Thursday, July 17, 2014


By Maggie Krueger

Sweat is a very peculiar thing. As one collects precipitation pouring from any and every pore, eventually a chilling breeze causes the body to shiver. We become so damp from our own efforts of reducing bodily heat that finally we become assaulted in the other direction – a discomforting cool brought on even by the most humid of winds.

I cannot say I have ever experienced such a phenomenon before; nor can I say that I will again find a stage in my life worth suffering such a situation. But in this time and space of India, much is asked for and much forgiven, including the ever-constant smell of sweat on my clothes, mirrored by that of all my neighbors. There is nothing we can do and all of us are resigned, until the monsoon rains hit there is no point at politeness, trying to hide our communal pit stains that never elude us all.

Sweat is what I found in Amritsar, a small city in northwestern India, about 45 minutes from the Pakistani-Indian border. Founded in 1577 by a Guru of the Sikh religion, Amritsar is a fusion of peaceful religious sanctity and awe as well as solemn political battlegrounds, rot with atrocities of the past and looming future tensions.

To make the 10-hour journey by train was a feat in and of itself, but to wake up the next morning at 4 AM in a hotel promising air-conditioning that never came to ease our sleep was the real test of travel commitment.

Sikhism, with over 20 million followers worldwide, represents only 2 percent of India’s population. Nevertheless, the faith is still largely concentrated in the Indian state of Punjab, where the belief was founded in the 16th century. Sikhism was developed by the Guru Nanak, who was largely dissatisfied with the Muslim and Hindu religious practices of his time period in an area now apart of Pakistan. Inspired instead by a mixture of both faiths, a wholly independent form of religion was created emphasizing monotheism, rejection of caste inequalities, a belief in rebirth and karma, and most notably, serving others every day.

The Golden Temple sits in a large rectangular pool called Amrit Sarovar (Pool of Nectar) believed to have healing powers for those who bathe in its waters. Pilgrims walk across Gurus' Bridge to enter Hari Mandir Sahib, the holy shrine at the center of the pool. 
It is for the devotion of these beliefs, as well as others laid out in Sikhs’ holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, that over 70,000 pilgrims make their way to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, an enclosed temple complex that surrounds a large square pool – the Pool of Nectar, believed to have healing powers in which we witnessed men devotees bathing. In the middle of the pool, lying at the end of a causeway floats a small rectangle structure – the holiest of Sikh shrines called the Golden Temple. Not to be underestimated by its size, the shrine is covered in engraved gold panels and topped with a dome gilded with 750 kg (over 1,600 pounds) of gold. To make our way along this causeway over the water was an endeavor that took over 2 hours, even at the ripe hour of 4:30 AM. Suffocated amidst a crowd of thousands, sardined between two metal line dividers, we were corralled toward our destination in barefoot and covered heads – a Sikh custom for all devotes.

Hundreds of Pilgrams wash dishes for the Guru-Ka-Langar, a huge dining room that serves meals free of charge.
While the temple’s architecture and winding three-story staircase displayed a new level of mastered ornamentation all th
e way to the roof, what I found most mesmerizing was the sheer number of visitors and their actions of selflessness not before visiting the shrine, but after. Departing from the Golden Temple after the excruciatingly uncomfortable wait and undoubtedly a long pilgrimage, Sikhs do not go for rest but to the Guru-Ka-Langar, the Golden Temples enormous dining room that is visited by over 70,000 pilgrims daily. More often than not, this is not for the free meal offered at the Guru-Ka-Langar but to lend a hand at the chaos of dishwashing, garlic chopping, floor cleaning and many other kitchen tasks that we observed upon entry. Similar to a warehouse, industrial sinks and hundreds of thousands of metal plates and cups thrashed in soapy water, washed by determined hands from all over the world – living out their belief that any service to man is a service to God.

