Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Golden Temple


We climb off the train and into the station at Amritsar. In the middle of the platform are large piles of burlap sacks and black metal trunks. Freight cargo. I walk behind Susie and Sarah. They seem to know where they’re going. How, I have no idea. But they walk quickly and with purpose. We come into a large room in the middle of which is a scale model of the Golden Temple, just like Mister Singh described. Standing right next to the model is a man in a turban holding a sign: “Mr. Vicki,” just like Mister Singh described. We greet him and he turns and walks quickly across the street. Outside there is a large red billboard that reads “Welcome to Amritsar.” There’s no thinking we’ve gotten off at the wrong place.

There is some discussion about what we want to do. I’d like to go to the hotel and check in. Susie and Sarah don’t know if we can, but they say we can try. Most places won’t let you check in this early, but this is what Mister Singh told me to do. “You can reach there, then go to the hotel to wash up, then go see the temple right away.”

The driver leads us toward a large brown van that looks a lot like a Volkswagen Vanagon. There is plenty of room for the five of us to climb in. There is no air conditioning, but it’s improbably not that hot and the breeze from the open windows more than suffices.

Ten minutes later, we are at our hotel: the Sitara Nawas. There is a lobby with wooden doors and flowers and a marble front desk. The clerk gives us two keys and leads us to the third floor. One room has two beds and the other room right across the hall has three beds. It’s perfect.

The rooms are neat and clean and have fans and air conditioning that works quickly. There is a proper shower and a toilet “sealed for your protection” just like a hotel in the US might have. It’s a nice place. The sign in the lobby posted rates of four thousand rupees per night. Mister Singh told me we’d be paying eight hundred. I can hardly believe it. In fact, I’m ready for the bait-and-switch like Raju gave us, with the magically raising rates at the last minute. Only time will tell.

We go down to the lobby and begin the laborious check in process. We each need to fill in a page in this large book that asks for our address, our passport number and all the details of our visits to India. How long have we been here? When are we leaving? Why are we here? It feels like it takes an hour just to complete this, but it can’t have taken that long because we’re off towards the Golden Temple by ten o’clock.

We can see the temple from around the corner of the hotel. We’ll be able to walk there from here, which is a good thing because our driver seems to have vanished when we walk out front to find him.

Susie and Sarah walk out front again, leading the way down Amritsar’s narrow streets through shops and shacks set right up against the road. Amritsar is a very different city than Delhi. It’s a lot smaller for one thing. The roads are so narrow that cars don’t really drive on them save for the occasional taxi. This makes it nicer to be a pedestrian here. You can walk on the paved roads without much dodging and without getting stuck in piles of rubble at their sides. There are no sides of the roads; the shop fronts come right up and stop at the drains. It also seems, as Amar was saying, that men don’t pee in public here. The only time I smell urine on the streets is when we pass the “public convenience,” a public bathroom set in from the road.

Susie takes us to Lucky Tea Stall, a place I would never have occasioned on my own, but it seems okay once we sit down. The parathas we eat are so hot that, like the surface of the sun, no bacteria could survive there. Everybody chows down, but I can’t finish. I’m just not hungry. The chai is excellent, though, and mine is gone as quickly as I can drink the steamy, sweet drink.

The Lucky Tea Stall is just a block away from the Golden Temple’s gate. We snap some pictures of the proprietor and each other, and walk off toward the gate. I take the orange bandana that Mister Singh gave me from my purse and tie it over my head. The rest of the girls are wearing dupatta, and they wrap these around their heads. Once they do this, they look so Indian it’s hard to keep track of them in the crowd, especially from behind where I invariably find myself trailing along.

We find the shoe check and pass in our sandals in exchange for a token with a number on it. Next we walk through the footbath which is constantly fed with clean water. Unlike the one at Bangla Sahib, this footbath seems to be doing its job. It’s a bit dangerous, though, to walk on the solid marble with wet feet, and Susie almost looses her footing. We pass through an arch and see the glistening golden building appear before our eyes. “Oh my gosh,” I say taken aback, “It’s so beautiful.” I have to stop for a moment just to take it in, but my friends are moving on and I can’t get separated, so I move on as well.

The gurudwara is framed by an external gate that is all white marble with arches and domes. This white marble building is huge. It easily spans a full kilometer. Inside, the ground is solid white marble with varied geometric patterns of black and brown inlaid into it. This walkway around the temple is also easily a kilometer. The Golden Temple itself rises out of a square salowar, or bathing pool, in which you can see its reflection from any vantage point.

