Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Pride of Punjab : Amritsar

After coming back from a long tour of Kumaon in the summers, I was not thinking of any other trip during the Pujas as I also had in the hindsight the tour with my friends during the Christmas week. However, just over a month after we came back from Kumaon, Runa and Abhishek summoned me to plan something after the Puja holidays. We did a frantic search for finalizing the places to visit taking help from the different state tourism websites and Bhraman Sangi, but had to discard most of the choices due to time constraint. At last we zeroed in on Amritsar and planned to go to Himachal from there on our return way. Accordingly we booked tickets for the Kolkata - Amritsar Super Express.

This was the first time I boarded any train from the Kolkata station (located near Belgachhia) and though the train looked decent enough, it ran late by a few hours from the very start. As a result, we reached Amritsar late in the evening as opposed to early evening, which was the original schedule of the train and had to abandon the plan to visit the Golden Temple that evening.

We had booked our hotel in Amritsar in advance, so we were spared the agony of searching for accommodation that late in the evening after a long journey. However, we had not booked any car for the tour as the travel agent in Kolkata, who had booked our hotels for the tour, was charging on a higher side for the conveyance. Our plan was to book a car on the spot and luckily we could do that from the hotel itself and that too at a much reasonable rate after a bit of bargaining.

After an uneventful night of profound sleep punctuated at times by the clamourous sounds coming from the kitchen of the hotel which was located not far from my room, we went to visit the Golden Temple, the first thing in the morning. The temple was situated not far from our hotel and within a few minutes, our car reached the temple complex. On the way, we came across a large gate structure known as the Gandhi Gate and a statue in front of it, which I believe is of the revolutionary Udham Singh who had assassinated Michael O'Dwyer.

The temple complex has a rectangular pathway surrounding the beautiful pool called Amrit Sarovar at the centre with large entrance gates on four sides. The name of the town is derived from the name of the pool or the holy tank and at the centre of the pool the main temple structure stands on a square platform and is connected by a long causeway.

The actual name of the temple is Hari Mandir Saheb, which is more popularly known as the Golden Temple. The boundary of the pool and the foundation of the construction of the temple were laid in late 16th century by the fifth Sikh guru, Guru Arjan Dev. The guru’s followers settled down in the neighbourhood and a small town called Ramdaspur was founded which was later renamed as Amritsar. I read somewhere about the association of the place with the epic Ramayana and the legend goes that Lord Rama’s twin sons were taught at this place. I had even come across another story, which says that Emperor Akbar granted the land for the construction of the temple and the Muslim Pir Mian Mir of Lahore laid the foundation stone. However, I did not find many supporting records elsewhere. It is also said that the town flourished during the rule of the first Sikh Maharaja, Ranjit Singh. The temple was destroyed by Afghan invaders in mid 18th century and rebuilt with the offerings collected by the Khalsa. Sardar Jassa Singh re-laid the foundation of the temple in 1764.

After we kept our shoes at the free seva and entered the temple complex we roamed around the marble walkway encircling the temple and taking snaps. We moved past the “langarkhana” where one can take one’s meal buying appropriate tickets beforehand. The first thing one would notice here is the excessive cleanliness unlike most other temples and the service, be it at the place where we kept our shoes or where drinking water was offered to the thirsty devotees or the langarkhana where people were washing dishes in preparation for the large meal. I believe there is a culture there of social/religious service as many of the people providing service to the devotees did not seem to be employees of the Siromoni Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee. I think I had even seen Navjyot Singh Sidhu (ex-cricketer and currently Member of Parliament from Amritsar) in some television programme to polish the shoes of devotees in front of the temple as part of his yearly service offering. In fact it was written somewhere that the Guru Arjan Dev cured the ailment of Wazir Shah, the then Governor of Lahore by making him perform “karsewa” through Baba Budha Ji. There is actually a tree in the complex beneath which Baba Budha Ji is believed to camp to perform the service of digging up the holy tank. His original name was Bura but Guru Nanak named him Budha (the old one) because he was young in age yet old in wisdom. Baba Budha Ji was appointed the first Granthi (the holy Granth reciter) and he performed all Guruship installation ceremonies from Guru Angad to Guru Hargobind.

