Amritsar : Borderlands, Blood Lines and Bullets

Amritsar Travel Blog

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She runs towards the border...

She runs towards the border.  Her eyes glistening with the flag of her nation held high.  Young and strong.  She runs with passion, and pride perhaps.  For freedom?  For country?  For fun?  The thick undulating bands of saffron, white and green stream along in the wind above her head.  The flag, clasped tightly by both hands fluttering in the slipstream of her fervour as she runs ever closer to the border.

Panting and hitching up her sari, but smiling all the way, the girl's mother jogs along behind her.  An impassioned attempt to keep up with India's new generation as it rushes towards the future?  She represents a generation inured to the ideas of division and national identity.  Her flag raised up with her free arm, she pants and struggles.

"Hindustan zindabad!"
  Red flushed cheeks and saffron and white and green.  She looks to be about the age my mother would have been.  Early sixties.  Born in 1947.  The year of India's partition.  Conceived at the time of India's great divide, did her parents cross the line she now approaches once upon a time?  A time when a gate had not been constructed.  When the line of division was still an unknown or very ill-defined reality.  An idea clear only in the minds of the power brokers and politicians who had caused and crafted its creation.  A fresh incision in the land.  An incision causing people; whole peoples to haemorrhage in both directions.  An unstoppable flow of life blood erupting from beneath the soil; the skin of the nation, from a million grievances cut open by the indiscriminate scalpel of history.
"Nice hat mate!" - Indian border guards at the Attari/ Wagah border closing ceremony :)
  A messy incision.  A botched operation?  One that would leave a puckered scar, over sensitive to the touch across the land and, in time, across the minds of those peoples.  A scar still not faded to neutrality.

Did her parents run towards the border with fear or hope?  North to south?  Did they understand the importance of flags?  Which one to carry yet?  Did they understand History and all its often ill intent?  The importance of borderlines written in blood.   

Jantine, the rest of the gang and I are sat watching as wave after wave of Indian women of all generations charge, laughing towards the Attari border gate at Wagah, their flags held high.  Found 30 kilometres west of Amritsar ( and about the same distance from Lahore to the east) this is the only border crossing between India and Pakistan and its elaborate and frankly bizarre early evening closing ceremony has become the stuff of minor legend.

Left-right left-right left-right...
  Comedy from conflict.  Politics turned into pantomime. 

Ushered up into football terrace style stands lining the umbilical road that links the two nations, the crowd on the Indian side of the border expands rapidly.  Loud music plays.  Volume cranked ever higher.  On the back rows enthusiastic young patriots wave large Indian flags from side to side leading the crowd in cries of 'Hindustan zindabad!' ( 'Long live India!' ) and 'Jai Hind!' ( 'Victory to India!' ).  Their volume cranking ever higher.  A large group of people, mostly young girls, throng onto the road and dance Bangra-style with happy abandon to the music.

'Dancing in the Streets' - girls having fun at the border closing ceremony.
  Their arms raised ever higher.  Smiles ever wider.  A scene of chaotic communal charisma and colour such as obligatorily accompany the end credits of Bollywood movies. 

Aside from these civilian revelries the Attari border closing ceremony is all about military posturing.  A slightly farcical feeling face-off between India and Pakistan's Boyz.  A Master of Ceremonies on 'our side’ holds a microphone up to one soldier after another as they inhale and then try and hold the note 'eeyyyyyyyyyyyyy' long enough to out-chant their Pakistani opposite numbers.  National pride measured in lung capacity.  Sounding ever so slightly like The Fonz on steroids.  Today Pakistan win this little contest hands down.

The glorious Harmindar Sahib or Golden Temple.

Then, the most famous image of the ceremony, the frankly surreal and quite violent looking leg-stamping, stepping and strutting manoeuvres that are gone through before, one at a time, the soldiers from each side stride up to the border gate and repeat intimidating stamps, chest thrusts and pivots in front of their counterpart before stamping back, and stepping into line.  The appearance of two prize cocks puffing up their chests and colours in a show of (male) territorial defiance is enhanced by the extravagant, slightly comedic uniforms with their 'red rooster' hats and gold brocade but slightly undermined by the fact that the process looks little more than a poor imitation of John Cleese's Ministry of Silly Walks sketches for Monty Python.  At the end of all the posturing and comedy and cheering from the crowds (sadly a very tiny gathering of people visible in the Pakistani stands) the metal gates are slammed and rolled shut and the flags of the nations simultaneously lowered and folded away.

A prayer before the holy pool of Amrit Sar.
  Closed for business.  Time to go home to The Golden Temple.

