Amritsar ... a place of gentle, kind people (Matt & Laura)
Feb 24, 2007
It is a relaxing train trip that takes us from Delhi to Amritsar, six hours interspersed with lunch and tea breaks. Before long, the substantial distance is behind us and we have arrived.
There is one main reason to come to Amritsar: to visit Hari Mandir Sahib (more well-known as the Golden Temple), the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion. The train is filled with Sikhs, presumably either travelling home or for a pilgrimage to the temple. Indeed, as our autorickshaw winds through narrow streets and alleys packed almost to gridlock with cars, buses, bicycles, rickshaws and pedestrians, the number of people who visit this place becomes obvious. Indeed, Sikhs travel from all over the world to visit this temple. After a long, bumpy, meandering trip, we arrive at our hotel. I feel a little bad having bargained the driver to a low fare given how long we sat in traffic, so I give him a small tip, thanking him for being a good driver. To my surprise, he takes my hand, bows, and kisses it solemnly, thanking me. Our hotel manager is friendly and is happy to provide an extra blanket for Laura. Everyone is so incredibly friendly here!
We walk through the crowds and traffic with some difficulty, side-stepping the movements of the gridlocked traffic, hawkers selling headscarves, and taxi drivers offering rides to the border closing ceremony at the India-Pakistan border. We buy a ticket (the ceremony is supposed to be interesting and quite a spectacle), then proceed through the gates into the temple.
We know that we must cover our heads, remove our shoes, and wash our feet before entering the temple. Signs tell us this, as did our guidebook. It is much less clear, in the midst of the crowds busily lining up in different areas, exactly where to accomplish these tasks. We watch, trying not to look too confused or out of place (as if we could possibly look anything other than out of place!). A bearded, turbaned man smiles at us and points to a nearby cluster of people: so THAT'S where we get rid of our shoes! We thank him, check our shoes, then follow the crowd to the hand washing sinks, then proceed to the bins of scarves available to cover your head. I join the men rummaging through the bucket: pink or red or floral print? The selection is pretty sparse; I certainly won't look as imposing and refined as the tall turbaned men! I settle on an orange one and suffer the embarrassment of needing Laura to tie it for me (as the men around me smile a little). Finally bare-footed and covered, we walk through the foot bathing pool and enter the temple grounds. I walk past a man stooped, scooping a handful of foot washing water into his mouth to drink. Men and women kneel, kissing the ground before entering the open area that surrounds the temple.
We are, of course, very aware of being visitors in a place where we are unsure of the rules, the customs. We follow the crowd, slowly walking down the marble steps into the temple compound, then around the lake-like Amrit Sarovar (Pool of Nectar) in the centre of which is the shining gold spires of the temple itself.
The sight is quite incredible. The temple shines in polished gold like an incredibly huge piece of sacred jewellery. In the bright afternoon sun, the yellow spires of the temple seem all the brighter against the gleaming white marble of the walkway and surrounding buildings. It is, of course, much more than a place of architectural beauty: pilgrims are bent in prayer, foreheads touching the cool granite floor; others splash water from the Amrit Sarovar over themselves while many line up in the bathing areas to immerse themselves completely in the sacred waters.
As we walk, Laura's kurta and headscarf catch the attention of the women: they turn, notice her, and smile with obvious approbation.
In the midst of a place of worship, the centre of Sikh faith, I must admit to being pleasantly surprised at how welcome we feel. As we walk, an elderly man motions toward a place where pilgrims are drinking what I'm guessing is sacred water, offering it to us if we want. Everywhere are smiles and courtesy and beauty and peace.
We only have a short time before we must meet our taxi to the border and haven't yet eaten lunch. We decide to eat at the temple: Sikh temples all offer langar, a place where anyone is welcome to come and eat. Eating at this temple is, of course, a great privilege that I hoped we would have.
