NEW TERRITORY abounds as I leave Himachal Pradesh and enter the state of Punjab. After a few moments at the hotel to drop off bags and freshen up, it’s straight to Amritsar’s landmark Golden Temple, which is best appreciated by night& day.
I make it in time for the evening laying to rest of the religious scripture. My head’s covered in a shawl & camera is poised. The fairytale golden temple looks magical, lit up, seemingly hovering on the Sarovar lake surface and gloriously reflecting in the still surrounding waters.
LAYING TO REST OF SIKH SCRIPTURES
The passion of the strong crowds is exhilarating. I join the back of a snaking queue tailing back for what seems miles. The sound of Dhol drum beat begins feint in the distance, growing louder and getting closer until it rattles my heart, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention. A large group of Sikh men, festooned in matching celebratory Turbans, a model of choreography, march the lamp-lit bridge leading into the temple. The moonlight throws their reflections tall across the waters giving them an even greater authority and respect. They enter to lay the religious scripture to rest. Closely behind them, a train of followers chant, bellowing Punjabi prayers: a team of devotees lost in their passion for this pilgrimage. And for many, it is a once-in-a-lifetime spiritual journey.
Inside, the architecture is astounding with exquisite and intricate artwork on the walls and ceilings. It’s very hot and crowded and each group gets to spend around 5 minutes inside before being moved along.
TEMPLE, FOOD AND SHELTER FOR HOMELESS
The ‘Harmandir Sahib’ (as it’s also known) grounds shelter countless homeless.
My top tip is to find the toilets. Just outside them, I stumble upon a huge open-air piazza providing bed-space for thousands of pilgrims, from backpackers to families, who have no accommodation. It’s a Flash Mob sleepover; an interlocked lattice of a thousand-odd sleeping bags, making for a spectacular sight.
Further within the maze, I happen upon a sprawling food tent run by volunteers, cooking &plating up free food, for those need; an inspiring show of human empathy. This photo is from the next morning’s visit…
GLEAMING GOLDEN TEMPLE
The next morning’s visit comes as a bit of a surprise. Men have to cover their hair in a makeshift bandana / cloth turban. I watch as families and groups of men are handed a bright orange square cloth and fumble around trying to figure out how that ties on their heads in a bandana. Hilarious viewing as the slower ones really just don’t get it!
In the bright light of day, it’s clear that the area surrounding the Golden Temple is anything but…golden. It’s a chaotic and rather dusty and messy urban sprawl.
The crowds are phenomenal and aren’t afraid to shove. In true British style, I wince each time too afraid to push back and end up back of the queue, waiting patiently whilst others blatantly push in, in true Indian style.
BEST VIEWS ON AN EMPTY ROOFTOP!
The gleaming temple is imposing by day; marvellous and grandiose in a top hat of thick gold. The hazy sunshine accentuates the gold, causing it to sparkle like a flawless diamond.
I try not to get too caught up in the chaos of sightseeing today, instead finding an idyllic spot and just sitting a while to absorb the aura of the marvellous beauty. And through a bit of perseverance, I find just that. The photos below have been taken from the rooftop of one of the buildings.
Don’t be afraid to explore every nook and cranny. Each building has a second floor if you can find the tiny staircase. As there are no guards or barriers, I follow it all the way up onto the rooftop. And I’m the only person there. The views from here are breath-taking. I overlook the entire complex as people below rush around. Up here, i’ts calm and even more grand.
To my left, a man is climbing ribbons as he decorates a building in the traditonal orange Khalsa sashes; striking against the backdrop of the large holy lake.
Also from the rooftop, you can see just how contrasting the temple complex is to its surroundings outside. On the neighbouring rooftops; graffiti, degradation and poverty. Yet the buildings and paintwork within the complex are fairly well-maintained.
Up here, it’s a surreal perspective. It’s all domes and turrets, gold and white, striking and stark. Keen photographers cannot miss this spot. With a good camera, it’s possible to capture a whole host of turrets and towers sparkling against the hazy baby blue sky.
