It was day 10 of our trip and the thought of a drive felt wearisome since we had clubbed both Himachal Pradesh and a little bit of Punjab making our travel schedule really hectic but then driving endlessly in the backdrop of picturesque mountains and plush green and golden fields of wheat and poplar, felt both liberating and exciting to see newer places, people and perspective, creeping into me a sense of inquisitiveness about the vivid chapters in the journey of life letting me turn the pages of the world around.
Dharmashala to Amritsar is some 190kms, we reached Amritsar by 1 O’ Clock but we didn’t check in to our hotel as unloading the luggage and freshening up would eat into our schedule hence we headed straight to the Attari-Wagah Border crested with our entire luggage tied atop our Innova.
Amritsar to Attari is 30kms we collected our passes for the Beating Retreat ceremony en route the Grand Trunk Road at one of the defence gates and broke for lunch at a roadside Vaishnav Bhojanalaya(vegetarian dhaba) where we were received with great enthusiasm and rushed inside an almost dark dungeon like area. Post lunch we still had some time left so we just sat outside the Dhaba basking in the moderately sunny weather looking at the mustard fields amidst the fog that pierced a bone-chilling effect on us.
A bunch of turban clad youngsters in the adjacent hotel kept waving saffron scarves and tried to stop vehicles plying their way, initially I thought it was a marketing trick to trap customers into their hotel and wondered at the stiff competition but soon I realised that it was a Langer (free food) on occasion of the birthday of the Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh. It was only then I realised why the Dhaba guy was in such a haste to receive us
Small groups of people on tractors heading to Langar and Gurudwaras adorned the highways every now we even caught a glimpse of a folkside Punjabi wedding.
Wagah is a bordering village in Pakistan demarcated as the partitioning Radcliffe Line in 1947, named after Sir Cyril Radcliffe who architected the demarcation dividing 88million people over 450000 square kilometers.
The Indian side of the border is called Attari which is the last village on the Indian side connecting Lahore. Attari is named after Sardar Sham Singh Attariwala, one of the generals in the Army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The Grand Trunk Road connecting Attari and Wagah was the only connectivity between India and Pakistan until the Aman Sethu in Kashmir was opened in 2005. The Samjauta Express runs from Attari to Wagah covering 3kms.
The Beating Retreat
The beating retreat ceremony is a daily military practice that the Border Security Force of India and Pakistan Rangers of Pakistan perform since 1959 as a watch setting practice at sunset. The origin of this practice dates back to the 16th century in England when military chiefs used to recall nearby patrolling units to their castle. Many colonized countries still have this practice.
A fleet of steps forms the gallery for viewers that are again barricaded and marked into sections for commoners, VIPs and VVIPs. The Pakistani gate presents a picture of Jinnah staring at a smiling picture of Gandhi on the Indian side.
We took seats in the front row of the VIP pavilion to get a closer view and felt fortunate not to be shoved in the crowds that was now dancing in full fervor to the many patriotic Bollywood tunes played flamboyantly.
A very tall and very heavily mustached guard stood there like a gladiator shaking hands and posing for ecstatic tourists like me.
A sense of pride reverberated with the music and people seemed patriotically possessed. Women and children took turns to run the stretch with the tricolor which was followed by a loud shout from the captain indicating that the show was about to begin.
The trumpets began in high decibels and the very tall strutting peacocks as they are often referred as marched mightily with the utmost muscle and dignity in their crisp khakhis, holding their heads crested with a bright red fan like head-gear high, swinging their arms and foot up until the sky as the crowds cheered and swooned upon their every stunt.
Our VIP charm was short lived as many late comers just crowded in front of us and many others without passes jumped into the VIP section and kept blocking our view by standing up and pretending to be kneeling down holding up their sophisticated cameras.
