The Golden Temple is actually a temple within a temple and is the holiest site on earth for Sikhs.
The communal aspect of their religion and of food are really awesome parts of Sikhism. Because they have so many pilgrims coming from all over the world, in addition to poor people in the area, they offer free food to anyone who wants it, serving non-stop from 4am-10pm. They feed anywhere from 60-100,000 people PER DAY. This necessitates a lot of volunteers, which are made up from the pilgrims, locals, foreigners interested in giving back, and a very small amount of paid staff to oversee operations. This is the world’s largest communal kitchen. There’s also a dormitory for people from other countries to stay in for free when visiting.
We went to check out the “free vegetarian meals” the temple offers, and the process is a well-oiled machine. You walk down a line, receiving a spoon, a divided metal plate, and a cup for water. You follow others inside, take a seat on the floor in one of the rows, and put your plate in front of you to be filled up by workers coming around with bread, rice, and 2 different vegetable dishes. Everyone sits on the floor together in Sikhism; no one is better than others at the meal. I really like that idea.
After finishing our food and dropping our dishes into the bins for volunteers to wash, we walked around the lake surrounding the Golden Temple itself. The line to get in was quite long, so we just enjoyed the atmosphere of people hanging out, relaxing, listening to the chanting of the scriptures over the loudspeakers, and noted what a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere they had going on.
Back outside, I returned my bandana to the bin of free head coverings, and snapped this picture of the little pools of water you walk through to wash your feet on the way into the temple.
Heading back to the hostel, I felt it. Everyone talks about getting sick in India, if you spend much time there, because the hygiene standards and germ exposure are so different. I felt the rumbling in my stomach, and I knew my lucky streak of 3 weeks had run out. The “India bug” kicked in that night, and I’m still working on not having diarrhea. Luckily, I never vomited. I hate vomiting.
The next morning, I ate the “donate however much money you feel like” breakfast at the hostel and decided to take it easy for the early part of the day. I finally had a working ATM card, so I got cash and laughed at these STD signs all over the city.
In the afternoon, I’d signed up for the 2nd-biggest attraction in Amritsar: the evening border ceremony at the border with Pakistan, at the towns of Attari & Wagah. This is the only operating land crossing between India & Pakistan, from my understanding, and it’s the highway that runs between Amritsar and Lahore, Pakistan. Every night, there’s an elaborate ceremony for closing the gates, and I was keen to see it.
3 of us from the hostel signed up to go check it out, and we were surprised with a stop at this ultra-weird, strangest-place-you’ve-ever-seen temple called Mandir Mata Lal Devi on our way out of town. Since many people can’t make pilgrimages to holy sites in the mountains, some lady had this temple built to simulate those treks. You walk over uneven ground, get lost in circles, crawl through tight spaces…it’s the only 3D/interactive temple I’ve ever seen. It’s also weird beyond weird.
Out near the border, we were told to expect special treatment as foreigners. Boy, was that an understatement.
Look at us not waiting in line with the hundreds and hundreds of Indians.
This event happens every night, and it’s such a big deal on the Indian side that they’re adding onto the stadium.
The place was PACKED, and foreigners get the seats closest to the actual gate.
People were running around with the Indian flag, and then was music and dancing. Only women were allowed to go dance, for some reason, and this became the perfect metaphor of the differences between India and Pakistan. There were hardly any foreigners on the Pakistan side, and hardly an women. Those who were there were accompanied by male relatives and wearing hijabs and burqas. The women on the Indian side were wearing all ranges of clothing, dancing and having fun, and doing as they pleased.
After some special forces-looking soldiers came out with real guns to stand near the gate during the ceremony, to make sure no one tried to cross, things go underway.
Check out these old-timey uniforms and marching styles!
In another contrast, the first 2 soldiers up from the Indian side were women. What happens is basically that each side sends 1 or 2 people at a time up to the border, the soldiers post and act tough and try to intimidate the others, etc., all while staying on their own side. Pakistan didn’t send anyone against the females and basically didn’t acknowledge their existence.
When the men got involved, it got interesting and weird and “there’s really nothing like this on earth” pretty fast.
Of course, they took down their flags, and it seemed like they grabbed their flags pretty fast. Made me think there’s a tradition of the other side trying to steal your flag or something.
The ceremony lasted for about an hour. On the way into and out of the stadium, I had to stop and be sick in the not-so-clean toilets, so that was a growing frustration. However, I’m super glad I went to this. This is unlike anything I’ve ever dreamed of and unlike anything you’d ever see anywhere. There’s a stadium built around this border for a bunch of people to basically act tough across an imaginary line. Wow.
Also, at the ceremony, I ran into the Swiss couple from my guest house in Bikaner. Crazy!
The next day, for lunch, a German guy from my group to the border, the Austrian girl, and I went to the Jalliawala Bagh. This is the site of a large massacre of local people by the British army in the 1910s, when people were talking about independence. There’s only 1 way into this park, and the people were trapped. News clippings in the museum show how the British bragged about cornering them like dogs. This site is about 2 blocks down from the Golden Temple.
To escape the bullets, some people dove into this well. They wound up drowning, because of others falling in on top of them and the inability to get out. Over 120 bodies were pulled out of the well.
You can still see the bullet holes.
From here, we went to the Golden Temple again to go through the museum of the history of Sikhism/the temple. It was semi-interesting but not that well done.
I had a bus ticket going further north, to Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj, in Himachal Pradesh state, up in the Himalayas and home to the exile community of Tibetans. That was leaving at 4pm, and I wanted to get lunch, check out, and relax a bit before needing to leave for the bus. Thus, I parted ways with the German guy and Austrian girl, wandered into this Subway that I passed, which was advertising itself as totally vegetarian, and had an interesting lunch. They basically just have a bunch of flavors of veggie patties.
I was so in awe of this that they even told me to check out the all-vegetarian McDonald’s around the corner!
After relaxing at the hostel for a bit and trying to get my stomach under control for a 5-6 hour bus ride, I shared a tuktuk with a British couple going to the train station + the German guy, who was also going on my bus, which left from near the train station.
Amritsar had a great vibe, and I liked it a lot. I was ready to get out of the busy cities for a bit, though, to some cleaner & cooler air and a totally different experience. We got dropped off at the end of this bridge being built, and waited to take our bus into the mountains.
Thanks for everything, Amritsar!
Next stop: McLeod Ganj and the exiled Tibetans.