23 September 2009


the city of amritsar is in the punjab, in the northwest corner of india. punjabis are a proud people who travel all over the world, and many thing that people think of as indian are more specifically punjabi. a lot of the food, bhangra music, and especially the image of a turbaned man. most punjabis are of the sikh religion, which was created as a response to hinduism and islam, and tried to incorporate elements of both while also integrating principles of equality. the founders of sikhism were early proponents of equality, supporting the rights of women, untouchables and other minorities long before anyone in the West thought of it. they believe in one god, but also in karma and reincarnation, and they don't think we need a priest or intermediary to reach god. religious sikhs don’t cut there hair and wear turbans, so all the turbaned indian taxi drivers are punjabi sikhs. in general, sikhs are not tolerated in pakistan (most left for india at partition), but have generally gotten along very well in india. (there was a period where some militant sikhs wanted a separate country for themselves, called Khalistan (you can still see that written on the back of some taxis in the US), and there was an incident where prime minister indira ghandi, nehru’s daughter, sent in troops to quash an uprising in a heavy-handed way, and was subsequently assassinated by some of her sikh bodyguards.) despite that one incident, they are a proud and happy part of india’s pluralistic society.
we were only in amritsar for a couple days, but we saw some amazing sights. foremost is the golden temple, the most important sikh temple, built in the middle of an artificial lake, and covered in pure gold. it reflects off the water beautifully, and some say it is the 2nd loveliest building in india. we went inside and it was so powerful spiritually, they are constantly chanting from their books and playing music, and sikhs pilgrimage there from all over the world. it really was incredible in there, just sitting and taking in the religious devotion.
the next place we saw was the Mata (mother’s) Temple, built to a 20th century woman who was revered as a spiritual presence until her death just a few years ago. the temple is incredible, like nothing we’ve seen in india. it’s built to resemble a womb, you enter and there are a series of caves and tunnels and waterways to walk through. some passageways are so small you have to duck, maybe even crawl through, then they open into larger wombs, er, rooms. the walls are covered with pictures of deities and millions of tiny mirrors, and by the time you get out, you really feel like you’ve been rebirthed. apparently women go there from all over india to pray for children.
and finally we took a ride a few kilometers to the pakistani border, the only open border between the 2 countries, to watch the nightly border-closing ceremony. it felt like a sporting event; there were stands filled with supporters (on both sides), and patriotic chanting (hindustan zindabad! Jai Hind!). the border guards march up to each other, stand face to face, and scowl mightily at their counterparts on the other side.
you can see the border closing ceremony here.

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