City of Sikhs
09.03.2012 - 12.03.2012 27 °C
An hour 8 train journey out of Delhi through the 'breadbasket' of India saw us enter the Punjab and arrive at the Sikh holy city of Amritsar. En route we had an interesting chat with a man who claimed he was a university lecturer and who was very keen to discuss our favourite authors. His, he told us several times, was Shakespear. When he found out that we were engaged he wanted to know whether it was an arranged marriage or a love marriage and he said that, in India, love marriages only happen in Mumbai and occasionally Delhi. On leaving the station at Amritsar we were met by the usual throng of rickshaw drivers and after a cycle rickshaw ride across to the old city we eventually checked into our hotel, just around the corner from the Golden Temple.
Our first morning was mostly taken up with trying to find somewhere to change travellers' cheques. Once we had sorted this we headed for the Temple complete with appropriate headwear (Patrick had to buy a fetching orange temple branded headscarf). The Temple is a whole complex, set around a large water tank. It is mostly made of white marble with the exception of the Harmandir in the centre, which is made of gold, giving the temple its name. We entered by the north gate and joined the crowds of Sikh pilgrims and other tourists walking around the pool on the carpeted walkway. There are a number of shrines and stops around the edges, with men reciting the Sikh holy book (the Guru Granth Sahib) constantly. There are also hymns and prayers from the centre of the Harmandir played on loudspeakers around the whole complex, which adds to the impressively religious atmosphere. We saw the old tree where marriages are arranged and women who want baby boys hang ribbons (despite the authorities attempts to discourage this practice), and the building at one end which was heavily shelled by the Indian troops during a Punjabi uprising in the 1980s. It is now completely rebuilt and if we hadn't read the guide book and worked out the relative position to the other buildings we would have never known it had suffered almost complete destruction. A trip to the Golden Temple is always supposed to include the act of eating together as the Sikhs believe this makes everyone equal so we made our way to the giant canteen for lunch. It is an amazingly efficient process that feeds hundreds if not thousands of people at great speed every day. You are given your freshly washed utensils on the way in, your food in the large dining hall and then hand over the used dishes to the army of washers-up who start the production line again. As well as being cheap and quick, our meal of dal, rice, chapattis, veg curry and a sweet rice pudding dish was one of the most tasty thalis we had yet had. The only issue was the speed of eating required, meaning we had to wolf down our food and didn't get a chance to finish everything off. When we had made our way out of the lunch hall we went round to the museum of the temple, a long hall filled with paintings and photographs of eminent Sikhs, some in portrait form and others in slightly crudely drawn pictures of brutal executions at the hands of various Indian rulers over the centuries. After a quick rest up at our hotel, we returned to the temple in the evening to visit the Harmandir itself when the crowds had died down a little (or so we thought). In fact as we made our way into the inner most part of the Temple complex, we found ourselves in the midst of a large praying crowd. We think we had managed to time our trip to the golden Harmandir at one of the most important parts of the day where prayers were being said to each of the 10 Gurus who set up the Sikh religion before the ceremony where the Guru Granth Sahib gets taken from the Harmandir to another building to be 'put to bed' for the evening. The temple was full of people standing, sitting, praying and prostrating themselves in the direction of the holy men reciting the prayers, and even the tabla and harmonium music accompaniment had stopped. This was quite an experience.
The following morning we visited the Jallianwala Bagh, a public garden closed in by city centre houses where British General Dyer presided over a massacre a crowd of unarmed men, women and children in 1919. There was a narrow alleyway into the open space where some tried to flee and a large well where others died, and there are numerous buildings around the perimeter that have been left with the bullet hole marks in as a memorial to the dead. Unfortunately as with a number of Indian monuments the relentless flow of Indians rushing to get in, get a picture and get out slightly spoiled the poignant messages on the display boards. After lunch we went on a trip to the India-Pakistan border closing ceremony at Wagha, some 30km away from Amritsar. The bizarre and pompous ceremony involves crowds of Indians and Pakistanis taking their places in stadium style seating around the road either side of the border, being bombarded with loud music to dance to and shouting slogans, a bit like a sports match. There is a small section which is reserved for tourists to observe from close quarters which we were sat in. After the initial party atmosphere has finished there is the parade of soldiers in fancy turbans with large moustaches who high step their way to the gates, prance around and look aggressive at their counterparts on the other side. They exaggeratedly shake hands, lower their flags and after some more high stepping and shouting return to their barracks, while the gates are closed for the night. It was a highly amusing spectacle and unlike anything we've ever seen before.
After the dusty drive back to Amritsar, we had a tasty thali tea in a small dhaba, packed up and prepared ourselves for the journey into the mountains the following day.