As the Shatabi Express thunders into the night we are served a delightful Thali, exactly the same as we bought on the Delhi to Varanasi train almost three weeks ago. We watch a young couple sitting opposite us who are obviously just married. He is a slightly podgy Sikh and she is quite beautiful. While the train pauses just outside Amritsar we chat with them. They have been married for six days and are traveling to this Holy City to have their marriage blessed at the Golden Temple. We wonder if this, like the vast majority of marriages in India is an arranged marriage. If so, this bloke definitely has the better part of the bargain. They confess they had also been checking us out, (only white people on the train etc), and were probably thinking, “he is a slightly podgy white man and she is quite beautiful”. Well personally, I blame the reliance on potatoes and deep fried foods! The delay with the train continues and we arrive at the Holy City of Amritsar at 11.30pm. 45 minutes late.
It’s our last full day in India and our expectations are high. From the 16th floor of our bog standard Hyatt we look across the city and the landscape is more Arabic than Indian. But we are only 35kms from the Pakistan border, so that’s perhaps understandable. After what we class as the best breakfast yet, the guide and driver who picked us up late last night scoop us up from the hotel and we are off to The Golden Temple. I could write 10,000 words on the Golden Temple – but I won’t. There’s a few photos posted and they will give some idea of the grandeur of the building, as it floats above the “Pond of Nectar”.
But what the photos won’t show is the intense spiritual nature of the place. It is every Sikh’s duty to visit the temple at least once in his life and an on typical day, 50,000 or so visit to bathe and offer devotions. We walk slowly clockwise around the pond, watching the men bathe – the women bathe demurely in closed pavilions. At the hallway point we strike out to the Guru Kan Langer – the kitchen that feeds between 50,000 and 80,000 people every day, that like its slightly smaller Delhi counterpart is staffed solely by volunteers and the food is all donated. We fortify ourselves with a bowl of sweet chai, (you’ll see Maggie fortifying herself in the pix) before we take a backstage tour, marvelling at the garlic peelers, the people making chapattis by hand, then the industrial sized woks and cooking pots used to turn out all these meals each day, every day. The whole enterprise is underpinned by the symphony from the washing up department as every dish is washed five times before being inspected and placed back into use.
We complete the circuit, watching in quiet awe at several points as holy men read from copies of the Sikh Holy Book, before touring the museum. Observers of world events will recall that in 1984 Indira Ghandi ordered her security forces into the temple to break up a group of Sikh agitators – probably terrorists in today’s rhetoric. The military action left the museum badly damaged and although the government rebuilt it, the Sikhs then demolished and rebuilt it themselves. (Ghandi was herself assassinated by one of her Sikh bodyguards just a short time later in retribution.) One of the most special places in the building was the room where the Sikh Holy Book, which is taken into the temple each morning and returned each night, gets to sleep. Complete with it’s own bed and beautiful decorations; it’s a very special place. If we had more time, I would volunteer at the Guru Kan Langer for an hour or a day. I ask Sandeep (today’s guide) if there’s a volunteer co-ordinator to whom you report, but he replies in the negative. You just show up and fit in wherever your skills are most appropriate. Mine sadly, would be in the dishwashing section.
After yet another quick samosa lunch we’re off to the border for the closing ceremony. Over our samosas with Sandeep he tells us how he married for love – a divorced woman with a two-year-old who he proudly referred to as his son. It was a very interesting contrast to the vast majority of Indians in arranged marriages. For the ceremony this evening we are dropped 1km from the actual gates and as we walk to the ceremonial site we run the gauntlet of four army checkpoints. Only at one do they inspect our passports, the rest are just a pat down and a quick feel. At one, the guard gets so familiar I swear we’re having foreplay, and I leave feeling like a need a good wash. However, everywhere in India there are security inspections. At the temples, airports, hotels and shopping malls; and in every case men and women are separated and women are taken into a curtained cubicle. At most hotel suitcases and handbags go through an x-ray. After a 15-minute walk we arrive at the road where the ceremony will take place. It’s a very festive occasion with tiered seating that is being extended by the Government to the point where it looks like it will include corporate boxes. Looking across to the Pakistani side, their structure is much higher and much better designed than ours, featuring a huge semi-circular auditorium. The seating for our local people is already packed but fortunately the international guests have been allowed VIP seating and there’s heaps of room. While we wait we’re treated to a display of patriotism and nationalism aimed firmly at the local crowd. Young women are encouraged to run the length of the road to the gate waving the Indian flag, Bollywood music is played loudly and impromptu dancing takes place. Whenever a roar goes up from the Pakistani side, the Indian crowd attempts to be louder. There are, according to Sandeep around 8,000 people attending tonight, much more on holidays, and on our side of the gate the locals are a blaze of colour. Although the Pakistanis are in fine voice, their colours are dull and muted compared with ours with the women dressed predominantly in black and the men in white. When the show finally begins our colourful army team, complete with elaborate red headdresses, march up to the open gate, strutting and high kicking, brandishing their fists at the Pakistanis. Although we can only just see across the border, the Pakistanis who are dressed in black with similar headdresses, are doing the same to the Indians, almost as a mirror image. This jingoism from both sides is accompanied by extremely loud martial music and drumming. It lasts only half an hour, and frankly, needs a good stage manager and maybe some work by Baz Lurhman, but what surprised us is that even as the gates are closed and the flags are lowered, the locals are still arriving for the show.
We have ended our trip as it began in Varanasi, on a spiritual high note. Maggie says that Varanasi, especially the trip to the cremation ghats, changed her forever. Here the Golden Temple in the Holy City has had the same effect. We have barely scratched the surface in Amritsar and we could easily come back for three days – a day of sightseeing outside the city, a day of R&R and a day of volunteer work at the Guru Kan Langer. Next morning, we forgo our preferred form of transit and indulge in the luxury of a hotel car to the airport. As we check in at the Sri Guru Ram Dass Jee International Airport Maggie is delighted, “How enlightened”, she says, “to name your airport after a saint, rather than a politician”.
Over the last three weeks Maggie has cried many times – from joy I hope. India has been good to Maggie and she to India. In many, many ways she has come home.
The last pix are here: