Bling

Merriam-Webster defines bling \ˈbliŋ\ first as flashy jewelry worn especially as an indication of wealth or status, but adds on the broader definition as expensive and ostentatious possessions. We didn’t visit Amritsar to look for things which you can find in any market in any city, but you could not miss the bling. I suppose some people would think that covering a building with gold foil is bling, but we shall excuse the excesses of the past. It is the everyday bling of the middle class that I find especially fascinating. Not just to you and me, but also to a slew of brilliant film makers and cinematographers [1, 2, 3] who defined the look of post-Bollywood-blockbuster 21st century movies.

We’d planned one morning’s walk through the city to take us through parts where we could do some shopping. These streets were lined with shops selling clothes and jewellery. I followed The Family into one which was recommended. After some sensory overload, I took to viewing the street through my phone. Not only easier on the confused eyes, but also fodder for a blog post. It left me free to wonder about the relationship between bling and kitsch (apart from the interesting fact that a person called Kitsch acted in a movie called Bling).

Logic day

There are two rules for success:

(1) never tell others everything you know

Anonymous

January 14 is World Logic Day. According to the UNESCO, “This date was chosen in honour of two great logicians of the twentieth century: Kurt Gödel and Alfred Tarski. Gödel, who died on 14 January 1978, established the incompleteness theorem, which transformed the study of logic in the twentieth century. Tarski, who was born on 14 January 1901, developed theories which interacted with those of Gödel.” There seems to be a single photo of Gödel (Goedel) and Tarski together; the image above has been derived.

Isn’t everyone a solipsist?

Old lady in a letter to Russell

I will not write about how Tarski’s undefinability theorem extends the incompleteness theorem due to Gödel. I do not want to belabour that point that these theorems imply that every well-defined logical system, even if they are automated using computers, are limited in what they can achieve. Nor shall I mention Gödel’s discovery of a loophole in the constitution of the US which could be used to turn the country legally into a fascist dictatorship. Moreover, I don’t plan to write even a single word about how logicians tried to examine the foundations of mathematics in the 20th century and discovered beasts like the paradox which goes by the name of Betrand Russell, from which came to the theorems of Gödel and Tarsky. Instead I just want to remind you that self-referential statements lead to chaos and fun.

One has to avoid cliches like the plague after all.

Narrow lanes, wide doors

We lost ourselves in the narrow lanes that lead northwest from the Golden Temple. It is said that Guru Arjun Singh’s favourite spot to view the temple from was a place called Darshani Deori. What he saw in the late 16th century CE would have been very different. It would be another two hundred and fifty years before the present marble and gold building of the Harmandir Sahib would come to be. Nor was Amritsar then a walled city, with houses built up cheek by jowl, and the sky over Darshani Deori reduced to slivers visible over narrow lanes. He would perhaps have looked over open slopes to a small temple in the middle of a lake built by his predecessor, Guru Ramdas.

We’d been looking for the Gurudwara Guru ka Mahal. It marks a spot full of Sikh history. Guru Ramdas, the fourth of the Gurus, stayed in this place while the lake of Amrit Sarovar was dug, so laying the foundation of Amritsar. Guru Arjun, his successor, was married at this place, as was Guru Hargobind, the sixth of the line. Two of Guru Hargobind’s sons, Baba Atal Rai and Guru Teg Bahadur, who became the ninth of the Gurus, were born here. The storied Gurudwara was a little hard to find, until we spotted a sign pointing to a narrow alley which was an approach road.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, in the time of Ranjit Singh’s empire and the later British takeover, when Amritsar became a walled city, this neighbourhood must have been desirable.The building at the head of the lane was festooned with electrical wires slung every which way, but had an impressive arched doorway, with an immense ceremonial door which had a minor door for everyday use set into it. Above this entranceway was a grand, but decaying, edifice of intricately carved wood. In the post-Mughal, pre-British times, this was a style which seems to have been adopted widely in western India. If I was an art historian, I would have been able to notice the difference between the woodwork of the Khalsa Raj and the Marathas. Sadly, I don’t have those skills.

As I walked down the lane to the Gurudwara, I stopped at every door, taking photos. Right outside the Gurudwara was a later building (you see a part of it in the featured image, and more of it in the gallery above). This had more of a British influence in its construction, but still retained an elaborate wooden balcony. I wished I had more time to spend in this neighbourhood. Maybe another year.

