Turbans Galore!!!

Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2007

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Flag of India  ,
Saturday, January 27, 2007

He Said:
After saying goodbye to Kristen, we headed out of Delhi on a morning train to Amritsar, the capital of the state of Punjab and the spiritual home to the Sikh religion. I visited Amritsar during my previous trip and had a few of my fondest experiences here. I was really looking forward to bringing Katie to this city.
Upon arriving Friday morning at the Delhi train station there was no question that our train was heading to Punjab, as at least 75% of the men waiting on the platform were wearing turbans. The turban is easily the most recognizable feature of men who are Sikhs, although not all practicing Sikh men follow the teaching to not cut their hair and wear a turban (it is a matter of personal choice). Since many people are not very familiar with Sikhism, here is a quick rundown:
Originally founded in Punjab by Guru Nanak in the late 1400's, Sihkism began as a reaction against some of the central teachings of Hinduism, primarily the caste system. Sihks believe in one god and their holy text is the Granth Sahib, which contains the teachings of the ten gurus (or prophets) of the faith.  It is a fundamental belief of Sikhs that absolute Truth is not the monopoly of a single religion, sect, or book, but instead is within everyone, and can only be brought out through a lifelong practice of "right action". Khalsa, another belief central to their teachings, is the belief that Sihks are a chosen group of "soldier-saints" abiding by strict moral codes in a crusade for righteousness. The most visible of the emblems of a person abiding by this are the uncut hair covered in a turban and unshaved beard (both symbolizing saintliness), the carrying of a small ceremonial dagger (symbolizing power and dignity), and wearing a steel bangle bracelet (symbolizing fearlessness). Besides their business acumen (Punjab is one of the richest states in India), the trustworthiness and warrior tradition of Sikhs is well known and they are often the obvious choice as bodyguards, and it is almost cliché for any reputable hotel in Asia to have a Sikh doorman.
Amritsar is the location of the Golden Temple complex, which is a courtyard of buildings surrounding a large pool. In the center of the pool sits the Har Mandar (Golden Temple), which is a richly decorated, gold covered shrine where the Granth Sahib is kept, and is the focal point for pilgrims and worshipers. The whole complex is stunningly beautiful. Like the Taj Mahal, it is a peaceful gem in an otherwise noisy, dirty city. Since they don't believe in any type of caste system (hereditary social class), a communal kitchen is a central part of any Sikh gurdwara (temple), and all persons of any faith or background are welcome to dine... for FREE. Of course Katie and I took advantage of this opportunity, and sat on the floor of the dining hall with hundreds of other pilgrims, and enjoyed a simple meal of dal (lentil soup) and chappatis (grilled bread). The temple complex and kitchen is run entirely by volunteers, and it was more than inspiring to see hundreds of people of all ages gladly helping cook, clean, and assist in the operation of the temple.
Besides the Golden Temple, Amirtsar is also the location of a park called Jallianwalla Bagh. In 1919, this park was the location of a gathering to protest the Rowlett Act, which gave British authorities power to imprison Indians without trial. British General Dyer commanded troops to fire upon the unarmed protesters, killing over 300 and wounding over 2000 persons. This was the precipitating event causing Gandhi to begin his campaign of civil disobedience, which 28 years later, resulted in India's independence. This event is heartbreakingly portrayed in the film "Gandhi".
The other big thing to do while in Amritsar is go to the border closing ceremony in the nearby town of Wagah. Despite the fact that India and Pakistan share a border of close to 1000 miles in length, Wagah is the only place where you can cross by land between the two nations. This animosity and tension between the two countries goes back to the partition that happened just after Indian independence from British rule. Both nations use the nightly event to fan the flames of nationalism and patriotism, as well as do a bit of heckling. At the border post, both nations have built large grandstands capable of seating the thousands of "fans" who come out nightly to witness the boot stomping, barking of orders, goose stepping, lowering of the national flags, and slamming the gates shut. I'm going to let Katie give the full description since I know she'll paint a far more vivid picture than I.
She Said:
After the 7-hour train ride to Amritsar, we quickly hopped in a taxi for the ride to the Pakistani border to see the border closing ceremony.  While this is usually a crowded event, it was extra packed, as it also happened to be Republic Day (Indian 4th of July). 
We were dropped off about a half mile from the border, and walked along the several layers of barbed wire and electric fencing with the rest of the crowd up to the border complex.  Border guards with bomb sniffing dogs pulled people aside carrying bags for security purposes...except these dogs were very cute yellow Labradors with wagging tails.  Instead of sniffing our bag, it rubbed up against our legs begging for a pet!
Both sides of the border were surrounded by huge grandstands that looked more like a football stadium than a border.  There were huge speakers blaring patriotic music, as well as an emcee leading the crowd in cheers in Hindi saying things like "Long live India!" and "India is great!".  The exact same cheering and chanting is happening simultaneously on the Pakistani side.  All of this really drove the crowds into a frenzy, particularly on the Indian side as people were feeling extra patriotic as it was Republic Day.  The emcee picked people out of the crowd to run up a down the road in front of the gate with the Indian flag. 
At precisely 5pm, Border Guards (who all happen to be extremely tall and well-built) in fancy uniforms (with "fan hats" - see pics), marched out and up to the border gate... and the crowd when wild cheering and hooting.  Similarly outfitted Pakistani Border Guards were doing the mirror image on the other side to a cheering crowd.  Then the gate opened, and the guards marched up toe-to-toe right along the border.  They faced off, and then both sides did a boot stomping march over to their respective flag poles to lower their flags at exactly the same time.  After a bit more marching and barking of orders, the gate was slammed shut, and the crowds on both sides rushed in to run up to the gate to heckle each other. 
I can't imagine anything like the happening in the US... there isn't really that kind of animosity and rivalry between the US and Canada... no one would show up!  It seems closer to the rivalry between Mets and Yankees fans... or what would exist if the state of Texas decided to succeed from the US and become its own country!
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