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Faith : September 23, 2001

A shrine at the border

Amitava Kumar

Amitava Kumar is the author of Passport Photos (Penguin India and University of California Press). He is also a columnist for

The hotel that I was staying at, in Amritsar, was only ten minutes away from the Golden Temple. I was headed for the border but I decided to stop at the temple first. This was my first time there. I was visiting at the height of summer. The air had a steely edge to it and everything around me seemed to conduct heat. The handkerchief I had borrowed from the stall outside the temple was soon soaked with sweat. In the pond around the Golden Temple, schools of large, dark-scaled fish gasped at the water's surface, their open mouths closing on the warm air.

Ashim Ghosh/Fotomedia

When I had been in college in the early 1980s, each morning we would open the newspaper and find news of the Golden Temple. The guns and then the bloodshed in the temple precincts had stunned the nation. That memory of violence is compounded when you visit the temple. You witness the quiet religiosity of the worshippers; peace pervades the air. It is possible to imagine the emotions of hurt and outrage that a full Army assault must have evoked in the hearts of the devout Sikh and even Hindus who had regularly worshipped at that shrine.

I stood and watched as the lines of worshippers, men and women of all ages, performed kar-seva. Standing on the burning slabs, they washed the tiled steps and the wide marble courtyards with water from the pond. I went inside the temple after that. People sat with folded hands around the Granth Sahib. Priests, with full beards, sang Gurbani verses and their strong voices carried out into the heat of the afternoon.

I could hear the singing on the streets outside. A few minutes later, I was on my way to Wagah to see the evening ceremony staged by the Indian and Pakistani armies. The next day, I would go to Khem-Karan, a few hours away from Amritsar.

Khem-Karan is a hamlet situated at the border that divides the two countries. I had found mention of the place in Stephen Alter's Amritsar to Lahore. Alter had written: "Situated about a hundred metres inside Indian territory, near the village of Khem Karan, is the tomb of Baba Sheikh Braham, a Sufi mystic who was a contemporary of Guru Nanak. His samadhi has been turned into a shrine that is visited by devotees from both sides of the border. Even during the two wars in 1965 and 1971, when pitched battles were fought in the region, the Baba's tomb was left unharmed."

The road from Amritsar leads to Khem-Karan past several gaudily decorated buildings that are called "marriage palaces". These marriage palaces dotted a landscape that was given over to the cultivation of wheat. There were signs advertising tractors. The BSF had its offices beside the road. And then, once we had reached Khem-Karan and turned toward the border, the road gave way. We had a narrow dirt road and the dust swirled around us as the car inched forward. In the distance was a high embankment and, buried beneath it at regular intervals, was a long line of turrets that gunners could hide behind.

The driver stopped the car at the BSF camp, which was located where the dirt road ended. There was an electric fence on the far side: Pakistan spread out beyond the lines of barbed wire. After I had showed my press cards, a few guards took me to show the shrine at the border. If I had come on Thursday, I would have been allowed inside with less hassle. Two metal gates had to be unlocked - I was asked to leave my camera back - and then I was ushered into a small compound in which sat a brick edifice painted green.

There were small trees and bushes all around us; this was unusual in a landscape that was otherwise rather barren. Green flags fluttered on all sides of the edifice. A priest emerged, a black scarf tied around his head. He led us up the small edifice. High, tiled steps, six of them, gave way to a small courtyard with the tomb of Baba Braham. The tomb was covered with ornate green cloth and the driver who had brought me slipped a fifty-rupee note beneath its folds. The priest went down and, perhaps as a gesture to his visitors, he put on some religious songs on this rickety-sounding tape player. The machine was attached to an amplifier and the wheezing melodies suddenly breached the border.

The young priest joined us. We were sitting under one of the trees; a hand-pump stood near us. The priest, I found out, was a Hindu soldier. His name was Rajesh Kumar, a member of the BSF Battalion 191. I asked him how he was chosen to be the priest at this mazaar of a Sufi saint. An older soldier answered for the priest instead. He said, "Yeh achcha ladka hai. Sharaab nahin peeta hai. Meat nahin khata" (He is a good boy. He does not drink or eat meat). The priest was from Azamgarh. He had been in Khem-Karan for three years now. He had a degree in Sanskrit as well as astrology; but, at night, he was still required to go out and do the patrolling on the border. He might have meant this as a complaint. Then, he added, "Baba ke darbaar mein shanti milti hai" (There is peace in Baba's darbaar).

There was a soldier there from Bihar and I got talking to him. We knew each other's villages. I asked him what the mazaar meant for him. He said, "Hum akele duty karte hain. Yeh ehsaas hota hai ki mere peeche support hai" (I do my duty alone. I feel that I have the Baba's support). I felt, not without sympathy, the force of faith. But, I couldn't let this go. I turned to the rest of the jawaans who were standing there. The Pakistanis who pray here, I said, they too enjoy the Baba's support, do they not?


"Yes, yes," they said in Hindi. They pointed out the patch of land on the other side of a single line of barbed wire where the Pakistanis come and pray. After the recent war in Kargil, the visitors are not allowed any further access. There is a crowd here from both sides on Thursdays, said someone. Another soldier said, "Their officers offer their namaaz standing right there each evening. They are there for 15-20 minutes and then they go away." He could have been describing with awe the place in a forest where tigers or elephants are sighted. One of the jawaans understood what I was saying. He replied, "Shanti waali baat hai. Hum log bhaichaare se hee milte hain" (There is peace here. We meet as brothers).

Peace in the subcontinent seems sometimes like a miracle. As we sat there, eating the sweets that the priest had put in our palms, one soldier suddenly said, "Yahaan pagal achche ho gaye hain" (The insane have recovered here). Mentally, I said, Amen.

Later, in my hotel-room in Amritsar, I began thinking of the many plaques and signs that I had seen at the Golden Temple. They were all memorials to soldiers who had died in India's wars, most of them from the wars in 1965 and 1971 fought against Pakistan. Sikhs, including soldiers in the Indian Army, died during Operation Bluestar. It was there, at a shrine that was holy for so many Sikhs who had served in the Indian forces, that the Army had launched its attack. I raise this issue in order to make the simple point that places of worship, because of the importance they assume in the lives of ordinary people, also become a part of this secular world and, sometimes tragically, also places of war.

To put it in abstract terms, culture is never sacred. It is only a field of conflict. We struggle to give meaning to places and to keep them that way or to bring about change.

I returned in my mind to the shrine that I had just visited at Khem-Karan. The divided citizens of warring nations come there praying for a thousand different things: health, wealth, more cattle, better crops, a job.... When we were on our way back to Amritsar, the car's driver turned to me and asked whether I could help him travel to the U.S. or Canada. Then, unprompted, he confided that he had prayed at the shrine for the boon of a life and a job abroad. The driver then asked me what I had wanted from Sheikh Braham. I told him, "Peace between the two nations that he touches." The irony struck me later that war comes through the door at places of worship even if only in the figure of one who is praying for peace.

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