Wagah Border

Ok this post is approximately one month late. Truth is that I’d thought this up almost a month back – in fact more than a month back, as I got my ass roasted by the hot concrete galleries while waiting for the flag-down ceremony to begin at the Wagah Border. My mind had then gone back to the old IITM chant “start the f***ing show”, but given that I couldn’t actually utter those words, I’d thought up this blog post instead. I had constructed each and every sentence of how I was going to write this. It was a maze of thoughts. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten most of it until I’d gotten back to Delhi two days later – which was when I had access to the net.

I attempted to write this post back when I was in Delhi, but couldn’t get beyond a paragraph. What I had written would never measure up to what I’d constructed in my head on that day at the Wagah, and I kept scrapping it. But then, there’s a story to be told, so I think it’s time I tell the story, “in my own words”.

Ok so now that I’ve gotten beyond two paragraphs, the rest of this should flow, hopefully. It was a hot and crowded afternoon. There were three stalls, and one had been kept closed. People were piled into the other two stalls – one for ladies and one for men. It was as hot as a Punjabi summer afternoon could get. The concrete benches were all heated up, and there were the military men who were exhorting people to sit down and get their asses roasted.

And there was the master of ceremonies. One man in plain clothes with a mic. Periodically he’d surface and shout slogans, which the over-enthusiastic crowd would complete. He would drag young women out of their stands and make them run around the place with the National Flag, which they enthusiastically did. He would wave his hands as if his repressed dream was to be a band conductor, and people would tone up or tone down their cheers.

And the people! It was incredible. I had never known that the Indian mango man could be so enthusiastic. There seemed to be something special in the air as everyone shouted and cheered, and danced and swung, as the patriotic songs blared and the master of ceremonies waved his hands around. People seemed to be remembering their mis-spent youths and trying to re-live it in the name of patriotism. It was like going back to one of those wonderful inter-school cul-fests. The kind of enthu seen at the Wagah Border would put the Saarang Pro-shows to shame.

Sadly, it had no effect on me. I stood by myself, in one corner, bored, and observing the people. Maybe it was a good thing that I was bored, since I managed to get my thoughts in order – though I was to subsequently forget them. Music was blaring, people were shouting, but it didn’t seem to make any sense to me. We were there to witness a military parade, which I thought was a fairly solemn occasion. And here you had people who were “letting go” like nobody’s business. Maybe I’ve become too cynical. Maybe a certain libertarian-leaning group that I’m part of is having too much of an influence on me.

I was a reluctant visitor to the border. I didn’t want to go. The reason I was at Amritsar was to see the Golden Temple and thulp the food that I’d heard so much about. Wagah wasn’t part of my plans. My mother, however, had other ideas. For some reason, she had happened to really enjoy the border parade when she had visited there six years back along with my father. And she wanted me to “experience this experience”. While we were driving back, however, she admitted that the show wasn’t as spectacular as it was six years ago.

In the beginning of the post, I had mentioned ot you that I’d wanted to chant an IITM chant. Once the “show” started, another favourite IITM chant came to my head. “STOP the f***ing show”. It was drab and boring. Say what you want, but I somehow don’t find the idea of a bunch of armymen marching and performing drills exciting. And it can be consumed in small doses only. To their credit, the show at Wagah wasn’t too long – it lasted only for about half an hour or so.

However, given the conditions (crowd, weather, etc.) it didn’t turn out to be a pleasant experience. The idea of going to the border to watch the ceremonies was so not worth it. Only a couple of days earlier, I had read about the Hillsborough tragedy, and given the way the crowd was pushing and jostling and continued to pour in after the stands were full brought up thoughts of an encore. At one point, I even left  my prized spot in one of the stands in order to go to the relative safety of the ground outside the stands. I only went back in after they opened the third stand (which had been closed till half an hour before the show) and could find a relatively peaceful spot to stand there.

I don’t think I’ve documented all that I’d thought of when I stood there in that relatively peaceful spot in that third stand. I’ll probably make a separate post out of all that if I do manage to remember it sometime.