We walk along the white marble pathway towards the entrance of the Harmandir, the gleaming building in the center leafed in real gold. For all the conflict that the Sikhs have seen, threats of extermination from the Mughals and freedom fighting that culminated in an ugly assassination of the prime minister in the 80s, this place exudes a true majesty and peace.

If I have ever seen a palace built for God, it is it. The reverence that Sikhs have for their one true deity finds a sublime expression in the architecture here, its design and art and opulence. There are other temples I’ve visited where I feel like the money spent on the temple has impoverished the spirit of the worshipping done there, that the contrast between the richness of the building and the poverty of the worshippers is a sin in itself. The Golden Temple doesn’t feel this way, for although the building is ornate and exorbitant, the Sikhs give shelter to the homeless and feed the hungry three times a day at the huge langar where the metal plates never stop clanking. Thousands of people of any caste or creed eat here for free every day. Hundreds of people sleep here. And it’s all staffed by volunteers.

People bathe and wade in the salowar, which is supposed to have the power to heal lepers. Men stand at the corner with skimmers and clean the pool. We round the far corner and get in the long line of people waiting to enter the Harmandir. Susie and Sarah somehow take the express lane and blow past Julianne and Katie and me. We see them in the stream of people coming out of the temple before we even get in. They’ll wait by the exit, they tell us, as they walk past.

A beautiful baby with big, dark eyes is really interested in me. He smiles every time I look at him and wave. He stares at me and stares at me from his mother’s arms, waiting for me to look back and smile.

Women push past with browned leaves. I suppose these are offerings of some kind. I can see the man at the exit with a big bowl of Prasad (a.k.a. the brown goo), handing it out to everyone who walks past.

Finally, the man at the entrance lifts the orange cord and lets us enter. The inside of the building, impossibly, is more ornate than the outside. I don’t even know where to look.

Sarah said I shouldn’t take pictures inside, so I have only my recollection and the book Mister Singh lent me to furnish the details. Here’s how the book describes the inside. It does a better job than my memory could.

The lower floor “is faced with marble panels inlaid with exuberant and whimsical designs and motifs—from geometrics and abstracts to arabesques, flowers, foliage, fish, animals and a few human figures. Onyx, mother-of-pearl, lapis, lazuli, red carnelian and other semi-precious and colored stones are used in the inlays.” There are 300 fresco paintings. The walls are covered from top to bottom in detailed gach and tukri work. In gach, artisans crush gypsum and water and fry it into a paste. The paste is then applied to the wall and designs are etched out of it. Next, the designs are filled with gold leaf. In tukri, pieces of colored or mirrored glass are cut and laid into the gach to form patterns and reflections.

The first floor walls are marble, but from the ceiling up, the walls are gold-plated copper with jewels and mirrors and intricate patterns carved into them. Gold, silver, copper and brass are all used in the designs. It is the most ornate and intricate building I’ve ever seen. Every square inch is covered in some sort of wild design and color. There’s no way to take it all in, but the total effect of it is staggering. I think it’s the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen.

On the ground floor in the center is the Guru Granth Sahib, the enormous, handwritten Sikh holy book. There appears to be another copy of it on the second floor, and also in the small shrine on the roof. Lyrics from this book are sung constantly. All of the versus contained within are set to song and sung in the classical raga style at appropriate times of day.

The Harmandir is crowded on the inside. It’s hard to find a place to sit, but we do. The baby and his mother sit right in front of us, but the baby is no longer interested in me. There’s too much else to look at, I guess.

I am simply overwhelmed. I can’t concentrate. There’s too much gold and jewels and people and inlaid marble. Mister Singh said maybe I could sit here for an hour and meditate, but even if I didn’t have my friends with me, I’m not sure I could meditate here. It’s just too much. I wave goodbye to my baby friend and his mother and we walk up the second set of stairs onto the roof. We look around a bit here and decide we’ve seen enough. We walk down the marble stairs and out past the man handing out Prasad. None of us take the offering.

We walk out and meet Susie and Sarah who have been patiently waiting for us back at the marble walkway. On the way out we pass the 400-year-old Beri tree that Mister Singh told me about. It’s a huge thing and who cares if it isn’t really 400 years old. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. It’s a good story. Baba Buddha, the first head priest of the Harmandir Sahib, sat under this tree while he supervised the construction of this temple that was first built 400 years ago, but has been razed three times only taking its present incarnation in the 1800s.

We get our sandals back and walk out into the streets. Susie buys some water and Katie and Sarah get lime sodas. I find a booth selling karas, the metal bracelets worn by Sikhs to remind them to do good works. This tradition, unlike the “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet fad, is 400 years old. I buy a kara for ten rupees. I figure I can use a reminder myself.

