Thursday, December 26, 2013

Golden Memories

This year has been a year of spiritual awakening and reckoning… an outcome of our prayers for casting off the transient and revealing the true! As the year draws to an end, my mind, heart and soul are steeped in the spirit of faith, compassion, humanism and spirituality. 3 important holidays in 3 significantly spiritual destinations have made this year truly special. The first happened in July when we went to Pondicherry, a trip we had planned thrice earlier since 2004 and which finally materialised this year. The second trip was to Kolkata for the Durga Pujas which happened in October this year, an experience relived after a gap of 10 years! This post is about our most recent trip to the Golden City of Amritsar, a long desired destination since 2005.

Seat of Martyrdom: the Jallianwala Bagh

The Jallianwala Bagh is a landmark in the history of British India… a scar in the landscape of martyrdom. 1000s of innocent people were indiscriminately killed by the order of General Dyer. 

The garden was originally a ground with a narrow lane for entry and exit. The crowd was trapped inside as all entry and exit was blocked by the British forces as they were gunned down. Many were women and children and they tried to save their lives by jumping into a well on the grounds. 120 dead bodies were recovered later from the well itself. Such was the horror that the grounds had witnessed on 13th April, 1919! The garden was later developed by the Indian Government as a memorial ground of those thousand and above martyrs. An Amar Jyoti burns all day and night, while a memorial tower has been erected at one end of the garden. 


The bullet marks on the wall still look fresh as they are marked for viewing. The martyr’s well is now dry standing testimony to the pool of blood and the pile of dead bodies that it was filled with. 


A sombre mood descended upon us as we visualised the grounds soaked with the blood of those martyrs. In the museum, a huge painting depicts the tragic scene along with some memorabilia of the past. It was interesting to even find Tagore’s letter of refusal of knighthood in protest of the massacre. 

A serene field today beautifully adorned with trees and open corners, reminiscent of the blood bath that occurred almost a hundred years back… laced with spine chilling winds which silently echoed the terrific cries of the people who lost their lives on that fateful day!

Seat of Sikhism: the Golden Temple

All through school, all that I learnt about Sikhism was about the Gurus and the 5 Ks, namely, Kara (bangle), Kesh (hair), Kacchha (an Indian undergarment), Kangha (comb) and the Kirpan (sword). Moreover, having lived in Gurgaon, I encountered many Sikhs from Delhi and Gurgaon, not to mention the endless jokes one hears about ‘Sardars’ and ethical taunts of their brutal business sense. But Sikhism goes far beyond that. It took me a 3 day visit to the heart of Sikhism, i.e. Amritsar, to realise the depth and profundity of the faith and to feel the heart of the community. Amritsar gets its name from the lake (sar) in the heart of the city which is compared to amrit (elixir of immortality) excavated in the late 16th century! This lake exists inside the Golden Temple, the Mecca for Sikhs! The day we chose to visit the Golden Temple was the coldest day of the season with outside temperatures ranging between 5 to 6 degrees Celsius and the first snowfall taking place in Himachal Pradesh and JnK. Hence, we entered the campus with trepidation and a bit of a chill, as one had to walk bare feet inside the entire campus. To worsen the situation, it had rained the day before and the mats placed for the comfort of visitors, were soggy. Walking on the cold marble that wrapped the golden temple campus in a stark contradiction to the gold, seemed to be the best option. The white entry seemed more like an entry to a grand old British railway station, but right after cleansing our feet, when we had the first sight of the golden shrine, all our anxieties disappeared in its brilliance!

The campus is huge, with the lake in the middle and the shrine in its centre. There were at least 2000 people walking around braving the weather. When we wanted to partake in the communal lunch (langar), we were told at the donation counter that Guru Nanakji always advised his devotees to first enjoy the meal and then visit the shrine. It was when we went to enjoy the meal that we realised why he said so. There were almost a 1000 strong crowd waiting to have the langar. We were all ushered in by volunteers doling out plates, bowls and spoons with the chant of Wahe Guru! In a huge hall, a simple meal of chapatis, dal, kadhi and kheer was served by the innumerable volunteers. What struck a chord was the equalising factor of the meal, as the rich and the poor, the male and the female, the old and the young, all sat together on the floor to enjoy this simple but sumptuous hot meal. We were all at par, be it the volunteers, committed in their sense of service or us, the visitors, some for religious reasons, while some others, like us, just for the experience! The efficiency of service and cleaning up after the batch was done eating, was remarkable. In a militaristic fashion, the mats were swept, the floors watered and swiped! All in a matter of few minutes, the hall was ready for the next lot of people to come and enjoy the meal. At the exit, there were crowds of people, again from all different stratas and ages, peeling peas and onions in preparation for the next round of cooking. What was even more intriguing was that this process of feeding the visitors, which is known to be an average of a 100,000 visitors daily, happened 24/7 round the clock! The langar at the Golden Temple is also one of the world’s largest free kitchens.

The aura of the place was mystified further by the foggy morning and the golden hues of the temple compensating for the lack of the sun! To add to the atmosphere, there were songs continuously floating in the air. These songs, known as Gurvani, are the teachings of Guru Nanak, set to melody and chanted in tune, making the prayers merge with the human spirit in such a free and easy manner. Tears welled in our eyes frequently to note the spirit of humanity that was so omnipresent. It didn’t matter what backgrounds of age, caste, creed, colour, religion and economic strata people came from, as all were embraced, welcome and catered to at this serene place of worship. Moreover, the essence of faith was hands-on through its commitment to service. More than a hundred volunteers were working round the clock, keeping the premises sparkling clean, rolling out carpets for people to walk on, and cooking and serving food. In its simplicity and in its basic human gesture of doing good to others in the most practical fashion, the devotees were continuing to garner endless bags of good fortune, over generations. Probably one of the reasons, why their entire community, scattered across the globe, are so prosperous and so tightly knit.