Amritsari Kitsch

Kitsch finds a hearty welcome in rural Punjab. Every time I’ve driven through the Punjabi countryside I’ve seen it with my own eyes: two storeyed houses with a giant concrete eagle perched on top, a house sporting a helicopter as a headdress, a water tank shaped like an elephant in full ceremonial regalia, a roadside dhaba announced by fibreglass dragons. In cities this is toned down to mere bling. But not entirely.

Surely it is kitsch when a flower stall displays a large bouquet of plastic flowers among the roses and marigolds? Or when the window display at a restaurant leaves you confused about what might be on the menu? Glad to see a warm Punjabi heart beating in there.

Selfies and spectacles

When you reach Amritsar, history suggests that you to take an ancient highway, now called NH1 or the Grand Trunk Road, and drive towards the old (but not ancient) city of Lahore in Punjab. At our time in history you will stop at the half way point where the Wagah border post was established. If you reach in the evening around sunset there is a daily spectacle of beating the retreat.

We’d been advised to reach early and leave as soon as possible in order to avoid crowds. It was not entirely possible to avoid crowding; the usual security barriers create a bit of a bottleneck. But we got through it rather quickly, and found our seats. There was a nice fairground atmosphere in the stadium that has been built around the border gate on both sides. On the Indian side there were vendors selling popcorn, ice cream, and Indian flags. The old sikh who sells paper flags had a very camera-friendly smile.

A couple went right up to the border gate to have their photo taken. I did my bit of ambush photography. Most people were content to take their selfies from near where they sat. Crowd control was tight, but done with smiles. It helped that this was a place where everybody had warm and mellow feelings for the army and security in general, and were on their best behaviour. In turn, the Border Security Force did their best to keep everyone entertained. There was music, lots of opportunities to pose with flags, or dance.

With my camera in hand, I was more interested in the peripheral build up to the main event. In the no man’s land between the gates that each country had built, a member of India’s Border Security Force was preparing for the flag to be lowered. His opposite number from the Pakistani Rangers was also occupied similarly. If you were alert you would not miss the high degree of synchronization between the two. This is a clear signal of some level of cooperation between the two organizations in putting together this daily spectacle.

The military ceremony is the main event of the evening. First the prelude. An officer takes his position. Then various cadres of the BSF march up to theirs. The dog squad was interesting; military dogs seem to be well-trained in deportment. But the literal high point of the evening is what the BSF calls silly march: the high kicks, one of which you see in the photo above. Quite a bit of fun, we thought, grinning as we demolished our popcorn.

The central part of the ceremony is announced by the familiar flourish on trumpets. The gates open, and an equal number of troopers from both sides march into the no man’s land. There is a lot of colourful pageantry, a ceremonial show of aggression. And then the flags are lowered, in perfect synchrony. The folded flag is taken away with an escort, the last of the troops march away, and the gates are closed for the night.

We hastened back to our car, hoping to drive out before there was a traffic jam. Attari village, the last one before the border, is supposed to have a couple of places where they have wonderful sarson ka saag in this season. Should we stop for dinner there?

The Good in 402

The end of the year is a time for reckonings. With just 4 days left before we close the calendar to the very bad year 402 ME, maybe you would not mind reading about some of the good things about this year.

Losing friends is never a good thing to happen to you, but it happened several times in the last two years. If I had to lose friends, it should be like this. All those I talked to just before their deaths were excited by the things they were doing right then, feeling on top of the world. Sudden death is shocking to us, until you realize that if you could choose, this might be how you would want to go. Unsuspecting, in the middle of something engrossing and exciting.

Diwali remains a warm memory of this year. Between the delta and the omicron there was a wonderful meeting with The Clan: a party lasting two days. For many of us cousins, it was a throwback to our childhood. It is such a commonplace joy that although the people keep changing through your lifetime, the pleasure that you get from partying with the family remains the same.

Although it was nice to finally get back to a movie theatre, some of the best films I saw were streamed. There’s such a huge library of movies available now, that it is not hard to find a movie that you always wanted to see. Even so, I think I should make a special mention of the movie Another Round by Thomas Vinterberg. Starting with a daft premise it builds an interesting story, but at the end the clearest memory I have of it is the acting by Mads Mikkelsen. I’m marking it down as something I’ll watch again.

As for my reading, I finally got over the barren patch of year 401, helped by generous doses of crime and P. G. Wodehouse. Your are spoilt for choice now, what with excellent books, wonderful reviews by fellow bloggers and the usual writers, and extensive catalogues on line. The most memorable read of the year? That has to be Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbagh.

