Friday, 12 September 2014

Incredible India: Part 3: Amritsar – Jallianwala Bagh and the Border with Pakistan

world-map amritsar Greetings!

This week we’re still in Amritsar, but going beyond the precincts of the Golden Temple to some of the other local sights. One was hard for me to take: Jallianwala Bagh, the site of one of the worst atrocities committed by the British. How strange to think that less than a century ago my country controlled much of the globe, its flag flying proud and high yet next week the very future of that entity known as the United Kingdom is in great doubt. Will the Union Jack be flying anywhere in a year’s time, let alone in Amritsar. I for one hope that the Scots see that it is always better to co-operate rather than separate oneself from a neighbour, but the romantic attractions of nationalism are strong. After seeing what it has done to the Balkans however, it is a brew that I can never partake in. Still, every cloud has a silver lining: if they do vote ‘Yes’ next week, then at least I can say that Uncle Travelling Matt has visited another country.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

map_india_northwest 2


I did not leave the Golden Temple complex immediately when I finally arose from my meditations, but instead checked out the Central Sikh Museum above the main entrance, a collection of paintings and artefacts connected with the Gurus and a host of martyrs depicted dying horrible deaths, usually at the hands of the Mughals. Then I went outside to buy some mementoes of my visit including a plastic bottle which I filled with water from the Amrit Sarovar to give to my Sikh students who, of course, had no way of visiting the temple for themselves in their present condition.1

Having seen the Golden Temple, I now moved onto Amritsar's other main site of significance, a site sacred to all Indians for very different reasons than the Hari Mandir Sahib. Anyone who has ever seen the film 'Gandhi' will be familiar with what happened at Jallianwala Bagh.

On the 13th April, 1919, a crowd of over 5,000 Indians were holding a peaceful demonstration against the recent passing of the controversial Rowlatt Act which gave the British the powers to imprison Indians without trial. The demonstration was in Jallianwala Bagh, a large open space surrounded by high walls. Fearing that things might turn violent, the local British commander, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, entered the compound with a hundred and fifty troop and gave the order to open fire. Six minutes later, more than four hundred were dead and one thousand five hundred wounded. It was the worst British atrocity in India since the Mutiny of 1857.

Walking around Jallianwala Bagh was a strange and unnerving experience. Today it is a well-kept, rather pretty garden, and although the locations of where the troops stood and the crowd fell are clearly marked, and even though there are still bullet holes in the walls, it is hard to imagine that anything so horrible ever took place there. But then it is always difficult to imagine human barbarity. But what made Jallianwala Bagh so difficult for me was that the British were the perpetrators. I have been a number of sites of evil on my travels – Auschwitz, Pol Pot's Killing Field, Hiroshima, Hebron, Berlin and the many towns of Eastern Europe where once the Jews lived, but always the group to blame for the barbarity had been someone else or, such as in the endless tombstones of the Somme, British killing was somehow justified as being in a war, part of a fair fight. But there in Jallianwala Bagh, we were the bad guys and what we did could never be justified. And whilst I didn't fire a bullet myself, I still found that difficult to deal with.

II014 Jallianwala Bagh

One aspect of the Sikh faith that I find infuriating is that there is very little written about it in English. Go into any quality bookshop in the UK and head for the 'Religion and Spirituality' section and you'll find shelves of tomes on a myriad of different forms of Christian expression, Islam, Kaballah, Buddhist thought magick, Tantric wisdom, Atheist retorts to faith, and even Mormonism and Scientology, but nothing whatsoever about the Sikhs.2 This is, if you think about it, a little strange since we have the largest Sikh population outside of India, around half a million souls which makes it the fourth-largest religion in the country after Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Indeed, despite extensive searching, the only books on the faith that I managed to read before coming to India were Navtej Sama's short but readable 'The Book of Nanak' and Hew McLeod's excellent 'Sikhism'. However, outside the Golden Temple I'd spied a building with a huge sign on the side declaring it to be a Sikh bookshop. I just had to go.