We returned that evening to view the temple at night, in all its glittering golden splendour. This time, we stood in the line, after a tiring day, for almost half an hour to see the inner sanctum. What struck us the most was the civility of all visitors there. Even though we were standing in a crowd of 700 people queued up on the causeway to enter the shrine, not one person’s body touched the other’s, not one person was talking loudly or chatting, not one person pushed anybody else. Very different from many experiences I have had in Hindu places of worship were a hype is created simply by egging people to do their darshan ‘quickly’! Here, it was just a mixed throng of true devotees and visitors like us. On my right stood a man, who obviously looked like he was settled in Canada or the US (a large population of Sikhs exist there), with diamond ear studs on both his ears. To my left stood an aged poor looking man, who was probably a local. With us, in between, it represented the quilt of humanity. Amidst that silent waiting, songs drifted through the air, and all the Sikhs who knew them by heart, sung along in quiet hums. Again a moving experience, in the nature of its connectedness to faith and in the remarkable conduct of ordinary human beings around us! This community is otherwise known for its loud and crass behaviour in Delhi and elsewhere, but here, they were spiritually transformed! No photography was allowed inside the shrine, and one could only capture mental visuals of the golden ceiling fan, the golden ceiling and the golden mike stands inside. What was even more remarkable was the fact that this was another faith (like Nichiren's Buddhism) which had no idol worship… the centre of devotion were the teachings in the form of the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib which is a compilation of teachings by Guru Nanak. One could stay on inside as long as one wanted, by finding a corner to sit and sing the prayers or by simply standing and observing. Just the way a sighting of this kind should be!


As we left the place with endless soul stirring emotions and memories, our eyes had opened to the true tenets of Sikhism which celebrated humanity and the common thread that binds us all together, above all!

Seat of Patriotism: the Wagah Border

The Wagah Border interestingly is named after the village in Pakistan’s Punjab, while the name of the bordering village in India is Attari. Interestingly, this border is more commonly referred to by the name of its Pakistani counterpart. At a distance of 28 kms from Amritsar, the Attari Joint Check Post, is the line along which India was partitioned in 1947. As we set off from the Golden Temple to witness the flag lowering and Beating Retreat Ceremony on the coldest afternoon of the season, we were filled with mixed emotions. We were lucky to have VIP passes which gave us access to a closer view of the gate that exists at this border. As we reached just on time, we had to sit on the pavement, as the VIP gallery was already full. We waited with bated breath for the beginning of the ceremony. To our right, were thousands of Indians, in the ordinary seating area. Patriotic music blared, frothing up a frenzied sense of patriotism. Songs from Hindi movies, which had a patriotic feel to it brought the crowds dancing on the streets… fading the significance of the ceremony in the background. There were many BSF jawans managing the crowd with their strict orders, while a crowd cheerer went on building up the hype with chants of Vande Mataram and Hindustan Zindabad. Across the border, a similar routine took place with chants of Jhule Jhule Pakistan! The ceremony entailed the marching of jawans to the gate and shaking hands with their Pakistani counterparts. Vigorous marching by, characterised by the ferocious kicks, filled my eyes and mind with a sense of nationalistic pride. 

As the gates opened, the crowds cheered in a climactic high pitch. Soon it was time for the flag lowering, a choreographed dance of ropes, cloth, hands and emotions! As the two flags of the 2 countries intertwined and were lowered, my eyes welled with the moving power of a myriad thoughts. This one stretch of land demarcated the boundaries between the two nations, and many tales told by many people of the painful partition played like a feature film in my mind. At the same time, the jawans instilled an enormous sense of pride, as one was reminded of their endless service to the nation, ensuring we all lead peaceful and secure lives. At the same time, seeing the crowd in its patriotic fervour made me wonder of how long this effect would last! Were these not the same people, who had to be stopped by the jawans from breaking their queues while entering the border? Were these not the same people who littered the area with plastic plates and cups, outside the entry, in an uncaring fashion? Did these people truly understand the pain of the families who were separated in 1947 in a most violent manner? Did these people really feel the pain of the families which lost their sons and daughters to fights across the line of control? The air was biting cold, the atmosphere exhilarating with the energy of the crowd on both sides, and the aura decorated with the true grit and sense of patriotism that the BSF jawans exhibit, day in and day out. It made me wonder on the true meaning of feeling love and patriotism for one’s nation… is it by merely celebrating it at the border, or is it by celebrating it in every action we take as citizens?

Though the experience was unforgettable and emotional, I choose the latter, as my commitment to my homeland.

A day that was filled with visits to these unforgettable places, left me questioning the human value of life! How much do we value it? What is the value of the lives given by the martyrs of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre or the soldiers who die endlessly on the borders? Is it just worth the frenzied fervour that lasts for an hour? Or is it reduced to a day out in the sun on a winter morning? Or is it glorified by the sense of service that was omnipresent at the Golden Temple? Questions to ponder in the coming years as I discover the Buddha within!