Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Amritsar - Kes, Kangha, Kara, Kirpan and Kachcha

On Saturday our Air India flight touched down on the scorching runway of Amritsar, Punjab (and our landing gear did not fail)! When we arrived, we were met with heavily armed and bearded men on the tarmacadam, but an otherwise tranquil airport surrounded by languid construction. I say languid because in 48 degree C heat nothing moves fast. While Felipe stopped to smoke a cigarette at arrivals, we observed the slow unloading of bricks from a large truck, the half-constructed drive that was to facilitate taxi drop-offs, and were soon swarmed by the pre-pay taxi brethren. Upon arrival the crowd provoked my assumption -- Adam Smith's hand might work even in the Punjabi desert, and this means fair price -- but alas, all worked for one price-fixing pre-pay taxi monopoly that charged us an outrageous 450 Rs for a 5 minute drive to our hotel. With absolutely no alternative, scarcity was on their side, and not ours.

We arrived at La Cascade, a boutique hotel in Amritsar after a bumpy ride inside a non-AC Tata Indica. Passing turban-clad auto drivers, motorcycle enthusiasts, charrioteers on horseback with large bullock carts piled sky-high with everything, we made our way through the small city of 1 million plus. After a relaxing AC stint, fantastic lunch of border-style food served by a dapper gentleman with a dedicated mullet, we took an auto to the famed Golden Temple.

The Golden Temple is serenity in marble. Using the same Pietra Dura style of the Taj, with inlay marble designs, the Golden Temple is surrounded by a grand and shimmering pool, and white marble portico. Men and women with heads covered slowly shuffle bare-footed over the cool white marble, between you and the sparkle of the water. Bright and matching turbans punctuate the piercing white reflection of marble, water, and gold, and accent the flowing cotton that hangs toward the smooth marble walkway. Reds, blues, greens, pinks, intricately wrapped atop the heads of tall, bearded men with grand features, penetrating eyes, and aloof, friendly stares. Men who embody and espouse the Sikh panj kakke, or five symbols of faith, men with uncut hair (Kes), comb (Kangha), clinking steel bracelet (Kara), slung knife (Kirpan), and undergarmets (Kachcha) reverently glide by.

Many ask to snap pictures with us. I too ask a man and his young son to pose, showing them the magic of Panasonic in recreating the Golden Temple and them in miniature. Though the rectangular walk around the pool is small, we spend 2 hours in rotation, as prayers echo through the heavy hot Punjabi air. With my covering and beard, I trade my sunglasses for laughs with a few local kids who flip their collars for my film, grin and giggle, and demand nothing more than conversation.

From the Golden Temple we took a rattling Tata 30km to Wagh, the border between India and Pakistan. Over good roads, we drove at speeds that should have driven cool air into the cabin but at 116 degrees F, I had trouble keeping my eyes open. In the oppressive heat the glare of the sun was omnipresent, dry, and heavy, and I found my body beginning to shut down. Unconsciousness was closer than sleep, but there was little alternative. After an hour on the road, we arrived at the frenetic border area. Immediately accosted by flag, beer, food, and DVD vendors, we soon traded currency for refuge at the cost of 120 Rs and an overpriced, fly-encrusted 'Thunderbolt' Beer (only sold in Punjab). When the gate opened at 5pm, we were the first through.

The Wagh border ceremony occurs daily between Indian and Pakistani troops. Crowds gather on either side of a heavily fortified border, and military pomp and circumstance elicits innocuous, but nationalistic pride on either side. Chants of 'Hindustan' echo over the razor wire to the similarly-dressed, kurta-clad fans on the Pakistan side. The safron of the Indian flag unfurls in the wind before we sun dropping westward over Pakistan. And the green and white crescent of the Pakistani flag flutters before those who've made the trip from Lahore, capital of Punjabi Pakistan. After much trumpeting, chanting, stomping, marching, and stepping, the flags are lowered in tandem and folded, the border gates closed, and ceremony closed.

At dark we returned from Pakistan by road, a period that was reminiscent of driving in America not because of sanity so much as driving on the right side of the road. Our driver, in an attempt to pass every moving truck and bullock cart, every motorcycle and auto, every lingering animal and rival Indica, drove at least 75 percent of the drive home on the wrong side of the road. Regardless of oncoming traffic, a flicker of brights, honk, slight swerve, and nonchalant glance at the passengers sufficed for survival. In support of Darwin, we tipped him well upon hotel arrival.

And after a 90 rupee Punjabi Thali dinner at a local hole-in-the wall with bingo night, an outdoor stroll, and cycle-rickshaw home, we made rest for fantastic day two in Punjab.

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