I admit, before you read, this is a longer post. So grab your Yogi tea or a cup of chai, and have a little sit down. I am 25 miles from the Pakistan border, and the area is worth more than a single post, but I’m going to do my best to give you a taste of it all in one entry.
Amritsar is a bustling city of criss-crossing roads stuffed to the corners with textile markets, fruit vendors with carts stacked in neat papaya pyramids and pomegranate piles. Bunches of green grapes, rows of guavas, and bright oranges catch the sunshine, and a mountain of brilliant green peas wait cushioned on a hot pink piece of burlap (no filters) for someone to come along and buy them for their evening korma.
Every street is a bazaar glittering with bangles and bindies, and as far as the eye can see are pashmina stalls and shops crammed with Punjabi shoes studded with rhinestones or adorned with tiny pom poms and shiny rick rack. I try on a few pairs along the way, but save my purchase for some beaded gold flats I find later on in the day near the Golden Temple (more on that in a bit); I literally click my heels, and plan my night out as an Indian Cinderella! Sold for $500 rupees!!
Motorbikes swerve around cows, dogs, and throngs of colorful saris. I weave in and out of traffic with ease now on my fourth trip to India; I feel as though no matter where I go, things flow around me, or perhaps I flow around them… there is some kind of strange precision in the chaos of this human anthill, as if the Universe has already decided how this is all going to work. A moped speeds by within an inch of my elbow; a cow horn brushes my pants; I tip out of the way of a tuk tuk fender with a millisecond to spare; I slide sideways along a street to face a woman who makes the exact same move as me to avoid a crowd of men walking in a hard line towards us. My hips sway far left just missing the front tire of a peddle rickshaw who keeps his course despite my gasp; I balance easily on my tiptoes like a cat as I creep along a thin row of cobbles to dodge a pile of garbage. No one seems to care about how easily any one of us could get hit by the stream of motorbikes that rarely slows down; we all move before we think to move… consciousness precedes our thinking.
Hours of joyful zig zagging through crowded lanes yields me a cheap new suitcase and a beautiful array of hand-stitched shawls called dupattas, often worn with sarees. Here they are done in Phulkari style, an art form of Northern India referring to the intricate art painted on the fabric, which is then overlayed with silk embroidery thread called Kantha. The quality of the shawl is determined by the underlying fabric, which is generally faux georgette or chanderi. Both are soft and pretty, but the georgette you find in the markets today tends to be synthetic and less expensive, whereas chanderi is a silk/cotton blend, can withstand needlepoint better than georgette, and because it is natural fiber is lighter to the touch. I opt for chanderi. Some are covered in embroidered flowers; others have bright blue peacock tails or swirled mango leaf borders. There are swirls and trees and butterflies woven into elaborate scenes, all trimmed with yards of bold blue, orange, and pink silk edging. I love them all so much, I can’t decide which one will be mine and which will be up for sale in the yoga studio. Each is exquisite and has every color of the rainbow in its silken threads. They are so gorgeous, they literally take my breath away!
I find a small stash of beautiful double-sided silk Kantha shawls handmade from recycled saree fabric hidden in a tall stack of dupattas and my jaw drops; I have been looking for these down South for three years! They are perfectly imperfect, made by women from Bengal to Rajasthan. I could launch into another whole description of this artwork, but this link below will give you more info if you are interested in the history of kantha stitching: https://www.unnatisilks.com/blog/beautiful-thread-magic-sarees-kantha-embroidery/
After a little bargaining, I take my packages with a grin as the shopkeeper bows to me. Both of us satisfied with the exchange, I duck back into the whirlwind of the street.
There is a man on the corner selling dried fruits and nuts, and I can’t help but steal a snap of these kiwis. We spend two days walking up and down these streets just to take in all the color!
