Amritsar turned out to be such a surprise. Being close to Dharamsala and seeing that it had an airport, Fran and I planned to fly from Amritsar down to Kerala. Based on recommendations from Nick (our Endeavour overland driver/owner) and Keith (our fellow overlander), we decided to stay for a few days and check out some of the sights. We are so glad we did!
Despite the early morning departure (5 am, yawn!), our bus left Dharamsala and arrived in Amritsar without incident, where we were greeted at our hostel sooo enthusiastically by Sandy (our new host). By this point, we had embraced the idea of some guided experiences in India. Often our efforts to walk around on our own, and especially to see Hindu temples independently, resulted in some unpleasantness best to be avoided. So for a few extra dollars, we agreed in advance to do some guided tours of the area, especially since several of the trips were best done at night or did not lend themselves readily to public transportation. And were we glad we made that decision! Sandy listed four outings and we readily agreed to all of them. Upon arrival, the first thing we wanted was food! So Sandy took us on a tour of the street food on Lawrence street. Now in India, we were regularly warned against just eating anywhere, and although we had asked a couple of hosts to take us out to eat street food, we hadn't been able to do it up until then. All I can say is YUM! Personal favorites were little fried puffy pastries that you filled with chick peas, spicy sauce, and tamarind water, all gobbled down in one mouthful, as well as Diwali sweets decorated in silver leaf.
At night, we attended the evening ceremony at the Sikh's Golden Temple, accompanied by a Sikh, Jesse, who was very funny and informative. The Sikh religion started in this area and we learned quite a bit about it; the men carry swords to demonstrate their ability to defend themselves, wear bracelets to remind themselves not to steal, and match their turban to their outfits. The religion is so welcoming and open; both women AND men have to cover their heads (Did I ever enjoy seeing Fran have to don a head-scarf) and have access to all parts of the temple, which includes free meals and sleeping arrangements for everyone. Everyone pitches in to keep it well-maintained and CLEAN, all the time. And such a spectacular temple! I thought the architecture was much more beautiful than the Taj Mahal, and the ceremony to put the weapons and especially, their holy book to bed was magical. It was particularly important to have a guide to explain all the aspects of their religion to us, make sure we were in the right spots at each point in the ceremony, help us eat dinner (reassuring us that we could eat and drink the water), and take us on a behind-the-scene-tour of the vast kitchen that feeds thousands every day. We loved every minute of our time there, reluctant to leave after hours wandering throughout the temple. I highly recommend this experience to anyone who visits India.
The next day we headed to the border with Pakistan, which was part of British India until after WWII, when in 1947 Britain decided to give the subcontinent its independence. Pakistan actually included Bangladesh originally (known as East Pakistan) until Bangladesh obtained independence in 1971. The border ceremony is a real kick (pun intended); the marching style on both sides involved kicking their legs way above their heads and each side trying to intimidate out do each other. Most interesting for me, though, was the obvious gender differences between the two. While in Muslim Pakistan, the women were segregated from the males and sat quietly, fully covered up, waiting for the ceremony to begin. In contrast, everyone sat together on the Hindu Indian side until some music came on, and then a huge group of Indian women began dancing in the street, colorful saris flying, right next to the border. It was quite obvious which side would I rather be on!
But the biggest question of the day: If it says "Welcome to Pakistan" on our phone, can we count it as another country?
We had so much fun with Sandy on our first tours that we agreed to do a village tour as well as a trip to the "crazy temple" with our new traveling family friends, the Marshalls. Again, these turned out to be highlights. We visited a Sikh family in a village just outside of the city, and had a great time milking buffalo, eating pakora (greens coated in batter and deep friend), learning how to tie a turban, and dancing Bollywood style. But the biggest surprise of all was the Crazy temple. Reading the description of Mata temple, or "crazy temple, in the guidebook, it is accurate but doesn't begin to come close to how much fun it turned out to be. We called it a "one stop shop" but that doesn't really do it justice either. Essentially, a woman guru combined all the deities in India and some other places for good measure (e.g., Nepal) and presented them in a Disney funhouse format. There were scary gods and silly gods, glittery gods and bloody gods. We walked through the mouths of animals, waded through water, and traversed a plank through a mirrored hall. We rang bells and ate flowers. It was by far the most fun I have ever had in any temple. I didn't have to cover anything. I didn't have to go to some private room while men got all the fun. The only thing I had to do was take off my shoes and socks. It was the best.
In sum, I strongly recommend Amritsar and even more specifically, stay at Inndia and do all the tours Sandy suggests. While the town contains the typical mix of India filth and chaos, the gems that Sandy will show are well worth the visit.