Internet Anthropologist Think Tank: Two hearts of the Punjab, Lahore and Amritsar

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    Saturday, January 26, 2008

    Two hearts of the Punjab, Lahore and Amritsar

    Partition cut a frontier through the heart of the Punjab, leaving its historic capital, Lahore, in Pakistan, and its religious heart, Amritsar, on the other side.

    The sight of Indian and Pakistani soldiers marching provocatively towards each other is not unusual at the Indian frontier town of Attari and its Pakistani counterpart, Wagah. But this show of national competitiveness has nothing to do with heightened international tension or political uncertainty on the western side of the border. The daily ritual is a flag-lowering ceremony, greeted by the crowds who gather every day at 4.30pm with an enthusiasm that is usually associated in this part of the world with supporters at a test match. While the spectators arrive to watch the ceremony, patriotic music is played. The arrival of the regular Delhi to Lahore bus is greeted with a roar, and two runners carrying Indian flags are urged to the border gates with a rapturous whoop.

    As the spectacle gets underway, immaculately uniformed soldiers – khaki trimmed with red and gold on the Indian side, dark blue for Pakistan – head towards each other, their exaggerated foot stamping and high kicking turning them into a cross between angry flamenco dancers and John Cleese at the Ministry of Silly Walks. A cheerleader on each side eggs the crowd on: "Hindustan!" he cries; "Zindabad!" bellows the patriotic crowd in response. Their cries of "Long live India" are followed by "Pakistan – Zindabad" from across the border, ensuring another wave of enthusiastic cheering from the Indian side. The two countries' flags are lowered and folded, and the crowd gradually drifts away, buoyed up by a feeling of superiority over the people on the other side of the border.

    Amritsar is a bustling place, a chaotic mix of sounds and sights and smells: old men sitting cross-legged by the roadside staring aimlessly ahead; eager salesmen attempting to lure passers-by into their makeshift kiosks; bony cows grazing on the rubbish that is piled up on every street corner; and a relentless cacophony of traffic. The noise and bustle of the main thoroughfares can be overwhelming, so I turn into an alley and wander the backstreets. Drawn by the rhythmic sound of hammering, I find myself in the metalworkers' market, and the workshop of Parveen Vig....

    Amritsar, Local traffic at train crossing

    Today, all that can be heard from the Golden Temple are the devotional hymns that waft through the streets of the old city. Inside, I discover two harmonium players sitting cross-legged in the heart of the temple. The building is in the middle of a lake; around it are smaller shrines, accommodation for pilgrims, and a dining hall where any visitor can come for a simple meal. By day the complex is crowded with visitors, strolling in the required clockwise direction towards the temple entrance. All are barefoot, their heads covered; some stop to bathe in the holy water of the lake. But at night the Golden Temple is at its most captivating, a stunning gold-clad building that glitters in the spotlights, its illuminated reflection glowing in the water below. Late in the evening a fascinating ceremony takes place, as the Sikh holy book, which is the focus of the prayers in the temple, is removed to a separate building for the night. Pilgrims jostle to get close to the golden palanquin, adorned with garlands of marigold flowers, as it makes its way out of the temple to the sound of a narsiga similar to the one I saw being made by Parveen Vig.

    Outside the city of Amritsar, the Punjab is mainly rural. Two rivers flow through it, but most of the urban development has taken place along the Grand Trunk Road, built in the 16th century to link Kabul with Calcutta. Yet despite its importance as a thoroughfare, the Grand Trunk Road has none of the attributes of a Western-style highway. Cars and trucks zigzag from side to side, overtaking each other from left and right. Horse-drawn carts pulling precarious cargoes of sugar cane jostle for space with bicycle rickshaws, herds of goats, and the occasional elephant, pressed into service to transport the heaviest loads. Townships along the way are a chaotic muddle of people, animals and market stalls piled high with cauliflowers, carrots and cages of chickens.

    Food Street Lahore(Pakistan), UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE "FOOD"



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