India continues to confound and frustrate. I am a great advocate of airport security. Why wouldn't I be after all only the suicide bomber wants to get blown up? If I've learnt something over the years it's where safety and security are concerned you need to do it intelligently and consistently. Airport security in India is neither. When you arrive at the airport you have to queue outside the terminal building. Your passport and ticket are checked before they let you inside. Fine so far, after all a bomb in arrivals would be pretty devastating. Next you go to your airlines hold luggage scanner which is in the lounge area. We've put our bags through these several times and each time has been different. Sometimes they put a plastic strap around your bag to prevent tampering. Sometimes they put a sticky label on your padlock. Sometimes they just put a sticky label on your bag. They don't screen your hand luggage at this point. So it appears I can walk away and before check in take something from my hand luggage and put it in my hold luggage. Maybe they screen it a second time. If so why do it the first time?
When you go through personal security your hand luggage is X rayed. They always want your lap top and phone in a tray. This is standard worldwide. Sometimes they ask to see your camera and sometimes they don't. The last two times they have X rayed my bag then asked me to take out everything electrical including iPod, kindle, cameras, lenses, charger leads plus glasses cases etc etc. Then they have re-screened that and my now empty bag. Other times they don't bother with anything. Sensing my frustration the officer at the desk thanked me for my co-operation. When I asked him why they bother with the X ray if they are going to empty my bag anyway he wobbled his head and thanked me again. Agghhhhhhh. Do I feel safe? Not really.
Anyway, rant over. We are in Amritsar home of the Sikh Golden Temple. Sikhism is a 15th century religion which began as a reaction to the caste system. They believe in re-birth and karma like Hindus. Equality is the pillar of the religion. So whatever socio-economic group you belong to you are treated the same. They are pretty easy to spot with their turban and uncut beard. On the flight in it was like a meeting of the Monty Panesar appreciation society.
The Golden Temple is the most holy Sikh shrine. Communal unrest is an ever present feature in India. In the early 80's Sikhs started a campaign for a separate Khalistan state. This led to separatists holding up in the Golden Temple as a protest. I should say at this point that for whatever reason I have not found Indians to be entirely blessed with brains. This is not affected by education or power it would seem. Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of the day. In 1984 she ordered the Indian army to storm the temple to evict the protestors. The subsequent Hindu-Sikh rioting led to the death of over 3000 people, mostly Sikhs who were lynched by Hindus. Now I will never win Mastermind but ask yourself this. Is it a good idea to send the army into the most holy Sikh temple leading to the death of 3000 Sikhs and have Sikhs as your personal bodyguards? Nope, they assassinated her. I rest my case.
Amritsar is home to over 1 million people predominantly Sikhs. The temple itself is a gold plated building which sits in a pool of water inside a large courtyard surrounded on all sides by white marble buildings. It attracts pilgrims from all over the world. Sikhism is no different to other religions in brainwashing its children early. I always find it disturbing to see young children dressed like their parents in religious garb throwing themselves to the floor and kneeling and bowing ritually to a building. How can it ever be right?
Within the temple is Guru-Ka-Langar. This is a free communal dining hall. Join the queue, collect your tray then sit cross legged on the floor inside. Volunteers come around with buckets of Dall, curry and chapatis. You can eat as much as you want. No one is turned away. On an average day they serve an estimated 60-80,000 pilgrims. Even more during festivals. It's an impressive feat and fun to join in.
The city of Amritsar is like most Indian cities. It's noisy, dusty and dirty. Interestingly not many cows here. Every other shop is a turban seller.
Our hotel is the best we've stayed in since arriving in India. Everything works. It also has an excellent if slightly expensive restaurant.
Amritsar is in Punjab state and about 30 kms from the Pakistan border. After the Golden Temple the other main tourist attraction here is the ceremony at the border each evening when it closes for the day. We took a taxi out to the border at Wagah. I'm sure many of you will have seen clips of it on TV. Each evening soldiers on each side gather to perform a theatrical closing ceremony. Both are dressed in similar styled ceremonial uniforms. The Indians wear khaki and red while the Pakistanis are in black. While we were waiting I spoke with a young guy and asked where he was from? 'Poland' he replied. I told him I was from England. 'Ah, our second home' he responded.
The ceremony lasts around half an hour and is comical to watch. The ceremony has become so popular as an opportunity for the citizens of each country to shout and jeer at the other that they have built grandstands to seat everyone. Loud music is played over the speakers. On the Indian side there were about 5000 spectators plus VIP's. Foreigners get the best seats. Before the ceremony starts school children run about waving national flags. On the Indian side they go on to the roadway and do a mass Bollywood style dance. It has a real party atmosphere. On the Pakistan side there were about 200 people. Men in one stand, women in the other doing muted shouts and flag waving. If ever you wanted an example of the difference between a multi cultural democracy and an Islamic military dictatorship here it is. As you enter India from Pakistan there is a huge sign saying 'Welcome to India. The world's largest democracy so up yours'. I made the last 3 words up but the sentiment is clearly there.
I defy anyone to convince me the Pakistani crowd do not look enviously at the freedom of the Indians.
Once the ceremony starts a soldier shouts into a microphone and taking it in turns soldiers from each side march briskly to the border line goose stepping like John Cleese on acid then pose camply at the opposition. It is bizarre. Despite the frayed relations between the countries it all ends with a hand shake and the simultaneous lowering of the flags. Then the gates are locked until morning. This is repeated every day. If you're ever passing this way it is well worth the visit.
I don't know what it is like on other days but on this day India won convincingly much to everyone's pleasure. As a final comment, I always think timing is important. Why then if you are the driver of a coach going into Pakistan and emblazoned with 'Pakistan Tourist Board' would you cross the border 5 minutes before it closes. Driving slowly through 5000 jeering Indians can't be fun or maybe it is. No one on the coach waved though.
Next we head to Jodhpur. I've told Jill if she gets the trousers I'll get the riding crop ooooer misses. One last comment. As we came through Delhi airport security the guard frisked me and asked me if I was a sportsman. 'No, why do you ask' I said. 'You have a very fit body like a sportsman' He said. Ok it would have been better if he had been 20, female and drop dead gorgeous but I'll take my compliments where I can get them.