Amritsar and the Golden Palace

We arrive in Amritsar late, as our train comes to an unscheduled halt outside the last stop before our destination. The guard is sitting near us, and is often on his mobile, so I pick up a couple of English words in his conversation: “power” and “failure”. After an hour or so, the train restarts, and gets us in at about 10:45 pm, but luckily we can see our hotel, The Grand, from the station. We’re there very shortly thereafter, although unfortunately after the hotel bar, “Bottoms Up”, has closed.

We’re here to see the Golden Temple, so next morning, we take an auto-rickshaw ride there. On the rickshaw video-game scale it’s pretty high, with a few sharp intakes of breath and bounces off cyclists and cows.

The temple is the Sikh’s holiest place, so you are required to remove your shoes, bathe your feet, and cover your head before entry. Fortunately, there are many vendors selling head coverings for 10 Rupees, so you get to look like this. The Golden Temple is magnificent, and also crowded with tourist and devout Sikhs, many of whom can be seen queueing to make an offering in the temple, behind us.

After walking around the lake in the hot sun, we sit for a while looking at the scene and the crowds. Most everybody walks completely around the lake, 98% in a clockwise direction. Sikhs are praying, singing, bathing in the holy lake, making offerings, taking photographs and eating the free meal which is offered as part of the Sikh’s belief in equality and doing good.

There’s a museum of Sikh history on site, which we also visit. It contains many pictures depicting the ways in which Sikhs have been persecuted during their history: many beheadings, torturing and flayings. We also revisit at night, when the Golden Temple is lit up: it’s incredibly atmospheric.

The following morning we book a tour to the India/Pakistan border, where each evening they ceremonially close the gate marking the line between the two countries. We’ve been recommended to see this, although nobody can really tell you why when you ask. On the way, we stop at the Mata temple as part of the trip; someone we met at our hotel said that it looked like it had been devised by Disneyland designers, and so it proved. It’s a quite small building, but the route through it winds and doubles back on itself, so it takes quite a while to get anywhere, a bit like an Ikea store. You find yourself crawling on your hand and knees through little tunnels, wading through channels full of water and generally banging your head on things all the time. Here’s a few photographs.

We’re a bit late when we reach the border, so we hustle on in and end up seated on the kerb right in front of the action. Most of the crowd are Indian: there’s a guy in white trousers warming them up while the soldiers assemble. He has them shouting “Hindustan, Hindustan, Hindustan” as soldiers march up and down in double time. As 5pm approaches, the soldiers march to the ceremonial gate which closes the border. They do this in a style which is curious, throwing their legs up in the air so that their knees almost touch their foreheads and then marching in double quick time. There is wild applause from the audience: it’s pure theatre. At 5pm exactly, the flags of India and Pakistan are taken down, the gate is closed, and the crowds are released to have their photos taken by the gate. Than it’s back to town. We’re glad we saw it, but we’re not sure why. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, though.

A word about food. We’ve said nothing about it so far, so here’s Paul about to enjoy a dosa, a rice pancake with vegetable filling, in Neelam’s, a little eatery near the Golden Temple. It was delicious, as was the orange lassi which I seem to be pointing at 🙂

Off to Rishikesh next, in the foothills of the Himalayas and the footsteps of The Beatles. It’s our first overnight train.

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