A ten minute walk from the Katra market via a dirty labyrinth of back streets full of trash and dusty cobblestones brings us to an opening resembling a traffic circle. A few food vendors sell sizzling fried vegetables called pakora from massive shallow wok-like pans, various fried flat breads are stacked and ready to roll around falafel, and a gauntlet of masala chai stands are lined up near the rather undecorated entrance of the landmark of Amritsar: The Golden Temple. We walk by this man during the day, but it is later that night we stop to try his golden potato cakes! Here he is putting on a fresh batch:
We step onto a red carpet just inside the gates, take off our shoes, and hand them to a man who swaps us for a key. After a hundred feet, we float down a set of marble steps, and then enter a tremendous sea of colored turbans in a wide crowd which eventually funnels into a slim line.
The pace is slow, but I don’t mind. I take a few pictures; then my phone dies, and all I can do is be present. Everyone is smiling, chatting, praying. The sun is hot, but it feels good, and I know it is snowing at home once again, so I’ll take the heat. This is the pic Declan sends me from our backyard (gasp as I realize there WILL still be snow when I get back home):It is a half hour before we pass under the golden arch which leads onto a long promontory where we will “walk on water” to the Sri Hamandir Sahib, The Golden Temple. A man at the end of the bridge lifts an iron bar, and a wave of bodies lunges forward before the bar returns to hold the crowd. Eventually, we make it in, and once inside, I understand the draw. There are two men playing twin gold harmoniums, another playing tabla, all dressed in white, and devotees sit on the floor in rows facing the musicians. One of the men chants into a microphone. The center of the temple is open from floor to ceiling where a giant chandelier hangs, shimmering. Ornate flowers are painted on the walls, and the ceiling is pure gold and lit up from the reflection of the water outside. Many people hold tiny prayer books and follow along with the chants; others sit with eyes closed and sway. I find a spot on the second floor in a sunny alcove, and let the sun wash over me while the chant goes on and on.
A little bit about the architecture: the giant pool of water surrounding the temple is called Amrit Sarovar (lake of nectar), and it is the prettiest shade of blue-green meant to mirror of the sky. The tank was first constructed in 1577, but it wasn’t until about 25 years later that the Golden Temple was commissioned and officials appointed its first head priest. Everywhere are engravings recognizing the lineage of Sikh gurus, and I learn later the temple itself is erected on the site where it is said the very first Guru, Nanak, used to sit and meditate. Built at a level lower than the surrounding land, the temple, or Gurudwara, teaches the lesson of egalitarianism and humility; it is not only a central religious place of the Sikhs of Amritsar and Sikh pilgrims from all over the world, but it is also known as a symbol of human brotherhood and equality. The pure gold on the roof represents the richness we all enjoy in sharing a sacred space, and it is said that everybody, regardless of race, religion, or any other limiting factor, is offered spiritual solace and religious fulfillment here. All are welcome, as symbolized by four separate entrances calling in all of humanity; about a third of all visitors are non-Sikh, so this message is truly an invitation.
Sitting among families and foreigners, Sikhs and Hindis, I feel completely at home. Giant koi swim along the edges of the 17 foot- deep reflection pool that makes the temple look like a golden island. Since the water is said to be Amrit, the nectar of the gods, it is customary to wash your face, sip the water, or even take a ritual dunk in certain designated areas. As the sun disappears, the temperatures drop and the breeze picks up, and yet more and more people join the line to get into the temple, which is open from 2:30 am to 10 pm each day. From every direction, the evening chant from inside the temple echos gently outward from the loud speakers placed at the four corners of the complex. Many sing along. Others feed the fish. Some, like these two kids, ask if they can take a selfie with us, and their parents snap photos and then ask for my What’s App # so they can send them to me.
