Cheng Chin Yuen

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Amritsar (28th April – 1st May 2006)

Amritsar didn’t really get off to a good start when the trishaw rider cursed us loudly for not paying him 10 rupees more than the agreed 20. It was a tough ride through the pollution and we got off and walked when the gradient got too steep for him to cycle. I would have paid him a tip if he hadn’t demanded it first. Such are the minor hassles of traveling in India. A Sikh man came up to us to help resolve the conflict, speaking kindly to the wallah who shouted ‘You Go!’ after a while. So we went. At least someone came to our aid almost immediately.

Amritsar is the holy city of the Sikhs with the Golden Temple as her religious heart pulsating with the prayers of thousands of pilgrims. They trickle in at every hour of the day, even those very wee ones, where some one I know well religiously goes to wee. Besides the beauty of the Golden Temple, which erupts from the middle of a placid pond larger than a football field, I like the soundness of the Sikh philosophy dictated by the 10 Gurus. Guru Nanak was the first up and one of the first things he did was to abolish the caste system*. Next was to recognize and respect all religions. He also emphasized the importance of hard work. Try finding a Sikh beggar in India! The last Guru wisely said that there would not be any more after him to add to the numerous rules in the four very thick and big holy books. Everyday, these sacred text are read, chanted and broadcast in the Golden Temple from 4.30am to 10.30pm. Before the chanting, the marble floor of the temple is given a scrub with cow’s milk. The Golden Temple is accessible only by a causeway where the queue is well regulated in a circuit by the temple guards. You tend to listen to them. They have gruff voices and carry swords, spears and daggers to emphasize the point. Guns are for whims and sticks or lathis for the police. Fearless Indian aunties with some mysterious inborn immunity, still shovel and push the second the barriers are lowered.

*The Caste System – Think of this as a rather inflexible hereditary specialisation of labour. If your dad was a cobbler, you will be a cobbler. You will not step on the shadow of a dude from higher caste, say a priest. The priest’s son will go to the village RI. You will not go to school. Your shack will be downstream from his house so you will get the honour of seeing his shit bobbing past your laundry area. Wander into the temple at his prayer time and you get lead poured down your ears. The lowest class shouldn’t even be seen, smelt or touched thus earning them the ‘Untouchables’ category. It’s quite unlike the gun-slinging heros in the 1987 movie. Read Rohinton Mistry’s ‘A Fine Balance’ to get a little insight into the ‘salted vegetable life’ of these people who make up roughly 14 percent of India’s population. That’s just 60 million folks by the way.

The Temple of Gold

Most pilgrims buy some offerings of a sweet paste and flowers before they hit the causeway. These come directly proportional to the size of your donation at the ‘offering counters’ near the start of the causeway. The cash registers at separate booths seem to ensure that your donation does not end up as baksheesh in the wrong pockets. Sensibly, these are collected and recycled before entering the golden chamber where they are exchanged for a handful of sweets which take the form of tiny popcorn. Before entering the dazzling sanctum, the pilgrims get down on their hands and knees and bow their foreheads to the marble floor.

In the heart of the temple are a tabla-harmonium duo, the four holy book readers and a couple of singers responsible for the live broadcast. All have proud beards and a turban to match. Not everyone is allowed the honour of reading the books. You have first got to be a temple member and then wait in a 10 to 12 year queue. The stars of the day are surrounded by pilgrims baking under the tungsten bulbs of the chandeliers. The chamber is packed and we have just enough time for the ‘golden-ness’ of the temple to sear itself in our memories before being ushered out to the rear of the temple. Here the faith overcomes all laws governing personal hygiene. The pilgrims walk down to the water’s edge and gulp a handful of the greenish water. I guess its ok because hundreds of fat fish survive in the pond and the bathing takes place only at its edges. There are also plenty of toilets in the temple hostels.