Just before entering the main temple complex, one walks through a narrow marble channel with water running through it cleansing the devotee’s feet and perhaps soul before one enters the sanctum sanctorum. Unlike most of the temples here one needs to descend as the holy shrine is built a few steps below the level of the adjacent area.

The causeway on the western side of the pool, which leads to the temple, is bordered with a marble balustrade and decorated with lamps on slightly taller marble columns and there is an archway with a huge chandelier. The other incredible thing was that there were fans scattered on the entire stretch of the causeway to make the devotees, queued up, comfortable in the heat.

Soon we reached the Hari Mandir. The lower part of the exquisitely beautiful temple is made of white marble and the upper part covered with plates of gilded copper giving it a golden look. Unfortunately photography was not allowed inside the temple and hence I could not capture the astounding splendor of the interiors. The guards in blue robes were actually politely requesting not to take pictures inside the temple, but their physique and spears ensured that nobody defy the rule. In the interior, on the ground floor is placed Guru Granth Sahib (holy book of the Sikhs) under a gorgeous canopy studded with jewels. The first floor is a small pavilion known as Shish Mahal is ornamented with mirrors of different shapes and sizes and has an open square at the centre of the floor where from one can view the ground floor. Above is another smaller square pavilion decorated with magnificent murals mostly depicting floral designs. The golden domes of varying sizes located at what appeared to be the terrace of the temple along with golden kiosks at the corners have a wonderful effect.

As we were moving out of the temple, I noticed that one person was periodically sweeping away the money offered to the Granth Sahib by the devotees with a broom in to a collection box. It seemed a comical but effective measure.

At the other end of the causeway was situated the Akal Takht, or the eternal throne of the Granth Sahib. It represents the primary seat for Sikh religious authority and political assembly. It may issue decrees clarifying Sikh doctrine and may summon and order penance on persons charged with violating religious discipline. There are four other “takhts” located at various places but the Akal Takht enjoys a special veneration. It is here where the Granth Sahib is kept during the night. Traditionally Sikh warriors seek blessings here before they go to war. It is also here that the followers of Bhindranwale took refuge during Operation Bluestar.

A group of Sikh men were performing “bhajans” and one of them was reciting some religious sermons in front of the Akal Takht on top of a gorgeously crafted marble floor.

After coming out of the Golden temple, we visited the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial which is only a few yards away.

At this very place hundreds of innocent, unarmed and defenseless Indians were massacred on 13th April, 1919 as the British Raj police open fired at the orders of Brigadier General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer. A number of things built up the prelude of the massacre including the revolutionary attacks on the British Raj and protests against the Rowlatt Act amongst others. On the ill-fated day (which was also the festival day of “Baisakhi”), thousands gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh which was then the property of the family of Sardar Himmat Singh, who worked in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. An hour after the meeting started, General Dyer marched in with his force and deployed his rifle men near the entrance and without warning or ordering the crowd to disperse, open fired. The firing continued for 20 minutes and 1650 round of ammunition were fired. The official account states 379 were killed and 1200 wounded, however the casualty number quoted by Indian National Congress was much higher. A commission of inquiry known as the Hunter Commission was set up later by Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, but General Dyer was not awarded any penal action for his role and was merely relieved of his command. A nationwide protest broke out which was exemplified by Rabindranath Tagore’s renunciation of his British Knighthood. On 13th March, 1940, Udham Singh, an Indian revolutionary who witnessed the massacre with his own eyes shot and killed Sir Michael O’Dwyer (at Caxton Hall in London) who was the British Lieutenant Governor of Punjab at the time of the massacre and who had approved Dyer’s action and was believed to be one of the conspirators behind the massacre.

