I’ve been getting up at 4.30 AM for the past few mornings now, well before dawn, & hitting my work. It all started at Patiala, from where the other day Victor & I rolled the rails north through 5 & a half hours of yet more monotonous flatlands. One wonders at the mental state of the British troops as they marched up & down these unpunctuated northern plains throughout the early days of the Raj – it is no wonder that they implemented the building of one of the best & most extensive rail networks on the planet, which is run with a rigour & vigour to this day. Our destination was Amritsar, & I urge anyone finds themeselves in this part of Asia to visit the city on account of the majestic Golden Temple of the Sikhs. This is a gleaming holy house set in a vast ‘lotus pool’ which reflects the temple in its silky waters, creating a wonderful aesthetic effect, especially at night. On all sides surrounding the square lotus pool rise white marble buildings, & behind them yet more buildings contribute to the capital complex of Sikhism. In one part, up to 100,000 daily devotees are fed for free, squatting on rugs in great chambers while rice, curry, desert, chutney & water are placed in their metal pans. The sound of these, as they reach the washing area at the end of each meal, reminded me of blasting rain as it hit an alluminium roof.
It was in the nerve centre of the temple that I felt a wonderful spirituality, garnered by the holy songs played & sung by devout Sikh musicians, while other practitioners of the faith were channeled around them, kissing the floor or flinging rupees into their presence. Comparatively speaking, Sikhism is a new religion, founded in the 16th century by Guru Nanak. Monotheistic in nature, its rise as a major world religion proves how faith is really just about one’s personal interpretation of god, & spirituality a method of connecting with that interpretation. Many are indoctrined into a particular belief system from an early age, from which springs from an almost tribal loyalty to its tenets. Instead, the truth cannot be all that far away from there being just a single god who is worshiped differently from land to land all across the earth. Even the polytheistic Hindoos believe that all members of their divine Pantheon are actually different aspects of the same omniscient essence. In this very same fashion, it is possible, indeed likely, that the Palestinian Jesus was worshiped in India as Krishna.
Other highlights of Amritsar included a visit to the Jallianwalla Bagh, a peace garden on the site of the brutal & tyrannous massacre of unarmed innocents ordered by General Dyer in 1919. Out of 1650 bullets fired that day, 1550 hit their mark, killing over 300 & wounding the rest. 160 bodies were recovered from a well alone, the only cover at that time, shot as they tried to scramble over the sides & into safety. In response to such a tragedy, the Nobelprize winning poet Tagore gave Britain back his knighthood in protest & disgust. Indian independrnce was now only 28 years away, but when it came it came at a cost. The Muslims had been angling furiously for a separate Islamic state, & the British simply drew a line through the Punjab & created Pakistan. Cue all hell breaking loose, beheadings in the street etc, & the greatest movement of humanity the world has ever seen. In all 13 million people died on both sides for their religion in only a few months as they tried to get the touchdown of safety into their respective national end-zones. During this period, the King of Kashmir was also angling for a separate state, but was overwhelmed by Pakistan & India, who both tried to grab as much land as they can & came to an unofficial de facto border known as the LOC (Line of Control) that even as I write has seen an ongoing two-week skirmish between Pakistani militants & the Indian Army only a few kilometres from Sringar, a future destination of ours.
It is ironic, then, that while their is real shooting to the north of Amritsar, to the west of the city plays out the daily, riotous flag ceremony at the Pakistani border crossing, where both sides contemptuously march, stamp & gesture at each other, while behind them two football-style crowds cheer & sing their national songs. When we visited, the Indians heavily outnumbered the ‘away’ fans, like when Exeter City used to come to Turf Moor when we were in the old Fourth Division. The Pakistanis did their best, however, & we left the border thinking it was all rather good fun, & the hatred behind these two nuclear powers shouldn’t ever plunge the world into atomic darkness.
Setting off north towards Srinagar, I had noticed that our route was to take us fairly close to Qadian, the birthplace of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835 – 1908) himself, & felt compelled to pay his ghost a visit. A rapid 20 mile bus journey took us north to busy little Batala, half of which town seemed to be only half built, from where a further bus brought us to Qadian. A town of 40,000 souls, there is a distinct relaxed attitude & atmosphere to the place, perhaps due to the narrow Italian-style streets the constitute the core of the town. Just on the fringes of these lies the spiritual home of the Amhiddaya movement, of which the author of Jesus in India is the spiritual head, the self-proclaimed ‘Promised Messiah’ who claimed that certain prophecies predicting the appearance of a divine teacher were fulfilled in his person.
Whether this is true or not, the movement is thriving, from just a few followers in 1889, when Hazrat proclaimed his messiahship, to today’s many millions spread throughout 204 nations across the globe. The Ahmadiyya are actually practicing Muslims, but have been ostracized by the majority of other muslims, & denied permission from the Saudi authorities to visit Mecca, while in Pakistan there are not even allowed to publically pray to Allah, being forced to worship in a secrective silence. One cannot help but think of the early Christians, who were also persecuted by stalwarts of the old religion for proclaming the promised messiah had come. Just like Christianity, the Ahmadiyya have their own martyrs, their faces hung up upon the walls of a museum/gallery space in Qadian. By them, like statues of the early popes that ring St Peter’s Square in Rome, Hazrat & his first five successors proudly stare down upon us, testament to the strength of their growing movement. Each of these khalifs have also added to the literature of the Ahmaadiyya, a process reminiscent of the growth of the New Testament corpus.
The hospitality of the movement is boundless, & we were put up & fed for free in a wonderful guest house – the rooms are normally used for visiting diplomats – near the impressive mosque & birth-place of Hazrat; not as visitors to the movement, but as, ‘guests of the promised messiah.’ himself. I found myself engaging in theological debate with various members of the movement, my hands placed behind my back as we gently strolled around the area. I was also shown the impressive modern library, which is a testament to the academic nature of Hazrat, without whose efforts I may never have taken up the challenge of finding the historical Jesus. I was also given access to many books written by Hazrat & his disciples, a perfectly fresh field in which to commence a litological dig.
As I sat down to read through Hazrat’s Jesus in India I spared a thought for myself, sat in that library of Bhubaneswar, flicking through the same book for the first time. Back then, I would never have dreamt of visiting the author’s home, but there I was, tucked into a comfortable state of mind by our highly genial hosts, pouring through his texts to the sounds of minaret calling the faithful to prayer. Parts of Hazrat’s book highlights the Islamic view of Jesus, including reports in the Hadith – a book of sayings atrributed to Mohammed – that state Jesus reached 125 years of age. This, of course is indirect evidence that Jesus surivived his crucifixion, when he was 33 years-old. Elsewhere in Islamic writings, Hazrat tells us, ‘The Kanz-ul-Ummal states both; ‘God directed Jesus (on whom be peace) ‘0 Jesus! Move from one place to another’ — go from one country to another lest thou shouldst be recognised and persecuted.’
So that brings us to today. After another free breakfast, we finally began to spend some money & hit the busses north. 6 hours later we pulled into Jammu, the city of Temples, & our first hills since Britain! We’ve just got a hotel room who run a taxi service up to Srinagar in Kashmir in the morning – 300 k away – & its cost us a tenner each, including the room. Meanwhile, the internet cafe Im in right now has a room full of playstation 2s – so that’s keeping Victor happy for a few hours
Roll on the Himalayas