December 21st, 2007 – by: Raches
We arrived quite late in Amritsar and slipped gratefully into our waiting beds (with hot water bottles) at Mrs Bhandari's Guesthouse. (I might add here that I was now officially on A's family holiday, staying, for the most part, in places with character - a fair cut above the backpacker digs we would normally stay in).
Amritsar is well known for being home to the Golden Temple, a holy Sikh shrine, and it was here I started to learn a lot more about this religion. We caught cycle rickshaws to the temple, a good way to see the city, which is less chaotic than its bigger counterparts.
At the temple, we took off our shoes and covered our heads with scarves (A got away with a bucket hat), before walking through the cleansing shallow water to enter the temple. The Golden Temple itself is in the middle of a large pool, surrounded by marble building and walkway, and we made our way slowly clockwise around it. All day, priests chant and sing Sikh hymns inside the temple (they take it in shifts) and this is projected across the water. There was also a talk being held on the side, so we sat down in the sun and listened, of course not understanding a word.
The Golden Temple.
One prevalent aspect of Sikh religion is their non-belief in the caste system that is so entrenched in Hindu society. A practical experience of this was had in their massive communal kitchen hall (I believe there are two), where anyone and everyone can eat lunch sitting next to each other on the floor.
We were guided past volunteers to collect our plates, spoon and cup, then ushered into the hall and sat down on thin hessian strips on the floor in long rows. More volunteers came by spooning dal, pickled veg, excellent chapati and water for drinking. The chapati man hovered around to dole out seconds; we noticed one rather ragged looking fellow collect several chapatis which he stashed in his bag. I remember thinking what a good system this could be for feeding homeless people, if only people could be so committed to something other than religion...
Once finished and everyone exited the hall, they used a giant rubber-edged mop to clean away any curry or water on the floor ready for the next session. Outside there were more volunteers collecting the dirty plates and washing them by hand.
We saw more people peeling vegies and decided to join in, so for the next 30 minutes, A and I shelled peas (I didn't want to tackle the ginger or anything involving a knife for fear of revealing my dependence on good potato peelers). It was meditative, and there was an atmosphere of approval and acceptance although no one spoke to me (later, a young man started a conversation in English and told me we were setting a good example for others).
This man had an interesting job.
Then we had to leave, because we wanted to drive out to the India-Pakistan border to watch the border closing ceremony. What a spectacle - it was like being at a sporting event. There was an MC who revved up the crowd - he would shout "Hindustan!" and the crowd would respond "Zindabad!" which meant "long live India" or similar. The Pakistani side was noticeably more subdued, but we realised it was a Muslim festival day (Bakr Id, where they slaughter goats).
Eventually, the Indian guards, dressed in khaki with perky red fan-like headpieces (matching the Pakistanis' black ones), took their turns marching up to the gate and doing a march-off with the Pakistani guards. Their movements were totally exaggerated and almost ridiculous, and we agreed that there had to be some choreography between the two countries. The flags were lowered at the same time, then carried ceremoniously to its nightly resting place, and that was the end of it.
Indian side of the border.
After a nice, but particularly oily dinner in a Punjabi restaurant that apparently wasn't really Punjabi at all, we returned to the Golden Temple to see the Holy Book being put to bed. The music coming from the temple was more subdued, and accompanied by tablas, was almost reggae-like. I found it all very relaxing, until the book's palanquin emerged, which caused a frenzy.
It was laden with flower garlands and not one but three mattresses, then carried up the causeway to the temple, where it collected the book. People crowded around to touch or even just glimpse the book as it was carried back to the palace, where it its laid to rest every night. Quite an impressive ritual (which occurs daily) for a book!
I knew nothing about Amritsar and very little about Sikh religion before this, and took away lots - and I must say that the Golden Temple was the most peaceful religious place I have had the pleasure of visiting.