We had been told by many that the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab was certainly a sight to see but it was also quite out of the way. Well after 4 weeks in the cold mountains we needed a break, and the temple was relatively close in Indian terms, but we only had one day so the answer was to hire a taxi (only in India is it affordable to hire a taxi for a 14 hour trip). We set off at 6 am with our friend Billy and a young driver who had a healthy dose of fear for his strict boss who we met to overlook the placement of petrol inside the tank while giving the vehicle a good looking over before sending us away with a few stern words in Hindi which caused the driver to shake his head similar to a 13 year old being told ‘to be careful’ by an overprotective mother. Within 3 hours we were stopped on the side of the road asking for directions which was a nice, but short, break from the constant accelerate-brake-accelerate-brake combination that this driver used with precision.
We arrived in Amritsar by noon and welcomed the blistering heat as we first stepped out of the taxi. We soon realized how spoiled we’ve been by the relative order, calm, and patience of the mountains as this state doesn’t seem to have any of these attributes. As soon as we stepped onto the street we were surrounded by people showing us their goods for sale while trying to tie bandanas on our heads for the customary head dress at the temple. We reveled in the chaos, heat, noise, smell, and pure sensory assault of the place and saw many sights that made us laugh on the short walk to the temple gates.
The golden spires of the temple were visible blocks away and the pathway leading there filled with colorful turbans as Sikh pilgrims from the country over dressed in their finest threads vied to get their turn in the healing waters found within. As we arrived we followed suit by removing our shoes and socks before washing our feet and walking to the entrance gates where we were asked where our shoes were kept. I told the guard my shoes were in my backpack and he told me they were not allowed inside so I placed them in the ‘shoe check’ (it was too hot for a coat check) before washing my hands and feet again for entry.
As we walked inside the enormous white marbled structure the sound of the daily devotion being sung floated through the air as it has done daily for the past 415 years. Nothing but smiles were seen as the craziness of the street disappeared and any feeling of uneasiness melted away into the blue waters surrounding the central golden tipped sanctum where the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh holy book) is kept. People sat in silence gazing at the beauty of the structure while boisterous families posed for photos, people of all ages de-robed to dip themselves 3 times in the water to gain ablution from sins while others paid respects to the gurus and martyrs whose heroics are eternally etched into the marble walls.
The slow pace and beauty within the temple encouraged conversation which inevitably turned into people asking to take photos with us. Little did we know that once we said yes it gave permission for everyone present to grab us by the arm, stand us in a position and surround us with their family. Brothers jostled for position to hold Brett’s hand, husbands pushed their wives in place next to Sarah before a mother happily thrust her baby into Sarah’s arms then stood proudly alongside with a smile that beamed as bright at the golden dome. Half an hour later we broke free to finish our first lap of the holy lake and pass the crush of thousands who were waiting to enter the central sanctum to have a moment with the holy scriptures.
Part of the Sikh philosophy is volunteerism in the service of others as exemplified by the temple’s communal kitchen that feeds around 10, 000 people per day…yes that’s ten thousand!…all at no cost. A well organized and thoroughly efficient team of hundreds file people into a grand two storied hall and seat them one by one in long straight lines. Volunteers walked gracefully dropping chapatti, spooning dhal, and pouring water until the masses were fed. 15 minutes later we were all hustled out the door so the floors could be washed to welcome the next throng of hungry guests. As we walked out our plates were taken and sent through a human chain where they were scraped, washed, sterilized, then set to dry all within a matter of seconds. We entered back into the familiarity of the temple in amazement with full bellies still marveling at what we just experienced. We were brought back to reality by the time telling us to get moving onto our next event.
We walked back to the taxi to head to the border between India and Pakistan at the point where the Punjab was split into two countries. The taxi entered the melee of traffic as busses, transport trucks, and cows mingle with cars, rickshaws, motorbikes, and pedestrians in crowded streets fenced with cement barriers and market stalls. Although the driver looked a little nervous it couldn’t really be helped as neither of us would be crazy enough to attempt our hand behind the wheel. Just then, a rickshaw inches in front of us slammed on his breaks which caused us to hit him resulting in a taxi and motorbike to rear-end us. Sarah looked back to see the face of the bike driver squashed up against the window with spit and snot smeared across it. The rickshaw who caused the crash sped off just as a crowd began to form. The people were angry and since our taxi seemed to be the culprit our driver became the target. Within seconds a mob surrounded our car, opened the driver’s door, removed the key, drug the driver out, and pinned him up against the car. Our driver was pleading with the men but the cries fell on deaf ears. Their voices raised and men began to push and slap our driver. We were well aware of the possible outcome to this scenario as well as the possibility that we could befall the same treatment if we got involved but being a witness to a lynching wasn’t on the day’s itinerary. We unrolled the window and called in support of our driver. He was taken away to the side of the road where more and more people surrounded him to join the yelling. As we tried to tell people it wasn’t the fault of our driver, a man on a motorbike drove up to our open window and with a hearty grin said “Indian system…got to love it” then sped away. The laugh eased the tension inside the car while tensions outside also started to subside. A man who appeared to be a community elder heard our driver’s testimony and offered reprieve but it was clear the guy wearing a suit dripping in gold and walking with an air of entitlement (aka the local mobster) gave the final word to send us on our way with a sincere warning. As soon as we left the city boundaries the driver nervously and hastily got out to check the damage. It was minor but the fear of his boss was major. We tried to console him by telling him it wasn’t his fault and that we would visit his boss in the morning to tell the story but nothing could ease his tension. Alas, we were now in a rush to get to the border before sunset…
Named the Wagah border, on a daily basis guards on each side of the division line march and salute in a sort of friendly power struggle as hundreds of people seated in stadium style grand stands cheer their side on as encouraged by a guy who is running through the crowd waving his hands asking for the cheers to be louder. As the sun sets the stern guards forcefully, yet gracefully, lower and fold their flags before slamming the gates on each other and proudly bringing their symbol of national pride to its resting place for the night. Now we’ve seen ‘changing of the guards’ ceremonies before but none that had the atmosphere of a U2 concert nor had the ability to stimulate so much national pride. We left on a high but had an inkling of nervousness toward the 6 hour homeward journey.
Thankfully, for us as well as the driver, the roads were quiet so the trip was easier but the incident weighed heavily on the driver. He confirmed 4 times that we would go talk to his boss in the morning and took the long way home to stop by every temple possible to give an offering and a prayer. At 1 am – with the blessings of Shiva, Sita, Hanuman, Durga, and Ganesh – we were happy to be home in the safety and serenity of the mountains with a new appreciation for the cold fresh air.
Question of the week:
Have you ever been involved in food preparation or consumption on a mass scale?