I feel honoured to be here and there’s a certain positive energy that resonates throughout the vast complex. It feels great to sit back and assimilate it.
In the afternoon, I encounter an upsetting trip to neighbouring ‘Jallianwala Bagh‘, the site where it’s estimated 1300 men, women and children were slaughtered by an army ordered by a former British army general. ‘Bagh’ is the word for park, which it now is, for local workers to enjoy their lunch break and couples to wander through. But the bullet holes are still visible as is the protected ‘Martyr’s Well’ into which 120 people jumped and died in a bid to save themselves from the gunfire.
It’s a chilling reminder of the British Raj in India during WW1 and an unusually bittersweet experience for any Brit who’s family heritage is Indian. I don’t have any photos of the well and reminders because it feels disrespectful. So I simply observe, read and try to understand.
WAGAH BORDER: INDIA vs PAKISTAN
Late that afternoon comes, perhaps, the most anxious journey of the entire 6 weeks in North India. I’m heading to Wagah border, between India’s Amritsar and Pakistan’s Lahore, to watch the ceremonial lowering of the flags. I’m forewarned it will be utter mayhem. As someone who does sometimes suffer from Claustrophobia, I’m clearly on edge. Upon arrival , rightly so, it seems. The hotel manager has warned me that around 50,000 people queue up to get into the stadium that can house around 15,000. This is no lie. The queues have no order, no form and I’ve no idea where to join. Children are suffocating near the front, as are small Indian women, being shoved and crushed against the metal gates. I refuse to join that. Sensing a panic attack coming on, just watching , I back away and decide to take it very slowly.
CRUSHING CLAUSTROPHOBIC CHAOS
My tip would be to wait on the far side and let the bulk of the crowd pass. If you’ve an international passport, such as a British one, there is separate allocated seating inside, which is much more pleasant. But getting through the gates is extremely chaotic. The guards do not help, screaming and shouting at people with their batons in a most intimidating manner. I feel like one of his herd of cattle. Sure enough, the closer I get to the gate, the more I am completely enclosed and can barely see through a sea of people. My heart’s pounding and I break out into a cold sweat with that feeling of pins and needles. I’m convinced I’m about to drop and pass out but it’s only short-lived and I’m quickly through the worst of it, surviving past the craziness.
Once inside, it is worth the wait, as Indians and Pakistanis, on separate sides of the border, dance and sing to popular Bollywood music and cheer and jeer.
But expect full-on crowds and stifling heat. Another tip – be sure to carry a bottle of water with you. It is a must and isn’t available to buy inside.
The show begins and is loud and interactive, sparked by a former Indian cricket-player. On the Pakistan side, men and women are quietly sat on opposite stands and the crowd is scarce relative to the India side, which is heaving, mixed and loud.
Members of the crowd take it in turns to parade the central court, carrying the respective flag, to a backdrop of popular India music. The patriotism is rife.
Then; a friendly stand-off between the guards either side of large metal gates. The ceremony culminates in the gates opening and the flags lowering as a mark of respect for each other. It’s humbling to watch.
Leaving the ceremony is much more organised and normal. It feels like leaving a concert. After the day I’ve had, it’s time for bed. Tomorrow, onwards to Chandigarh, the capital of the Punjab.
- Impressions of India; Portraits of a People (ani-shah.com)
- Row erupts over memorial to Golden Temple massacre (independent.co.uk)
- Golden Temple artwork added to PunjabiPaintings.com amongst speculation that Barack Obama will visit the Holy Temple in November, 2010 (prweb.com)
- I went to Pakistan to spy, says Surjeet Singh – Hindustan Times (hindustantimes.com)
- Music and Sport: The Legacy of Punjab (roadiswheretheheartis.wordpress.com)
- Voices of Faith – July 7, 2012 (redding.com)
- Tales From My Backpacking Trip – Day 8 (posteritythings.wordpress.com)