I follow Sarah and Susie through the streets of Amritsar. We’re walking next to Jaliwanwagah Bagh, the site of a British massacre of Indians in 1919. The British killed over 300 unarmed Indians amid a climate of gathering political tensions and Sikh threats of self-rule. They wanted their gurudwaras back.

This site is only a few blocks from our hotel as well. We walk the gardens, look at the Indian Oil-sponsored eternal flame and read the short biographies of some of the freedom fighters featured with their portraits in the Hall of Martyrs. These are people who attempted or carried out political assassinations in the name of independence. The deeds are dark. These are not simply victims. They are murderers who believed they were killing in the name of justice. The Hall of Martyrs is a complicated place.

At the front gate I find a kitten. I’m attempting to approach it when Susie and Sarah go running off down the alley that leads back to the street. There is a parade complete with a marching band of sorts. There aren’t really any floats. It’s just people in trucks and people on foot with drums and horns. We walk off after the parade ends. I’m not sure where we’re going, but I’m following. Finally I stop and ask. What are we doing?

We’re trying to retrace the path the taxi took in the morning. We passed a restaurant called The Brothers and Susie and Sarah think we should go there for lunch. I try to tell them that the restaurant Mister Singh recommended was called Two Brothers, but they’re not interested. They want to find this place. We walk and walk and I lose track of where exactly we are when we emerge from a narrow road into a traffic circle that I remember from the morning drive. They’ve found it. The Brothers restaurant is just up the road from here. We actually catch back up with the parade in time to see people standing on rooftops throwing showers of flower petals.

The restaurant says it’s dhaba food—not synonymous with haute cuisine—but I guess it’ll do, especially since we don’t have a driver to take us to the destination of our choice, which would be Two Brothers.

We order thalis, platters of food that come with a variety of subzis and dals. It’s like its own mini-buffet. The food’s okay, but really oily. This is a chief complaint among the people at work: Indian food is oily. Now I know what they’re talking about.

We eat and split the bill. Outside we debate: should we walk back or hire a rickshaw to drive us? The rickshaws in Amritsar are larger than the ones in Delhi. The five of us could fit into one quite comfortably. We decide to take the rickshaw. The auto wallah will drive us back to our hotel for thirty rupees. I show him the business card that the manager gave us when we checked in, and he knows exactly where to go.

We have a few hours to kill before we go to the Wagaugh Border ceremony, the next thing on Mister Singh’s list of things for us to do in Amritsar. There’s apparently some kind of changing of the guard every night on the India/Pakistan border, which is just thirty kilometers from where we are. He said the car he hired would take us there.

I take a shower and we watch tv and take naps. Then there is a knock at the door. It’s the owner of the hotel, Mister Narander Singh. He tells us that Mister Diljit Singh has called three times today to make sure we arrived safely and to see that the car service is okay and we have everything we need. Mister Narander Singh would like to make sure we are having a good time. Is there anything we need? He tells us that the car will be ready to take us to the border at four o’clock, then he offers us each a Coke. He says we should eat dinner at Crystal. The car will take us there after the border ceremony. Then when we come back, we can go see the Golden Temple all lit up and night. He’ll go with us if we like.

Our driver reappears at four and is ready to drive us to the border. We drive through lush green farmland: wheat and rice crops. There’s also a park with go-carts and water slides and several “palaces,” giant halls for weddings and other parties.

We park in a lot that is three inches thick with fine dust. It clouds up under our feet as we walk toward the gate to the border crossing. Dozens of vendors are hawking freshly popped popcorn, sodas and water. We get to the gate and are turned back. We can’t bring any purses or bags in. We have to leave them in the car.

We make our way back through the dust bowl parking lot and stow our purses under the seats in our brown Vanagon, except I can’t leave my wallet or my passport unattended. I don’t have any pockets and I don’t want to hold it loose, so I shove my passport down my shirt to keep it safe. This is fine except that I also start sweating buckets and I can feel its pages curling. As long as it gets me through the security at the airport, it doesn’t matter what it looks like or where it’s been.

There is stadium seating around the wide gate that marks the border with Pakistan. The India side is packed full of revelers. The Pakistan side has about twenty people sitting there. We think this is because it’s Ramadan and the Muslims in Pakistan are all waiting to break their fast. That or they just aren’t interested in this little border ceremony at all.

There is a street party going on. A crowd of young people dance to Punjabi music, waving their hands in the air and jumping up and down. It’s a wonder they have the energy to move at all in this late afternoon heat. The dancing goes on until the ceremony begins, when the children are ushered back to their seats and a line of guards dressed like peacocks in flood pants stomps out in front of the small brick building at the front of the bleacher seating. There is am emcee with a microphone. He chants “Hindustan!” and the crowd yells something back. A line of men at the back of the bleachers waves a row of large Indian flags. “Hindustan!” chants the man in the pink shirt that is drenched in sweat. “Hindustan!”

