The Most Surreal Spectacle on Earth
Amritsar Border Ceremony
The Mystery of the "Other Side"
The first thing I did in Amritsar, after settling down at my hotel, was to make sure I’d be on time for the world-renowned changing-of-the-guards ceremony at the Pakistani border.
Dozens of potential drivers approached me at the taxi station by the Golden Temple, but I ended up choosing the burly-looking 50-something Mr. Singh. We made an arrangement to meet right there after I got my first look of the Golden Temple. Mr. Singh promised he would find me when I got out, and he did.
What’s in a name?
As expected, things did not go smoothly.
First, it was his name. He said: No, it wasn’t pronounced with a soft “g”. I asked if the name was then pronounced as in ‘sing a song’. My question had apparently rubbed him the wrong way, and he proceeded to give me a lengthy speech about the nobility of the Singh family and their historical standing. His initial friendliness had evaporated.
Only later I discovered that all male Sikhs carry the surname/title “Singh”:
The word “singh” means lion in Sanskrit. The name is used as a surname to represent males. It has been adopted as a title by some warriors in India, and mandated in the 18th century by Guru Gobind Singh for all Sikhs. It was later adopted by several castes and communities. As a surname or a middle name, it is now found throughout India and among the Indian diaspora, cutting across communities and religious groups, becoming more of a title than a surname (Wikipedia).
Next, it was the road-savvy van that refused to start, and it took extra cajoling on Mr. Singh’s part to get it going – crankily. Mr. Singh himself got crankier as well. Like taxi drivers world-over he wanted his 10-passenger load before setting off, and he wouldn’t budge. That meant we drove around in circles for half an hour before he managed to mobilize the magical passenger quota. The riders were collected from various undefined spots in the general area, and were mostly local. The last to board, though, was a Finnish young tourist I was very happy to see.
No special treatment
Mr. Singh did not give me any “older white lady” special treatment, perhaps because of the name blunder. The locals were sat at the front; I was assigned to the back. The Indian family sat on the middle seat, 4 in a row. There were two people seated next to the driver. Two people got up and sat facing me in the back.
When Y. boarded the van, I happily invited him to sit next to me, but Mr. Singh did not allow that for some obscure reason and tried to shove the blonde guy next to the 4-some family. Everybody objected. Y. said the driver would have to cut him in half to make him fit in there. Still, Singh resisted the obvious. In the end, he gave in and Y. moved to the back with me.
That was a great relief. I could use some company, and Y., knowing the town well, could also be trusted to help me find my way back from wherever Mr. Singh would drop us later.
Basic financial decency
The price was ₹150, but Mr. Singh did not have change, so he took the ₹100 note and said I could change at the border station and give him the difference later. To his credit, he did not ask for the money until we arrived back in town.
Tourists, take note
Generally, I found Indians to be honorable about money and about their word. Moreover, they don’t usually try to haggle with you as badly as the Arabs do. For the most part, the prices they ask for are close to the running rates. They might exceed the local fare by about 10% for the tourists, but they do not go for the big bargaining excesses I was familiar with from East Jerusalem.
By the same token, service givers and merchants do not appreciate over-haggling on the tourist part, so my advice is to keep the negotiation within reasonable bounds. It is good to remember that even with 10 passengers, Mr. Singh will make only ₹1500, the equivalent of NIS75, or $18, for about five to six hours of work, and not counting his expenses. A common taxi in Jerusalem might charge 50 shekel for a 20-minutes ride.
In that context, it was nice to discover that Indian law regulates the prices on packaged commodities. A maximum price must be printed on all such items. No way to cheat on shampoos, chocolates, water bottles, etc.
Cold Northen Wind
Getting reprimanded for my dressing style … by a Scandinavian
I was happy to get a companion, but Y. was the kind of foreign snob trying to show, falsely, how Indian he was. He was, of course, anything but. His focus on this trip was practicing yoga, and he had an Ayengar teacher in Rishikesh he followed. I could easily envision him stretching himself grandiously in all kinds of challenging asanas (yoga postures).
Y. was very self-congratulatory about his solitary trip, but when I shared some difficulties I had journeying alone as a woman, he responded that the Western women themsleves were to blame for their being harassed. They wear tight clothing, sleeveless shirts, shorts, etc. To drive the point all the way home, he added that even he gets aroused…
I asked if my clothes were that enticing in his opinion. I was wearing long fishermen pants and a short-sleeved shirt. No reaction. His blue-eyed gaze had a coldness to it.
The VIP Track
The security ordeal
They took my bag, but left my knife…
After an exhausting drive in Amritsar’s hubbub, we were finally delivered into something resembling a countryside. Promptly we reached an army post and were made to stop. Bags were not allowed in. Only water, purses, cameras were permitted. A fee was collected, and I got some change.
Left to fumble with my belongings, I said goodbye to my red bag, hoping it wasn’t a farewell. Then it was a security check and a screening. Men on one side, women on the other. Y., the Finnish guy, was quickly moved along and disappeared. In contrast I made the detector beep, and got a body check, but the officer thought the culprit was my camera, so My Swiss army knife got in unnnoticed, as it almost invariably does…
Soldiers were motioning me here and there. After a detour to the bathrooms, I was led with other tourists and foreigners to the faster VIP track. When I got to the stadium, Y. was smiling at me from one of the bleachers.
