Along the Away

a traveler's tales

There is one place left for me on my north India trip and that is Amritsar. We took a local train there, another 6 hour stint squished onto facing bench seats with Indians getting on and off, going about their business. I sat in a section with an Indian family that broke out a big picnic feast to while away the time.

Amritsar is the holiest city for the Sikh people and the centre of Sikhism – the big highlight is the Golden Temple which I couldn’t wait to see. A favourite film of mine is Bride and Prejudice, in which the family live in Amritsar – I have wanted to go since I watched that movie, I admit mostly because I like the way ‘Amritsar’ sounds in Aishwarya Rai’s accent :-)

Once we arrive we check into our basic hotel and then head out to tour the city by cycle rickshaw, an adventure in itself. I feel like a real dead weight when I sit on human powered transport. I would be happy to have some back seat pedals to contribute a little, share the load. I try to remember that it would be less helpful if I forfeited to an alternative transport mode which was less sustainable and denying someone the right to employment. That was a diversion on the subject, the tour itself was lovely, and even while pumping his legs to cart my friend and I around our rickshaw cycler was friendly, chatting and pointed out interesting things along the way.

We went to check out the Golden Temple even though we had plans to come again the next day as apparently all the action happens at night. Firstly we head to the dining hall where, as with the Sikh temple in Delhi, everyone is entitled to a meal. We sit down in one of the long lines and the volunteers walk up and down putting food on our plate and sloshing water in our cups. The hall vibrates with voices and the clatter of plates, it is overwhelming but exhilarating at the same time.

The Golden Temple (Shri Harimandir Sahib) is quite a breathtaking sight, it sits in the middle of a sacred lake surrounded by a marble walkway.

When we go, it is packed. And I mean busier than Sydney Harbour on NYE packed! The night-time air is filled with chanting from the Sikh holy book. People mill about praying or talking, and the crowd spirals in a throng toward the temple itself, the purpose to touch it before spiraling back out again. It was intimidating, especially as the crowd is mostly male and I had read and heard that groping in the crowd was not uncommon. But it is just one of those things that you feel the pull to do – you come all this way, and there it is within reach. So with a small group of my fellow tour buddies we join the crowd and were soon squished into the middle of it. I didn’t know where I started and another begins, we were so molded together. In a way it prevents too much worry about groping – who can even move? I do feel a few suspect nudges here and there, but when I turn around an old lady is staring at me – hmm, I think this crowd is more impatient than frisky, phew. Closer to the Golden Temple the crowd calms down as there is more crowd control and we walk single filed around, I touched the gold and soaked in the reverent atmosphere. It was special, but obviously did not hold the meaning or appeal to me as it did for those here for spiritual reasons. I felt kinda bad I was taking up room as a tourist… but a few more elbows and nudges from the crowd snapped me out of it.

We returned again the next day and it was such a different experience – I definitely recommend going at both daytime and night if you can.

A meal is also provided to temple goers during the day. It is an epic task to feed the throngs the people that pass constantly into the dining hall. The clanging of the metal plates being washed and thrown in large metal cages was immense.

We decided to go exploring and discovered where the chapatis were being made.

We somehow wandered down into some underground spaces, still not entirely sure where we were or what they were used for but the architecture was beautiful.

The temple goers can bath in the lake surrounding the Golden Temple if they wish. Of course there is an area for men (who strip down to their undies) and an area for women (who go fully dressed) and children. Check out the line to the ladies changing rooms (some things are the same everywhere huh?)

The colourful clothing of the temple goers was so magnificent against the blinding white of the marble. The scene really is a feast for the eyes (and my camera).

After we left the Golden Temple we traveled by cycle rickshaw again to visit Jallianwala Bagh, the site of the massacre in 1919 that was a pivotal incident in the lead up to India’s independence. The story is very sad, in summary 15-20,000 people gathered at these public gardens in 1919 following clashes between the British regiment and the local population. Fearing that the gathering was gearing towards an overthrow of the British government, an acting Brigadier-General ordered his regiment to fire into the crowd (including women and children) for ten minutes (ten minutes!) Official records claim nearly 1700 bullets were fired with 379 dead and 1100 injured. It is estimated the number of dead was really around 1000.

The gardens are now a memorial for those who lost their lives. A brick wall scattered with bullet holes is still standing.

In the evening we went to see the India-Pakistan border daily flag ceremony – holy moly. What fan fare. What theatrics. What a pumping dance party vibe on the Indian side (blaring Bollywood music, impromptu dance parties complete with shoulder shrugging and finger pointing) and solemn steady chanting from the Pakistan side.

This daily ritual has been performed by the respective security forces since 1959 – and it is really very cool and lots of fun. Plus there is a lot of high kicks, pivotal hop things and yelling. This ceremony takes place every evening before sunset on the Grand Trunk Road, one of the only roads linking the two countries.

Somehow I can’t find the photos or video that I took of this momentous event… I will have to keep hunting and add them when they resurface.

And just in case there was not enough photos in this post already – here is a final one – because sometimes you see things that are just worthy of a photo, I took this as we were cycling around.

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Sydney based, coastal dwelling. When I'm not at work I'm somewhere outdoors, or in the yoga studio, or at my local cafe, or pottering at home.

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