Bordering on the absurd
In the border city of Amritsar, India and Pakistan meet in a place neither Hindu nor Muslim. Here, like a no-man's land between sworn enemies, sits the holiest of Sikh sites, the Golden Temple.
Dominating the city much as the Taj Mahal overshadows Agra, the Golden Temple has turned Amritsar into an island of Sikhism. The city takes its name from the temple's holy Amrit Sarovar pool, and though Sikhs make up only 2 per cent of the Indian population, they represent about two-thirds of Amritsar's million residents. Turban-sporting pilgrims flow in and out of the city like a tide.
I arrive amid the flow on a sweltering summer morning. At the Golden Temple's eastern entrance I slip on a baseball cap - temple laws decree all visitors must cover their heads - remove my shoes and wash my feet, a temple regulation that is also a blessed relief on this 40-degree-Celsius day. Inside, I join the faithful as they make their clockwise circumambulations of the Amrit Sarovar pool. Song fills the temple grounds, so constant I assume it to be recorded.
On an island in the pool, glowing as bright as the sun above, sits the Golden Temple. Surrounding the pool is a white colonnade; clock towers rise from its northern and southern walls and two minarets from its eastern wall in a blurring of architecture that seems appropriate to this city pinched between religions and lands.
I join the throng of pilgrims queueing to enter the temple, its marble wrapped in sheets of gold. For 30 minutes we edge towards it; it's the most orderly line I've ever encountered in India. Nearby, pilgrims bathe in the Amrit Sarovar, goldfish swimming among them. Playful voices call me to join them in the pool and in the heat I'd like nothing more, though it might invite too many stares.
In the gem-studded interior of the temple, as golden inside as out, three Sikh musicians sit on the floor, two with keyboards, one on drums, playing the endless, unrecorded song.
Wandering back past the pool, I seem to shake hands with the entire Amritsar population. I'm introduced to babies, grandfathers and mothers. I'm the tourist attraction, and it's only later, on my fourth visit to the temple, that three local boys - one Christian, one Hindu, one Sikh and all friends - tell me a baseball cap is not suitable temple headwear. At the least, I should be wearing a handkerchief on my head.
In my earlier visits I'd chatted with dozens of people, even the guards - the Baba - who enforce temple rules, but they were all too polite to mention my faux pas. 'It's because you're a visitor,' the boys say. 'If we wore caps, Baba would beat us.'
In the welcoming embrace of the temple it seems absurd that there might be a tense border just down the highway, except that for many of us - pilgrim and tourist - the border is half the fun of Amritsar. When the day is done, the greatest show in town is at the border gates of Wagah.
The road to Wagah is lined with rice fields, reception centres and gun emplacements. A tank decorates a roundabout on the road out from the city, and I'm far from alone on the highway, squeezed in among other taxis, rickshaws, bicycles, even tractors, all heading in the same direction. People are going in their thousands for the nightly closing of the border.
Outside the border gates there is a carnival atmosphere. Music blares and stalls run a brisk trade in popcorn and Indian flags. The crowd funnels through an airport-style security machine, but even when it bleeps nobody is stopped. Finally, the crowd tires of the wait and surges around the device. The guards watch us pass.
As we hurry for the grandstands it's a virtual stampede. Fall and I will be trampled. Why I'm even in the crowd I'm not certain: as a foreign visitor I don't have to fight for a spot in the stands. I can simply saunter into the VIP section closest to the border gate.
Across in Pakistan there are two more grandstands - men in one, women in the other. They are smaller than the stadium-sized structures on the Indian side but they are also full, and it's difficult to shake the feeling that a cricket match is about to begin. On each side of the border the crowd is driven towards a frenzy by a warm-up man, the Pakistani wearing his national flag and the Indian leading an endless chant of 'Hindustan, Hindustan!' Pakistan's national anthem floats into India but it's a sombre retort to the virtual disco now taking place on this side of the border. Behind the stand I notice Indian police doing star jumps and run-throughs in preparation for their big moment on the international stage.
The ceremony begins in ad hoc fashion. Indian boys, then men, run past the stands to the border gate, waving large flags and taunting the Pakistanis, all to the cheers of the Indian crowd. Suddenly, the Indian Border Security Force is ready and arrayed on the steps of its office. Moustaches are waxed, backs are erect. A hunting bugle sounds from Pakistan and a challenging cry is issued from each side.
Two Indian guards march to the closed border gate and half-a-dozen more step into exaggerated stride behind them. Back and forth they go, goading their Pakistani counterparts in what is supposed to be a display of national bravado, but which reminds me of Monty Python.
One guard from each country breaks away from the main group, rushing to the gates and throwing them
open. There's a brusque handshake between the purported enemies and the gates are slammed shut again. Other guards advance in heavy goosesteps, making charge upon charge at the border until everyone has strutted his stuff. There's the opening of the border gates and the slamming of the border gates, all with beautifully choreographed fury.
Finally, the two national flags are lowered in unison. They are marched away, safe for another day as a golden dusk falls over the desert lands beside the golden city.
Getting there: Amritsar is 450km northwest of Delhi. Indian Airlines (www.indian-airlines.nic.in) flies from Delhi to Amritsar and the comfortable Shatabdi Express train also makes the journey (at six hours). The MK Hotel (www.mkhotel.com) is Amritsar's finest, though a little out of town.