I arrive at Amritsar, the home of The Golden Temple, the home of the Sikh holy book late on the evening on 4.11.12. Thousands of Sikhs arrive everyday on a pilgrimage to the most beautiful holy place I have ever seen in India. No, make that the world. The marble buildings, the water, the golden temple, the calm atmosphere, the friendly but respectful people, the hospitality and a lack of rubbish make this place truly special. The Sikhs are highly respected here. Some of the most successful and powerful business men in India are Sikhs, a reputation that is evident not only by the extravagant Golden Temple but also in the well dressed Sikhs that visit. Amritsar city unfortunately is like every other heaving metropolis in India but when you are inside or near to the Golden Temple complex there is a tranquil and hassle free environment. Almost magical.
It’s late, my tuk tuk drops me a five minute walk away from the world famous Gurudwaras. There is a ban on transport entering certain areas near the Golden Temple, this law like any in India is managed by the traffic police very loosely. I walk to the Gurudwaras, basic and free accommodation for anyone no matter your nationality or religious preference, free with no beggars, no hassle. The only offer of goods was a head scarf, essential gear for entering the temple grounds.
The backpackers are housed in a small apartment seperate from Indians in the new Shri Guru Ramdas Niwas, one of the five Gurudwaras. I can only presume this is for security reasons. Sikhs open the doors to everyone so the elite as well as the homeless enjoy the benefits. The rooms are basic and crowded but offer free water and laundry service. There is even a guard looking after us, he owns a spear. Cool. The toilets are shared and kept to a very high standard of cleanliness. I meet a host of backpackers from all over the world and squeeze into a room, there’s four of us in one wooden bed, two on the floor, it’s tight but everyone appreciates the hospitality.
I’m pointed towards the food hall, The Guru-ka-Langar. This place feeds in excess of 10,000 people every day. Dal, chapati and a sweet rice pudding is served endlessly 24 hours a day. I hear the clinking of metal as I see the volunteers wash the dishes outside, the Golden Temple lighting up the night sky next to it. I follow the crowd and am given a silver plate and dish for my drink. I walk into a huge hall and sit on the coir floor mat with hundreds of others. Volunteers dish out black dhal, rice pudding and chapatis. I notice people looking, respectfully they nod or wiggle their heads, some clasping theirs hands together, offering a smile. I’m bowled over. Feeling a bit hypocritical, a Gora atheist taking from generous Sikhs.
The principality of equality instigated by the third Guru, Amas Das, in the sixteenth century was made to break down the barriers of caste, which is still enforced today with free accommodation, food and not to forget the lifeline of the Indian race, chi. Their generosity is backed by donations from the rich and pilgrims who visit.
I notice donation boxes everywhere, but I was never asked to make a payment, not once. Of course I made a donation, it was out of respect. I’m appreciative and respectful to their religion and their beliefs, like I am in every temple I’ve been into, but this is something else, the whole operation is really elegant, honest and noble.
Over the next two days I venture into the Golden Temple three times. Marvelling the handy work of the gold, the marble and the architecture. The temple is extravagant inside and out, real beauty, kept spotless by the volunteers that sweep and wash the floor behind you.
Inside the temple there are musicians reciting Sikh scripts to tables and string instruments. These musicians are on a rota and never stop, 24-7-365. They use SM58 microphones and a Bose sound system to transport the mystical music all around the complex. It feels magical. The atmosphere calm. On a warm afternoon, I sit meditating, even when surrounded by tourists and pilgrims from all over India. Shanti shanti.
At nine every night, they hold a special ceremony to take the Sikh holy book from the Golden Temple to the Harmandir. I, by chance, was with a Canadian couple, looking at the
temple when the ceremony started. The ceremony moves outside where the holy book is placed in a golden carriage. It is customary for the men to queue up and systematically help carry this carriage, down the path to the Harmandir. Each man taking turns. Before I knew it, Cam and I were dragged to the front of the queue by a guard and put under the golden carriage and helped carry it some of the way. It was heavy. A real honour. Again, my expectations exceeded. The Sikh helpers knew we were visitors but they wanted us to get involved. They are proud and want to share their faith. Awesomeness.