More pics just because.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about this temple is the open air kitchen where volunteers feed tens of thousands each DAY. The idea originated nearly 500 years ago, when a Sikh guru introduced the idea that a place should exist where everyone, regardless of religion or social status, could sit on the ground together as equals and eat the same food. Langar, as it is called, is served in every Gurudwara in the world, but the one in the Golden Temple has the world’s largest free kitchen which feeds a record 50,000 people on an average day and up to 100,000 during special occasions and festivals! It seems impossible, given the size of the kitchen, but when I ask a volunteer, he confirms what the internet claims. The kitchen consumes an astonishing amount of raw materials to create its daily meal: 12,000 kg of flour, 1,500 kg of rice, 13,000 kg of lentils, and up to 2,000 kg of vegetables every single day! While much of the work is done by hand, there is an industrial oven and conveyor belt nearby producing 200,000 chapatis (flat breads) on a daily basis. Brendan and I are fortunate to eat here twice, and each time the sweetest eyes and hands offer us plates of soup and bread, and there are big bowls of chai which are refilled even before we finish sipping the first. The samosas are the tastiest I eat in all of India, but the best part is sitting on the ground with so many people who simply come to eat. Beggars sit beside well-dressed ladies, and children help the team of volunteers, mostly men, as they shuffle around and make sure everyone has enough. It is a humbling scene, and I am so grateful to be a part of it here on the ground in my bare feet, shawl over my head, looking across at a the chefs who observe me with a smile.
I have so loved my time in this city of Sihks, Muslims, and Hindis all living together. Probably the most colorful markets I have seen in a India are here where the silk and wool overlap in great piles and sway in the breeze outside shop doorways. Always the smell of fried potatoes, samosas, cinnamon, and exhaust…always dust and grime and bells, and horns (both the animal and vehicle kind).
But when I settle in to my room later on, it is chilly and dark. I long for my bed high up in the mountains at my sweet retreat where Chagan and Mohan are already sleeping after a long day of cooking for guests. It is quiet there now, and there is a tiny crescent moon over Jowel’s cottage. Here, a train rumbles nearby, and lorries crank their gears as they climb the highway bridge not far from the hotel gate. Amritsar doesn’t sleep like the villages in the mountains, and I am awake late trying to get used to the sounds of the city.
In the morning, we begin again with a walk through the markets, to the temple, to the chai wallahs and the copper dealers. Later in the day we visit the border of India and Pakistan, and I admit it’s a little strange to me that thousands of people want to go here everyday at sunset to watch the armies salute each other, while during the day tensions escalate. Two days ago a plane was shot down over Kashmir, and the week before that a bus load of Indian soldiers was ambushed, leaving forty dead. Nonetheless, here we are, and there is singing, dancing, pomp and circumstance, popcorn and ice cream vendors walking through the stadium like we are at a baseball game.
At night we pack for the final leg of our India travels: Haridwar & Rishikesh. When we make it to the airport in the morning, it’s not long before boarding and take off on the small twin prop Bombardier Spice Jet airplane. We taxi, hit the runway, and are off!
And then…15 minutes into the half hour flight, we take a sharp U-turn and are told that there we are experiencing engine “difficulties,” and must return to Amritsar. The ride was turbulent before the announcement, so you can imagine how engine trouble might make the passengers feel. We land quickly and told to deplane on the tarmac. Two hours later, the flight is officially cancelled, and our luggage is finally returned to us.
An American couple in their young sixties is sitting nearby and ask if we’d like to join them on a train to Haridwar rather than take the next scheduled flight in 24 hours. Without hesitation, I say “yes!” and the wheels are in motion. Laura and Eric call their travel agent, and we wait for a reply. Fast forward to the train: For 1,000 rupees each, we are on a 9-hour ride in a 3rd-class sold-out sleeper car. A man hands out pillows and blankets. Bunks are three deep on each side (six in a pod) with a set of double bunks running alongside the aisle. I spot a cockroach five minutes into our bed-making; Laura and I take a collective deep breath and embrace the adventure. In just a few minutes, the blue and gray train rolls out of Amritsar into the black Indian night.
Our new friends are great company, and we laugh at the situation as Laura hands out earplugs. We are the only non-Indians in the car (and maybe on the entire train), and when Brendan pulls out his guitar and we start to sing, the place goes quiet. After a few lullabys, I take out my contact lenses, hop into the middle bunk, pop in my earplugs, and pull my own travel fleece up around my shoulders. It is not long before the whole car is snoring in time with the rumble of the train. I smile and wonder how I’m going to describe this experience so people will feel like they are here. Impossible. You just have to go to India one day. And take the 3rd class sleeper car overnight. I promise, you will never ever forget it.