blood, sweat and turbans

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The hairdryer heat of Amritsar gets big, serious and underway by the month of May. Amritsar is India’s most northerly city before you hit Kashmir, lying almost on the same latitude as Charleston and Shanghai. The days start early – in the morning at about five thirty.

My half drawn windows look across the view of the traffic on the Grand Trunk Road – a dawn parade beneath a concrete flyover of trucks, tractors and trotting horse carts. The brightness even in the pervading dust is intense and blinding. So that by the time I wipe my breakfast plate clean of dal makhani with roti the sun is up and ready to blaze down on this city of over a million humming human souls.

Strangely, the most uncomfortable feeling about traveling in Amritsar in the hot weather is not when you are trapped in traffic inside the narrow lanes of the old city, all your senses assaulted, as you breathe in toxic and fierce furnace air.

It is rather the sights of dark proud grimacing aquiline faces wrapped in turbans of elderly grandfathers who are reduced to skin, bones and muscles pedaling beastly loads of people and goods for a living in life-sapping heat.

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Traffic bottlenecks at the narrow lanes of Amritsar’s old city
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Morning on the GT (Grand Trunk) Road, one of the oldest  and longest highways in the world. It was built by India’s first great king Ashoka, improved by the British and spanned the width of old India. Kipling described it as “a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world”.

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Amritsar is only 25 km from India’s blood-stained border with Pakistan. Despite its holy tourist town reputation, Amritsar has that somewhat clandestine, multiracial and more-than-meets-the-eye appearance of a frontier town.

Amritsar is in Punjab, a smallish state in north west India. The province over the border in Pakistan is also called Punjab.  Before 1947 when India and Pakistan was one country, Punjab covered a much bigger area. The Punjab region of the Indian Subcontinent is the large alluvial plain that is roughly situated between the mountains of Afghanistan and the River Ganges.

Punjab which means ” Five Waters” was named by Persian-speaking Central Asian Turks from present-day Uzbekistan who came down over the Khyber Pass to conquer and rule India in the 16th century.

The five watery expanses they referred to are Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas. These rivers flow and merge downstream to join the Indus – a larger and longer river that gave India its name.  The dynasty they founded was known as the Mughal  (from Mongol) for its first emperor Babur was believed to be descended from Genghis Khan on his mother’s side. The Mughals ruled most of India for about 300 years until the British came and took over from them.

In the early decades of their rule the Mughals proved themselves to be quite capable masters. Although they were Muslims and of foreign origin they tried to blend themselves into Indian culture and tolerated to a degree local customs and religion. Babur was said to have even banned cow slaughter out of respect for his Hindu subjects. His grandson Akbar abolished the hated tax on non-Muslims (jizyah) and started a new faith (Din-i Illahi) in the hope of bringing Muslims and Hindus together. However, not all the Mughal rulers were tolerant and wise. Aurangzeb the last in the line of famous Mughals, was a pious Muslim. He forbade music, ordered the destruction of Hindu temples and put people to the sword if they refused to convert to islam.

It was in such a restive and volatile environment that a new religion and fearless race of people emerged. One that would change forever the faith, feel and face of Punjab and make the land they live in different and distinct from the rest of India.

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Sweltering crowd at one of the entrances to the Golden Temple
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The temperatures in Amritsar in May and June, its hottest months regularly exceed 40 degrees celsius in the daytime.
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A quick douse of lime juice drink at a road divider
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Although it is difficult to find anyone who speaks English, the shopkeepers of Amritsar are amongst the friendliest in the world

The Sikh religion was founded by a Guru (holy teacher) by the name of Nanak who lived in Punjab at the time when Babur was emperor. Guru Nanak taught his followers to worship only one God who was formless, eternal and invisible whose name was Truth. His disciples called themselves Sikh meaning someone who learns.

At a time when there was much violence between Hinduism and Islam, the early stage of Sikhism was a reformist movement that sought to combine the softer sides of both faiths into a kind of social and religious synthesis.

The Sikhs treat their Gurus with the highest adoration and respect as they believe the divine spirit is passed down from one Guru to the next. There has been a succession of ten Gurus starting with Guru Nanak. The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh declared that there would be no more human Guru after him. He decreed that henceforth Sikhs should look to the Granth Sahib – the holy book of Sikhism that contained the writings and hymns composed by various Gurus and saints some of whom were Hindus and Muslims – as their living, sovereign and eternal Guru.

Although the Sikhs were historically a minority they largely shaped Punjab and created its unique character. The Sikhs championed the use of the Punjabi language by writing, reading, learning and spreading the words of the Gurus in its special script.

The Sikhs even had their own empire once during the time when Maharaja Ranjit Singh reigned over all of the Punjab and beyond.

The greatest testament to Punjab’s spiritual glory may still be the city that grew around its golden temple surrounding a pool of elixir – Amritsar.

