When people think of the relationship between India and Pakistan, not a lot of positive things come to mind: rivalry, religious dispute, violence, threat of nuclear war… You’d think the border crossing would perhaps not be the wisest place to visit.
But despite all the conflict between these two countries, there are certain places where they can let their rivalry out peacefully, like in Amritsar…
Popular on the tourist trail, Amritsar is most well-known as the home of the famous Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple or Harmandir Sahib. But also worth visiting is the nearby India-Pakistan border in Wagah where, once a day, hundreds of people gather to watch the dramatic border closing ceremony.
This fun-filled event involves the border officers marching one after another to salute the corresponding officer on the Pakistani side. That would be tame enough, except that this is no ordinary march. The officers must first begin with a series of high kicks then, looking as angry and fervent as possible, march as fast as they can to the border gate where they continue another series of high kicks, as if to show the Pakistanis who’s boss. Add a funny hat and a long mustache and you’ve got yourself a real performance here.
What makes this event even more incredible is the show of patriotism that surrounds it. As far as I know, the show never changes, but people come to this ceremony EVERY DAY, walking the long distance to the gate, waiting in line smushed against hundreds of others, all for the chance to sit in the stands and cheer for their homeland. It’s like some kind of sporting event, complete with popcorn and drinks. Definitely a fascinating sight to see.
In addition to the border closing ceremony, James, Daniel and I made sure to visit the Golden Temple, priority number one in Amritsar. Now, I’m not going to lie, Amritsar is every bit as noisy, dirty and stressful as Delhi, though less corrupted by tourism (I actually had a pedi rickshaw driver tell me the fare was only 10 rupees after I offered him 20…). But situated among the dirt, the crowds and the cows is this diamond in the rough that makes Amritsar worth all the chaos.
More than just a shrine, the Golden Temple is actually in the center of a holy lake surrounded on four sides by these large beautiful white buildings. With the gold of the temple gleaming against the contrast of the blue of the sky and water, the whole complex is simply stunning. And like the intensity of the border crossing, Sikhs come from all around to pray with fervency, bathing in the lake, chanting prayers in small rooms or, like us, waiting in an endless line to get a glimpse of the temple’s inside…
Just our luck, James, Daniel and I had decided to visit the temple during one of Sikhism’s holiest holidays and found ourselves in a THREE-AND-A-HALF HOUR line to enter the inside of the temple (it was impossible to see how long the line actually was for the first two hours, otherwise I’m not sure I would have done it :/). And this line was crazy. People squished together like sardines and stampeded forward the minute the bar was lifted to allow the next group to advance. The crowd, plus the heat, made the wait almost unbearable and it took every ounce of determination I had to last (James gave up after one hour, I could hardly blame him).
When I finally saw the inside, it was a really beautiful, with multiple floors, covered in multicolored stones and gold with a large chandelier on the ceiling. But after more than four hours in the heat and crowds, the three of us booked it out of there, retreating into an air conditioned restaurant then hiding in our guest house the rest of the afternoon.
After that morning, I was pretty over the Amritsar experience and was ready to leave as soon as possible. But after hearing about how beautiful the temple looks at night, I somehow dragged myself away from my hideaway and returned. And I was glad I did.
The evening, though still busy, was much less chaotic and cooler than the morning. The entire complex was lit up with the golden temple reflecting in the water, and all around the lake people lighted candles, which gave the atmosphere an extra sense of enchantment.
I had returned to the complex with a friend I had made at the guest house, and we decided to try out the free meal the Golden Temple serves all its guests. Though a very simple dinner of mostly chapati, dahl and chai, the food was pretty good and clean. Somehow, we befriended one of the temple volunteers and found ourselves on a very thorough tour of the Golden Temple kitchens, including where they prepare the massive pots of dahl and tea as well as the chapati room and the cellar where they keep all the vegetables (I tried to ignore the rat that ran past the back).
We also got invited to dine in a special part of the cafeteria, where I sat cross-legged on a dirty mat, eating with my hands, while half a dozen Indian women asked me a hundred questions in broken English and took pictures with me.
Though not my most comfortable moment, I smiled and stayed as long as I could before politely bowing out.
In the end, Amritsar was definitely one of my more challenging cities, but well worth the effort :).