A little surprised to be attracting non-Sikh custom, the Khalsa gent inside responded to my request for books on the history of his faith by displaying an array, out of which I picked Khushwant Singh's two volume 'A History of the Sikhs' which is seen to be the seminal work on the subject. With my other two requests however, he struggled. The first, recalling my study on Guru Nanak at Edge Hill University, was for a book on Nanak's travels, the Four (or Five...) Udasis. Such a book, he admitted, did not exist and nor too did my next want: a study on the Udasi3 sect of the faith.

I'd read about these in McLeod's 'Sikhism' and they fascinated me. Whenever one studies Sikhism, one is struck, particularly if coming from Christianity with its thousands of churches and denominations, of how monolithic Sikhism is, how there is one clear narrative to be told from Guru Nanak's conversion, through the Ten Gurus to the establishment of the Khalsa and the establishment of the Guru Granth Sahib right up until the present-day. Yet McLeod revealed that there are other narratives about and principal amongst them is that of the Udasis who, although a tiny and insignificant group today, have been massively influential throughout much of Sikh history, controlling many of the important gurdwaras right up until the 1920s including no less a shrine than the Golden Temple itself.

The Udasis differ from mainstream Khalsa Sikhs in that they believe that after Guru Nanak died, although they recognise the Ten Gurus, of equal importance was another chain of succession through his son, Baba Sri Chand right down to the Mahant, the present-day leader of their sect. They also revere the Adi Granth4 but do not treat the book as a Living Guru as the Khalsa Sikhs do and they give its teachings a different twist whilst also revering, unlike mainstream Sikhs, Hindu deities, principally the Pancha-Deva (Five Gods) of Ganesha, Devi, Shiva, Surya and Vishnu.

Reading about this sect got me to thinking, a process that only intensified after visiting the Golden Temple. Sikhism is a separate, unique and beautiful religion today, that is clear, but at the same time its relationship to Hinduism is, at times, blurred. My assistant at work referred to one of our students as a “Hindu Sikh”, that is to say, a Sikh, yes, but following many Hindu practices, (and the inference in this was not positive). Yet Guru Nanak himself was originally a Hindu of the Sant tradition and his teachings and lifestyle are little different to those of many Sant holy men, some of whose writing are included within the Guru Granth Sahib. Plus, visiting the temple, I was struck by how very Hindu some of it was. True, the langar stands in stark contrast to the Hindu ideals of caste, but bathing in a sacred pool and then a square temple called a mandir! The only difference was that in the Hari Mandir Sahib there is a book rather than an idol. But what if Sikhism had followed a different, more Hindu path, where idols were permitted, the book never raised to the status of a Guru and the Khalsa never instituted? It was an intriguing train of thought.5

But one that the bookshop could little help me with. There are no books written on the Udasis (in English) but the helpful gent did provide one on Baba Sri Chand, Guru Nanak's son whom the sect revere, and he also told me where their gurdwara is. Interestingly, I had just walked past it and assumed it to be a Hindu temple, so different was it to an orthodox Sikh gurdwara. I thanked the assistant, bought the books and then check it out.

The Udasi gurdwara next to the north-western corner of the Golden Temple complex is a fascinating place to visit. Unless you had been told any different, you would think it to be Hindu. There are no turbans and beards here, (Udasis do not wear the Five Ks, another of Guru Gobind Singh's innovations), and no Guru Granth Sahib is at the heart of things. Instead there are idols surrounded by flashing lights and offerings as at any Hindu shrine. There were the five recognisable Hindu deities but the one in pride of place I knew from somewhere else: the book which I had just been sold. It was Baba Sri Chand, Guru Nanak's first-born son.