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The word “Singh” which means lion is appended to the name of all Sikh men
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Harmandir Sahib or the Golden Temple was first built in 1604 by Arjan, the fifth Sikh Guru. The temple was destroyed several times by Afghan invaders and was rebuilt in marble, copper and gold during the reign (1801-39) of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
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Slightly more Hindu people live in Amritsar than Sikhs who together make up nearly 98% of the city’s population. Christians (1.23%) and Muslims (0.51%) are small minority groups in Amritsar.
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A family’s reflective moment beside the sacred tank of water called the Amrita Saras (“Pool of Nectar”)
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The famous old-style midday pose of Punjab

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A family eating prasad (sweet offering) from a small bowl made of pressed leaf
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Punjab is the food basket supplying India with wheat, rice and other cereals
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Punjabi is written in its own script- Gurumukhi (” Guru’s mouth”). Standard spoken Punjabi is based on the dialect spoken in the Majha the region around the cities of Lahore and Amritsar
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A Sikh and his tractor are the stuff of legends

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Seva or selfless service is a central concept in Sikhism

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Texts and all photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng May 2017

leftover country

 

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I got enamoured with Armenia on my way there.

My hotel in Tbilisi called me a cab right after breakfast to bring me to my pre-booked transport for Yerevan. It was a white van parked at the back of a church not far from a bus terminal. The passengers stood around as our driver in army-styled jumper and baseball cap collected our fares, assigned seats and arranged luggages into the back boot of the vehicle.

There I met Varo who was returning home with his girlfriend after a holiday. He was smoking and squinting at the sun when I stood next to him for a cigarette before we set out.

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It was a pretty pristine and perfect day for a journey that was to partly involve traversing the Lesser Caucasus Mountains. The sun shone through blue autumnal skies causing the rugged volcanic landscape to present its pale palette of orange, red and yellow.

At the border I was asked to fill up a form, answer a few questions, directed to different lanes to apply and pay for my Armenian visa on arrival. As I watched the queues get shorter I imagined myself being turned back to Georgia, left stranded or worse still locked up in a mountain cell and deported for having visited enemy country Azerbaijan.

As it turned out the immigration officers in oversized soviet peak caps spoke little English but were cordial, relaxed and unfussy.

I got my visa, walked quickly into Armenia and was elated to see Varo waiting for me. He had stayed behind to lead me back to our van parked some meters away beyond a row of minivans, buses and cars.

In the van we chatted about Armenia’s tourist attractions with Tsovinar, a  skinny smiling girl with black boyish hair. She worked as a hiking guide and enthusiastically pointed out Lake Sevan to me from our car window. Tsovinar and I were the last persons to be dropped off when we finally arrived near the city centre. Knowing that I arrived with no local currency, she gave me when we parted company a one thousand Armenian Drams (RM10) note for a taxi to my hotel.

At a Yerevan metro station late that afternoon I turned to a young woman behind me for help in buying a train ticket. Shoghakat was a lecturer at the American University. She offered to pay for my ride, walked me to her favourite restaurant and then decided to skip her evening ballet class to join me for my first meal in Armenia.

These acts of kindness and countless others I encountered convinced me that Armenia is truly a very special country. I began to understand what Shoghakat meant when she told me: ‘ that Armenia still exists is proof that God exists’. It is a country that in every sense, the world very nearly lost.

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Present day Armenia is a small shrunken country of three million people located in the uplands and mountains east of Turkey and north of Iran.

You could almost place Armenia in Europe . The people speak an isolated  branch of Indo-European language, pray in thousand-year old churches, and produce award winning cognac, ballet and opera music. The capital city Yerevan is a proud and pensive post-soviet city of pink brick buildings, bust plaques and chess-played park benches.

Armenia is a beautiful and antique land with a recorded history going back over 3,500 years. It is also the world’s first Christian country. It looks western on the outside, but Armenia’s deep soul belongs not in Europe but further east. Anyone who cares to delve into the country’s real roots will discover that Hayastan ( the name Armenia calls itself ) is a true blue Middle East nation. As a political and cultural entity,  Armenia was once upon a time ten times bigger than its present size and exerted influences far beyond its borders.

Conquered by Byzantium, Arabs and later divided up between the Persians and Turks, Armenia had by the 16th century lost most of its power and freedom. As an indigenous nation of the Near East, Armenia at the beginning of the 20th century nearly went the way of Parthia, Hittite and Assyria, vanquished and vanished forever from our wall map of the world. Of this sad period after the First World War, Churchill was to write: ‘history will search in vain for the word “Armenia”‘.

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By convention and its very name, the Middle East is a place of crossings and collisions . The area is the birth place of not just some of the world’s great civilisations, monotheistic beliefs and writing scripts but is also the spawning ground for much of its absolutism, intolerance and religious violence.