The temple is actually gold. Fact. Marble on structure, gold played. Ultimate in bling architecture. Walking around the complex, I notice older men wearing traditional clothing showing off their swords, axes and spears, happy for me to take photos, proud.
One downer on my visit to Amritsar was my three visits to the Samsung Service Centre. A small piece of sand got inside my camera lens during my camel Safari in Jaisalmer and has made a black imprint on every picture. Unfortunately, I haven’t been to any city big enough to have a service centre until now. I travelled 6km by rikshaw, a bike with a seat on the back, to the Samsung Service Centre, waiting 20 minutes for a railway crossing on the way. When I arrived they said it would take 2 hours to fix. As I planned to go to the border crossing that day I said I would pick it up the next morning. The next morning, true to their word, the cleaning of my lens was successful, no new lens needed. However, the technicians managed to break the spring that is needed to hold my SD card in place. Three hours of waiting later it’s fixed and I return on another rikshaw back to the Golden Temple complex paid for by Samsung. After a lovely afternoon in the temple I prepare for my train journey to Rishikesh. Whilst taking pictures of the dorm in the Gurudwara, I notice the flash isn’t working on my camera….this must be a joke. I wanted my lens cleaned and somehow they’ve broke a spring in my SD card slot and my flash. Good work. Jobsworth central down at Batala Road. Another journey back to the Service Centre sees me walking into the managers office and demanding it be fixed immediately. He charmed me with his pictures of London and a cup of chi. Camera fixed, I jump on another rickshaw back, this time the 6km ride is extended by another railway crossing closure. The gates were down for 30minutes. No exaggeration, three trains went past. The stench of urine fills the air. Everyone who had a small enough vehicle lifted the gate and crossed the tracks anyway. Us however, had no chance, we waited. Finally, the cheeky rickshaw driver made it back and asked for 100R instead of the standard 50R. I give him 50R and tell him to chello. Nice try. I’m a hardened backpacker don’t you know?!
Today’s lesson = never get your camera fixed in India… and rickshaw drivers are mental.
I also visited Jallanwala Bagh, now a memorial garden for the massacre of hundreds of innocent indians at the hands of a particular evil British General back in 1919. I feel ashamed. This guy told his men to fire 1650 rounds into a crowd of trapped indians. What a power hungry knob. I’m shocked and humbled by the experience. The British brought a lot of good things to India, such as education and railway systems, this however showed us to be bullies and tyrants. I’m embarrassed by it. The evil that happened in this part of the world almost 100 years ago has been forgiven but not forgotten.
I wont leave you on a low, I’ll end on a high, making this a traditional shit sandwich (good news, bad news, good news = shit sandwich). I joined seven other backpackers to go see the daily show of hostility at the India-Pakistan border 27km from Amritsar at a place called Wagha. The show has developed over the last few years and is now a hot show that beats X Factor any day. Finding my position in the ‘foreigner’ section I notice the stands are already packed on the Indian side and empty on the Pakistani side. Army guys with feathered hats patrol whilst Indians queue to take part in running a length of the road with a huge indian flag. The crowd are loud and being hyped up by an MC wearing an Indian track suit. The Pakistani side now has a small congregation split into males on the left, females on the right and the noise levels are building. The show starts with a loud throat clearing sound from the indian army generals, harmonised by the Pakistani side, and then the swift walk to the border followed by a bizarre stamping on the floor scenario. The show sent the crowd wild, cheering, shouting and chanting erupting from the terraces. It made me laugh. Interesting. Great entertainment.
To add to the bizarre events of the India-Pakistan border spectacle we stop at a grotto style Shiva temple back in Amritsar. The temple leads visitors on a crazy pathway up and around the building, replicas of gods on show, caves to crawl through and mini streams to cross. We come across corridors covered in coloured mirrors, colourful statues of gods and flashing lights. To top it off, it’s meant to make women more fertile too.This collection is a truly eccentric masterpiece not to be missed.
Amritsar has left me with a good feeling. The city is missable, however the Golden Temple and the hospitality shown is unforgettable. Thumbs up!
Next stop …. Rishikesh.
Then Varinasi for Divali…but that could change.