‘Sikhing’ out the Golden Temple

(Emily) So, India. Still feeling regretful to have left Pakistan, we crossed to the Indian side of the Wagah border and began the inevitable paperwork merry-go-round that we’d become so used to. The officials were notably more abrupt, it has to be said. Having entered our details into several log books (yet another border post that hasn’t clocked on to the idea of computer data storage…), they weren’t at all fussed about having a look through our baggage but were pretty thorough on the carnet front (the carnet is essentially a temporary import/export licence for the bike and most countries from now on are signed up to the scheme… read more in our planning section if you’re really that interested!) They proceeded to check our documents against the bikes; first looking to see if the number-plate tallied (easy-peasy) but then moving on to the more difficult task of marrying up the chassis and engine numbers, both in fairly hard to access places on the bikes. In Pakistan (our first carnet country) they’d taken our word for it but here they were not going to be defeated. By the time it had taken three of them to peer in at the under-carriage at various angles and finally locate the inscription, we were itching to go – it was soooo hot and James had a killer headache. Not to be; they declared there was a mismatch. What? The fifteen-digit number on the bike was missing one of its zeros when compared with the number on the carnet. Cue lots of umming, ahhing and tutting. (‘For heaven’s sake,’ I felt like saying, ‘what exactly are you going to do – not let us in?!) After eking it out for a bit (power trip, much?) they did, inevitably, let us through and we whizzed off into country number 19 as hoards of colourful spectators began to arrive for the evening border closing ceremony. It was tempting to stay and witness the spectacle from ‘the other side’ but Amritsar and a cold shower was decidedly more appealing!

It was strange to now be riding in what was essentially the same landscape as we’d had for the last few days in Pakistan (it was only a hop over the border, after all) but seeing clues all around us of a different country and culture. The turbans of Sikhs and women wrapped in colourful saris replaced the shawled heads and shalwar-kamiz of the Muslim Pakistanis; miniature Hindu shrines were dotted along the road as opposed to the minarets of mosques piercing the sky; and, although the driving in Pakistan had left a lot to be desired, we now had to cope with the ubiquitous roaming ‘sacred’ cows that frequently chose the middle of the highway as a great spot for a doze. This, coupled with the fact that the Indian approach to over-taking is a whole new level of kamikaze, made for two very fatigued and sweaty bikers that rolled into Amritsar that evening. The traffic in town was even crazier but, at the low speed dictated by the sheer volume of vehicles on the road (and those damn cows again), it was a craziness you could grin at and simply shrug to each other at the madness of it all. Map-less and hotel-less, we followed signs to the Golden Temple, Amritsar’s main tourist attraction, as a default option. The ring-road around the temple complex was mayhem and we pulled in to the side between an auto-rickshaw and a horse-drawn cart to take stock. The idea was to do a recce of surrounding hotels but after asking at the one directly opposite from where we’d stopped and finding it a bit over budget (£25 as opposed to the fiver we’d had in our minds for India!), the idea of going back into the mele was, well, no longer an option really! (Sometimes we look at each other and just know the score!) It was a really nice place actually, tucked away off the road and within a minute’s walk of the Golden Temple, so at least we weren’t paying over the odds for a rat hole!

Freshly showered (ah, can’t beat it), I was excited to realise that my days of covering up were over and, although I would obviously still dress respectfully, I could put on a t-shirt and have my hair out – freedom! We walked over to the Golden Temple and, leaving our shoes free of charge at the depot and donning an orange bandana each (ah, so the hair emancipation was short-lived!), went through the marble arch of the main entrance to be greeted by what really is a majestic sight. The Golden Temple, the Sikhs’ holiest shrine, rises out of the middle of a huge rectangular pool, its reflection shimmering majestically in the gently rippling water. Around the pool, visitors and pilgrims can view the temple from a white marble walkway, or enter the temple itself via a causeway, known as Guru’s Bridge. It was early evening with the dusky light particularly flattering to the whole scene and the atmosphere enhanced by the rhythmic murmur of priests chanting from the Guru Granth sahib (Sikh holy book) over the loudspeakers. The complex was thronging with people who, rather than shuffling along piously, were talking and laughing whilst others sat quietly at the water’s edge, immersed in private prayer. There were even people bathing in the water! We liked the lively, harmonious atmosphere which suggested that people were taking joy in their faith and welcoming others to join them, irrespective of religion. As we wandered round, we got the familiar ‘hello, how are you?’ from children and had people come up to shake our hands and take photos of us – turns out India isn’t so immune to foreigners after all.