The Punjab and Amritsar have not always been borderlands pulsing with surface-tensions, anger and history's innumerable wounds.   Partition of course followed a long chain of historical events.  One of the most significant and undoubtedly most notorious events to fan the flames of independence in India and arguably accelerate the end of British rule therein was the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.  Today a serene and sun-drenched public park accessed via a narrow street-side passage on the southerly Mahna Singh Road, less than five minutes walk from the Golden Temple, on 13th April 1919 things were not so calm.  In response to the British Government's new Rowlatt Act* and a week or so following a proposed 'Rowlatt Satyagraha'** (a 'hartal' or peaceful general strike suggested but later called off by Gandhi) report of a large gathering in the Jallianwala Bagh park reached the ears of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer.

Stevie & the temple :)
  The full and true events and actions of the response to this gathering are mired in eternal controversy, contention and mystery but what's known for sure is that leading a small troop of soldiers down the entry passage the crowd was opened fire upon for a period of time that, according to official British figures at the time, left 379 dead and 1,100 civilians wounded.  The Indian Civil Surgeon stated the dead at 1,526.    

As Jantine and I stroll around the sun-flooded park grounds little sense of past tragedy imbues the atmosphere.  Calmness and laughter the only sounds.  Young friends and couples drape themselves languorously across the warm grassy grounds.  Flowers proliferate where bullets once flew.  Happy smiling Indian tourist families move around in packs pouncing (ever-so-politely) on foreigners to have their photos taken with them.

Bullet holes highlighted in the walls of the Jalianwala Bagh park following the massacre in 1919.
  A near incessant obligation for Jantine as a vision of a pretty, blond, European ideal.  A snap with a short-arse ginger curio such as I is often as much in demand, though I fear more for the comedic ( ’Look they make ’em like this over There too!’ ) rather than aesthetic qualities my hosts perceive. 

The only visible traces of the massacre are the bullet holes that remain scattered across and dug into one or two of the park walls.  Bordered in white rectangles and squares to highlight their stone-cauterized malignancy.  History and pain transposed to geometric compositions.  Walls don't bleed but have the dumb power to speak of suffering.  Silent reminders.  So many bullets extracted from the architectural frame.

General Dyer defaced in a painting depicting the Jalianwala Bagh massacre.
 A plaque besides the large park well (now sealed off) tells of the 120 bodies eventually recovered from its depths.  People either jumping in or being pushed as the crowd tried to escape the panic and bullets.  In the small park martyrs museum, in the bottom left corner of a large frieze painting depicting the massacre, unsurprisingly the figure of General Dyer has been defaced.  The canvas where his head would be torn and hanging limp.  It's dark in here.  Jantine and I, excusing ourselves from further photo-calls, head back out into the sun and again return to the sanctuary of The Golden Temple.

And what a jewel it is!  Set both amidst the ructions and socio-political upheavals of history and the typical choking chaos, filth and noise of all modern Indian urban centres, the Golden Temple is a true oasis.

Jantine and one of her infinite photo calls to make Indian tourists happy for the day :)
  An indisputable diamond in the rough.  A communal retreat.  A soul refuge from the mayhem and tensions unnumbered of the world without its walls.  Qualities I waxed lyrical about to some extent in my previous entry.

But of course its aesthetic praises must be sung also.  The Golden Temple, whose construction was completed in 1604 under the auspices of the 5th of the 10 Sikh Gurus, Guru Arjan Dev, is one of the most beautiful set-pieces of architecture I have had the pleasure to set eyes upon in my travels.  Having many second generation Sikh friends from my ten years in Birmingham, England, I have often had its beauties regaled and seen their eyes cloud over with a mixture of remembered awe and ongoing pride that this should be the glittering heart of their faith and culture.

Morning chai in the temple compound before the 8.00am dash for first breakfast :)
  And quite rightly too!  Sat shimmering as if a portion of the sun had slipped and settled to the earth, its mercurial, golden reflection in the sacred  'Pool of the Nectar of Immortality' or 'Amrit Sar' from whose precincts the city grew and took its name, the Temple could hold my attention for endless hours.  Viewed from every angle in every light through every changing phase of the day as you softly pad barefoot on the patterned, sun-warmed white marble pool surrounds as large orange and gold carp drift to the surface seeming to making prayerful mouths for food, it is a constant joy.

Living in the grounds of the Temple for several days you are taught the infinite colours and shades that gold can impart to the world - and cease to wonder why it be the eternal bewitcher of kings, men and women alike.

This temple just takes one's breath away at all times of day!
  So beautiful at sundown as the music and prayer pours forth from the central temple as the sky turns to a pink-purple dusk in perfect compliment to its architectural symphony of yellows and golds.  Its reflection only grows more luminescent, defying the coming dark as the remaining portion of the sun from whence it fell settles into the sacred waters.  The dripping wet bodies of penitent bathers and children now only picked out as silhouettes dancing in the reflections of temple-strung fairy lights and the slivers of gold that continue to slide oily and magical upon the Amrit Sar's surface. 