Amritsar Border Ceremony - A Tale of Two Stadiums
The “show” was about to start in two hours’ time. In the meantime the crowd gathered – many on “our” side, barely anybody on “their” side. That situation changed as Pakistanis slowly filtered in, eventually succeeding to fill up their smaller amphitheater. I could glimpse some women covered in black abayas. “We” had a much larger stadium, with lots of colors and a lot of fervor. “They” tried to outdo us with loud Arabic-sounding music, but “we” overwhelmed their sound with our chanting.
The shopping spree
Everybody was buying and selling. The place looked like it was set for a soccer / cricket match, and people behaved as if that was indeed the occasion. Some even painted their faces with the colors of the Indian flag.
Ice-creams, cokes, snacks, flags, tri-colored caps. Getting into the atmosphere, I got myself an India cricket cap, mostly for feministic reasons. Since Mother India worhips goddesses, and the modern country encourages female participation in all areas of life, at least in principle, it was a no-brainer. The upcoming show supported the feminist viewpoint even further.
A Ladies' Moment of Glory
To start, a woman was running up and down the front section of the aisle with a large flag in hand. The crowd roared. More female flag-carriers joined. It took me a while to understand that the women emerged from the general crowd, apparently trying to make a statement to their covered-up sisters on the “other side”.
More and more happy women ran around the front section of the pathway, with the crowd in a frenzy. Some were saried, others wore tank tops, short sleeves, pants, even shorts.
I read on CNN today that a year-long battle to cancel the sales tax on sanitary napkins in India had finally bore fruit. It was shocking to discover that about 40% of Indian women use sawdust, ashes or leaves for padding during menstruation. The tax plunged from 12% to zero. The lack of appropriate menstural hygiene and sanitation had been linked to girls dropping out of school and lower productivity in the workplace. In simpler words, the girls were ashamed to go to school…
So much still needs to be changed in this country, but…
Taunting the Pakistanis
…it was a sheer joy to watch the Indian ladies relishing their given freedom to show off their liberties and joviality in front of their Pakistani covered-up and repressed sisters.
It is important to remember, of course, that the two nations are basically the same people. It is their different allegiances, life styles, perceptions of the world, religions and political systems that make for the huge cultural rift.
Short sleeves, no sleeves, long sleeves, whatever – these ladies were all ready to run down the aisle with their patriotic flags and hats to show the Pakistanis what women can be…
and perhaps also make the statement to their own men…
They received huge support and cheering from their sisters (and brothers) in the crowd.
The Official Ceremony - Ladies First
Amritsar Border Ceremony - Muscle Power at the Nuclear Age
Then the male soldiers started marching.
They marched all the way to the closed gate, first one by one, then two by two, then in formation.
The men, all tall and perfectly built, lifted their legs 90 degrees to the various directions, then made fists and eventually stood in a threatening position in front of their Pakistani counterparts, who, of course, retaliated with the same.
The Indians wore red ceremonial headwear while the Pakistanis had theirs black…Makes one wonder…
Excitement Buildup at the Gate
Amritsar Border Ceremony Comes to a Close
After some more weird maneuvers, the flags went down half way, the gates closed, the soldiers marched back, and we all walked out as a crowd.
Y. was a great help at this point, first in locating Mr. Singh’s van, and later in helping me find my hotel. He had been in Amritsar for several days already and was well familiar with the layout of the central area.
As I expected, Mr. Singh let us off at some obscure point far from the taxi station. It was already late and dark. I acted very female and made Y. accompany me all the way to the street where my hotel was located…
According to Y., Amritsar was clean and not the huge mess I originally perceived it to be. At a second look, the city indeed was not that dirty. The next day on our way to “The Ladies Temple”, or Mata Lal Devi Mandir, I even spotted a garbage truck trudging up the streets, a sight not seen in the villages around Dharamsalla…
Walking back we traversed wide lanes and paved pavilions aglow with lights from shops, restaurants, hotels. The look of the central area was almost European-like. Still, the traffic situation and the noise level were beyond anything I had experienced before.
My day at the India-Pakistani border came to a close. And I wondered…
Meanwhile on the Gaza-Israeli Border
Can anybody imagine us, Israelis, and the Palestinians doing anything similar at the Gaza crossings??? Or the North and South Koreans turning their change-of-the-guards rituals at the DMZ into pop-corn selling, money-making theaters, replacing aggressions with patriotic team cheerleading?
Of course, the India-Pakistani situation is not that rosy in reality, but… somehow they manage to have these surreal joint ceremonies, and even play criquet against each other in the criquet world cup and other tournaments.
In contrast, below is what our border looks like these days after “protesters” launched their so-called “low key terrorism” into our territory, burning our fields with “incendiary baloons”:
A burning field near the Israeli Kibbutz of Mefallesim, along the border with the Gaza Strip. Source: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/06/23/gazas-burning-kites-explosives-strapped-condoms-raise-tensions/
As surreal as the theater at Amritsar seems, I wish we could have the same jolly scenario on a daily basis over at our borders…