The VVIP pavilion was on my left that was just adjacent to the bordering gates meant only for media and firangs(foreigners) and other top level dignitaries, also foreign nationals are treated as elites here and are allotted a separate gallery away from the chaos of the common man who are left to crowd like cattle. Wonder why this bias when it should be allotted on first come first basis, wonder why media and Firangs should be allotted special seating here, if only Arnab Goswami would question the #VVIP racism here!!
During the beating retreat the bordering iron gates are thrown open and the soldiers on both sides align and march dramatically on their respective sides, stomping and strutting with rigorous shouts and exaggerated high kick marches with clenched fists and muscle flexing right in front of Radcliff line posturing powerfully before the neighbour with the broadest shoulders, this drill is followed by lowering of the flags at sunset on both sides simultaneously and then finally the metal gates are slammed ragingly after a brisk handshake.
This aggressive 45 minutes spectacle is one of a kind that attracts thousands of tourists from the world around, there is no entry fees on the Indian side here but you will be thoroughly scanned no bags are allowed, even an extra camera cell or the camera bag will not be allowed. You can buy BSF India T-shirts to cheer the Indian side that are sold while you are seated. Many people even get themselves tattooed with tricolor on their faces to cheer our soldiers.
This whole dramatic exercise is surely a great opportunity for us civilians to witness the might of our defense forces closely and swell up in pride and take home a bit of uprightness. But the fact that this whole ceremony is predominantly a British trait called by the queen, kind of makes me rethink if this whole patriotic fervor should be festooned only at borders? Why not across all army units where the civilians get a chance to connect with the army folks?
But then when this muscle flexing match happens against Pakistan the spirits are always high like in a India-Pakistan Cricket match hence in order to tone down the aggressive approach the Indian side has of late included women guards as well to perform this marching retreat as a gesture to establish cordial relations between the two warring nations.
While the Indian side clearly outstrips the Pakistani side both in numbers and spirit, on the Pakistani side an entry fees is collected and men and women are seated separately to watch this ceremony.
After experiencing a patriotic high we headed to our hotel CJ International which was right behind the Golden temple.
Amritsar apparently is a very clumsy city with garbage strewn around everywhere we drove into a narrow lane where cups of hot pista-badam milk were thrust into our windows. I was a little shocked at the crude hospitality, welcome to Amritsar! It then struck me that it was Guru Gobind Singh’s birthday and the steaming drink was much needed in that cold evening, I readily gulped it down
The temperature was freezing at 3 degrees when we checked into our hotel hoping for some international standards but the plethora of plastic cups thrown in gutter cutting across at the entrance of our hotel said it all. It was an average hotel with 3 star comforts. The MakeMyTrip guys had not paid the tax part hence the hotel manager demanded an additional payment towards the taxes which we had to accommodate as the Makemytrip guys didn’t pick our call anymore and we didn’t have the energy and time to fight, probably if I had booked directly with the hotel it would have been cheaper.
It was 7.30pm we dumped our bags in the room and crossed the garbage laden road to enter The Golden Temple from the backside.
A narrow path covered with tarpaulins led our way to the Harmandir Sahib or Golden Temple.
Here we had to compulsorily rid our socks too, I had last jumped on my feet when I burnt my feet on the hot rocks of Hampi but we were now jumping due to the unbearable chill penetrating our feet.
The temple is a commemoration to the advent of Sikhism and the Sikh guru Guru Nanak who meditated at this lake in the 15th century. Later, Guru Ram Das initiated the construction of a Gurudhwara and Guru Arjan Dev built a Hari-Mandir which is today called as Harmandir Sahib. Guru Ram Das called the lake as ‘Amrit sarovar’ meaning ‘pool of nectar’ probably nectar of knowledge and the city was named after this lake.
‘Harmandir Sahib’ was demolished several times by Muslim rulers but each time it was reconstructed even more spectacularly by the Sikhs. In the 19th century it was renovated and covered in gold by Raja Ranjit Singh and got its Anglican name as ‘Golden Temple’.
