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March 6, 2020
Amritsar has an identity that is unchangeably intertwined with the glorious Golden Temple – that holiest of Gurdwaras, the Sri Harmandir Saheb. The place where every day, a hundred thousand people, irrespective of cast, creed or race come together in peace and quiet to find spiritual solace, bowing their heads before the Guru Granth Sahib in abject surrender.
And then there’s the other side of Amritsar. Where pomp, ceremony and pride reign supreme, where power is everything and rivalry and aggression are the prevailing theme. The Attari/Wagah border, where the boundary of India meets Pakistan, is barely 29 kilometers away from the Golden Temple, and it’s the place where again, every caste and creed comes together in the thousands, but here, every head is held high and surrender is unthinkable.
Two experiences that are diametrically opposite in nature but are on the agenda of every visitor to Amritsar, two experiences I had on the same day – a morning of serenity with my head bowed in prayer, and an evening of ceremony with my head held high with pride. Both moving experiences in their own way, and both bringing thousands of people together in harmony.
The morning at Harmandir Sahib was a humbling experience. The half an hour or so of queuing up on the causeway to enter the sanctum-sanctorum was enlivened by the devotional kirtans being sung over the loudspeakers, and often by my fellow devotees in the queue. Everyone waited patiently, no one pushed or shoved, and I was happy to watch the pilgrims who were taking a dip in the Amrit Sarovar while we waited. The actual sanctum was sublime – the ardaas was just over when I entered and the kirtan had begun again. Walking up one flight of steps, I discovered that you can sit by one of the little windows that look down into the sanctum, and spend as much time as you like imbibing the spiritual vibrations of the place. Some people had prayer books to sing along, but many were mouthing the lyrics from apps on their mobile phones, lost in devotion and oblivious to everyone around them. It was true faith and genuine love that was on display that morning – the kind of humility that comes from complete surrender.
And then there was the evening at Wagah! The India – Pakistan border at Attari/Wagah witnesses a sunset ceremony every evening which is watched by thousands of Indians and Pakistanis, each sitting on their respective side of the border. Wholly orchestrated and choreographed to whip up the passions of the onlookers, the ceremony is ostensibly meant to be the beating of the retreat – the lowering of the flags of both countries at sunset. This happens in the narrow strip of no man’s land that is located between the two gates. The flag lowering was somber enough but the pantomime of posturing that lead up to it was colourful in the extreme! The prelude to all this was a master of ceremonies on either side who exhorted the crowds to shout jingoistic slogans in what was essentially a shouting match between the two countries. Patriotism was blatant, and passions ran high as cries of Vande Mataram rent the air and the tricolor was waved everywhere. Then came the men and women of the BSF, in their elaborate ceremonial uniforms, complete with the crested red headdress. With exaggerated movements and impossibly high leg kicks, they performed a blustering series of choreographed movements which brought delighted roars of appreciation from the onlookers. A similar spectacle unfolded on the other side of the gate, performed by the Pakistani Rangers. At the end of it, every Indian head was held high with pride.
It was a lot to take in on one day, but the commonality between these two diverse experiences was unity – a unity that was easy to achieve. Caste and creed are forgotten when the object is common, and here were two diametrically opposite situations where, whether the head was bowed in surrender or held high in pride, the crowd was one in thought and object.