Amritsar and the Golden Temple
28.05.2012 - 31.05.2012 41 °C
There was something different about Amritsar from the very beginning. The airport was immaculate, the taxi into town unusually expensive and there was far less rubbish and homeless people in the streets than we had seen elsewhere. Amritsar felt comparatively wealthy. We had come to Amritsar to see the Golden Temple, Sikhism's most holy site - attracting millions of visitors per year - but our visit made us more curious about Sikhs themselves. How can the Sikh capital of India look so different from the rest of the country?
To get to Amritsar from Jodhpur we decided to splash out on our first internal flights in India. The experience was pleasant, with a short stopover for lunch in Delhi, but by the time we landed in Amritsar Grant had contracted Delhi belly. The source - a dodgy Big Maharaja burger from McDonalds in Delhi airport. The irony was not lost on us after all the dodgy food we have been putting away throughout India for the last three weeks. When we had installed ourselves in the hotel room, Helena tried to lighten up the mood by asking "Are you feeling Sikh?", which at least she found funny. Luckily there was a pharmacy next door with an excellent owner, who after having asked Helena a few questions, came up with some miraculous pills. The next day, Grant was as good as new.
Still keen to take it easy, we decided to postpone the main attraction to the following day and ventured to the Hindu Mata temple instead. We didn't really have any expectations to talk about but this turned out to be one of the more special temples we've been too. It reminded us more like a House of Fun ("Lustiga huset") at a funfair, where you had to walk a circuit around a large building, up and down stairs, through rooms full of mirrors, past statues of Shiva and other gods as well as plenty of photos of Mata herself. It was all incredibly kitsch, full of garish decorations and unlike any temple we've ever seen before.
Temple... House of Fun? Surely it can be both!
There were even a couple of caves, some of which we had to crawl through. The difference to the Japanese temples couldn't have been any bigger! What more adds to the difference to Japanese temples is the fact that temples are much more alive here - they really are places of worship. At one moment when we were stuck in a particularly sacred cave, pressed between masses of pilgrims, people started chanting about Mata in unison around us.
In of the caves, people chanting songs about Mata
At the end of the tour, there is also a model of a cow udder you can touch, signifying sperm - this is a temple where women go and pray to get pregnant. For the record, we didn't touch the udder, but surely, when the day comes, walking the full circuit and making a donation will count for something?
The next day we decided to first visit the Hindu response to the Sikh Golden Temple, the Sri Durgiana Temple, also known as the "Silver Temple". It was nice but we had a distinct feeling that this was nothing compared to the real thing. It would turn out we were right.
The Sri Durgiana temple. It's nice and all but it's not a patch on the Golden Temple
On the way to the Golden Temple, our rickshaw needed more air in the tyres
Arriving outside the Golden Temple, we were met by hussling crowds of people. We deposited our flip flops as shoes are not allowed inside, Grant purchased a scarf as your head needs to be covered, and in we went.
Our first view of the Golden Temple
The Golden Temple is situated in a lake, surrounded by beautiful marble buildings. The place is immaculately clean, with volunteers constantly cleaning the floor. We started walking around the lake, just taking it all in. There was lovely music playing through loudspeakers and we were asking ourselves whether this was a recording or played live, and if so, where were the musicians. We would eventually find out the answer.
We saw lots of men getting into the holy water for a swim, women could go in too, but in special bath houses. The water looked a lot fresher than in Varanasi.
The Golden Temple - quite something
People going for a swim
Head covered, as required
Eventually we arrived at the walkway to the Golden Temple itself. One of the attractive things with Sikhism is that it is very inclusive and open to all religions, and hence its most sacred place was open to us, too. Looking a bit lost outside, we were approached by a man asking if he could help. We asked if we should bring anything with us to the temple and he pointed us to a place saying that "You can buy something small for 20 rupees". Not being sure what that thing was, we bought it from a counter: it looked like some kind of couscous-honey mix covered in leaves on a large metal platter. We started queuing and advanced very slowly through the dense crowd on the 60 metre walkway. Suddenly Helena felt like she was going to faint, something that has never happened before. We left the queue to get some air outside. And here the madness started.
A long queue in which we lasted long, but not long enough
The only bathroom available was outside the temple complex, so we went outside, with our "prasad", a honey-couscous mix. Grant, who was carrying it, was stopped, told that this could NOT be carried outside the temple, as it was holy. We explained the situation and they understood, but the third person, a woman, who stopped us said that Helena could go, but Grant should stay where he was, just outside the temple. While Helena was away, easily ten people told Grant not to put the thing down on the ground and to take it back to the temple.
When Helena got back, this is what we set out to do. Back in, and not keen to stand in that queue again, we tried to find another way to dispose of our prasad, this having turned into something of a comedy act now. Unsurprisingly it turned out that nobody wanted to touch it, even the guys who had sold it to us - they all pointed us to the Golden Temple. Luckily, one of the guards proved incredibly understanding and directed us to the fast track lane out to the temple. We were almost dancing our way out there. When we had come to the entrance to the temple, skipping the entire queue, we handed our prasad to the men occupying themselves with it, thinking "That's that!". By now it surely doesn't surprise anybody that it wasn't. The man merely took our prasad and put it in a smaller leaf bowl and gave it back to us. We could only accept helplessly and enter the temple.
Never have we been more happy to have been "forced" to do anything. The temple, much bigger than we had realised, was incredibly beautiful inside. No photos we're afraid as it was not allowed. The first thing we saw when we entered was the source of the beautiful music - a three man group singing, playing hand-pumped keyboards and tabla. Around them and around the temple sat groups of people, in their holiest site.
We had a look around, taken by the beauty of the place, before we headed back out. Still with our prasad in hand. When we had come to end of the walkway, we thought that, now, now we would at last be freed of this. We handed it to the guy sitting at the end, who had a huge vat of prasad he collected from all pilgrims, who took the bowl and then scooped more couscous on it! Seeing the look of shock in our faces, he signalled that we should eat it. And so we did. And it didn't taste too bad.
The Golden Temple is famous for feeding all the pilgrims - and tourists - who come to visit. Having heard so much about how impressive the process of the feeding and not least the preparations are, we went for a look. The food is free, but donations are appreciated, so we paid some money and went in. Immediately we were handed plates and cutlery and put in a line. Suddenly the doors to a hall, the hall as it would turn out, opened, and along with all the other people we were directed to seats on the floor. After a while, men came with buckets serving us dal and chapatis. Not feeling 100 per cent yet, Helena was slow to finish her food, and an Indian woman sitting close by pointed out that Helena had to finish it, as it was -well you will have guessed by now -holy.
The Guru-Ka-Langar, where we along with hundreds of others, were served dal and chapati
After our meal, we went to have a look at the kitchen, a wonder in itself. There are a number of volunteers helping with all parts of the preparations. We especially enjoyed watching the chapatis being turned out.
The Golden Temple kitchen, cooks for 60,000 people per day!
On the way, we passed people helping with other parts of the process, peeling, chopping, washing up.
Lots of volunteers
Let's hope these guys help with the washing up at home too
These guys were keen to be in a photo...
..and so were these two
We were back at the temple at night and it looked, if possible, even more magical then. The queue of pilgrims waiting to catch a glimpse of the interior was still just as long as when we had been in it - an incredibly popular site, clearly.
The Golden Temple and Amritsar were definitely a highlight of our trip, despite not being able to enjoy as much Punjabi food as we would have liked!
The Golden Temple by night