Friday, November 13, 2009

Amritsar: The Golden Temple and the Wagah Border

Thinking back over my various entries in this travel blog, I realized that I often use the phrase, "Never in my life..." to begin describing many of my experiences. It makes sense that I would use this phrase, given that I have never been to any of these places before. These are in fact new experiences in my life. But I must admit that I also use this phrase to dramatize my writing, to elevate an experience -- walking through the Himalayas, for example -- to the level of something special, unique and unforgettable. I realized that I do this at the risk of overusage. If all of these experiences are special, than none of them are. If every sentence ends in a superlative, my descriptions lose their meaning and simply become hyperbole.

It is with this prelude that I would like to tell you about the Golden Temple of Amritsar, fully aware of the risks of using such grandiose statements. Ahem. Never in my life have I been to such a special, unique and forgettable place. I will never forget this place for as long as I live. As much as I enjoyed visiting Varanasi, I am sure that with time my experience there will gradually fade from memory. Like a city I've been to on tour with Genghis Tron, I will know that I've been to Varanasi, but I will not be able to recall with detail my emotions and observations relating to that city. The Golden Temple was different. I will never forget this place or the sensations I felt there.

I should begin by mentioning that outside the walls of the temple, Amritsar is, with all due respect, just another crowded, hectic Indian city. This is now the fourth city in India I've been to, and the chaotic grind of these urban jungles no longer overwhelms my senses. When I first arrived in Kolkata, I could barely even walk outside with feeling completely paralyzed. But with time and more experience, the shock has faded and I now feel like I have a firm handle on traveling through India cities. Amrtisar is marginally cleaner and more organized than Kolkata or Varanasi, and has considerably fewer cows, but on the whole, there is nothing particularly remarkable about the city.

But once I entered the gates of Sikhism's holiest place, the Golden Temple, everything changed.

To enter the temple grounds, you must first remove your shoes and socks and store them in a little locker. Everyone inside the gates is barefoot. Everyone inside the gates has also covered their head in deference to God. Since I did not have a turban or a scarf, I used one of the free bandannas available for those who have come unprepared. The final step before entering the complex is to wash your hands and feet. After washing our hands, we walked towards the entrance, where we found a little man-made river specifically designed for cleaning our feet. We rinsed our feet and began walking towards the entrance. Ahead of us, people bent down and touched the frame of the entryway, touched their face, and then walked through the archway into the Golden Temple. We followed.

Once inside, I came upon a vast reflecting pool, with the Golden Temple itself sitting right in the middle. The perimeter of the reflecting pool was composed of a wide marble walkway, which extended out into the pool on one side, forming a causeway that led directly to the entrance of the temple. Instantly, I was struck by the grandeur, elegance and purity of the place. (As I write this, more than half of my entire train car has spontaneously broken out into song, singing some type of Indian folk song.) We had arrived just before sunset, and the unadulterated white of the surrounding courtyard's buildings provided a wonderful contrast to the shimmering gold of the temple and its reflection along the water. The place was beautiful.

Behind me, Sikh pilgrims poored in through the entrance and immediately fell to their knees and kissed the clean, marble floor. Indeed, the place was immaculate. We would eventually spend hours walking around the complex and not a speck of dirt could be found on the bottom of my feet. The contrast between the pristine temple grounds and the filthy streets of Amritsar was astounding. I would be shocked to find a cleaner place anywhere else in the entirety of India.

As we walked around the perimeter of the pool, a Sikh sporting a large turban and even larger beard approached me with a smile and shook my hand. "You are welcome here!" he said. He then asked curiously, "Which country you're from?" When I told him I was from America, he smiled even more and said, "Wowwww. Great country!" As it turns out, this wouldn't be the only time that I'd have this exact conversation. Apparently, the American dream is far from dead here in Amritsar.

I also took note of the peaceful, ceremonious music emanating from the numerous loudspeakers found throughout the complex. Led by a soothing voice reciting simple prayer songs, this magnificent voice was accompanied by the tablas and an organ-like instrument called the harmonium. I immediately latched onto this music and often found myself focusing in on it as we walked along the water.

Eventually, we arrived at the portion of the walkway that extended out into the water, took note of the NO PHOTOGRAPHY INSIDE THE TEMPLE sign, and began walking towards the temple itself. As we came closer, a strange aroma wafted over us, perplexing both me and Mimi. We would soon learn that it was the smell a ritual food offering, a nutty paste whose ingredients we were unable to discern.

When we finally arrived at the entrance of the temple, its doorway was clogged up with people bending over to kiss the foot of the door frame, just as they had done at the initial entrance. As we slowly inched towards the door and eventually through it, I was astounded to find three men sitting crossed legged to the left side of the small interior. The man in the middle was calmly but intently singing the prayer song into a microphone as he simultaneously played the harmonium. His eyes were closed. He was flanked on his sides by a man playing the tabla and another man playing a second harmonium.

