Thursday, 4 October 2012


Watching the sun set on the Golden Temple. Photo: Kirsten Beavan
Amritsar: home of the Golden Temple and Jallianwala Bagh

We have just had our quarter break holiday, and we were lucky enough to be able to go to Amritsar in the Punjab region in the north west of India, which borders Pakistan.

The city is much like many other Indian cities; a buzzing, busy metropolis with hooting rickshaws, cars, hawkers and tourists vying for space in crowded streets.

Amritsar is famous for the Golden Temple, the Sikh Gurdwara considered holy by adherents of the religion, housing the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. It was fascinating to watch many Sikhs bathe in the water around the temple, and made us realise how important the theme of cleansing is to so many of the major world religions.

The queue to see the holy book was huge, so we gave that a miss, but enjoyed watching the sun set on the temple giving us a variety of golden hues to view.

In 1984 the temple was stormed as part of Operation Blue Star by the army on the orders of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after Sikh extremist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale took sanctuary there. This act was perceived as sacrilege by many Sikhs and led to assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards six months later.

Unproud Brit: Ed in Jallianwala Bagh in front of bullet pocked wall
Talking of Gandhis and shootings, we also went to the nearby Jallianwala Bagh Park. It was strange, as soon as I walked into the park it felt vaguely familiar, and then I read it featured prominently in the film Gandhi, and I realised I remembered it from the film. I was only about five when I saw it, but it had quite a profound impact on me, and I have vivid memories of it. I remember being really upset that this "good guy" Gandhi had been shot.

Somewhat unfortunately I was wearing a Union Jack T shirt in the park. This was not a place I felt proud to be British, as this was where on 13 April 1919 British forces opened fire on about 20,000 people in the park who were taking part in a public meeting there. This had followed a time of unrest in the city after an anti-British strike, encouraged by Mahatma Gandhi's peaceful resistence campaign.

It is estimated around 400 people died in the massacre ordered by British army chief Brigadier-General Reginald E.H. Dyer, who feared a major insurrection. You can still see bullet holes on the walls, and the martyrs well, which people jumped into to escape the shooting, but ended up drowning in.

In the museum there are photos and a letter from a group of Christians who are descended from the British soldiers involved in the massacre. Back in the 90s they came to repent in the park for the atrocities of their forefathers and seek forgiveness. This apology was accepted by the people of Amritsar which I found profoundly moving.

The park is lovely now and a memorial to this dreadful chapter in the history of the British Raj. Many Indian visitors there asked me for a photo with them, and we sat and enjoyed the peace watching squirrels and birds.

Bordering on the ridiculous?

We also drove up to Atari to the Indian/Pakistani border to watch the daily border closing ceremony. This was a truly bizarre experience, with crowds of Indian and Pakistanis seated in grandstands on either side of the border, watching soldiers marching up to the border line, like strutting peacocks, in a highly choreographed display.

It was like something from the Ministry of Silly Walks from Monty Python, the Indian soldiers actually touched their heads with their boots they raised them so high.

We were on the Indian side where people shouted "Hindustan Zindabad" ("Long Live India") while the Pakistanis were shouting Pak-is-tan.

It was interesting to observe the women on the Pakistan side all had their heads covered in Islamic garb...Kirsten got some great snaps of this (see below).

The Pakistani side, all the women with heads covered. Photo: KB

Although the atmosphere did not seem particularly hostile, it was hard to know what to make of this experience.

With relations between the two countries extremely low, one wonders how helpful this event is in improving Indo-Pakistani relations, and if they could do something more constructive instead?

There is a brusque handshake between the soldiers from both sides after the flags are lowered, but, continuing on a Monty Python theme, Michael Palin, when he visited as part of his travel programme, described the ceremony as "carefully coreographed contempt", which seems to sum it up well.

It's a shame there is not an opportunity for interaction between the people from both countries, as surely they have more in common through their shared history and humanity than what divides them.

Malls are cool, right?

I was delighted our hotel was right by a huge shopping mall. I have not been in such a cathedral of commercialism for almost a year...and I couldn't wait to get in there.

However, after our second trip there, I realised the local shopping experience we have here in the bazaar in Mussoorie is far superior.

One major problem was we got smothered by sales assistants in every shop we entered. Unfortunately, the stand offish "less is more" sales approach does not exist here, and meant the novely of the mall soon wore off.

But the mall's very existence, with shops including French Connection and Tommy Hilfiger, is testament to India's massive strides economically in the past 20 years. You couldn't even get imported food in India 20 years ago, Kirsten told me.

Lights, camera, action - message to my Dad

Finally, if you've forgotten what we look and sound like, here is a brief video we recorded for my Dad who was celebrating his 40th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood back in the UK, including a couple of outakes, Ed getting emotional and Kirsten holding the fort! Congratulations Dad!

Arriving home in an Ambassador taxi, another relic of the British, with schoolgirl looking on. Pic: Kirsten Marian Beavan

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