Temple-rary Lodgings

We are staying in Ram Das Niwas, one of the four huge 3-storey pilgrim hostels in the temple compound. It is donation-based and full of life which bustles excitedly from 4am to well past midnight. There is no silent mode. The temple is rich (and organised) enough to own a fleet of buses to ferry incoming pilgrims from the train station for free. Many are happy simply to be here and sleep out in the open in the central courtyard. Foreign travelers are all quarantined in a corner dormitory equipped with lockers and one bathroom. I am thankful for this. Many pilgrims are very inquisitive and interested in us. The 15th “Hello, Where from? How do you like this place? How are you feeling? Can you take a snap with us? Etc” can be mentally grinding. There is also a formidable Sikh bouncer outside our quarters 24/7. He holds a spear with one hand and his beard in the other. He effective plays the dual role of ensuring our safety during our stay and ‘extracting’ our donations before we depart. Their colour is saffron and blue, saffron being the clolour of martyrs which the Sikh history is full of. Just across our dorm is a noticeboard with mugshots of thieves who were caught stealing. They hold a placard with their names scribbled on it. All of them, young and old look extremely glum. At least they are alive. The Amritsar massacre site is less than 400 metres away and the Temple itself was razed and rebuilt several times.

Here I met a Canadian who has been travelling for 4 years flying only twice in this period. He’s finally going home in December to attend his sister’s wedding. He could never understand why his sister chose to get married during winter where outside temperatures are cold enough to freeze all exiting pee instantly. The other amazing fellow I met is Yuya, a Jap who found himself stuck in Katmandu when the problems started. The strikes paralyzed all outward bound transport so our man bought a bicycle and pedaled to Delhi. ‘Bicycle not very good!’ He said to me, pointing to the raffia reinforcements he had to make to the seat and mud-guards. Yuya has been on the go for 2 years, leaving Japan on his birthday which fell on the day we met in Amritsar. Being a cook by former profession, he is one of the rare Japanese travellers who fondly remembers dishes like laksa, nasi lemak, bak kut teh, satay and chicken rice. Our love for food and bicycles made us fast friends and he invited me to visit him in Hokkaido in 2008. By then he would have opened his guesthouse and restaurant. His bicycle is going to take him through Pakistan and China in his remaining months of travel. We talked late into the night in quiet voices drunk on the nostalgia of good food back home while the rest slept despite the unceasing and often noisy pilgrim arrivals.

Feeding Time

On our first night, we had dinner in the Free Kitchen, a corner building the size of our average neighbourhood community club. I am impressed again by the system. At the first station, we are handed a steel plate with 4 partitions, then a bowl at the next and finally a teaspoon at the last before we enter the dining hall where everyone is seated in neat rows on the floor. Dinner is chapatti, spiced rice, an unsightly but tasty lentil stew and a bowl of water. Sikh men and young boys serve the food from buckets and refills are unlimited. One man tells us that there is a chapatti-making machine that churns out 600 chapattis a minute! We later got to see the monster which occupied a large part of the kitchen with its network of chapatti-laden conveyor belts. Cleaners sweep and mop the marble floor between the hungry human waves. A French lady I met earlier told me that the temple feeds 50,000 people daily. Whatever the correct figure, it is a sizable hungry crowd which perhaps explains the relatively beggar-free streets. It was nice to eat with a couple of hundred other people, all momentarily equalized by a meal on the floor. The bowl was for the water that was poured from watering cans. Dinner goes down quickly and the next batch is soon lined up and ready. The second night saw the same dinner minus the spiced rice. Fearing that the next would be even one dish less, we didn’t make a hat-trick of free dinners. We found out later that a pickle dish was added to the original fare that night*!

*The night I missed the third Free Kitchen dinner, I ate a mutton curry which the rest of my stomach didn’t really welcome. By the time I realised that I had to let it all out, I was on a 5.5 hour bus-ride to Jammu. Of course there was no toilet on the bus. There were no shops along the highway. I wasn’t quite ready to offer my fellow passengers their first glimpse of my Singaporean backside so I crammed my butt cheeks together and pinched my tummy. It seemed to stop the rush…for another painfully long 15 minutes during which we still hadn’t arrived. The sludgy situation is getting a bit out of butt. I took out one of the more sturdy plastic bags I had. I looked to the rear of the bus. It was quite full. I would definitely be seen and smelt if the molten mutton was ejected behind seat number 40. Some fervent pilgrim must have been on the same vehicle as just then, when all hope of saving face was lost, the bus drew up at the shoulder. A man got off. There was a row of shops. I ran off the bus into the nearest shop. It was a tiny Dhaba (eatery) with no one but the boss who shouted ‘NO TOILET!’ when I shouted ‘TOILET!?!’ The floodgates were bursting as I ran and exploded between the last row of tables. There were 4 tables in the Dhaba (That means 2 very short rows). The poor owner decrescendoed a heartwrenching ‘NOOOOOOOOooooooooo…’ (Something like the screaming hero who falls off a cliff in the movies) while my bag began to fill up fast catching every blob and drop. If you are experienced enough, you would know that the blobs actually came faster than the drops in times like these. It was one of the most memorable and satisfying shitting episodes ever! After the final wipes, I returned smiling to a bus full of shocked Indians after apologizing to the owner who was graciously forgiving after a quick look to the rear of his Dhaba. It was a clean job. It was only after two less dramatic purges in a much more condusive area was the serial shitting finally over.

Washing Up

The washing of the utensils is done by heaps of volunteers organised over four long troughs. The efficient specialisation of labour (sorting, clearing the leftover bits, rinsing, soaping, scrubbing, final rinsing, drying and stacking) is clangy and continuous and the thousands of utensils are towed to the distribution points in large crates to the start of the feeding cycle where newcomers are already bowing their heads at the doorstep in gratitude.

Our 3-night stay in the temple compound exposed us to the open hospitality of the Sikhs. Housing and feeding us and the thousands of others truly seemed to be their pride and pleasure. The pathway leading up to the Free Kitchen is lined with beggars and the homeless. Hostel accommodation is donation-based and there is no entry fee to the Golden Temple that provides the much needed tranquility from the traffic tragedy outside.


The other spectacle that draws tourists to Amritsar is the border ceremony at Attari, 45km to the west at the India-Pakistan checkpoint. Hooking up with Monica and Marylyn at the Niwas, we shared a mini-van to the daily episode. Crammed in with the four of us were four more Indian tourists and it took two running starts to get us moving. True to Indian tolerance, none of us complained about the squeeze and the sweat. There was no smell. Contrary to all the cruel things being said about the legendary Indian smell, I have not got a whiff on all my long and countless journeys on overcrowded buses and trains in the past 4 months! Neither did the Indian couple who had ‘cho-ped’ the front seats punched the driver when he unceremoniously asked them to relinquish their seats for the two Caucasian women. Such is the tolerance level in India and basically that is how 1 billion of them live together.

We didn’t get very far before we were stopped by a Sikh cop. A flurry of heated Hindi exchanges did nothing to help us understand the situation until the driver pointed to his seatbelt and waved his hand in the air as if to say, ‘Oh Come ON, WHO in India wears a seatbelt! Look at that guy there and there and there and there and there and there! (as the countless cars overtook us with their angry honking)’ The cop was insistent and soon our driver stepped out of the van for further negotiations. I expected a full blown argument at this ‘injustice’. It is true that drivers and seatbelts have absolutely nothing to do with each other in India. It’s the same with helmets and motorbikes. Riding an Enfield Bullet (local version of a Harley) with a helmet on would be deemed a disgrace! Somewhere in the middle of those few seconds of dramatic bickering, a note was swiftly passed to the cop who made it disappear at such a speed that I had to check with Karen that I was not imagining the transaction. So the driver’s getting out of the van was to facilitate this sleight of hand! I wondered if the cop had enough time to check the denomination of the note. With 8 pairs of tourist eyes staring, he had to be quick. The baksheesh (or bribe) got us released immediately with what appeared to be a stern verbal warning from the cop followed by the submissive pretense of draping the limp seat belt over his shoulder on our driver’s part. Cops after all had to be given some surface measure of respect in public. The driver gave us all a knowing smile and a shrug that said ‘Well, my unlucky day, there goes 5% of my earnings from you blokes, let’s get on with the bloody journey!’ Needless to say, the seatbelt was returned to its rightful position a few hundred meters onwards.

The Attari border closing ceremony is a playful good-natured nationalistic rave attended daily by a crowd of about 4000 with Indians taking up the vast majority. There are permanent concrete grandstands for the ceremony where the cheering, screaming, flag-waving rowdy mess of young and old show how proud they are to be part of Hindustan. At the Pakistani end, the grandstand is smaller and not so grand. It is also subdivided to separate the sexes. The turnout is unflattering and the conservative crowd is only half as wild. It was good to be on the Indian side.

At the center of the ceremony were the soldiers from the Border Security Force whose main criteria for enlistment is probably height. All of them were at least a towering 1.85 meters! Unlike many of the other soldiers, they looked fit, wore their immaculate uniforms smartly, had no pot-bellies and wore a look that matched their macho motto – ‘Duty Unto Death’. They were the military elite who did dangerous time at the volatile border. They were also the ones activated to restore order during Indira’s State of Emergency. They were also they giants in charge of this comical ceremony made taller by the red fans on their headgear.

To close the border for the day, these BSF men and their Pakistani counterparts go through a half hour routine just to close the gates and lower the flags. Mirroring each other, a group of 7 men execute a precise marching drill at turbo speed. Their long legs make them move at surreal speeds. When they come to attention, their legs kick up to face level (surpassing the antics of the Russian and German WW2 armies) and then stamp down with such unnecessary force that would surely hurt all the joints in their legs. Facial expressions range from sulky to overly serious to angry to scowling all aimed at intimidating the fellow across the border. The rapturous audience was treated to forceful rifle drills, the playing of a small bugle and an elaborate exchange of salutes before the ropes from the respective flagstaffs were untwined, crossed and the flags diagonally lowered in synchrony. The flags and colours were swiftly folded, unnaturally borne in outstretched arms and forced marched to their holding rooms. This exaggerated display of movement and false aggression by India’s finest soldiers is more comic than imperious and it is almost unbelievable that they perform this vigorous charade twice a day, everyday.

The performance today may have been a watered down a notch. In the past, the guards used to make funny faces and lewd postures (like showing their bums, unexposed) at one another to ‘antagonize’ each other all the name of good humour…so the VCDs in the tout stands shows. It is heartening to know that India-Pakistan relations are at present the best ever.

The audience join in the fanfare with flag relays up and down to the Pakistani gate and loud cheerings of ‘Hindustan! Zindabad’ (Motheland Forever!) They seem to have only one cheer though. The majority just make a lot of noise and wave little plastic flags of India bought from the touts that line the road to the border as men, women and aunties do their runs with a giant flag of India. After the flag has been kept, bhangra dancing starts on the street and the crowd from both grandstands surge towards the closed gates like long lost friends to wave and take photos of each other. When you see a scene like this you wonder how the two nations can ever be at war.

The conversation we had with Monica and Marylyn on the way back was hilarious. Monica told us about the time Angelina Jolie came to stay at the hotel she was working in. She had to provide room service and pretend that she didn’t know who the superstar was. More important was the discovery that Jolie was nowhere as tall as Lara Croft and certainly nowhere as big. She also did tip. Marylyn has been traveling and working for 4 years and told us about her stint as a videographer in China. She coined the term ‘sweatshop cinema’ after seeing how the filmmakers and actors exploit the Chinese with 18 hour days and comparatively meager meals and pay packets. They are paid 5 USD per day while the rates in the States are 10 USD per hour. She was particularly impressed with the industry of the Chinese people. ‘They work 18 hour days and you can call them at the 18th hour and they will still come running.’ The only two actors who treated the Chinese with respect were Collin Chou (Seraph, Oracle’s bodyguard in The Matrix) and a Jap actor. She also talked about actresses who were so self-conscious that they constantly sought confidence from others and they would not give interviews without make up on. Stardom has made them forgot the fact that they were actually more beautiful before the makeup.


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