Monday, July 13, 2009


We arrived in Amritsar after about twelve hours of train travel from Agra, including a 4 am change of stations in Delhi that only feels like a dream now. We had a small heart attack waiting for the train in Agra when James realized that he had left his camera battery and charger back at the hotel. Luckily we always leave ourselves plenty of time to catch any form of transportation, and we made it to the hotel and back with the help of a rickshaw driver that must have seen the panic in our eyes, because he drove even more wildly than usual.

Amritsar is in Northern Punjab near the Pakistan border, and it is the site of the holiest Sikh monument, the Golden Temple. It feels like the most crowded city we have visited so far, with pedestrian, cycle and auto traffic all crawling along together on the same dusty road. Antonia got hit by a cycle-rickshaw on our first night here, but luckily the traffic moves so slowly that it was more of a surprise than anything else.

Our hotel room happened to have a TV. However, the only English station was the all-cricket-all-the-time station. As a result, we are slowly understanding the rules of the game. This is a good thing, since everyone we meet is flabbergasted when we admit to being unaware of the current leading Indian cricket stars.

On our first full day, we took in the Golden Temple, which was only a few steps from our guesthouse. A reflection of the inclusive and egalitarian nature of the Sikh religion, there is no entrance fee, and anyone may take meals and dorm rooms there with no charge. The Golden Temple itself is a glittering palace surrounded by a large pool of holy water used for bathing and drinking. The gold is reflected in the pool, and along with the white marble that makes up the surrounding complex, everything was very bright on this hot and sunny day. Before entering the temple itself, we walked around the pool, met some people who came to introduce themselves, and watched people relax and chat in the shade, take free meals or listen to music. Chanting from the Sikh holy book is broadcast twenty-four hours a day from inside the temple around the entire complex.

To enter the temple, we joined a muddled queue to cross a bridge over the pool, spanning about fifty metres. Standing shoulder to shoulder while being gently pushed and shoved along from behind, we moved a couple of inches toward the temple every few minutes. The heat and claustrophobia and not being able to even put our arms at our sides were almost too much to bear, but after a few minutes a hundred more people had moved in behind us, and we knew that there was no going back. In total it took us about an hour and a half to reach the temple in the queue. The temple was spectacular, though, and it was well worth the journey. Inside we found holy men chanting and playing music, surrounded by more gold, and chandeliers, engravings, and inlaid marble. We (carefully!) walked up the wet marble stairs where people prayed at shrines and sat to watch the musicians and the bathers.

In the late afternoon we wanted to go to the Pakistan border to watch the border closing ceremony, but we weren't sure how to get there. It turned out that we didn't have to worry; outside every important sight in Amritsar at around 4 pm there are many taxi drivers shouting "border! border! border! border! border!" It is a popular destination because of the outrageous patriotic show that both sides put on during the closure of the border every evening. Being foreigners, we got to watch the action from the V.I.P. section instead of the huge stadium-type seats that are filled with fervent Indians on one side, and Pakistanis on the other. First, women and children line up for the chance to race the Indian flag to the border gate and back. Old women and little children get the loudest cheers. Then, women come down from the stands to dance to popular music. Next the border guards come out, dressed in crazy hats and curiously short pants. One of these guards shouts a single note for a very long time into a microphone, and the crowd cheers more the longer he holds it. The guards march toward the gate, and then one by one do a kind of skipping/kicking/marching/silly walk to meet the Pakistani guards, who are dressed in their own outlandish costume. The guards on both sides proceed to stare each other down, and perform kicks so high that they touch the tall frill of their hat with their toe. A series of silly things like this continue, while the crowd cheers wildly at certain prescribed moments, until finally both flags are lowered and the border is officially closed for the night. The whole ceremony appears very comedic, but we didn't mention this to any Indians, as it seemed like they took it quite seriously. (Note the high kick)

The next day we had a wonderful time seeing some other sites in Amritsar, and the best part was that we met some Indian friends who very kindly offered to show them to us. However, we began at a very sad and solemn site. Jallianwala Bagh is a park set up on the site of the massacre in Amritsar by British troops in 1919. On this spot, which was surrounded by high walls and without any viable exit, British troops opened fire without warning on an unarmed group of peaceful protesters. About 400 men, women and children were killed and 1,500 injured. If you have seen the movie 'Gandhi,' you will remember the chilling scene when troops mercilessly shoot people seeking the only refuge possible - in the bottom of a well - like they were shooting fish in a barrel.

