The Gardens of Eden

Trip Start Jul 25, 2011
Trip End Sep 01, 2011

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Flag of India  , Punjab,
Friday, August 19, 2011

After feeding half of Punjab's mosquitoes while laid in my bus' coffin seater, then oversleeping the arrival time and finding my backpack covered in some exotic kind of flour (whose smell will never go away) I didn't expect anything anymore. Just praying that Amritsar was worth this. I have to be honest, it's been on the top three on my must-see before death list for years and that's why I could never ever give up on coming here- the others are Singapore and Samarqand in case you're wondering, guess I'm on the right track. And yes, Amritsar was worth this trip to India and everything wrong that came out of it.

Got my shot of antibiotics and the brand new Punjabi Posse style skin rash that the bus' coffin gently provided, then told myself to hold on and get out immediately, as there was going to be plenty of time to rest and recover in Nepal. A couple of hours, couple of teas and a shower later I was already on my way to the magnificent Golden Temple

What a stunning wonder of the world! No religious building have ever moved me so much since the Duomo of Milan and its taller and scarier (basically, German) cousin, the Dom of Cologne.
Once past the buzzling market, you have to store your shoes in the lockers and cover your head with a scarf, men and women are equal and have the same rights and duties in the Sikh religion. Cross the small canals of running water to wash your feet as well.

The temple appears in front of you as floating in a sea of serenity. The sound of a religious litany accompanied by a light drum permeates the entire site and creates an atmosphere of what I can define as musical silence; ther rythm is so pervasive that it enters your soul and suffocates all the noise that normally chokes every other place in India. Following the crowd of pilgrims then I went into the Hari Mandir Sahib, the golden box right into the middle of the pool. From the Gurus' Bridge it is possible to see that nature has found its home here, as a fort surrounded by the noise and the chaos of modern Amritsar; fish swim into the Amrit Samovar, the holy pool and a few hungry cats are looking for food leftovers around the columns. Inside the building here is revealed the source of the music: three older men are either singing from a scroll, playing the drums or a pianola, while another is collecting money offers thrown by the pilgrims and piling it with a large sword. The centre of the room is adorned with hundred of flowers and a tissue that covers the holy book of Sikhism. The building itself is decorated with the finest metals and marbles, chandeliers, mirrors and gems. Unfortunately no pictures allowed...

Some of the pilgrims have carried a bowl made of leaves and stuffed of what looks like a chestnut cream for God, which is emptied into a large canister right at the exit.
All around the sacred complex a series of services for the pilgrims are offered at nominal price, in the name of compassion and support of the poor. Bank services, an ATM, fresh drink vendors, restaurants and even free accommodation service. Of course the prices and the services are offered to everyone regardless of status, ethnicity or religion.
The kitchens were on the way to the museum so I stopped by and received a metal plate, bowl and spoon. A man divided us into groups and sent us on different lines of the floor, where food is always offered 24/7 as symbol of friendship and help for everyone that is hungry. All the people received 2 chapatis, a large spoonful of a hot cereal soup and another of sweet rice pudding, with a dash of saffron and coconut flavour as topping. Fresh springwater was given as well, although having a cup of it my stomach felt a bit uneasy for a while: the evil spirits in me trying to escape, obviously!

I hope there are some left or this blog will become so boring!

On the way to the museum at the top of the clocktower I noticed another service to the pilgrims: free water at all the four courners of the pool is being offered in metal bowls. On the side of these "kiosks" there were several older women and some kids cleaning them with something that looked either ash or coal powder, then washed with pure water to be used again right after. A smiling woman handed me another bowl of water and right now my stomach is calm, so either dead or demon-free. Jokes aside, it's marvellous how people invest their free time in helping others like this. There was no proselitism in the area, just smiles, prayer, rest and a lot of curious looks from people that occasionally asked me if I needed a free guide or some explanation about the temple. All of them underlined several times that they didn't want any money. Oh New Delhi, what a world of difference! Not to mention the guards patrolling the area, dressed in beautiful bright yellow mantels and blue or orange turbants, holding long and refined spears. A joy for the eyes and also for the personal safety.

At the museum the story of Sikhism is explained by modern paintings with some obvious medieval European themes. Sikhs are free to visit any religious building and pray to the unique God they believe in after all, guess it's normal that some local artists copied some of the portraits and styles displayed in our home countries. Most of the paintings themselves represent figures of Sikhism through out its birth (16th century if I remember well) and modern ages. The great majority are representations of battles (they are known for being formidable warriors) and scenes of war and torture perpetrated by Muslim neighbors at their refusal to convert to Islam, British colonizers and the struggle of Amritsar during the difficult times of the Partition of India and the siege of the Golden Temple that ended with the murder of Indira Gandhi and thousands of deaths in the following clashes between Sikhs and Hindus.

Let's not forget that Amritsar itself barely escaped annexion to Pakistan and the former motherland of the Sikhs is now cut in half between the two unfriendly neighbors. This, with the perennial religious tensions of the subcontinent, explains the large diaspora of the Sikhs to Canada, England, the U.S. and recently the farmlands of my hometown region of Lombardy, in the north of Italy.

As I finished writing this it's raining again...time for some photos!
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