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