I couldn't believe it. The music coming over the loudspeakers was being performed live, continuously, all day long. From outside the temple, the music had sounded so timeless, like the man's voice had always existed. And yet here I was, watching its creation. I couldn't connect the two. To my own surprise, tears welled up behind my eyes. Why did I feel the urge to cry? I couldn't explain it. I swallowed the frog in my throat and kept the tears inside.

The inside of the temple had no discernible hierarchy or centerpiece. Sikhism has no idols and God has no physical manifestation, so there was nothing inanimate that was worth looking at. That wasn't to say the temple's interior, with its elegant gold plates and deep blue drapes, wasn't worth admiring. But the focus was clearly on the musicians. Behind them sat about ten men, all with turbans and impressive beards, who sang along to the hymn with varying degrees of intensity. On the opposite side of the room sat a similar number of women, also singing along either audibly or under their breath.

In between these two groups sat an old man with a gray beard and grave eyes. He wore a deep blue turban that matched the colors of the drapes. He presided over a massive book, that I would later learn to be the most sacred copy of the Guru Granth Sahib, Sikhism's holy book of prayer hymns. As the music poured out, people continually shuffled through temple, repeatedly kissing the ground and throwing money before the holy book. A low echo of the prayer song seeped through the room. It was then that I realized nearly everyone was singing quietly along with the hymns. These were songs that everyone knew by heart, songs that were ingrained into their minds since childhood.

So, why was I, a person who openly and enthusiastically rejects religions of all stripes, so moved by this scene? Why did it bring me so much joy to be there? Why did I feel so at home and connected in such a religious environment? The Golden Temple of Amritsar exudes an aura of legitimacy and authenticity that I've find absent in so many other places. In comparison, the ghats of Varanasi have been demoted to what Mimi referred to as Hindu Disneyland. The sadhus may have been real, but there was something about the evening puja ceremony that reeked of performance. It felt like a show. The hordes of tourists, both Western and Indian alike, certainly didn't help.

There was no performance at the Golden Temple. Only sincerity, equality, warmth, and devotion. Oodles and oodles of devotion. And it seems that a key component of this devotion is openness. I am not a Sikh, and yet I felt welcome and included. Every person we spoke to, and there were many that approached us, was kind, welcoming and inclusive. At the same time, no one proselytized and no one preached. I never felt an agenda was being pushed on me. People were just happy to share the place with us.

This openness is epitomized by the Guru-Ka-Langar, the Golden Temple's free dining hall. Eating at the Langar, which apparently feeds between 60,000 and 80,000 pilgrims every single day, was an unforgettable experience. We washed our hands (again), received a metal thali plate and spoon, and walked upstairs to the large dining hall. Here, we found everyone sitting cross-legged on the floor in long lines. Volunteers carrying large buckets hurried down the lines, doling out cupfuls of potato curry, stewed lentils, and rice pudding. Other men handed out chapati (bread), which we quickly learned is always to be received with two open hand cupped together.

Given the quantity being produced, the food was surprisingly delicious and we got more than enough to eat. It was a wonderful and humbling experience to eat alongside the other pilgrims. The bearded man next to me looked after us. When he saw me eyeing one of the curry dispensers, he gave a quick yell and before I knew it my plate had been replenished. He finished before us, but before he left he turned to me and said, "Have you had enough to eat?" I had. On our way out, we peaked into the kitchen and saw what may be the largest pot on the face of the planet. Impressive.

After dinner, we decided to walk around the perimeter once again and return to the inside of the temple. This time, there was a much longer line to enter the temple. While we were waiting online, a middle-aged Sikh caught my eye and gave me a smile. I thought nothing of it, but once we were inside the temple, he tapped me on the shoulder and began making friendly, if not slightly awkward, conversation.. For better or worse, we ended up spending the next two hours talking with this man, whose name was Chani.

Chani was an interesting man. After giving us a short tour of the less-frequented upper floors of the temple (nothing in the Golden Temple seems to be off-limits), we sat down on the roof and began chatting. I didn't mind talking to him, but at the same time I felt like Chani had cornered us into having the conversation. To put it more bluntly, I felt like Chani was following us around the temple. At any rate, he asked about our background, where we came from, what we did back home. And we asked about him.

We learned that Chani was a devout Sikh. We learned that he had a brother who was killed during a robbery at a petrol station. We learned that he absolutely loves pro-wrestling and that one of his dreams is to come to America and see the Undertaker wrestle live in the flesh at a WWF event. When I gave him a dubious look, he assured me it was true and asked me to feel his muscles. Sure enough, Chani was completely ripped. Funny, I thought. Here I am, sitting on top of the Golden Temple, squeezing the flexed arm of a middle-aged turban-clad man.

Over the course of the conversation, a conversation for which I had no clear exit strategy, I began to sense that Chani didn't have many friends. He was turning into the guy who latches on to you at a party and doesn't let go. Chani was stalking. He told me about his membership at an exclusive swim club and invited me to come swim with him at 6:30 the following morning. He told me about the wealthy 86 year old man I would get to meet if I joined him. "What hotel are you staying at? I will come pick you up on my scooter." Mimi and I looked at each other. Abort mission! "Uhhh, I forget the name," I awkwardly replied.

