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Published: January 22nd 2008
Coming to India after a month in Pakistan is a bit of a culture shock. 'Welcome to India', grins the tall uniformed soldier and bows just before I walk through the symbolic gate at Wagah border, now with two Indian bearded and turbaned porters in tow. As soon as I step onto Indian soil, I am surrounded by boys and men wanting to offer me their services: do I want water? chapattis? DVDs? postcards? taxis? rickshaws? They form a circle around me and bombard me with questioning sing-song. 'Get me out of here!', I exclaim, rather exasperated, to a young taxi driver in jeans and jump into his van. As we drive through the lush green countryside, I am amazed to note just how much difference a few miles can make. There are women on the street: women with their heads uncovered, hair fluttering wildly in the wind, riding motorbikes and scooters, laughing. Everything feels freer and lighter. Even the colours seem brighter than in Pakistan. A van full of Sikhs in turbans overtakes us and they smile and wave at me. Ah yes, we are in Sikh-land, I remember.
I have a romantic image of Amritsar. The Golden Temple,
the holiest site for Sikhs... how nice this city must be. I imagine fairytale towers, golden domes, serenity, tree-lined streets. I think, maybe I can stay there for two days or so. The reality is a shock. Amritsar is congested, built up, polluted, noisy, dusty, chaotic. My face falls. The taxi driver delivers me to some hotel. After some dire lunch, I bolt and tell the hotel manager: please book me onto the next train to Haridwar. I am yearning for the tranquillity of the Himalayas. There are only two trains to Haridwar: one at 7 am, and one at 10 pm. There are seats on the morning train, and despite my aversion to early morning starts, I get him to book me a seat.
I venture outwards to have a look at the train station, and the whole street turns to stare at me. One moustached man leans dreamily onto the shoulder of another, and together they observe with open mouths and open eyes how I cross the street. The men in the cars, rickshaws, buses and on motorbikes do the same. I try to ignore them and hail a rickshaw to go to the Golden Temple. It is late afternoon by now, and I want to experience the sunset at the Temple. When I see the golden ornate building in the water for the first time, with the new moon sickle rising above it, it takes my breath away. I had no idea it was so beautiful. I walk around, dazed and stunned. I see Sikhs taking baths in the water. A man tells me a legend. Sikhs with turbans and long beards sit in doorways, reading the holy book. There is continous chanting through loudspeakers: men read the Sikh's holy book continuously for twenty-four hours, which takes three days. Everybody is so friendly here. Two young men explain some of the temple layout to me, and suggest that I go to the community kitchen, where they serve free rice, dhal and chapattis twenty-four hours a day. I go there and sit in a long line with numerous Indians to be served the delicious food on silver trays. The young bearded man opposite me with the mischievous smile and the red turban is making love to me through intense dark eyes throughout the entire meal. I am smitten. The two small girls to my right giggle as they dig into their milk rice. One has a huge beaming smile that erupts into sunshine laughter every time she catches my eye. We laugh together. Red turban joins in. We receive confused glances and smiles from the people around us, until they all start laughing, too. Life can be so joyful.
I go back out and sit at the edge of the water, listening to the chanting, drumming and singing for a long time. This place feels so peaceful and sacred, I don't ever want to leave. It gets darker and darker, the moon rises higher and higher. I fall into a deep meditative blissful state as the worshippers make their rounds in front of me. This place is just what I need now, and I suddenly realise how much Pakistan has affected me.
Just before I leave, an Indian family claps their hands in delight when they see me and send their youngest son over to take photographs of me with his mobile phone, positioning various family members next to me until I have enough and send them packing.
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