Sunday, March 7, 2010

Amritsar, India

We made our first visit to the Golden Temple at nighttime, on the evening that we arrived in Amritsar on the Shatabdi Express train from Delhi.  We bought Mohit a white scarf for his head, handed over our shoes at the counter, washed our hands at the trough with everyone else, and then stepped through the feet-washing pools to cross under the gate in the perimeter walls surrounding the gurdwara.  The temple sits in the middle of a pool of sacred water (called Amrit Sarovar), and is embossed in 750 kg of pure gold.  It is Sikhism’s holiest shrine, and all are welcomed in.

We walked barefoot on the cold marble around the pool, left a donation, and picked up leaf-bowls filled with prashad (offering food, which is like thick cream-of-wheat mixed with melted butter and sweetened with sugar).  We waited in line with the turbaned crowd on the long causeway that crosses the water to briefly enter the glowing gurdwara.  It’s very beautiful.

We came back the next morning to appreciate the temple’s beauty in sunlight.  This time, we gave another donation and then waited in line with a large crowd for Langar in the public dining room.    We were handed a steel plate and a spoon, and the we charged through with everyone else when the doors opened, and claimed a spot on the floor, where we sat cross-legged on a long strip of burlap.  Men made rounds through the room, ladling helpings of daal, channa paneer, and kheer onto each plate, and others dropped piping hot chapattis into our outstretched hands.  Everyone ate wordlessly, and the hundreds of plates were emptied within minutes.  Meanwhile, the next crowd to be fed waited in the hallway to replace us.

We filed out of the room to deposit our soiled plates at the start of a massive dish-washing assembly line.  On the way we passed the kitchen, where the daal and channa were being kept warm in huge pots big enough for a person to bathe in.  As many as 40,000 people per day are served a free meal here- I’m in awe that we were all served piping hot homemade chapattis!

We also hired a taxi for the 30-km ride out to the India-Pakistan border.  Our guidebook describes the daily evening  border closing ceremony as “reminiscent of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks sketch.”  I haven’t seen that sketch, but Mohit and I giggled the whole way through the goofy pre-ceremony festivities and the half-hour ceremony.

Given the tense relations and violent history between these two countries, and in this Punjab region in particular, I expected the border closing ceremony to be strict, military, intimidating.  It was the exact opposite.  As foreigners, we were allowed to sneak past the crowds and into reserved VIP seats closer to the border (Mohit was indignant that, after trying to pretend to be a resident Indian this whole trip- and failing miserably- the guard almost didn‘t let him into the VIP area with me since we hadn‘t brought our passports to prove his foreigner status).

We sat in concrete stadium benches about 100 feet from Pakistan.  Raucous bhangra party music blasted over the loudspeakers, and the crowd on the Indian side of the border was dancing and clapping and cheering in the stands.  Women and girls lined up down the middle of the road to wait their turn to run as fast as they could in their sarees and salwar suits toward Pakistan waving huge Indian flags.

When the song “Jai Ho!” (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) came over the loudspeakers, girls clambered out of the stands and down into the street to dance, arms in the air.  Many of the girls wore red and white wedding choori (bracelets), traditionally worn for weeks after their wedding; Springtime in India is wedding season.  Meanwhile, guards in the goofiest hats ever and Capri-length khaki pants stood glaring at everyone.  In the background, behind an administrative building, guards in the same goofy uniforms were practicing their high-kicks and speed walking.  Boys in the stands kept starting chants of “Hindustan Zindabad!” (long live India!).

Meanwhile, on the Pakistan side of the border, we could see that a small crowd had begun to filter into the stands, men on one side of the road and women on the other.  The Pakistani crowd couldn’t begin to compete in size with the vast, rowdy, co-ed crowd on the Indian side.  Nevertheless, the Pakistani loudspeakers had begun to blare too, competing in volume with the Indian music.

The ceremony consisted of men on either side of the border yelling into microphones, competing to see who could holler the longest without taking a breath.  Then the ridiculously-uniformed guards high-stepped down the road, where the gate separating the countries was unlocked and swung open.  Guards from either side (the Pakistani guards wearing similar uniforms with fans on their hats, though dressed in more intimidating black) high-kicked at each other, their feet kicked up so high it looked like they’d hit each other in the face.  I think I was just staring with my mouth hung wide open.  It was all so silly and surprisingly entertaining.


  1. looks dope!
    party on!!!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Hello!!!
    Amritsar a very beautiful city with The famous golden temple!!!
    Well visit here and experience the difference!!!!!

  4. Very nice post
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