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April - May 2009
I made a special journey and was disappointed
by Aline Dobbie
For many years I have known that to write about India without visiting the Punjab and its great icon the Golden Temple, holy place of the Sikh Religion, was missing out on something very important to millions of Indian people not only in India but also in the Indian diaspora.
Graham and I took the Shatabdhi to Amritsar in February 2009. It was an enjoyable journey in that it is comfortable and the service in executive class is good and even the food was OK! I did not become ill or inconvenienced. Simply the latrine is quite awful, and well within the capability of Indian Railways to make it a civilised place on the train to which most people have to go in the course of a six hour journey!
The train left on time, it arrived on time and watching the countryside was interesting as ever in India. That this part of the country seemed to be even more littered with rubbish was however a sign of things to come.
We stayed at Ranjit’s Svaasa – a small heritage hotel created in an old nobleman’s haveli which is most conveniently situated just off The Mall (accessed through WelcomHeritage website). The owners and staff were very friendly and the food was good. It is a popular place because it receives visitors from the USA who pick it up on the internet sites. There is also a Spa which I visited the next morning and the petite cheerful girl from Kerala gave me the most wonderful whole body massage after which I fell asleep on the spa bed. After nearly a month of travelling one can begin to ache and that young woman’s magic was very welcome indeed.
Then the Spa owner prevailed upon me to try using their freshly gathered and liquidised hibiscus as a shampoo and conditioner which I did with some misgiving the next day but hey presto, despite feeling that I was bathing in pureed spinach it had a good effect! It was excellent and left the hair full of body and is obviously something that should be marketed.
The Golden Temple was a very good experience to visit. We had gone initially in the afternoon so that I might catch the afternoon sunshine on the gold and I was rewarded with some lovely photos. Then we returned in the evening at 9.30 pm to watch the preparations for the removal of the Holy Book in its palanquin to its overnight resting place. This too was most interesting and the Temple looked stunning in the night with its reflection on the water around.
In between watching the ceremonials I read all the memorials to various regiments and companies of men in India’s Armed Forces who are commemorated on the marble walls of the courtyard. There were some very famous names of regiments and squadrons of men all through the recent one hundred and fifty years or more. These are a poignant and permanent reminder of India’s Armed Services who give their lives to maintain the freedom of ordinary Indians and indeed others as had been the case in two world wars in the 20th Century. None was more poignant than the tablet commemorating the small band of Indian soldiers with the UN fifty years ago trying to bring some peace to Gaza – no change there then?
I loved the interaction with some of the families in their colourful attire and I watched with respect the devout in their pilgrimage. It is a peaceful place interrupted by chatter and some chanting and children eager-eyed to watch everything around them.
Amritsar however is awful. I am sorry there is no other word. It is dirty, shabby and neglected and a total disappointment to us both. We cannot comprehend how such a famous city which has access to such wealth can be left to fester as it is. Juxtapositioned with flashy new shopping malls is squalor and litter and mess and derelict buildings. It is shameful.
Then we visited Jallianwallah Bagh to pay our respects. April will make it 90 years since that tragic disgraceful day. Yet today the whole place is in a state of dereliction and dirt, with dug up paving stones, litter, untended gardens and even the little museum is useless as the electricity is cut off. The New Visitor Facilitation at the entrance was meant to be open from about 9.30 am to 5.0pm was closed and looked as if it had been that way for a long time with some dilapidation to the building and litter accumulating. Moreover there are large signs declaring that the Bagh has been the subject of a Tourism Ministry ‘make-over’ – well that would be funny if it were not so sad and bad. What had been Britain’s disgrace is now India’s disgrace. Is that how the Punjab, the Sikhs and the whole country treat the memory of its ‘martyrs’? Even the historical facts did not appear to be accurate or co-ordinated.
There were some NRIs from north London present and they were as distressed as we were. Meanwhile it looks as if people use the gardens to doss down and some youths were playing in a disrespectful way. I knew that a whole party of British were being brought there and I nearly wept that they should see this neglect of a historical place. They had newly arrived in the country and flown up to Amritsar and this, after the Temple would be their second experience of India on their first visit; what would they think. The Bagh is about the size of four of New Delhi’s delightful well kept roundabouts. I have no doubt the municipal authorities or the powers that be could arrange for the garden to be given a make-over and then maintained. India is not short of labour or indeed ‘malis’!
We had also visited the Wagah Indo-Pakistan Border Retreat Ceremony the previous evening. This was enjoyable and interesting but in the current light of latent hostilities I felt it was all such a futile event. Since I returned to UK the Sri Lankan cricket team were attacked in Lahore, before that we had the atrocity of Mumbai, now Pakistan appears to be imploding, not before appeasing the monsters who want to impose Sharia Law in Swat and whilst we were in India the Pakistan Government was behaving as negatively as possible until the US exerted some pressure. The Border Ceremony is a farce and not funny but sad.
India has many many challenges ahead of her – not least the general election in April. Having attended the Republic Day Parade as a government guest and then made two huge journeys around India during a month’s visit I know that there is some wonderful progress but nevertheless it is recognised that hundreds of millions still exist on one dollar a day – if that.
We are all throughout the world feeling the depths of the global financial implosion and sadly most of our leaders are floundering about without a clear idea of what to do to rectify it. Please let us collectively remember the complacent pledges made in 2005 and thereafter about helping the poor out of poverty. Let us please help reduce the rhetoric.