- a couple of hours later -and even helped by making the chapattis 😉 – Following the Sikh principles of equity, sharing and serving humanity, hundreds of pilgrims go to the temple to work every day by washing the floors, preparing and serving the food, known as Langar, and available for whoever wants to eat it at almost any time of the day! So after a lot of talking and walking we needed some food in our stomachs and I have to say it was one of the best Indian meals I’ve had since I got here; a delicious curry with vegetables, rice, chapattis (a ‘flat bread’ made out of wheat) and Kheer (rice and milk).
It was April 13 of 1919, and thousands of people from all casts, religions and ages got together in Jallianwalla Bagh, a public garden in the city of Amritsar, to celebrate the Punjabi New Year. Still under the government of the British Empire, Indians all over the country were starting to fight for their freedom, and following the campaign of Mahatma Gandhi of non-violence resistance and civil disobedience, the Amritsaries decided to go on a strike 7 days before, on April 6, and the protests continued occasioning public disorders, but nobody had a clue about what was about to happen… On the 13th, a public meeting was announced in the garden, and the Liutenant Governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer came to the place with 150 men and shot the crowd of 20000 people. Just like that. No warning. No mercy…
On 1951, the place was converted into a memorial to commemorate the massacre, and today the visitors can still see the bullet marks on the walls and walk through the same paths when thousands were killed in the name of freedom, that was finally won28 years later, on August 15th, 1947, same date of the partition of the country based on religious beliefs, into India and Pakistan, another conflict with a bloody background that, by the way, is very well described in one of the books of Salman Rushdie, Midnight Children.
Following the line of history, me and my group of friends hopped into the rented van and drove up north to the Grand Trunk Road, the limit with Pakistan!
Wagah is the name of the village in which the ‘Radcliff Line’ was set, dividing the state of Punjab and the country into a Hindu Nation and a Muslim one. The world is full of these ‘lines’ –some more ‘tangible’ than others- breaking up the land and delimiting the cultures; but while some of them are confused and you may not even know when you are crossing them, some others are extremely real… Like this one!
Every day, thousands and thousands of people from both sides assist to a special ceremony held before the sunset at the border gates since 1956; cars are allowed to certain point and then everyone has to walk –or should I say run?- to the steps around the gates to get a spot, after passing a security point. Since we are foreigners, we didn’t have to step on line and could watch everything from a very VIP location. Fair or unfair? I’m still not sure, but this is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’m glad I had the chance to see it.
Before the ceremony, you can see Indians and Pakistanis, everyone in their sides, dancing, singing and cheering for their own nations; in the Indian side, a lot of women took turns to run with the flag across the road and the environment is actually very festive! Pretty different from what a lot of people would think, huh?.. It was a beautiful day and the sunset made everything more… magic! When the time is right, soldiers in both sides start a parade, shouting a sort of ‘battle cries’: ‘Pakistan Zindaban!’… comes from one side and ‘Hindustan –India in Hindi- Zindaban!’ from the other. ‘Long live to India and Pakistan”.
What follows is a dramatic -and at some point a little funny- march, with high kicks and more shouting, that end after some time with the two flags lowered simultaneously and a strong, quick handshake of the soldiers in charge to lower them. Indians, Pakistanis and foreigners walk back home in their respective sides, leaving behind a bunch of little paper flags and an old conflict that still takes victims.
This weekend is India’s Independence Day. Last time I visited this place it really made me think about global problems like the cultural ignorance, lack of tolerance and media manipulation; that, most of the time, seem irrational from who is not part of them. It also made me think about ways to solve them and I came to a conclusion that may not be the ‘final cure’ but could help a lot: TRAVELING. Yes, traveling, watching the things from another perspective, trying to understand every side and spreading the word about what we actually see, feel and how it changed us. I’m sure that after seeing and learning about Golden Temple, Jallianwala Bagh and Wagah Border, we all started seeing India with different eyes.
This article was written by my friend Manuela on her visit to the Jallianwalla Bagh last year. You can read some of her other articles here.