Preserving Heritage Indeed !

The Harmandar Sahib embodies the religious and socio-cultural core of Amritsar. I went to Amritsar with visions of experiencing a heritage that I associated with the Golden Temple, and the Gurbani chanted from dawn to dusk and through the night under the stars ringing serenity. To see stalwart men bowed deeply under rainbow-coloured turbans, and the women as sturdy in looks evoking a sense of gentle order, epitomised in my mind the spirit of what I call a heritage. But alas this heritage was only imprisoned within the parameters of the Darbar Sahib. Outside, right within the hem of the sanctum sanctorum, another heritage loomed. In the main streets where large banners announced the Amritsar Heritage Festival, I confronted a city that left me appalled. Hoardings of semi-nude women were festooned on every other electric pole in the city. While the impressive structure of the Khalsa College, the venue of the festival, glittered with lights, graffitti, of the t vulgar sort adorned walls nearby. Piles of garbage lay around the chowks, pigs scrounged and men stood pissing in front of crumbling heritage walls. The organisers of the festival were not concerned with this face of a heritage. Nor were those who claim it. Under a wide white tent lined with red velvet sofas and less padded chairs, sat a motley crowd chattering, moving, sitting and half listening to musicians as great as Vilayat Khan. When he walked up to the stage, dressed in formal gear, the way he would have in the durbar of a maharaja, the chattering crowd stood up. The welcome did not last long. Sensing the animated restlessness, Vilayat Khan cut short his performance. While he played Raag Yaman, which he explained meant Amen (long live), an ironic evocation, the wife of a senior bureaucrat sat munching at her dinner brought reverentially by two minor officials who were in attendance. Two more, liveried in police uniform, carried a sofa as their boss arrived and there was no seat on the red sofa for him. The sofa moved with the boss till an appropriate place was found in the front row. He was in no way less than an erstwhile maharaja, more nattier perhaps.

Back in the resort hotel, the lobby sizzled like a shopping mall. Women dressed in gaudiness dazzled each other. Men as radiant as peacocks jostled in the coffee shop to pile their plates with cheese pakoras, aloo paranthas, dahi, sambar and an array of food items that cancelled each other’s flavours.

Were these the same people who I had seen lined up in ordered columns to press their heads before the Guru Granth Sahib’ If you want to sense Amritsar’s heritage, take a rickshaw and go around the temple. In the maze of tight lanes, lined with ancient shops, lives the culture of Amritsar I was told. It was easier to walk than sit in a rickshaw that was slower than my feet in the medieval lanes. But I was less tired in this jam than I was in the wide but noisy streets of the city. Instead of horns blaring, one only heard human voices shrieking at each other. The kar sevak of Darbar Sahib, who was my proud escort knew each bazaar’bazaars for fine rice and hand-rolled papad, gold gotas for dupattas, shawls and silk suits, silver and gold ornaments, fancy red velvet tray covers, decorations for marriages. To see these streets packed with the business of living circling the Golden Temple left me baffled. How can the same people reflect such opposites in the way they live and feel’ How real is religion outside its centre’ I remembered what a chief granthi, in another revered gurdwara, had told me. Exuding a conventional dignity, spotless in his white garb, a blue turban crowning his head he had seemed helpless. "Regard for religion no longer exists," he had said. "The time we are living in is Kalyug. Truth is not around. There are no more teachers or gurus to guide us. Religious groups are now mixed with politics. On the land where stood the great deras now walk corrupt men."

If religion itself is under assault how can a heritage be preserved’

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