But most of all, in spite of everything, we managed to make many trips around the country. Most of these were in places where we would meet few people. As a result, we saw really wonderful things. I got my first photos of a Malkoha. That’s the green-billed Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus tristis) which you see featured. I wonder why it has the sad species name. I certainly was not at all triste when I got the photo.

The Golden Temple

We stood in a queue to visit the Harmandir Sahib. In spite of the cramped space inside with most pilgrims filing past rapidly, the singing of the rehras, evening hymns, from the Adi Granth imparted a serenity to the atmosphere. We stood for a short while in a corner, and then yielded space to newcomers. Afterwards I found a spot near the lake from which I could take a panoramic shot of all the major buildings in the complex.

In the featured photo the most recent avatar of the Akal Takht is barely visible at the extreme left. In front of it is the ber tree known as the Dukhbhanjini tree, the remover of sadness. Next, you come to the dome of the 19th century Ghanta Ghar, the clock tower. Then is the Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple itself. To the right of it are the 18th century watch towers called the Ramgarhia Bunga. To their right you can see the arches which lead to the langar, kitchen and dining hall. Far on the right you see the dome atop the Sikh Library.

This complex is now the center of the Sikh religion. In the 15th century, the first of the gurus, Guru Nanak, preached the end of caste and ritual, pacifism and an end to distinctions between religions. The reformist ideals continued into the 16th century, when the fourth guru, Guru Ramdas, built the lake and founded the temple. The foundation stone was laid by the Sufi Mian Mir. The militarization of the followers began after the execution of the fifth guru, Guru Arjun, in the early years of the 17th century by the Mughal emperor Jahangir. The sixth guru, Guru Har Gobind, founded an army, began carrying two swords to symbolize military power, and founded the Akal Takht, a seat of temporal power. Since then Sikhism has not recognized boundaries between religion, culture, and politics, a philosophy which Guru Har Gobind called Miri-Piri.

We’d circumambulated the lake and visited the main shrine in the time between late afternoon and dusk. Now, as the lights came on in the buildings, more and more people began to arrive. We later learnt that the Sikh farmers had begun to return from their long sit-in on the outskirts of Delhi and the next few days would be crowded and heated. We walked on to the langar. The tradition that everyone who wants to can eat a free meal in a Gurudwara comes down from Guru Nanak, and is an embodiment of the central pacifist and egalitarian teachings of the guru.

People of Amritsar

As soon as you enter the doors surrounding the Golden Temple of Amritsar you see the devout. We entered from the east, with the setting sun in front of us. All around the lake people were facing the temple with a beatific look on their faces. The lake water was clean, perhaps kept clean not only by the filters around it, but also by fish which attracted the cormorants and kingfishers that I saw.

We’d been thinking of a trip to Amritsar for several years, and mid-December seemed to be a good time for it finally. I’d imagined spending a long time around the lake, scoping out good views, waiting for the right light. I was down in the dumps when I read that photography is not allowed in the temple. Even though I was ready to travel without equipment, The Family convinced me not only to take it with me to Amritsar, but also to carry it when we went to the temple. Amar, the chatty Sikh who drove us to the temple told me that I was allowed to take photos anywhere in the temple except inside the Harmandir Sahib. The coir mat and cold marble on which I was supposed to walk felt like billowy clouds under my feet when I understood that.

Two conventions are strictly enforced when you enter. You have to be barefoot, no shoes no socks, inside the temple. And your head has to be covered, not with a cap but by a piece of cloth, either a simple piece tied as you see in the photos here, or in the form of a turban. There is an advise to be dressed simply. This threw me, but we interpreted it to mean that we should avoid conspicuous red clothes. We were also familiar with a dress code that many places of religion enforce, which is to wear clothes which cover your arms and legs. In any case, it was cold enough that I had to wear jeans and a sweater. The Family decided to wear a salwar and kurta, with a dupatta to cover her head, and a warm shawl against the cold. We were dressed like the thousands of others that we saw. Masks were another point of concern. We could keep our masks on except when we stood in front of the Adi Granth.

One of the pleasures of people watchers like me is to take ambush photos. These are photos of photographers and their subjects. There was ample opportunity for that. I was glad to find couples looking for the best angles for selfies. They are so absorbed in their quest that they never notice, or even mind, a photographer using them for local colour.

