I left the comfort of my friend Kunal’s house and caught an early morning train (unknowingly, my last train in India!) from Delhi to Amritsar. I lucked into being the only person in my row and slept like a baby for the whole 6-hour journey. When I awoke, I was deep into Punjab and a mere 30km from the Pakistani border. Yikes.
The city of Amritsar is famous for one thing; its golden temple. This is another one of those things that was only on my radar because of other travelers, but as soon as I heard about it, it moved straight to the top of my list. The Golden Temple of Amritsar is the holiest place for the Sikh religion. A good comparison is that Amritsar is like what Mecca is to Muslims. All Sikhs must make a pilgrimage there at least once in their lifetime.
I ended up arriving a little too late to Amritsar to go on my first day, instead spending my early afternoon booking bus tickets for the next day and eating a leisurely lunch. I then embarked on one of the weirder treasures of India, I raced to the Wagah border to see the border closing ceremony with Pakistan.
When I arrived, the driver let me out 1km from the border, saying I would have to walk the rest of the way. Okay, fine. Only 1km. What I didn’t know was that was 1km of a line, all men waiting to get into the border crossing ceremony too. I got there at 4PM and the ceremony started at 5PM. For the next 45 minutes, I shuffled my way through the line with 50,000 sweaty Indian men, getting yelled at by guards with rifles on horseback, as the ladies casually sauntered by in their own quickly moving, sparsely populated stream.
After going through a rigorous pat down, I remembered reading that foreign tourists could get into the VIP section. I weaseled my way over there, and with the casual confidence of, well, an American, I feigned certainty and the guards did nothing to stop me, except check my passport at every turn. I eventually made my way to the front of the arena, to the foreign VIP section. The gate to Pakistan was about 100 feet to my left. On both sides of the border, there was a short walkway, leading to the crowded stands, surrounding a cul-de-sac in a giant horseshoe. I was positioned in the middle of our walkway, with a great vantage point of the entire Indian side of the border.
At 5:15, the Pakistan side was still empty (sorry guys!) and the Indian side was jam-packed with locals and a couple of other tourists. The final bus from India to Pakistan passed through the gates and it started. The Indian side started blasting Bollywood Pop (Jai Ho anyone?). All of the ladies (only ladies were allowed to) stood up and started dancing in the street. Just having a party. The men in the stands would cheer and the younger girls took turns parading the Indian flag to the border and back. There was constant shouting and cheering. It felt like the 4th of July, but for India. Over the next hour, the Pakistan half slowly started filling up and by the end, their side was just as lively as ours, or umm… India’s.
The gates opened once more and the real festivities began. The ladies cleared from the street, and the guards took their place. The soldiers took turn ritualistically marching and prancing about, running to the border, making angry gestures, and then stamping back to their ranks. Unfortunately, words cannot describe how ridiculous the flamboyant marches were. Fortunately, I do have a video.
Each walk was more ridiculous than the previous. This escalation lasted for another hour and then, with the blink of an eye, the two captains of each side shook hands and slammed the gates shut. That was certainly enough festivity for the evening so I just wandered back into town, grabbed dinner at a local dhaba (snack bar), and went to sleep in the world’s ugliest hotel. The whole hotel was made out of poured concrete.
The next morning, I leisurely woke up and made my way to the main attraction of Amritsar, the golden temple. About a kilometer off, no rickshaws are allowed in; about 100 meters away, you have to check your shoes with the guards. You then walk barefoot, snaking around a construction site, clearly renovating something. Once at the marble façade, you proudly walk through the little trench of holy water, washing your feet and cleansing your body. After just a couple steps more, you can finally see it.
My jaw dropped. The whole courtyard was top to bottom glistening white marble. In the center, a glistening blue pool of water, called the Pool of Nectar, stretches for the length of a football field. And in the center, the marble temple, sits, crowned in pure gold. The colors were so brilliant and beautifully maintained, and for the first time in India, there was an air of peace. Everyone was just calmly milling about, chatting, walking, and or reflecting. There was music being piped in, a calm chanting with traditional guitars and drums that took my stress level down another notch. Everything was so simple and serene, and truly filled with a sense of spirituality, more so than any cathedral, temple, or basilica I’ve ever been to.
The golden temple is easily accessed by a narrow causeway through the pool. I waited in line for a few moments before reaching the temple. The music you could hear was coming from the temple itself! There was a live band, and all through out the couple floors of the temple, Sikhs of all shapes and sizes were sitting cross-legged on the floor, staring out the windows or reading a devotional, occasionally mouthing the words of the chant. I sat alongside them and reflected on how fortunate I was to be on this trip. It was truly a special and unique moment.
I circled the complex a couple of more times before entering the dining hall. This canteen is an example of pure efficiency. Run by all volunteers and donations, the cafeteria feeds 50,000 people every day. I was herded into a large open chamber of about 1,000 people and everyone sat in long rows with out plates in hand. Then, giant buckets of slop delicious Indian food were brought around and ladled into our plates. While not the cleanliest eating experience (I made the mistake of only seeing the kitchens after I ate), it was certainly a beautiful example of community.
I decided to return to the temple at dusk for some sunset pictures and caught up with a couple other sights in the town. My first stop was the Jallianwallah Bagh, a park where some 60 years before, the British government opened fire on Indian natives holding a peaceful protest. Now, it is just a peaceful park and a lovely memorial to the dead. I met a German girl there and we avoided the daily afternoon rainfall under an awning together.
After I briefly went to the uninteresting Ram Bagh Park to see their underwhelming museum. It had about 7 paintings and the main event was a giant diorama. Great.
However, I did make my way to one of the weirder and more wonderful temples I’ve seen, and it seems easy to miss! Lonely Planet calls it the Mata Temple, but you will find it by asking to see the Vaishno Deva. After checking your shoes, a man pointed to a sign on the wall that pointed me in the right direction. I started up a staircase, and soon realized that I was on a track. The most similar thing I can come up with to describing the experience of walking through the extremely long path of this temple is the carnival ride in the movie Grease that Sandy and Danny sing “You’re the One That I Want” on (Am I the only one?). Every turn brought a new stairwell, spiraling down, twisting up. Then, you’d have to crawl through a small hole, emerging on the other side to more stairs. I passed a hundred different idols all, shiny and beautiful in their own rights. At one point, you end up in the sculpture studio, where a few men working on a giant fountain with three three-headed cobras. More stairs, more twists and turns, you climb through the jaws of a mythical beast, wade through knee-deep water for about 20 yards to emerge at the inconspicuous idol you are there to worship. I’m not sure I felt holier after, partly considering the odd walk, partly because the labyrinth is meant for women wishing to be pregnant, but I certainly enjoyed the experience.
I returned back to the golden temple for sunset and I was not disappointed with a return visit. More serenity, more peace. I wish I could bottle that peace up and bring it home with me, but I will just have to return to it in my mind whenever I’m feeling stressed and channel the welcoming energy of the Sikhs.