Orthodox Sikh tradition is rather dismissive of Guru Nanak's two sons. Contrary to protocol, he did not pass his guruship onto either of them because Sri Chand was too ascetic and Lakhmi Das too worldly, implying that the Sikh path is a middle way between withdrawal from the world and complete immersion within it. There are also suggestions that both sons were disobedient. The Udasis however, revel in Sri Chand's asceticism and 'A Spiritual Biography of Baba Sri Chand Ji' by Dr. Davinderpaul Singh states that “The Udasis were the true messengers of Sikhism”6 before cataloguing a plethora of miracles such as turning Mughal soldiers into statues, causing a farmer to go mad, saving the sinking ship of a devotee, providing a city with fresh water and bringing his nephew back down to earth after his brother, the child's father, was leaving for Heaven. It was like reading a mediaeval hagiography and a world away from the book-centred atmosphere in the Golden Temple next-door. This alternative, very Hindu Sikhism continued to intrigue me.


II017 The Udasi Gurdwara

Excursion: Attari-Wagah

Intriguing or not though, it was now time to put religion to one side and engage in some far more secular activities. I went for lunch in the old city and enjoyed a rather tasty but very greasy “Punjabi Menu” whilst listening to two young American sisters in their twenties on the next table talk incessantly about hairstyles. I ask you; you travel thousands of miles to one of the holiest cities on earth and all you can find to talk about is what to do with your bangs7 and curls!

After dinner I made my way back to my hotel where I rested awhile and then was picked up by a minivan to take me to that evening's entertainment: the Border Closing Ceremony at Attari-Wagah some 20km distant.

The ceremony, ('Beating the Retreat' is its official name), has been enacted everyday since 1959. the emotions behind it and the attraction of it are obvious: one-upmanship. Michael Palin attended on his 'Himalaya' journey and described it as a display of “carefully choreographed contempt” and I could not have put it better myself. Let's see whose soldiers can shout the loudest and longest, can kick the highest, can be cheered the most and can scare the other side. Whatever the case, so long as you don't take things too seriously, it was all rather good fun and, just in case you're wondering who won, here's my non-partisan verdict:

Pre-Ceremony Entertainment
Shouting, flag-waving, music and schoolgirls dancing energetically to Bollywood hits
Shouting, flag-waving, music 
India – the schoolgirls were a nice touch
Crowd Size
c. 5,000
c. 2,000
Shout Outs
Loud and long 
Louder and longer
Equality and Diversity
Many races and faiths present; mixed seating and girl soldiers as well as the boys
Segregated seating and no women in sexy uniforms
High and silly
High and silly

And so there you have it, the official Uncle Travelling Matt verdict: an Indian victory, although to be fair, since India is five times bigger than its noisy neighbour, then I reckon it would be a pretty poor show if it didn't win, don't you think?

II018 Schoolgirls dancing…

II020 Soldiers marching…

II019 … and gates closing.

1I taught in a prison at the time.
2Perhaps is one downside of it not being a missionary faith? If you don't pester people with your religion, then perhaps they don't want to find out about it so much?
3The name is confusing as 'udasi' also refers to one of the Guru's sacred journeys. In the original Punjabi different stress marks differentiate the two very different terms. The name for the sect comes from the term 'udas' which means 'detachment' or 'renunciation'.
4The non-honorific name for the Guru Granth Sahib which does not reflect its status within Orthodox Sikh belief as the Eternal Guru.
5There may well be another, rather unexpected reason for the sharp distinction now drawn between Sikhs and Hindus: the British Army. After the British defeat of the last Sikh kingdom in 1849, the priviliges of the Khalsa now a thing of the past, many Sikhs relapsed into Hinduism and practices began to merge to such an extent that the Governor of Bombay, Sir Geoffrey Clerk predicted that in fifty years the sect would have disappeared, (A History of the Sikhs: Vol. II, p.96). However, following the Indian Mutiny of 1857 when the Sikhs overwhelmingly supported the British over their Muslim and Hindu brethren, then the Sikhs gained great privileges under the British, particularly in the army where they formed 25% of the soldiery and had their own battalions in which soldiers who cut their hair or followed other non-Khalsa practices were expelled (Ibid, p.119).
6The Spiritual Biography of Baba Sri Chand Ji, p.12

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