Within such a pious, devoted community in this temple complex, it was not lost on me the tragedy of alienation that so many Sikhs experience around the world. Often observed with turbans atop their heads, Sikhs cover their hair in a sign of respectability, and for this are often mistaken for Muslims – and even farther from the truth, as terrorist of the Taliban and other extremist groups. But to find a sanctuary from this sweeping ignorance in the town of Amritsar was fitting, as here one of India’s greatest sacrifices toward independence is memorialized.
Remaining Bullet Holes

Tucked away from the crowded streets, down a long, narrow alley where the sounds of auto rickshaw horns and bargaining vendors diminishes, is a courtyard surrounded by high walls – the site of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. During a gathering of over 5,000 Indian protester on April 13, 1919 after the recent introduction of the Rowlatt Act under British rule – giving authorities the power to imprison those suspected of sedition without trial – British General Reginald Dyer made orders for 150 troops to open fire on these non-violent protestors, killing about 400 people. Today this once-garden turned memorial literally encases the terror that occurred there; remnants of bullet holes from the attack are still maintained in many of the outer walls of the courtyard and one can look down the Martyrs Well, where hundreds jump down to their death, in hopes of avoiding the gunfire. Portrayed in the popular biographical film Gandhi, the Jallianwala Bagh Gardens is still a living, breathing place, where one goes to remember history, but also to take rest from Amritsar’s hot summer sun.

I share all these pieces of my very long day in Amritsar to explain that they all came full circle. Hours later, I found myself sitting at the edge of India, overlooking Pakistan, two countries so often separated by violence and distinction of identity. At the border crossing of Attari-Wagah, I would cheer in the Indian crowd of thousands, all attending what is called the Joint Retreat Ceremony of the Border Security Force (BSF). A cross between a sporting event, military showdown, and theatrical comedy, the Joint Retreat Ceremony’s main purpose is to close the Indian-Pakistani border for the night and lower the two nationals’ flags to their respective military personnel. What the event has become, however, is a kind of bizarre display of grandeur, meant in a form of jest but wrought (at least for me) in the real and lived tensions of violence and alienation experienced between these countries for decades. This production did not aim to necessarily ease tension or rivalry. While most patriotic visitors characterized the half hour’s worth of events by the loud Bollywood music that blares, the exaggerated military costume, or the competitive soldier “high-stepping” toward the border gate pitting a Pakistani and Indian eye to eye in an “acting” form of “sizing each other up,” what was so striking to me was the boundaries.
Elaborate dance and show of BSF Indian soldiers. 

As I sat sweating in the stands in the worst heat I have yet to experience in India, my eyes narrowed, focusing across the border, over the gate to the Pakistani audience that was flooding into their own mirror image stadium-like seating, waiting for the festivities. They, too, suffered under the excruciating temperatures, but more importantly, though their numbers smaller, they wanted a piece of celebrating their own patriotism for their country, even in such a strange platform.

At the end of the ceremony as I made my way closer to the border with crowds of other Indian pushing for an iconic border photo, I was feet away from Pakistani men and women doing the same. As an outsider, I look out at the other with no more searching for understanding than I looked on at their Indian neighbors – both cultures still so new and incomprehensible to me. But what was striking was observing Pakistanis and Indians doing the same, watching each other walk along their borders, noticing dress, expression, facial features all taken-in through a barrier they were not to cross. And in this process I knew I was not at a sporting event, a ceremony rooted in pomp and circumstance or a theatrical military production, but instead, in the eerie solemn of a once cheering crowd. Looking on, I was witnessing the breakdown of alienation – the painful, confusing, silencing experience of finding that the enemy is not quite so strange, not quite "other" and yet still knowing a separation exists from years of unforgivable sins.

There is rumor that someday soon the government may put an end to the Joint Retreat Ceremony – a costly, symbolic endeavor – a move I can not discern whether contentiously reasonable (considering the real, not theatric, tensions that do exist between the countries), or a bit tragic (removing one of the only safe places in which many Pakistanis and Indians come face to face). But what I hope of this diverse day of holy worship, historical remembrance, and lived apprehension is the preservation of facing otherness – whether divine, atrocious or tensely rivaling.

In these unknowns – unceasing worship, deplorable killing or a playful treatment of a dangerous country controversy -- we experience through the adversity and discomfort bridges– beacons of hope. Sarhad restaurant, on the outskirts of Amritsar heading toward the Pakistani border served to be just that. Sitting in solitude along the highway, surrounded by open grass fields, Sarhad is an experiment of peace both in its cuisine (an Indian-Pakistani mixture) and in its endeavor at quality and hospitality. It was in these moments at the restaurant, enjoying a nice meal among friends that we all were able to realize what we had seen, how we had felt and that we too had become ambassadors for overcoming boundaries in what we had visit. In witness otherness from our beliefs, histories and cultures the experience had now become a piece of us. And for this purpose, we don’t mind “sweating it.”

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