Next we visited Mata Temple, which is our favourite Hindu temple so far. It is a building designed to be like a labyrinthine cave, with a circuitous path lined with shrines and paintings, that forces you to crawl through 'cave' tunnels, climb into small 'cave' entrances and wade through 'cave' water. Many rooms in the temple have walls and ceilings that are completely covered in mirrors. It is a very large temple and it was a lot of fun. Actually it reminded us of a funhouse at the Ex. We got a blessing and ate a sweet, and saw lots of women praying to become pregnant, which is what this temple is famous for.

It was at Mata Temple that we met Rohit and Sahil, two young Indian men who at first wanted to make sure that our rickshaw driver was offering us an 'Indian' price instead of a 'foreigner' price. They then offered to be our guides in the temple, which was very fortunate since we think we might still be stuck somewhere in the caves without them. Sahil and another of his friends, Gaurav, joined us for the rest of the day and their generosity and friendship became the highlight of our day. (Rohit and Sahil inside the Mata Temple)

The Punjabi museum at Ram Bagh happened to be closed, but while we were waiting for our new friends, we made another interesting friend. A smiling man dressed in a Gandhi-like simple white longhi approached us and began speaking Hindi. Despite a large communication barrier, he showed us a statue of Gandhi and proudly told us that he shared a birthday and a last name with him, and that he was Gandhi's disciple. He was extremely sweet and when we told him that we were from Canada, he exclaimed "India Zinabad! Canada Zinabad!" Luckily we had picked up from the border ceremony that the constant shouting of "Hindustan Zinabad!" meant "long live Hindustan." Our Gandhi was very pleased when we let him know that we had understood what he said.

Sahil and Gaurav next took us to the Sri Dugiana temple, which is a Hindu temple built in a very similar style to the Golden Temple. In fact, in our guidebook it is referred to as the 'Silver Temple,' but currently men are pounding out bars of gold and it is slowly being plated with gold in the same style as the Sikh temple. The sound of the pounding is amplified around the complex. The temple is nearly as beautiful as the Golden Temple, and it is mindboggling that one city should have two monuments like this, never mind the countless other temples that are located here. While we were crossing the bridge to the temple (much, much less crowded than the Golden Temple), the sky suddenly grew black and a strong wind picked up leaves and dust. We took refuge from the worst part of the monsoon storm inside the temple and watched the rain whip across the waters of the holy pool. It seemed like a divine event as the huge silver doors were blown open and then slammed shut again by the tempest. (Sahil and Gaurav at the Sri Durgiana Temple)

To round out our lovely day, Sahil and Gaurav took us for Punjabi samosas with chutney and chai, and they wouldn't even allow us to pay anything.

This morning they took us for a tour of the 'inner' city of Amritsar. They told us that normally tourists never get to see the twisting alleyways that make up the heart of the city for locals. We went for kulcha, a special breakfast of fried bread stuffed with potatoes and spices, that you dip in a spicy chickpea chutney. Then they announced that Sahil's mother had lassis waiting for us at his house. Even though we were worried about catching the only bus to Dharamsala today, it was an offer we couldn't refuse. We enjoyed lassis, live musical entertainment that our hosts performed, and the wonderful hospitality of Sahil's entire family before we sped away to catch our eight hour bus ride.

[update to previous post: our friends told us that after the completion of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jehan cut off the hands of all the workers, so that they could never again create something as beautiful. Some thanks.]

1 comment:

  1. Hi you two - Thank you thank you thank you. Love the blog; but could not have stood the crowds at the Golden Temple!!!