Then there is something of a shouting contest. The man in the wet pink shirt holds the microphone to the mouth of the first guard who lets out a yell for as long as he can sustain it. During this, there is a horn that comes from the Pakistan side. The Indian man yells a bit longer than the Pakistani can sustain his horn note. This happens a second time and a third. The crowd cheers wildly. Little boys walk through the bleachers selling DVDs of the ceremony.

Suddenly, the yelling man snaps into action and does this crazy, straight-armed power walk towards the gate that marks the border. Halfway there, he stops and kicks himself in the head. The crowd cheers. He stomps hard with his feet a few times, then continues his power walk toward the gate. I feel like I’m at a zoo trying to decode some strange animal behavior. What does it mean when he kicks himself in the head? Is this a display of authority or just of flexibility? One things for sure, it is one of the oddest displays I’ve ever seen.

The whole line of guards takes turns yelling and power walking and kicking themselves in the head and stomping, the crowd cheering and yelling the whole time. Eventually, the gates are opened and a giant, exaggerated handshake takes place between the guards of both countries. Then the Indian and Pakistani flags are lowered simultaneously. Then the Indian guards close the gate and do their crazy power walk back to the little brick building.

When the ceremony ends, people flock to the guards to get their pictures taken with them. There are so many people around that we can’t even get out of the crowd for a while. We just have to stand and wait.

Soon there’s a path we can squeak through and we make our way back to the car through the three-inch-deep dust. I have chosen to wear black pants and I can see the dirt just caking onto them.

The driver is waiting for us at the car where our purses are all completely safe. I take my wet passport out of my shirt and stick it back in my bag.

There is a little bit of a breeze as we drive through the dusky night back past the farmlands and the wedding halls. We all concur: the ceremony was not what we expected. But what ever is expected in India? If it wasn’t a surprise, that would be a surprise in and of itself.

We eat dinner at Crystal, the place the hotel owner recommended. It’s really good food at reasonable prices. There are large paintings that look something like copies of Toulouse Lautrec works: close ups of slightly garish people in bars holding beers and ordering waitresses around. Katie, our resident artist, says they’re interesting. She says the people look so awkward and uncomfortable. She laughs and says she’s inspired; she’s going to do a whole series of awkward paintings. “But who will buy them?” Susie asks. They’ll have to be for a gallery show, Katie says.

The driver takes us back to the hotel and I pick up the tab for his services. It only costs about twenty US dollars for all the schlepping he did for us all day: picking us up at the airport and taking us to the border and dinner and back.

We have to settle the bill for the hotel tonight as well because we’re leaving at 4:30 in the morning and none of us are prepared to get up even earlier than that to mess around with payment.

This is where I expect our bait-and-switch. I expect to find out that we will be paying thousands of rupees instead of the hundreds that Mister Singh promised. But the manager on duty writes up our bills for 800 rupees. Actually, for the room with three beds, they charge 1,000 rupees, which is even cheaper when split three ways. I can’t believe we actually got this enormous discount. We’ve paid less than a third of the posed rates for our rooms.

Sarah has been sneezing like crazy since the ceremony at the border, and she decides to go upstairs to bed. The rest of us take a walk over to the Golden Temple to see it at night. We check our shoes and walk over to the langar to see the large scale cooking operation going on. It is crammed with people coming for their evening meal. The metal plates clank and clank as people come and go.

Now that the sun has gone down, the evening has a slight coolness to it. It’s a beautiful night outside. We walk through the footbath and up to the arch that leads to the Harmandir. We take a few more pictures and Susie says, “Ready to go?” But I’m not. I say I’d like to walk around the perimeter. It’s so nice outside and the place feels so peaceful. I’ll never be here again. I’d like to enjoy it. Susie says help myself. I can meet her back at the stairs. But Julianne says she’ll walk with me and this seems to change Susie’s mind. We walk the kilometer or so around the cool marble balustrade, stopping to talk to friendly Sikhs and their wives who wonder where we’re from and what we’re doing in India.

Back at the hotel, they ask if we want a wake up call. I didn’t count on this convenience, but am glad for the offer. We need to get up at four in the morning in order to catch our train, which leaves at five.

Just in case, we all set our cell phone alarms as back-ups, then fall quickly asleep in the soft beds with the thick, fuzzy, flowered blankets courtesy of Mister Singh. Our visit wouldn’t have been so easy, so smooth and so enjoyable without him.

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