As one sits and contemplates the various forms of beauty and benevolence that create the aura of great serenity encircling the temple it is hard to imagine a time when peace amidst these grounds was not so.

  But sadly The Golden Temple too has played host and venue to tales of violence and discord in tune with the troubled politics of the region and India's ongoing problems with inter-communal tensions.

Of the three principle religious communities affected by Partition - an act ostensibly concerned with the absurd proposition of separating Hindu and Muslim populations and concerns - in many ways it was the Sikhs who were culturally and politically most marginalised and disenfranchised by the event.  The Punjab being their spiritual and physical homeland, now riven in two, and their people subject to wave after wave of violence as the largest 'peace time' mass migration of peoples - mostly Hindus and Muslims - swept one way or another across it, the bloody consequences of partition certainly chimed with the tune as old as the Sikh religion that sings of ceaseless persecutions and martyrdoms.

  Many of these recalled in graphic paintings and photos inside 'The Central Museum of Sikhism' within The Golden Temple Grounds.

1947 saw the birth not only of independent India and Pakistan but also one Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.  Fast forward to 1982 and moving on into 1984, feeding on these feelings of marginalisation and persecution Bhindranwale ( now a radical political Sikh cleric fatefully brought to power by Indira Gandhi ) and a group of his followers pursuing an independent 'pure' Sikh state of Khalistan locked themselves into and fortified the Golden Temple complex.  Smuggling in arms over a period of time and taking the law into their own hands (with executions of Sikhs within and Hindus without the Temple grounds) were acts that eventually provoked a siege of the holy site by the authorities at the behest of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, daughter of Jawarharlal Nehru, independent India‘s first leader.

(L - R) Jantine, Jade & Petra have some fun trying to squeeze into a cycle rickshaw :)
  Operation Blue Star, the ill-planned and violent conclusion to this siege would lay the seeds for inter-communal hatreds and violence that continue to simmer beneath the surface, and occasionally erupt in India today. 

Launched in June 1984, whilst successful in ending the siege of The Golden Temple and bringing about the death of Bindranwale many, many Sikh civilians visiting the temple also lost their lives as a result of Operation Blue Star.  If you keep a keen lookout, as at Jallianwala Bagh, you may still spot bullet 'wounds' in the white marble walls of the Temple grounds.  The Temple would again be taken over by Sikh militants, acolytes of Bindranwale, in both 1986 and 1988.  Walking through the 'The Central Museum of Sikhism' just two paintings hang near the museum's conclusion relating to the original take over.

  A glorified full body portrait of Bindranwale (confirming him a Sikh hero and not a sinner within the Sikh pantheon) and a painting of the Akal Takhat building (the traditional seat of the Sikh Parliament that sits behind the Golden Temple) in a state of ruin following Blue Star.  Beneath this a small brass plaque concludes ominously 'The Sikhs however soon had their vengeance.'

On the morning of 31 October 1984 ahead of a lunch appointment with the Dalai Lama Indira Gandhi was assassinated.  Shot down by her two Sikh bodyguards.  Vengeance exacted.  A violent revenge for the loss of life and her perceived defilement of the Golden Temple with Blue Star and political injustices meted out to Sikh and other political opposition during her notorious 1975-'76 'Emergency'.

A lady bends to hand out some sweet 'parsad' to the girls to make as offerings inside the temple.
  Violent Hindu reprisals against the nation’s Sikh community came swiftly and large scale massacres occurred in many of the northern cities.  As a footnote, General A.S.Vaidya, Indian Army head of Operation Blue Star would also be assassinated two years later. 

On the morning of her death it was Indira's daughter-in-law Sonia who drove Indira to hospital though she was Dead On Arrival.  31 bullets extracted from her frame.  Sonia's husband and Indira's son Rajiv Gandhi took over the Premiership from his mother but he too would be assassinated in May 1991, this time by the (recently defeated and theoretically disbanded) Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or 'Tamil Tigers'.  Fast forward again to 2004 and we have the widow Sonia Gandhi achieving a surprise victory in the Lok Sabha general elections as head of the Congress United Progressive Alliance.

Temple surrounds and fairy lights.
  Declining the office of Prime Minister she handed the honour to former finance minister, the incumbent  Manmohan Singh thus ushering in the first non-Hindu ruler of independent India and, significantly for her family's history and the inter-communal grudges this entry is concerned with, the first leader to be of the Sikh faith.  'And so it goes...' to quote one of Kurt Vonnegut's favourite refrains.    

She runs towards the border.  Her black hair streaming in the breeze, accompanied by saffron and white and green.  She runs towards the division line, smiling and with flag raised high.  Running with all her energy.  With all her heart.  But she must turn back now and run the other way.

Golden temple reflected in the waters of the Amrit Sar (abstract)
  In the direction of Home.  For she's reached the gate, the line she's told she cannot cross.  Though she may not yet fully understand why.   She's been told 'Other People' and 'They' live over there.  An enemy of sorts.  Borders and boundaries.  They create enmity where once there was some accord as if at the stroke of a pen.  A pen drawn across a map.  Drawn across minds.  Crafting long divisions.  Multiplications of hatred.  Fractions of former fraternity.  They are often livid scar tissue that fail to fully heal over jagged fractures in the body and soul of a land.  She is young though.  The new generation.  Perhaps one not so inclined to care so much for lines.  Conscious that too many daggers and bullets here already extracted from History's frame.
"Quick gotta get to the border before it closes!" :)
  We can but hope.  She runs free and happy today.  Her mother is tired, jogging behind her, but smiles.

As dusk draws down over the curious parade at Attari, I point out to Jantine as two small birds cut across the Indian sky and flit over the border to Pakistan without trouble or impediment.  'They don't have any problems crossing the border' I say.  And it's true.  The sky, even a foot above the iron gates, is not a divided entity.  Not for the birds anyway.  And if you were to rise high enough, and look down upon this gathering from a elevation where humans cease to be visible, you would notice that from there no lines can be seen.     

[Notes :

Attari Border Ceremony : 7 of us commandeered a shared mini-van taxi from practically within the grounds of the Golden Temple Complex for 60Rs (75p) per head, return.

3 Sikh boys bathe in the sacred pool.
  It takes about an hour to get there and if you want to get good seats and catch the whole 'show' you should consider leaving no later than 15.00pm.

* The Rowlatt Act - Signed in as legislature in March 1919, the Rowlatt act permitted more or less indiscriminate internship of anyone even suspected of acts of sedition against the British Government/ Crown.  Gatherings in public places of more than 3 people (5 perhaps?) were outlawed for a time, this having brought the 1,000+ gathering at Jallianwala Bagh to the Authorities attention.

** Satyagraha - translating roughly as 'Truth Force', Satyagraha was the name applied by Mahatma Gandhi to the various acts that composed his long history of peaceful protests in South Africa and later India.

This photo was taken 2 months later at a primary school in Yuksom, Sikkim but suits todays themes nicely I feel :)
  The burning of Identity Papers in the former and the anti-taxation Dandi 'Salt March' in the latter in 1930, 18 years before the great Satyagrahi would meet his end.  3 bullets extracted from his frame.   ]

esposabella says:
Pictures make up the story more than the words. You do have a great way with the written language, but i prefer to live thru your lens :)
Posted on: Feb 23, 2010
sylviandavid says:
Wonderful telling of the ceremony....
Posted on: Jan 28, 2010
Stevie_Wes says:
Thank you Irma, Jacuie and Bev for your kind responses to this entry. It was a bit rambling and sprawling as, as is often the case in India I am so passionate for both my own experiences, but also the historical context that I find condensing it all to blog-size impossible. I thank you for your patience and smiles :) x
Posted on: Jan 28, 2010
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She runs towards the border...
She runs towards the border...
Hindustan zindabad!
"Hindustan zindabad!"
Nice hat mate! - Indian border g…
"Nice hat mate!" - Indian border …
Left-right left-right left-right...
Left-right left-right left-right...
Dancing in the Streets - girls h…
'Dancing in the Streets' - girls …
The glorious Harmindar Sahib or Go…
The glorious Harmindar Sahib or G…
A prayer before the holy pool of A…
A prayer before the holy pool of …
Stevie & the temple :)
Stevie & the temple :)
Bullet holes highlighted in the wa…
Bullet holes highlighted in the w…
General Dyer defaced in a painting…
General Dyer defaced in a paintin…
Jantine and one of her infinite ph…
Jantine and one of her infinite p…
Morning chai in the temple compoun…
Morning chai in the temple compou…
This temple just takes ones breat…
This temple just takes one's brea…
(L - R) Jantine, Jade & Petra have…
(L - R) Jantine, Jade & Petra hav…
A lady bends to hand out some swee…
A lady bends to hand out some swe…
Temple surrounds and fairy lights.
Temple surrounds and fairy lights.
Golden temple reflected in the wat…
Golden temple reflected in the wa…
Quick gotta get to the border bef…
"Quick gotta get to the border be…
3 Sikh boys bathe in the sacred po…
3 Sikh boys bathe in the sacred p…
This photo was taken 2 months late…
This photo was taken 2 months lat…
The Painful Geometry of History
'The Painful Geometry of History'
photo by: frankcanfly