We follow a small crowd up some steps where we are handed a tin plate, a bowl and a spoon. Following the crowd, we quickly find ourselves in an enormous room -- about the size of a football field -- the length of which run long mats about one metre wide. We follow the people around us who find a seat cross-legged on the mat and place their tin plate before them on the floor. An elderly Sikh man next walks down the row with a ladle and a large pot of dal (essentially lentil soup), scooping out a generous helping to each of us. Next, a man comes by with fresh, warm chapatis. We hold out our hands, palms outstretched, and he drops the warm bread into them. It is a simple, but reverent gesture, repeated perhaps a hundred times by the rest of the people seated in the row. Behind us, another line of people are finishing their meal while in front, already another group is being seated. Up to 30000 people are offered food in this temple each day. It is an incredible act of generosity and openness to the community around them.
We eat quietly, feeling especially thankful for our simple meal. Another man walks by and pours water into our empty bowl. I immediately tense, my heart beating quicker with the awkward choice now facing me: do I drink the water which will almost surely make me ill, or do I risk offending the people around me by not drinking water that may even be considered sacred? I think of the taxi ride ahead, and the long bus ride planned for the following day. I don't drink. Instead, I rise, hiding my water bowl beneath my food tray, and hope I can inconspicuously get rid of it somehow. I can't. I hand it to one of the men taking the dishes from us at the exit, feeling sheepish and awkward, but I also hoping that they will understand too. We leave, winding our way through the crowds to the taxi outside.
We pile into a jeep with about seven or eight other travellers and are soon on our way to the Pakistan border, just 30 minutes away. We arrive into what feels like a carnival atmosphere. Popcorn and candy and soda are on sale to the crowds passing the "You are exiting India" sign to enter, effectively, the no man's land between the two countries. We are all there to witness the nightly border closing ceremony, an exhibition of pomp, nationalism, and silly walks. A grandstand has been built on each side of the border gate for the spectators from each country. Indian techno music blares from loudspeakers while clusters of people dance on the road in front of the gate. Nearby, about six soldiers in formal regalia wait to start the show.
The grandstand is full of standing, cheering Indians, all ignoring the requests to sit and making it quite difficult for us to see. The ceremony, when it begins, entails the soldiers quickstepping to the border, puffing themselves up and standing face-to-face with their Pakistani counterparts, and quickstepping back amidst cheers from the audience. In time, the flags are lowered, slowly and perfectly synchronized so that neither country will suffer the humiliation of having their flag lowered first. The crowd cheers: "Hindustan!!" clap clap "One day!!" clap clap, in unison. I suspect the Pakistani side was cheering something similar. The soldiers marched with crazy, cartoonish speed and exaggerations. We were reminded of Monty Python's sketch "The Ministry of Silly Walks". The whole spectacle was pure theatre without anything that felt like actual patriotic aggression. Yet, just a few days earlier, a bomb had been exploded on a train travelling between the two countries. This crowd seemed to be pretending their nationalism for the fun of it, at least to our outside view. Yet the chant of "Hindustan, One Day" was ominous: it was a call for Hinduism to rule the countries, implicitly excluding the Sikhs, Muslims, and Buddhists that also make up the countries.
The ceremony was strange, even a little incomprehensible and weird. We walk back to our taxi, enjoying the beautiful lush countryside around us. Before long, we are back in the traffic congestion of Amritsar, ready for a quick dinner and bed. It had been a full day.
Our first destination the following day is Jallianwala Bagh, the location where in 1919 Indians holding a peaceful demonstration were opened fire upon by the British army. The massacre killed 337 men, 41 boys and a baby, and led Gandhi to start his program of civil disobedience. The massacre is featured prominently in the well-known film "Gandhi".
The park is a peaceful place with a small museum, a fragment of wall showing bullet holes from the massacre, and the well into which people jumped to avoid the bullets. A solemn, sad place where the past seems very much alive and real.