I was not so certain about what the guards armed with pikes would think about being photographed. But once one of them smiled at me and told me that I should stop taking a photo as close to the Harmandir Sahib as I happened to be, I realized that they were as polite as any other guards. A few steps away I managed to take the ambush photo of a guard watching a group of young men taking photos of each other against the temple.

That blue uniform of the guards looked wonderful with the Golden Temple in the background, but the light was hard to manage. In this photo I was happy to catch the trio in an unguarded moment, just being the young men that they are. The colours turned to be an added visual interest.

That light is just what I’d been imagining I would spend days trying to get. I was so fortunate that our first visit to the Golden Temple was in that golden hour of the day when every image seems to be magic. Walking around the Golden Temple I realized that I’d been missing street photography for half a year. This was a great place to re-enter that immersion in images of crowds.

The things of light

Sadly we came across the old Parsi tradition of Shab-e-Yalda too late to mark it with the dinner it deserves. I found out about it yesterday from an article in Teheran Times that someone had forwarded to me. I had to guess from this that the tradition is older than Islam, and made the leap to asking Parsi friends about it. Only a few knew about it; winter is not a big thing in India, and it is natural that the custom atrophied in the millennium and a half that Parsis have been in India. But it is a story straight out of the Gathas, where mid-winter marks the victory of light over darkness. The days get longer after this, as Mehr Yazda (Mithra to ancient Persians, Indians, Romans) asserts his dominance over the forces of dark.

We learnt that the dinner should involve summer fruits: watermelon and pomegranates, perhaps some oranges and persimmons, nuts and raisins. And it should involve the family. I wonder whether the Romans muddled up their Zoroastrianism and Christianity and exported an old Persian tradition across the west in the form of Christmas. Or maybe the muddle was created after Pope Gregory reformed the calendar. Or perhaps the decadent Romans didn’t want to forgo a feast. There has to be a story here, because the celebration of the nativity of the Christ in the oldest Eastern churches, such as those in Kerala, are often quite different. Whatever the history, this Parsi feast of midwinter would be easy to gather in India’s warm climate, and I do not mind adding it to my calendar of dinners.

Where to eat in Amritsar

Amritsar is a city for food. You cannot walk two paces without seeing some street food which looks incredibly good. And if you stop to taste, your palate will confirm the impression of your eyes. It might seem that it would be hard to choose where to eat in Amritsar. But there was no question in our minds. Our first stop for food would be the langar in the Golden Temple. This is reputed to serve food to 50000 people on a normal day, twice that number on some days. The numbers have decreased during the pandemic. Volunteers not only cook, but also clean, and there has been no instance reported of contamination.

Langar is one the central concepts of Sikhism. Charitable donations of food may be common across India, under every known political system, but the langar is different. Guru Nanak developed the idea of continuously running kitchens, where food is donated by the community, the work is done entirely by volunteers, and which is open to absolutely anyone. This last idea was innovative, and expressed the central value of the religion. Such a kitchen, the langar, can be found in every gurudwara, and it has run continuously in the Golden Temple, since the founding of the Harmandir Sahib. The ingredients are donated or bought with donated money. The building and its maintenace also depends on donations. The cooking, cleaning, serving, run mainly through the work of volunteers. What automation there is (sieving machines for flour, a chapati making machine which is used on specially crowded days) has been donated.

We walked barefoot into the langar, heads covered, and were handed a metal plate and bowl by a volunteer. We were directed to an upstairs hall, to which we were admitted after a very short wait. We filed in with pilgrims, sat at the first empty place that we found. There is some concession to the pandemic, with groups keeping some space from others. My knees creaked as we sat down on the mats on the ground, and I knew it would be difficult to get up at the end of the meal. We were served two rotis immediately. You are meant to receive things with both hands. If you forget, you are reminded about it with a smile. Dal and a curry of paneer and peas were ladled on to the plate. I held up the bowl for the rice kheer and it was filled without comment, but I saw that around me people took the kheer on the plate, and filled the bowl with water.

The food surprised me, while remaining true to everything I’d heard. There were no spices, but the food was as exquisitely tasty as it is reputed to be. The dal, especially, was something special; the half day long cook brings out the flavours of the lentils so that you don’t mind the absence of onions or spices. The kheer was also remarkable: mildly sweet but with the slow boiled milk infused with the aroma of rice. This was Punjabi khana rendered down to its essentials: fresh ingredients, slow cooking.

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