Getting Our Sikh On In Amritsar

Trip Start Jan 31, 2005
Trip End Mar 30, 2006

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Saturday, November 5, 2005

After our stay in Dharamsala, we got reaquainted with buses and headed west to the city of Amritsar, near the border with Pakistan. Amritsar is famous for being the home of the Golden Temple, the most important pilgrimage site of the Sikh (more or less pronounced "seek") religion. Sikhism is somewhat similar to Hinduism (it is considered by some to be an offshoot), though it believes in one all-knowing, universal God and puts a lot of emphasis on military strength. Though the religion isn't exceptionally well known in the west, they are pretty easily recognized - the men typically have full beards and do not cut their hair, wearing it piled high on their heads in turbans. Throughout our travels in India, we have found Sikhs to be consistently welcoming and honest people, and our time in Amritsar was no exception.

Upon arriving at the bus station, we took a rickshaw to the Golden Temple itself, as we had heard that it offered free or cheap accomodation to pilgrims and foreign visitors. There are several different buildings for this purpose, so we found our way to the one that was said to be the best by other travelers. We went into the lobby and realized we were the only Westerners around. We were greeted with lots of staring. There were some windows for booking rooms on one side of the lobby, but the actual system for getting a room wasn't very obvious. Lots of people appeared to be waiting for rooms, but nobody seemed to be working the windows. We finally found somebody to ask and were told that nothing was available; we were referred to the guesthouse next door that had quarters specifically for foreign tourists. We checked it out and found that while it was lacking in luxury (an understatement), it was "free" (lots of emphasis on a donation to be given upon leaving). We were lucky enough to get our own room, but the beds were basically pieces of plywood with a thin cloth mat on top. However, upon seeing what many pilgrims were getting for accomodation, we knew we had no right to complain. Because there seemed to be far more pilgrims than rooms, a huge number of people set up camp in the building's huge marble courtyard, each person competing for their own little bit of space on the floor, with nothing but a blanket or shawl to make it one's own... And to make sleeping even more fun, the lights stayed on in the courtyard all night and it seemed there was never a time during the night when the place settled down. We had a door with a lock and earplugs - maybe it was luxury.

We made our first visit to the temple area itself that night around 9 pm. The whole site is unbelievably beautiful. A series of tall marble buildings create the outside barrier, and a wide marble walkway within surrounds a large rectangular body of water. In the middle of the water is the Golden Temple itself, which is reached by a walkway on one side. To add to the mystical atmosphere, Sikh hymns are sung by professional singers in the Golden Temple, which are transmitted through speakers all over the site. We decided to come at that relatively late hour (in a sight-seeing sense) because we had heard interesting stories about a nightly ceremony involving the Sikh holy book. To give you a little background, in early Sikh history, the highest spiritual leader was the Guru, who would name his own successor. If we remember right, the 10th Guru had all of the Sikh religious texts put into one book and named the book itself the Guru for all time - so it is treated like a deity. It is processed nightly with much fanfare from its daytime location in the Golden Temple to its night time resting place in a different building. The nightly book procession started soon after we arrived and we lined up with a huge, pushing crowd of pilgrims who had also come to watch. Basically, the ceremony consisted of a stoic-looking group of bearded, turbaned elders slowly carrying the book on their shoulders in a jeweled palanquin, an additional elder fanning the book from behind. Meanwhile, the crowds pressed inwards, while the guards pushed them back. Everybody at the site is required to be barefoot and our toes got smashed a few times before we decided to move to the back. When the ceremony ended, we decided it was time for bed.

The next day, after spending a few hours visiting the temple site, we took a minibus to the nearby border with Pakistan to watch the ceremonial closing of the border gates. It is an incredible spectacle and huge tourist attraction. So huge that both the Indian and Pakistan sides have built grandstands to keep the spectators. The only thing was that the Indian side typically gets far more visitors and thus has about three times the capacity of Pakistan. Given we went on a Saturday only days after a major national holiday, the place was over-capacity and we had to work hard to find a spot in the back - good thing we are taller than most Indias. It was sort of like being at a high school pep rally. The ceremony started with the Indian guards marching out of the guardhouse and forming a line. Their feathered headdresses and macho mannerisms made them look like roosters. The head guard shouted commands for awhile and then the group started speed-marching to the gate, knees up high and arms pumping. The crowd went mad. At times the guards stopped and did some stiff-looking kicks. Not long after it started, one guard assumed the role of head cheerleader and got the crowd doing pro-India chants, which continued for much of the rest of the duration. The Pakistan side was doing similar things, though they could barely be heard through the madness on the Indian side. The relation between the two sides was sort of ambiguous, though - at one point guards from the Indian and Pakistan sides shook hands, but at another point they slammed their respective gates in the other's face. In the end, at the stroke of sunset, the countries' flags were lowered in unison, confirming the choreographed nature of the whole event - maybe the two countries' guards are buddies after all. A memorable event and pretty amusing (except, as another traveler pointed out, that the two countries have nuclear weapons pointed at each other...).

So, Sunday we returned to the temple site one last time, as we had yet to actually take the causeway across the water to the Golden Temple itself. Because the causeway was always packed with people waiting to go in, we decided the day before that we'd get up early and go before the crowds arrived. But, as usual, somehow we couldn't get organized until late morning (partly due to an interesting meal and a kitchen tour - see photos). We ended up waiting for about 45 minutes in the direct mid-day sun along with what may have been hundreds of other people. In additionally typical fashion, we also managed to select the line that moved about a third of the speed of the other. Then we were just about to enter the temple when noon struck and a service began. So, we waited about 15 more minutes while hymns were sung. Finally, we made it in, and entered the main chamber, which contained the Book (still being fanned by an elder) and the singers. The rest of the temple consisted of peaceful little hallways in two upper levels that overlooked the main chamber below. Pretty nature paintings covered most wall surfaces. We hung out for a little while and then crossed back over to the main walkways, returned to our guesthouse and then headed for the train station.

It was a nice weekend, and we will particularly remember how welcoming the Sikhs were of people of all religions. It especially seemed like they were excited to see foreigners visiting - who knows how many parents sent their kids over to shake our hands... Pretty cute.
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