Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Golden Temple

No trains running to our next destination on a Sunday meant taking our first Indian bus journey, which having spent enough bemused time in auto-rickshaws, we'd tried to put off as long as possible. But onward we were heading and so off we set to the Punjab city of Amritsar. The journey which according to our guide book should have taken 7 hours, took only 5 and we soon figured out why - I think the driver must have been late for his tea. Despite the bumps and somewhat tense moments when overtaking into oncoming traffic, it was a great experience and a wonderful way to get a glimpse of rural Indian life. Unfortunately for the guy next to us on the bus who kindly offered us a room in his house, we'd already booked a hotel within stones throw of the Sikh Golden Temple, and so were soon on a cycle rickshaw to our digs for the night.

We knew the Golden Temple was a special place for Sikhs, but hadn't quite realised just how special until we arrived. Turns out we'd rocked into town on the birthday of the 4th Guru Ram Das Ji - the dude who'd built the temple more than 400 years ago. It wasn't just us who'd rocked up either – more than 100,000 Sikhs from all over India were also in Amritsar for the celebrations. And what an incredible celebration it was!!! 

 The Temple in itself is absolutely incredible, but we were blown away by our experience there. As day turned into night, thousands of lights illuminated the buildings and that combined with the amazing colours of Indian dress and the hundreds of candles that had been lit created a mesmerising sight.

We felt a bit awkward at first, gate-crashing such an important occasion, but there was no need to worry – we were literally welcomed with open arms and genuinely felt like people were happy for us to share the experience with them. So many people came over to chat or say hello, ask where we were from and tell us about the temple and their religion. We'd decided it was a safe bet to play the 'we're married' card, and found it worked well until chatting to a 12 year old girl who was ever so concerned that we didn't have a child – her reasoning that although the population of India was going up, the rest of the world was in decline.  Thank goodness my dad wasn't around to get involved in that conversation!

Once again the cameras were out and people wanted their photo taken with us - one guy enthusiastically thrust his baby girl into my arms so she could have her picture taken – unfortunately she didn't seem so keen.

John with his new best friends.

On arrival at the temple we were required to cover our heads (hence John looking like a pirate) and take off our shoes, reluctantly leaving them in surely the world's biggest cloak room holding hundreds of thousands of shoes. We then joined the masses in walking around the temple grounds before picking our spot to watch the incredible firework display. The noise was deafening and fireworks seemed to go on forever – it was a wonderful ending to what had been an amazing occasion.

The next day we returned to the temple to see it in a different light.  Almost immediately after arriving we were swept to one side by a group of wise Sikh men sat crossed-legged and pondering life.  They invited us to join them and enthusiastically recalled tales from the temple.  We learnt so much just from the 20 minutes we spent sat with them and came away feeling enriched, although  John had a small case of beard envy which was felt all the more when he asked one of the men why they grew their beards so long.  "You are a sheep, I am a lion" was the man's sobering reply.

Another astonishing event from our time in the Punjab was our visit to the Pakistan border, to witness the 'closing of the border' ceremony that apparently takes place every single day.  Locals and tourists had arrived by the coach-load to see the spectacle before them, where crowds and officials on both the Indian and Pakistani sides competed with great gusto to be the loudest and proudest.  We sat back in amazement watching things unfold before us, as guards from each side marched to the central gates like something straight out of the Ministry of Silly Walks.  

After about an hour of performance, the flags were finally lowered and the gates closed for the evening.

After an 8 hour journey by train and bus, we have finally arrived at our next destination - Mcleod Ganj.  A renowned traveller hangout in the Himalayan foot hills and home of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government in exile, this peaceful hillside town is going to be our home for at least the next few days.   

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