The Holy City

The crew, yo

This weekend was crazy, like it was straight out of a movie. Definitely not real life, but it happened (I think!). A group of five of us hopped into a taxi and headed to Amritsar, a town about four and a half hours from Dharamsala, through winding mountain roads and insane Indian highways. We stopped just before the Punjab border (Punjab is a state in India, much like Himachal Pradesh, the state Dharamsala is in) and ate at a hotel. The waitstaff had a really cheesy WWE Smackdown style fake wrestling show playing on the television, and they were really getting into it. It was so bizarre and incredible!

We headed back on the road and made it Amritsar around 8 PM. We stayed in a really nice American-style hotel, Country Inn & Suites. Luxurious! We were definitely spoiled this weekend. Our poor taxi driver, though, was not. His face dropped a little as we asked if he could pick us up at 4 AM the next morning to visit the Golden Temple, but he happily obliged and so Saturday morning, long before dawn’s early rise, we piled into the car to head to the holy temple.

An epic downpour of rain began as we puttered through the old city, cars absent on the streets but many dark eyes hungrily watching us from the alleys. All was silent, the rain a muffled patter on the glass, the few streetlights casting an orange glow on the world.

Screen Shot 2016-07-04 at 10.55.56 PM
Pic I snapped from the rickshaw as I tried not to fall out (reminds me of a David Bowie album cover)

We pulled into a dark parking lot and the driver hopped out and woke up a rickshaw driver. They talked briefly and then he came back and told us to go with him and “don’t pay more than 100 Rupees.” Confused and still half asleep, we piled into the tiny rickshaw and took off down a cobbled street, the driver erratically jerking the wheel to avoid bottomless potholes while torrents of rain blew in from all directions.

The rickshaw abruptly stopped and we were told to get out at a giant shelter where hordes of people were huddled to escape the rain. We stood under the shelter for a few minutes, no doubt looking wide-eyed and bewildered. A man approached us and said, “The rain, it is a symbol from the heavens, nectar from the gods bless us all. It is very good indeed.” His comment really put things into perspective for me—here we were, complaining about the rain and how it had the potential of ruining our day, when rain is viewed as a means of cleansing the body and soul, and rain during the sunrise ceremony is especially lucky. We happened to be at holiest Gurdwara of Sikhism, a place people of the Sikh faith wait lifetimes to visit, and we were worried about a little rain!

I readjusted my attitude after that, instead relishing in the rain.

Head covered and feet bare = temple ready

A little background information on the Golden Temple, as it is informally called: Sri Harmandir Sahib (literally, the “abode of God”) is a place of worship for men and women from all walks of life and all religions to come and worship. In fact, there are four entrances to the temple, symbolizing the openness of the Sikhs towards all people and religions. The Golden Temple was built at a lower level, so devotees must use stairs to enter, further emphasizing the equality Sikhs strive to promote. To maintain the purity of the sacred place and of one’s body while in it, one must remove their shoes and wash their feet in a cleansing pool, as well as wearing a head covering for the duration of one’s visit.

We left our shoes at a locker area and began our pilgrimage toward the temple with thousands of others marching with us. Prayers were chanted over a speaker system as the rain fell into a gentle mist. The excitement amplified as we approached the temple, its golden walls washed with light, a brilliant contrast against the dark sky. The nectar pool the temple sits in casted an eerie and mysterious reflection. It was absolutely breathtaking.

At 5 AM, many bowed in prayer. No one spoke. All were dedicated to their religious journeys. Many people took turns bathing in the holy waters, as it is important in the Sikh faith and also used as a curative treatment for the ill. It was magical.

This was one of the most beautiful and amazing places I have visited

Entering the temple, no photography is allowed. This made it more special, more intentional and present-focused, I think. The floors were made of marble, slickened with rain, and the railings were greasy from millions of pilgrims’ hands. Much of the temple interior was covered in gold and precious gems. Bodies were shrouded in fabric and people threw money at them, paying their respects. A small band played music—guitar, drum, didgeridoo, and a man chanting prayers. People were on their knees, kissing the entryways and walls…

It was intense, crowded, wet, confusing, overwhelming, spiritual, calming, and absolutely amazing. I wish everyone could experience the magical quality that was in the air. It was out of this world.

Around 6 AM, we returned to our hotel, ate breakfast, did some shopping at a local mall, had lunch at a ritzy KFC, and then headed west out of Amritsar, towards the India-Pakistan Wagah border to watch the closing ceremony.

1 km between us and Pakistan

We walked a kilometer before being met with a giant fence and a huge crowd of people. Soon, Indian nationals were asking to take photos with us, as the only foreigners around. Some people started jumping the fence and then everyone moved in tighter, smushing us in the crowd. Unsure of what to do, we stood helpless. A kind Sikh gentleman pulled us to the side and let us know that there is a special entrance for foreigners and that we should hurry to get to it. Thank goodness for him, or we would have been stuck in that crowd until long after the ceremony was over! The world is full of good people!

We wormed our way to the “special line,” only to find it also crowded with lots of people. Our group got separated and we were once again crushed in a giant crowd all struggling to get past a security checkpoint. Another kind man motioned for me and a fellow volunteer to come with him behind and around a building to make it to the checkpoint. We followed and presented our US passports and were welcomed past the gate where thousands struggled to get in.

Super patriotic running of the flags

This is just another shining example of white and American privilege, though I must admit that I am thankful for it, as I’m not sure where we would have ended up in that first massive crowd.

An Indian soldier led us to a section where other foreigners were sitting, which was beside the VIP area. Some of the best seats in the house, no doubt.

The ceremony itself was one of the most bizarre things I have ever witnessed. There was a yelling match between the Indian and Paki soldiers, cheering contests, dance/stomp-offs where the guardsmen basically kicked their own heads, and an epic dance mob in the middle of the interstate highway. We were all invited to dance with the Indian women and children in the road, and they taught us some traditional Indian dance moves and we taught them some traditional American dance moves (Running Man and Sprinkler, mostly). It was utter chaos.

Still not sure how they don’t suffer from concussions on a regular basis

After the epic dance mob, we quickly returned to our seats and watched more dance/stomp-offs and the lowering of the flags before a lighthearted handshake between soldiers of both sides. A chain was drawn across the road and people started trying to cross over, and we decided that was our cue to run before things got even crazier.

Needless to say, we slept very well that night, after being awake and active for 18 hours.

The next day we saw a Bollywood film called Udta Punjab about the drug problem this area of India is facing. It was very depressing and well done, effectively conveying the point. We headed back to Dharamsala after that, exhausted and ready for the cooler weather of the mountains!

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