Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Of Singhs and Sikkimese

Ah, the touch of the keyboard on fingertips at last. Just back from a trip to Amritsar and then to Sikkim over the last fortnight. Visiting these places and seeing their culture was an exhilarating experience. Also were a 1000 km drive from Delhi-Amritsar-Delhi in a friend's car, a 3 day trek to an altitude of 13000 feet and a 50 hr train journey through the heartland of India.

Both Punjab and Sikkim have a history of conflict in merging with the Indian union now followed by peace. Sikhs have a history of undergoing suppression and injustice since the Mughal days (also painful in their memory is the military's entry into the Golden temple in 1984 which they have recorded in graphic detail in the musuem in the Golden Temple). Now peace rules in both Punjab and Sikkim (more like tourism rules in the latter). Lead to some questions about one's cultural identity and affiliation to the Indian identity. Was pretty intrigued by a signboard by the the Archaelogical Society of India in Yuksam which read "A country's identity is determined by its cultural heritage". Each region has a history and culture of its own... what exactly is the heritage that contributes to the Indian identity as opposed to a regional cultural identity? Unity in Diversity is easier said than engaged with in reality. Am dangerously close to sounding like a separatist but none is more convinced of my patriotism than I am; am proud of the fact that India has found the systems to hold unity in the midst of diversity. And India has a few lessons to teach the rest of the world. Met some foreigners in Tsukha in whose view governments across EU are grappling with a similar issue of cultural assimilation of immigrants (from Asian and African countries) in their metropolises.

Amritsar has a touching and calming influence on its visitors. In the Golden temple premises, there is a soothing influence which I have found in few holy places in India. Was reminded of my acute ignorance of Sikh culture and history during the visit. The Wagah border pantomime was interesting. On the Indian side, slogans of "Bharat mata ki jai" rent the air. On the Pakistani side, slogans of "La illahi yill Allah" were echoed. Actually my confusion on cultural, religious and national identities began there. Wasn't the Indian cry a reiteration of national identity whereas the Pakistani side's one of religious identity? Thereupon my friend Madhu opined that "Bharat mata" could be construed by others as a strongly Hindu symbolism for the Indian state. Give up level.

Think Kerala stole the tagline "God's own country" from Sikkim. The beauty of the hill state is breath taking. Nepali is the most common spoken language along with Bhutia. Tourism is the biggest revenue earner. The Indo-China border was only a drive away from Gangtok but it required a permit and special clearance for our French cotraveller Erwan. So we luckily chose a trek to Dzongri from Yuksam. Visited the Buddhist monastery in Rumtek where the current Karmapa is yet to be crowned. Again acutely reminded of my ignorance of the history of the region. The people are very friendly and are amazingly fluent in English whereas their Hindi is rusty.

Pleased with this blog since it started somewhere and ended nowhere, a true mark of originality! The issue of identity and its importance to an individual is intriguing. One thing I do realise is that concept of identity is being used with great effect by political parties to rally support. And so on this discordant note this blog shall end as it truly reflects my mind after witnessing the kaleidoscope that is India.