Published: August 16th 2009August 16th 2009
Last weekend, we decided that as long as we were going to be hotter than hell, we might as well travel. So I began my series of weekend trips in the holiest Sikh city. We left on Friday morning, taking the six-hour train to Amritsar. The trains in India are a little daunting at first. If you are not reserving online, which causes its own headaches, then you have to purchase your tickets from the railway station to avoid a travel agent commission. There is a foreign tourist bureau at the Delhi station, and probably at the Mumbai, Calcutta, and Chennai stations as well, but I was promptly denied a ticket when I mentioned that I had a student visa. I returned the next day and employed the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy (it was a different ticket clerk, and, I’m assuming because I don’t look Indian, he didn’t ask to see my passport) and was able to get a ticket. The station itself is a complete madhouse, with people from all walks of life scurrying in all directions. In fact, the worst and most distressing poverty, often with horrible and sometimes unnatural disfigurements, I have seen thus far in India was at the train station, to the point where I was on the verge of gagging or crying. When you arrive before your departure as I did on Friday, there is a digital display board that shows the train, destination, and which platform it is at, much in the same way one would find their plane at an airport. I made my way to the platform and hopped onto my coach. One of my friends learned the hard way that trains leave promptly at their exact departure times.
The Indian railway system is divided into classes. The lowest class is called second class, with is kind of like general admission. It is cheap, but there is no air conditioning and no assigned seating. This is what a sizeable number, if not a majority, of Indians take. Then there are sleeper class, which are essentially the first class night trains, and the seats convert to beds at night. Sleeper class is air-conditioned, but there is a separate class called “air-condition” which is divided into three other classes, the lowest have the least comfortable seats and the highest having private rooms. A first-class air-condition ticket will cost almost as much as an Indian domestic flight (almost $50 U.S.).
Anyways, I traveled second-class a/c, which is still relatively cheap and very comfortable, so comfortable, in fact, that I, being prone to motion-sickness and irritability when people touch my elbows in vehicles (I don’t know why), was able to read half of East of Eden on the train to and from Amritsar.
But now to Amritsar, which is a much smaller city then Delhi, and a little bit cleaner and a little bit friendlier, but still has over a million people. There is apparently quite a sprawl to it, but the train took us right to the center of town, which is only a fifteen minute auto-rickshaw ride to the Golden Temple. With half of the day left in Amritsar, we quickly learned that there was not much to see in the city as much as things to eat. Panjabi food is absolutely delicious, and such quintessentially Indian dishes as Tandoori chicken (or Tandoori anything, for that matter) comes from Panjab. There is also excellent street food, from pani puri (fried bread with a dal/potato mixture to dip it in) to samosas. We wanted to save the Golden temple for the next day, so we sampled some food and walked around the old city, with its winding markets, tempting sweet shops, Sikh souvenier shops, and identical general stores.
We also went to Jalianwallah Baugh, the site of the infamous massacre in 1919. Following the unpopular British law, the Rowlatt Act, which, among other things, banned public political gatherings, a series of demonstrations across Panjab ensued. Though almost all were peaceful, one in particular turned violent, and several British were killed. A few days later, men, women, and children, Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs, gathered in Jalianwallah Baugh, a large open area with a deep well, to protest the Rowlatt Act. The British General Dwyer approached the demonstration with machine guns and infantry, and without warning fired. About 1200 were injured and four hundred were killed during the fifteen minutes of gun fire and the desperate attempts by the protestors to escape. After the massacre, General Dwyer claimed he did not think a warning would have done any good, and he expressed no remorse for the incident. The massacre is thought to have been the spark that ignited Gandhi’s first non-cooperation movement. Today, the once barren cement area has been converted into a beautiful green park, complete with a monument to commemorate the dead and walls with bullet holes. It was a sobering sight, but we left feeling inspired by the positive response from Indians that followed. My friend and I returned to our hotel room and, after reuniting with our friend who had missed the earlier train, we went to bed early. The hotel, the Sita Niwas, was a five minute walk to the temple and a great value for its accommodating staff and secure rooms.