Chani was a kind-hearted, friendly man and deep down I felt that he meant no harm, and that had I gone swimming at his pool it probably would have been awesome. But I was in a foreign city talking to a man I had only met a few hours before, and I knew it would be reckless and potentially unsafe to accept his invitation. He gave me his phone number and address and told me that I should call him on New Year's Eve so that he could wish me a happy 2010. At several points, we said our goodbyes, only to find out that Chani was always planning to walk in the same direction that we were. After several more awkward interactions, Chani finally got the point, and said goodbye for real. Phew!

We spent the morning of the following day walking around Amritsar for a bit, including a visit to a memorial park that was established to commemorate a massacre that the British unleashed on Amritsar's local population in 1919. A wall ridden with bullet holes has been preserved over the years, serving as a brutal reminder of the British colonial legacy. After wandering aimlessly around the busy streets of Amritsar, Mimi and I decided that we had seen enough of the city and returned to the Golden Temple. We had already spent about 5 hours there the day before, but somehow, we hadn't gotten enough.

After storing away our shoes and washing up, we entered the temple once again. A husky guard with a big beard pulled me aside and asked me if I had any smokable devices. (Smoking is forbidden in the temple grounds)  I told him no, and that we had come yesterday and knew the rules. He gave me a big smile. "You like it here. You are weclome here!" As he talked to me he put his hand on my hand and began intertwining our fingers. Male-to-male affection is extremely common in India and Nepal and unlike in America there is no homosexual connotations to holding hands with another man. As we held hands he asked me, "Which country you're from?" When I told him I was from America he let out a big smile. But then his face turned very serious and he whispered to me, "9-11. Very sad." I agreed that 9-11 was sad and told him how happy I was to be at the Golden Temple. He smiled again and we said goodbye. Here is a picture of me with this guard and his buddy.

Inside, we once again walked around the perimeter of the pool, soaking up the magical feeling of the place and enjoying the wonderful view of the Golden Temple. Before I knew it, we had another new friend eagerly making conversation with us. The difference this time, however, was that the short old man trying to befriend us hardly spoke a word of English. It didn't stop him though from taking my hand and giving us a tour of one of the buildings that line the perimeter of the complex. At several points, he kindly asked if we would take a picture with him and said him a copy. He handed me a piece of paper with his address. "Just one copy, please," he kept saying. Other than this, the rest of his complimentary but compulsory guided tour was given in a language completely incomprehensible to us. It didn't matter though. He was happy to show us around and we were just as happy and curious to have him lead us. Eventually, we said goodbye. "One copy of photo, please," he reminded me. Here are the photos that I will send him.

After another free lunch at the communal dining hall, we went back to our hotel. We spent the remainder of the day taking a share-taxi out out to the India-Pakistan border at Wagah. Why, you might be asking, would we ever want to go this border, which is about an hour outside of Amritsar. Well, for some unexplicable reason, there is an extravagent border closing ceremony that occurs each night at sundown in which border guards from both Pakistan and India march around in ridiculous costumes and bark at each other from their respective sides of the border. I'm not sure how this tradition arose, but it has become an incredibly popular way for people to enjoy a late afternoon.

I wasn't sure what to expect, but we had heard this ceremony was quite a spectacle, and indeed it was. When we arrived at the border, the mood was remniscent of a college football game. The bleachers on each side of the border were filled with their respective country's patriots. We didn't have much of a view of the Pakistani side, but it was an utter riot on our side, with kids dancing to patriotic songs and Indian flags waving in the air. Each day, literally thousands of Indians come to the border to watch the ceremony and celebrate their country. Given the deep emnity between the two countries, it was an interesting but bizarre display of harmony.

On the walk back to our a taxi, a young boy approached me and asked if he could "have a snap" with me using the camera on his cell phone. He couldn't get a good picture though so I took down his email address and promised to send him a photo. Here is the picture:

But truth be told, my mind was back at the Golden Temple, and after the taxi ride back from the border and a quick dinner, we went back to the Golden Temple for the last time to say goodbye. We stayed until about 9:00pm, right up to the last round of prayer hymns, before they ceremoniously wrapped up the holy book and returned it to its storage case for the night. We walked once more around the perimeter and said goodbye to what may be the cleanest, most peaceful and welcoming place in all of India.

Don't worry, I am not going to convert to Sikhism. I don't believe in God and certainly don't believe in organized religion. But if I had to pick a religion, Sikhism might just take the cake. After all, the religion was founded specifically to reject the inquality of Hinduism's caste system. And sure enough, within the gates of the Golden Temple I found a genuine display of love, generosity and devotion to the religion's founding tenets of equality and openness. Plus I love big beards. I'll leave it at that.

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