Our lie-in the next morning made the decision for us about whether we should stay another day (so easily done!) and we used the opportunity to get a few jobs done. The post office came up trumps and we were able to send our faulty intercom equipment back to the UK with minimal fuss and cost; there were even packaging stalls set up outside that got your parcel all ready for you. Comedy moment when the guy behind the counter asked James what and where the package was going: ‘To England, I’m returning it to its maker,’ he answered, turning round for an aside to me, ‘Obviously not THE maker!’ and finding himself talking to a Hindu and a couple of Sikh guys as I had opted to sit down while waiting! We then got a bicycle taxi (not for the faint-hearted) to the ‘main shopping street’ where we were hoping to get hold of a road map for India but were thwarted at every turn – the best they could come up with were school atlases from the 1980s! (Don’t think we’re being presumptuous rich westerners here – it was a reasonable request when we were amongst shops selling flash mobile phones, ray-bans (real and fake) and flat screen TVs). The noise, dirt and smell of the main thoroughfare got the better of us after a while and we took a rickshaw to see the ‘Mata Temple’ which commemorates Lal Devi, a Hindu woman born in the 1920’s who has become a modern day saint. The shrine was, we have to be honest, hilarious and we were fairly bewildered as a labyrinth of paths took us around the temple through tunnels, low ceilinged caves and water features, and past plastic models of various deities in an assortment of shapes and sizes. Back in the main room, a model of the bespectacled Lal Devi herself takes pride of place, alongside many photos and illuminated images of her on the walls. Apparently, she revealed herself to be something ‘special’ when was just an infant. Throughout her life, she only ate dried fruit and nuts and never ate voluntarily, only when food was offered to her (James: sounds more like a fussy eater to me!)

That afternoon we went back to the Golden Temple to see it in the daylight – no less spectacular, though I preferred the chilled out ambience in the evening. We got caught up in a mass floor cleaning operation and were impressed to see how everyone worked together to wash the marble walkway that surrounded the temple pool: a row of people would line the water’s edge, dipping buckets into the pool which were then passed in a chain along the width of the walkway and emptied whilst yet more people followed behind with reed brushes, sweeping the waste water into outlet grills. There were even boys with ‘squeegee’ type things bringing up the rear to make sure the surface wasn’t left slippery. The group moved along seamlessly so that in no time, the whole walkway had been cleaned to perfection. Another show of the Sikh sense of community was manifested in the huge communal ‘dining room’ where all are welcome to a small plate of free food; the kitchens can apparently cater for up to 40,000 pilgrims and visitors each day! We didn’t partake – our stomachs were in need of a whole lot more – and went to have a vegetarian (most food here is) curry at a local restaurant. The food wasn’t bad but certainly nothing on Pakistan so far!

8 Responses to “‘Sikhing’ out the Golden Temple”

  1. Martha says:

    I haven’t even read it yet but I wanted to do the first comment ha ha!! catch you later punks xxx

  2. jackson says:

    martha – you fool, you haven’t read it because you choosing to play “pass the poo, sorry bomb” with 2 other losers.
    want dedication, look no further than the scribe here

  3. Julian says:

    Ah yes the Pass the Bomb fest has been in action on several occasions.
    More brilliant blog for which we thank you.
    Keep on taking care and having fun!
    Lots of love from Dad X

  4. Glad you caught a glimpse of the Golden Temple. It really is a unique spiritual experience. There are a lot of budget options near the temple but you need to know where to go to. Lonely Planet always gives out good recommendations!?

  5. Julian says:

    Hi BB3nJ.
    We are just completing our Devon week. Check out facebook for the pix. Jessie’s is probably the best one as she has also put the wedding ones on hers which i haven’t done.
    lots of love from dad X

  6. Jo and Ben says:

    Hi guys,
    Pakistan and India look and sound like fabulous countries to visit. Great photos of the border closing ceremony – what an experience. Feeling very envious of your travels and wishing we could be in some far off land somewhere not having to deal with the day to day life that is WORK!!! Anyway it’s half term in a week (counting down the days as you do), and then we’re off for some travels of our own. Heading to Sweden for a few days with Dan which should be good fun. Safe travelling.
    Lots of love Jo & Ben xxx

  7. Jess says:

    Pass the Bomb rules! xxxxxx

  8. Marcus says:

    The orange bandanas make you look like Dutch football fans! xxx

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