The next morning we got up at 4 AM to see the Golden Temple. It was originally built in the sixteenth century, but after being destroyed by the Mughals it was rebuilt in the early eighteenth century and defended. The temple, as well as Sikhs, has witnessed a long history of violence against it, and there is even a museum within the temple to show the Sokh martyrs who have died for their faith, featuring gruesome color paintings of beheadings, dismemberments, and various other tortuous deaths. The temple itself is magnificent, a huge white complex complete with watchtowers and dormitories for pilgrims and tourists. In the center is a large rectangular pool of water, and in the center of the pool is the Mandir, an impeccable piece of ornate architecture that is the most important building in the Sikh faith, according to a Sikh scholar whom I spoke with at the temple. The Mandir is coated in beautiful gold, and when we arrived in the morning, it lit up the entire complex with an iridescent yellow glow. There were already hundreds of people at the temple when we arrived, including Hindus and Muslims, and we sat in awe of the sight before us. At around 5, there was a service in which the holy Sikh book was moved to the Mandir. The book is treated as the eleventh and most important guru, the only living guru of the Sikh faith. It is returned each night around 11 to sleep in the Akal Takht, which is the second most important building to Sikhs. It is another grand structue, taller than the Mandir but not quite as impressively decorated (the Mandir’s gold coating is, indeed, gold). Inside the Mandir was gorgeous, with elegant chandeliers, gold walls, and Sikh musicians whose spine-tingling music is continuously broadcasted over loudspeakers and television. After finishing our tour of the temple, we paid a visit to the canteen, which provides free food to all, regardless of caste or creed. The food is simple, hearty, and all-you-can-eat (for lack of a better term), generally consisting of roti and a kind of dal, and it is quite good from what I hear. We were a little early, so we did not get food, but instead were served the best chai I have ever had in large bowls. When I took pictures, many of the people were eager for me to take theirs, including a very intimidating nihang (Sikhs who follow a militaristic guru, who wear purple robes and turbans and carry long, deadly spears. Nihang roughly translates to crocodile). After our chai, we returned to our hotel to nap.
After sleeping for a few hours, we walked around the old city for a time before returning to the hotel at 4 AM, where we caught a shared taxi to the Pakistan-India border. Every evening around 5 or 6, there is a unique border ceremony that would seem impossible given the tensions between the two nations. It consists of Indian and Pakistani guards, dressed in ridiculously flamboyant uniform, that stand on their respective sides of the border, separated by a large iron gate and connected by a single road. On either side of the border are huge stands, not unlike a sporting event, where citizens sit and are rallied by a kind of MC. There is music playing, the women dance in the road, and girls run the flags of their countries to the gate and back. The crowds chant the names of their countries and scream “Death!” to the other country. Finally, the ceremony starts, and the guards do an exaggerated, fast-paced march in which they kick their legs almost above their heads (all of the guards were at least six feet tall). They do this march, which looks like something from a Monty Python sketch, all the way to the gate, which opens, and the guards do a kind of stomp not but inches away from each others’ faces. The crowds go wild. At the end, the guards quickly shake hands and retire to their respective sides. I had never seen anything like it.
Upon our arrival before the ceremony, we walked a ways until we found a giant line for security checks. The line, as with all Indian lines, were not much of a line, and I the back was a giant mosh of men fighting for a spot (the women’s line was orderly and quite fast, not to mention much smaller). This continued until one Indian guard walked briskly up to the start of the mob, which we were inextricably and not by choice caught in the middle of, and began whacking men in the back of the end and screaming what I could only guess was something along the lines of, “Get in the damn line!” What ensued was an even greater struggle to get in line, with every man shoving with all of his force to somehow blend into one line. The entire crowd was like one giant member, and it began to sway back and forth as the guard continued to walk around whacking people. Finally, and I have no idea how, the mob (who, except for me, was laughing most of the entire time) converted into an orderly line. Afterward, my friend commented that the whole scenario was a metaphor for Indian governance, and so it seemed. Out of the chaos, a line did form.
On our way back from the ceremony, we stopped to get some famous Amritsari fish, which is fish dipped in a sauce, fried in a large wok, and then cut into pieces and served in another spicier sauce. We got it from a shady one-man dhaba (a dhaba is a roadside food stall), but it was some of the best fish I have ever had. Afterwards, we went to bed early again to catch another early morning train, concluding our visit to Panjab.