The Mata Temple in Amritsar

It seems to be a slightly obscure temple. I don’t think it is on the map of most tourists who visit Amritsar. Or maybe with the increasing breed of auto drivers turned tour guides, it is now. The Lonely Planet Guide to India calls it the “Mata temple”. Locals call it the “vaishno devi temple”. The Lonely Planet guide says it is a must-visit for women who want to get pregnant. Anyway, we went. On the way back from our trip to the Wagah border.

It is an interesting temple, to say the least. The ground floor seems to be a normal temple, but the presiding deity is an old bespectacled woman in a sari which made me think that it is dedicated to some cult. Apparently not, and this is the way that Vaishno Devi is represented in most places (that is what my mother tells me). The ground floor is again noisy as most north indian temples are. As I enter, I notice this staircase that says “vaishno devi cave” or some such thing. And I go upstairs.

The first floor of the temple has been designed with The Crystal Maze (remember that awesome TV show on Star Plus?) in mind. I don’t know if it was designed that way to attract children, or if they actually decided to model the place after some famous temples, or if they just made it that way to make the place more interesting.

So in order to reach the shrine of the main deity (again a Devi), you need to go through a large number of “tasks”. You need to climb up and down a total of three flights of stairs each way (I think I counted it right). And then there is a stretch where the ceiling is so low that you need to crawl on all fours to get past. And you need to get past a blabbering madman (an employee of the temple) in order to stand in a queue – which leads into a second cave.

This second cave has ankle-deep water, and you need to wade through that. i was wearing cargo pants whose legs could be detached at the knees, but then I was afraid of misplacing them so just rolled them up. And while you were wading through the water, you had people who started shouting slogans in favour of the Mata. Death only it was. But at the end of the passage where you waded through the water, there was a wonderful sight. A one of a kind.

There was a statue of udders of a cow, and placed directly below that was a statue of a snake, and a lingam. Interpret this ensemble in whatever way you like. I first told my mother that this was a good way of ensuring middleman-less ksheeraabhishekam. Anyways we noticed people in front of us touching the udders and the lingam and the snake (yes, unlike most temple deities, these things were available for touching for general public).

When my turn came, not knowing how to handle it, I ended up groping the udders. And then stroked the lingam below. It’s been a week since we visited that temple, but my mother is yet to stop ragging me about what I did there.

That turned out to be the last of the “adventures” as we soon came to the main deity. The pujaris there gave us kadlepuri (puffed rice) as prasad, and put some saffron marks on our foreheads (eccentrically). And we were soon back downstairs enduring the noise of the main temple.

Amritsar Update

Got back last night after a short 2-day trip to Amritsar. It was an interesting trip, I must say. Got a lot of fodder for blog posts, but unfortunately I seem to have forgotten most of it, and hence this short summary post. I seriously need to buy a dictaphone with speech-to-text capability. I would observe stuff, and quickly construct a blog post in my head. Unfortunately, I can’t write or type on phone as fast as i can think (i can type on comp at the speed of thought which is why i can blog decenly) so all that construction seems to have gone waste.

If at any point of time, I can remember what I was planning to write, I’ll write. Else unfortunately such great thoughts and essays will be lost to humanity. I still kinda remember what i want to write ABOUT – problem is I’ve forgotten the contents of the essay. So I want to write a commentary on the end-of-day proceedings at the wagah border. I want to write about this awesome temple in Amritsar, which among other things features a carving of a cow’s udders, and directly underneath are statues of a snake and a lingam.

I want to write about the magnificent gore of the Sikh museum, and of the magnificent letdown that was the Maharaja Ranjit Singh museum. I want to write about the assembly lines that operate in the langar at the Golden Temple, about the transportation infrastructure in amritsar, about how the Punjoos in Amritsar are very unlike Punjoos elsewhere.

Tangentially, I need to write about the damage to children’s learning of history caused by Hindi textbooks (I was thinking about this when looking at the gore in the Sikh museum). About the magnificent street food of Amritsar. Ok now Ive forgotten the other topics also. This is like ideas literally slipping away from your fingers before you document them.

Traveled both ways on the Swarna Shatabdi. Return trip cost 75 bucks more than onward trip. Don’t know why – maybe it’s because they served dinner. Stayed at Hotel CJ International which is 100m away from the Golden Temple. First time I used Lonely Planet to find a restaurant and it was a bloody good recommendation. Read half of Nilekani’s Imagining India during the trip. Need to blog about that too.