The Jallianwala Bagh was later acquired by the nation and a memorial was built which was inaugurated by Dr. Rajendra Prasad on 13th April, 1961.

The Amar Jyoti or the eternal flame was built to commemorate those who lost their lives in the massacre.

A small pyramid like structure is built to indicate the place from where people were fired at.

Even the bullet marks on the walls are preserved and there is a martyr’s well where people jumped off. Some of the surrounding buildings also are probably of the same bygone time.

The place also maintains a visitor’s facilitation centre where various news clippings of the time and some pictures of the dead and wounded victims of the massacre are kept to remind the public at large the magnitude and the cruelty of the brutal massacre. It was appalling to see at the pictures of the indiscriminate public whipping of the Indians and people on their hands and knees to cross the length of a street as a result of the crawling order, which was posted even after the massacre under the auspices of the martial law that was imposed on Amritsar and adjoining areas by O’Dwyer and granted by Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford.

After lunch, we headed towards the Wagah Border which is only 28 kilometres away from Amritsar. At the Wagah border, the security forces of India and Pakistan, namely the Border Scurity Force and the Pakistan Rangers respectively, follow the “lowering of flags” ceremony, every evening. On the way to Wagah, we passed by the colossal Khalsa College, the Guru Nanak Dev University and suddenly after crossing an army cantonment area, a signboard indicated that we are only 23 kilometres away from Lahore. We reached the border a good couple of hours before the event as our driver warned us of the huge crowd presence. There were separate queues for men and women and even separate sitting arrangements for the two. The women’s part of the stadium was nearer to the gates of the border and it was very difficult to see the proceedings from the men's gallery. To add to it was the unorganized conduct of the visitors and everyone was standing up now and then even though the army personnel were repeatedly requesting them to be seated. Quite surprisingly the Pakistani lot seemed to be much more ordered from this side of the border. The reason may be that they were less in number and easier to control. However, I must say that the security men of our side did not put up a true effort to discipline the visitors at our end and as a result there was cacophony and absolute chaos. Rishi was feeling a bit claustrophobic and we were somewhat ruing our decision to come here. But then of course Wagah had always been on our itinerary of Amrisar.

To cheer up our spirit I tried to look at the funnier side of the events rather than being skeptic. The security men were playing patriotic songs starting from Lata Mangeshkar’s “Ae mere watan ke logon” to the contemporary “Chak De” and even the Oscar winning “Jai Ho”. Manoj Kumar could have lived only on the royalty of the songs from his films going by their popularity and the number of times they were played at the Wagah, such as the melodious Mahendra Kapoor number “Mere desh ki dharti” from the film Upkar. Not sure how the “Koi kahe” track from the film Dil Chahta Hai found its way through all those patriotic numbers. The songs were cheered by the public in a huge way with people including the senior citizens shaking their legs with the tunes and throwing open their arms at the end of each stanza.

Children and even their mothers were running to and fro with the national flag and after some time the open space in front of the gallery took almost the shape of a dance floor for them.

A BSF man in a white shirt was orchestrating the events and in between the songs he was urging the public to shout slogans like “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”, “Hindustan Zindabad” and “Bande Mataram”. There were similar slogans heard from the other side of the border as well and the man in the white shirt was asking us to shout our slogans in a higher pitch than the Pakistanis.

After all this adrenaline rushing song and dance and shouting, the real event started just before sunset. The soldiers on either side paraded towards their respective border gates and eventually the gates were opened and the flags were lowered and then folded and then the soldiers shook hands and retreated and the gates were again closed.

After the Wagah visit we were all so exhausted that we headed straight to the hotel. However, later on in the evening Runa and I made a short visit to the Golden Temple to catch a glimpse of it under the effects of light, while Abhishek and Rishi stayed back at the hotel. It was a spectacular sight to behold the temple actually gleaming with golden radiance in contrast to the dark night surroundings and I would have missed an extravagant experience had I not made the visit.

Our stay at Amritsar had come to an end and we were readying ourselves for our Himachal visit which would start the next day.