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A Punjabi Paradise

On leaving Dharamsala we knew we were about to encounter the ‘real’ India. We’d been mucking about in the Himalayas for a long time now, and we concluded it was probably time to move on. We have come to love the Tibetans, but our travelling had rapidly become a veritable stalking session of anything to do with the mountain kingdom. We jumped on a bus and within six hours we had descended onto the plains of the Punjab, and arrived in the historic city of Amritsar.

Our first full encounter with Sikh culture had been on the climb up to Hem Kund; it was at this point that we were introduced to the warm and inclusive nature of these people. Most of the pilgrims we met called the Punjab home, so we were excited to be visiting their most important shrine, the Golden Temple. Before we did so, we were required to navigate the dirty, dusty and manic streets to find our guest house. It’s true what they say about Indian urban areas, they stink, they’re crowded and two minutes after leaving the sanctuary of one’s room a shower is required, but they are also a lot of fun. We bundled our way through the chaos on the first evening and as we approached the Golden Temple, a warm, orange, Indian sun began to dip below the entrance.

The Golden Temple or ’Darbar Sahib’ is emblematic of the culture and conduct of the Sikh people. The religion arose in the 16th century and opposed the caste system of the Hindus. Instead it’s founder Guru Nanak proclaimed that all beings are equal and should be treated as such. This belief is represented in the architecture of the Golden Temple, where four doors open out in four different directions, welcoming all people of any race, caste or creed. We first deposited our shoes and washed our hands and feet, before donning rather dashing orange headwear. Any individual can enter the temple, but one must obey these guidelines even if it is at the expense of looking like a complete plonker. Needless to say I wore my headwear with slightly less panache than the Sikh contingent.

I find walking barefoot into any situation a very reassuring and levelling experience, and as my soles touched the white marble floor the temple came into view for the first time. I stood still for a moment and marvelled at my surroundings. Sikhs in front of me knelt to touch their heads to the ground while others dipped in the holy water surrounding the central temple. The atmosphere was reverent, but lively and purposeful at the same time; hundreds of worshipers united as prayers drifted out from the loudspeakers. Every few minutes the atmosphere changed as the sun gradually dipped behind the outer walls, and as night fell soft lighting added further layers of character to the holy site.

During our second visit we queued up to go inside the Golden Temple itself. We stood in line with scores of Sikhs as prayers were amplified around the complex. I looked around and felt engulfed by the warmth of religious devotion. ‘Religion’ has become a loaded word in many areas of the world; it scares many and has become synonymous with fanaticism and terrorism. We’re members of the developed, progressive world, living in an age of atheism and the ’God Delusion’, we’re not supposed to be religious right? Who needs religion when we’ve got gold cards? As Hazell and I travel further around the world, we have been repeatedly exposed to the positive aspects of organised religion, and the Sikh worshippers at the Golden Temple are a fantastic example of this. Inside, Sikhs from all over the world filled every inch of floor and recited verses from the Guru Granth Sahib, led by senior scholars.

Not only is the temple beautiful but, as is Sikh custom, one can also eat for free. Hazell thought Peggy, her four fingered dinner lady in Splott, was the queen of catering; she apparently undertook her troublesome duties with consummate ease, even though the chunky chips frequently resembled her missing digit. Well sorry Peggy, you’ve lost your title hands and four fingers down to the communal operation at the Golden Temple, which is undoubtedly the most organised affair we have encountered in India. After making a donation we made our way upstairs, where we tentatively sat in line and waited to be ’served’. Rows were regimented and the whole affair was startlingly un-Indian; as people at the rear finished their meals, those at the front began and the cycle continued. A ladle full of dhal was poured into one compartment of the plate, to be followed by a generous portion of rice. The chapati man stopped in front of me, looked questioningly in my eyes and then moved on. Was I unwelcome here I wondered? Happily I discovered this was not at all the case, I had merely forgotten to use the proper ’free chapatti etiquette’. On his next stroll down the line, I followed the lead of the Sikhs and cupped my hands skyward to receive my reward. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, gratefully receiving free food while sat on the floor instantly unites.

Bellies and hearts warmed, the best way to show appreciation is by helping with the washing up. Washing up can become a daunting task for most of us at times, but standing at the water trough in the Golden Temple, I was swept into a frenzy of cleaning. The Sikhs all smiled at my feeble attempt to keep up with the pace and it wasn’t long before I retired for a free cup of chai. At this point we met a young devotee who addressed us in a strained American/Punjabi accent; another English student from the school of ’Friends and Sex in The City’, it seemed. He was glad to be able to practice his English as he showed us ’backstage’ where the infamous ‘chapatti machine’ resides; an industrial sized conveyor belt of unleavened bread designed to cope with the hungry masses. We were shown enormous cauldrons of dhal and the ’manual’ preparation area, where chapatis are still made by hand while others sit on the floor and peel garlic.

We could have returned many more times to the temple grounds, if only to soak up the wonderful atmosphere, but the time had come. The reputation of our next destination loomed large. According to many travellers, we were about to enter Satan’s sweaty sphincter; an unbearable cauldron of depravity. Come on then Delhi, lets ’ave it.


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