The Harmandir Sahib houses the sacred scripture ’Guru Granth Sahib’ which is considered the holiest texts of Sikhism that is read and worshipped throughout the day. After Guru Nanak there were 9 other gurus but the 10th guru Guru Gobind Singh passed the guruship to this holy text which contains all the holy verses advocated by all the 10 gurus in Sikhism.
The entire vicinity of the holy structure was lit up reflecting itself in the lake we perambulated the temple walking only on the carpeted area as it was like walking on ice. I had never seen such a huge congregation of turban clad Sikhs together and my little one who is obsessed with Sunny Deol’s performance as Major Kuldeep Singh in the movie ‘Border’ was ecstatic about seeing so many Major Kuldeep Singhs. . People religiously upkeep the spiritual decorum here and everybody is found praying, I didn’t find a single person talking or surfing their mobile phones. Few people donate goodies to the kids around and my kids were pleasantly surprised when they received chocolate bars as dhaan.
As we were clicking pictures an old sardarji stopped next to us explaining the significance of the temple, initially we were apprehensive if he was a guide but soon we realized that he was just another devotee helping clueless tourists like us to understand Sikhism.
The old gentleman explained a few basic details that I had never heeded to.
He began….”Do you know why the Sikhs greet with a Sasriyakaal?
As I curiously listened, he expanded it, Sasriyakaal is actually Satsriakaal, the true form of which is ‘ Sathya Shri Akaal’ which means Truth of God is eternal
Next he said ‘do you know what Vaheguru’ means?
Our blank expression turned into a curious look as he went on to relate it to us.
Va He Gu Ru means
Vaasudev Hari Gobindaha Raama which is in short praying to the almighty Krishna and seeing them through their Guru Gobind Singh.
Due to tyranny of the Moghuls during the early 15th 16th and 17th centuries some Hindu familes decided to give a son for a brave cause to fight and save themselves from religious exploitation which took a new form and went on to become a religion in itself which believed and emphasized that Shakti with Bhakti was the need of the hour.
During the most atrocious tyrannical rule of Aurangzeb, Guru Gobind Singh formed a team of brave warriors known as Khalsa to fight the misrule and save innocent gullible Hindus. He baptized the men as Singhs meaning Lion and the women as Kaurs meaning princess to fight like lions and command like a princess, thus today you find Sikh names ending with Singh or Kaur under which lay hidden stories of their brave participation during difficult times. Thus this brave offshoot of people who took upon them the task of saving our clan are very much part of us but unfortunately today many claim that they are different from us and are a separate sect.
These words of the old gentleman filled me with inexplicable respect and pride for these brave Sikh gurus and men, but my heart bleeds when fragments of these very groups deflect from the very purpose and ideals of their inception and tries to disintegrate and dissect away from us
At the langer we were served hot tea, hot water in large bowls, Roti and Kaali Dal, since it was Guru Gobind Singh’s birthday we were also served cake, my kids exclaimed Cake instead of Cosambri!!
We decided to walk back to our hotel before we turned into ice-candies.
Next day we were scheduled to leave early but however I quickly escaped with my sister-in-law to have yet another view of the Golden temple early in the morning.
The morning mist played a spoil sport and denied me a glistening view of the Golden temple in the morning sun however I didn’t miss posing with the Akalitakht guards.
After breakfast we visited the Jalianwala Bagh Memorial which was just a furlong away from our hotel.
I walked the narrow passage where General Dyer had stealthily marched in and shot hundreds of innocent people assembled there to protest against the Rowlatt Act.
I then saw the Martyrs Well where hundreds of people jumped in to save themselves from the swarm of merciless bullets.
The walls still bear the bullet marks, the sight of which wounds every Indian even today
The museum here takes you back in history with many memoirs, articles, newspaper cuttings, pictures, belongings of the people who were killed here.
You definitely need 2hours here but we were crunched on time as we had to drive back to Delhi, a distance of 500kms before evening.
The rest of the day, we were speeding on NH 1 bidding goodbye to the land of the brave Sikhs.