We are approached almost as soon as we enter by a man who asks if his family can be photographed with us. He is even more excited when he learns we are from Vancouver. His cousin lives in Vancouver, he exclaims happily, "We know Canada!" Soon we are surrounded by a family of at least 10 people, with photos being snapped and the men wanting to pose with me while the women beam at the camera beside Laura. An elderly woman puts her hand on Laura's shoulder and squeezes warmly.
The request for photos is repeated several times before we leave. We are used to it by now, but it also feels different somehow. The people seem more friendly, happier to know that we are from Canada, from Vancouver especially (they all seem to have family there), and excited for our photo.
We proceed to the Golden Temple to have a last look before we have to leave Amritsar. I buy a headscarf from a street vendor as a souvenir. Laura struggles a little to tie it properly for me: the men around me look like hip movie stars while I look like a masculine Aunt Jemima. A deep voice behind me praises Laura's kurta and bangles, then offers to tie my headscarf. Soon it is being tied up by this stranger who is suddenly standing beside me, a tall very big turbaned Sikh man. He puts his arm around my shoulders and pulls me close, smiling, "Keep it at home, wear it at home."
We walk the marble causeway around the temple, marvelling at the beauty, the peace, and the feeling of welcome that pervades the place. Women smile at Laura's kurta approvingly. A man wearing clothing that seemed to indicate affiliation with the temple approaches us. He asks where we are from and what we think of the temple. He is obviously pleased to hear our praises. "We are very happy you have come here," he says. "Can I offer you some tea?" We decline, regretfully, as we need to leave for our bus. But his demeanour of genuine hospitality and welcome will remain in my memory for some time.
Before long, we are off to the bus station and, after the usual confusion about which bus to take and how long the journey will be, we are on our way to Dharmsala. It is a seven hour journey along winding bumpy roads and by the time we near our destination my butt is numb and my legs are aching. A short taxi along steep windy and very narrow roads and we are in the Himalayan mountain village of McLeod Ganj, the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. We will spend several days here with our friends Emily and Dan.
Amritsar is a truly special place simply because of its people. Sadly, I learned more about Sikh people there than a lifetime at home where a huge population of Sikhs live. After my time in Amritsar, I will always remember the welcoming, gentle, and kind demeanour of the Sikh people we met there. It makes the racism they face at home all the more sad.
I first heard about Amritsar and the Golden Temple from the young Czech man at the ashram in Sevagram. He told us we shouldn't miss it. Our guidebook said the same, but suggested that the town is not great and a quick stop to see the temple is enough. Oh how wrong that is. Amritsar is a town with choked streets and too many people hawkiing c heesy souvenirs, but underneath that is a place with friendly welcoming people running lovely guest houses and tasty restaurants.
We shouldn't be surprised by simple, yet proud, customer service but we are.
The temple itself, although containing 750kg of gold, is a relatively simple structure compared to other religious sites we have visited, especially considering the astronomical number of people visiting the temple each day. The line up to get into the temple in the centre of the lake is very long and we decide not venture in as it appears that so many people travel great distances to come here and us taking up a space in line doesn't feel right. This is not our pilgramage, but rather our introduction to Sihkism.
I especially enjoy seeing the very large Sikh men helping their very small young sons to prepare for the sacred bathing. The gentleness of a man, with a small dagger in his turban, is a pleasant sight. Gentleness, peace and acceptance has been a theme in India for a such long time, but is something that unfortunately we have struggled to see a lot of in our travels here. I feel so lucky to visit this place and once again, one of our quick stop over spots, becomes one of our fondest memories.
I also enjoy meeting Abi and Matt, a young couple from Birmingham England. We share the back of the jeep with them out to the border ceremony. We are the only foreigners in the entire crowd and Abi's beautiful blonde hair sticks out in the crowd like a beacon. She has struggled with several groping incidents during her short time here in India and they have decided to head to Nepal early on a ridiculously long train/bus trip. Amritsar was a great spot for them to end their time in India as the experience here is quite unique.
As much as I enjoy the temple and the people of this place, I long to get to McLeod Ganj and the Himalayan mountains that stand in the background...