In a region that continues to witness unspeakable and horrible mass murders for gold, girls, and (sadly) God, the extirpation by Turkey of its Armenian and other christian subjects by deportation and killing 101 years ago is a crime with no accused but merely broad charges. It is a subject that ignites anger and brings back excruciating memories of the more than one million men, mothers and children hacked to pieces by swords or left to starve and sear to death in the Syrian sands.

I have no wish to offend any country’s preferred version of history, but to attempt to tell the story of modern day Armenia without mentioning the Genocide is like explaining wine by just talking about the bottles but not the grapes.

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Photographs and text copyright Kerk Boon Leng 2017

 

 

 

jewel in kraków

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Kraków (or Cracow) is a real European Jewel.

For centuries Kraków was Poland’s most important city –  a  place of artists, scholars and kings. Its magnificent town square, atmospheric cobbled-stone streets, ancient buildings and medieval castle on a hill replete with stories of a resident dragon are stuff on which Gothic fantasies are dreamt up.

Kraków is also a lucky city. It could easily have ended up after the Second World War like Warsaw, Poznan and Gdansk – Polish cities that were vandalised, mutilated and destroyed either by the Nazi occupiers on their way out or the Soviet invaders on their way in.

Some historians say that in January 1945 Konev the Soviet Commander purposefully liberated Kraków in time to save it. Most people now believe that, in truth, the Nazis were simply just too busy running for their lives to have time to lay a dynamite in every house.

Whether by dint of fate or a miracle, Kraków was left unharmed. The beautiful city you see today is authentically old and original.

Sadly not everything about Kraków survived the German Occupation. Kraków’s large and important Jewish population did not. It was entirely wiped out. The Jewish citizens of Kraków were herded like cattles and taken to concentration camps and killing factories in  Bełżec, Plaszow and nearby Auschwitz to be murdered on an industrial scale.

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The genuinely eccentric Krakowian charm
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Beautiful Olga at her coffee kiosk
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Poland has a population of about 38.6 million. The population growth rate stands at a paltry 0.02% a year but at least, unlike most of Eastern Europe, it is not falling by much despite high emigration.
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Striding past a traditional Polish restaurant
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At a park in Krakow
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Krakow has a tradition of learning. Young people from all over the country come to study at the Jagiellonian University, the second oldest in Eastern Europe, founded on 12 May 1364 by Casimir the Great

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Youthful commuters at a tram stop
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In 2013 Krakow was made a UNESCO City of Literature in recognition of the city’s reading and scholarship tradition. Other cities awarded around the world include Edinburgh (2004) and Baghdad (2015)

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Although Poland in November 2010 finally followed Europe in banning smoking in public areas, the country remains moderately smoker-friendly.

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The Krakow Barbican built around 1498 is the remnant of a system of fortifications and defences that once encircled the city

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Ci, co wiedzieli
o co tutaj szło,
musza ustąpić miejsca tym,
co wiedzą mało.
I mniej niż mało.
I wreszcie tyle co nic.

W trawie, która porosła
przyczyny i skutki,
musi ktoś sobie leżeć
z kłosem w zębach
i gapić się na chmury.

 

 

Those who knew
what was going on here
must give way to
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass which has overgrown
reasons and causes,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.

 

From “The End and the Beginning” by Wisława Szymborska, translated by Joanna Trezeciak

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Graffitied-shop front in the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz

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Electric trams were introduced in 1901 when Krakow was part of the Austrian Hapsburg Empire.
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Polish comfort food – pork fat spread or smalec on crusty bread
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Club owner cum jazz saxophonist piping before the gig

Words and Pictures Copyright Kerk Boon Leng May 2016

 

Łódź in the middle

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Getting lost in Łódź (pronounced “wootsh”) is an entirely easy thing to do. Although Łódź is strategically situated in the middle of Poland where long distance railways and roads intersect, the city does not have a central railway station or one within walking distance of its urban heart.

Long distance trains use the Łódź Kaliska or the Łódź Widzew stations. Both stations are in non-descript surroundings looking more like suburban stations of a college campus than a transport hub for the country’s third largest city. I remember arriving south from Krakow in one of the stations and departing north to Warsaw from another.

Łódź was actually at one time a great industrial centre in Eastern Europe famous for its textile factories. Like Manchester half a century before,Łódź’s textile industry  declined and workers lost their jobs and purpose, pushed out of the market by cheaper imported clothes when communism ended in 1989 and Poland turned expectantly to Western-styled capitalism.

These days Łódź is taking steps to polish up its rust belt image of empty mills and silent chimneys. The old architecture has been spring-cleaned, refurbished and given a new use.

S0223089S0343124S0924221S0065023S0533177S0443153S0804185S0043011S0954229S0383137S0914213S0864198S0784180S0884204All pictures and words Copyright Kerk Boon Leng 2016