My company demands that I have a “cultural experience” and travel throughout India. I say ok, I can do that. This weekend? Attari and Amritsar.
Another discovery in Attari was the surreal aspect of being a foreigner in India. The novelty of white skin and red hair is something that you don’t realize until you have people asking to touch them, to photograph them, or to ask if it is real. People snuck around with camera phones to steal photographs of me my white travel companions. Women around us asked for “snaps” (the Indian term for photographs) – and two girls stole pictures of me for the duration of the ceremony (so I stole pictures of them too). My Indian friend called us “sillahbrahtas” while laughing and taking pictures. It is unbelievable.
A note on the Sikhs: everything about their beliefs is communal. Their religion promotes hospitality, charity, education, and selflessness. Known for their skills as warriors, the Sikhs consistently put others before themselves, giving lives, money, and time to their cause. And this, unlike some Christian practices I have experienced, is not limited to those within their religion. I was graciously accepted, given food and a place to stay, and encouraged to take pictures to “show the beauty of their religion and temple”. So, dinner was fittingly served in a large room to all who asked for it. Everyone receives a plate, a bowl, and a spoon and sits on the floor – a practice started by a Guru who refused to sit above his disciples. Everyone is served as much food and water as they can eat, cooked and served by volunteers to the temple and traveling pilgrims.
We then walked into the temple complex, a large square filled in the center with a deep pond, each of the four sides a marble walkway filled with pilgrims, either praying with their foreheads bowed to the ground or preparing to sleep in the presence of their holiest site. In the center of the pond lies the Golden Temple, and it is incredibly beautiful.
When you walk inside it, almost everything incorporates some kind of prayer in it, the wallpaper, the doorframes, the stairs, the chandelier. The Devangari is wearing away in some spots where people rub their fingers over it to complete the prayer.
We entered the temple at night, right as the Guru Granth Sahib (the holy book of Sikhism and its eleventh Guru) was being closed. It is an incredible ceremony: as the final prayer is sung, men compete to carry it on their heads to a solid gold palanquin, waving oxtail fans above it. Women reach to touch it and everyone attempts to support the palanquin in some way as it is taken to its nightly resting place. Then pilgrims compete to clean the temple, sweeping and polishing the gold.
We returned from there to the room where we were staying, and slept for the few hours between then and 4:30 in the morning to catch the sunrise hitting the gold of the temple. We awoke and sipped chai as the singers called the Sikhs to morning prayer. And walking through the trough of water to clean your feet and enter the temple, it is a breath taking sight. The first rays are just hitting the top of the temple, and it begins to glow, and the first prayer is so beautiful – it was one of those rare moments you experience. Something so special and secret that you want capture it in some way, but in no way is a feeling like that possible to write in words or take in photographs. It made me think of the sunset in Morocco over the Atlantic, listening to the salah echoing from the mosque behind me, and watching women mourn in Rome’s cobblestone streets, arms raised and tears streaming, during Pope John Paul II’s funeral. Moments that seem impossible and unreal, but are happening around you and in some small way, changing you.
We sat for maybe three hours, just watching the Sikhs. Something interesting that they do is bathe in the pond (which is filled with huge, brightly colored fish), a form of holy water cleansing. And, like any religion, the Sikhs preserve important artifacts including the body of a Guru, their weapons that fought for the freedom of Sikhism, and, most interestingly, trees that important Sikhs prayed under. One tree is especially important, it is said that the Guru that decided to build the Golden Temple bathed there during his epiphany, and those who bathe there now are granted enlightenment and clarity in their paths in life.
There is also a museum of paintings and photographs of important moments in Sikh history, from its creation to the present, including depictions of their persecution by Muslims (including dismembering children and stringing their limbs into necklaces to hang around their parents’ necks), the destruction and massacre of Operation Blue Star in 1984 by Indira Gandhi’s troops, and Sikhs who had roles in creating an independent India.
The temple was an incredible and unique experience. I even had a woman ask me to bless her little girl with beauty. Another little girl came up and counted my toes, and when I thought this was strange I looked at hers – she had six on each foot.
But we traveled onward, visiting the Jallianwala Bagh garden, the home of the 1919 massacre in which British troops opened fire on peaceful protesters and instigated Indian unity towards independence. The garden is walled, and there was no escape. Bullet holes are preserved, as well as the well that hundreds of Indians threw themselves down in order to escape. It is strange to see the well, and as I was looking into it, it had the air of a crypt or open grave. It was interesting to experience a city that has such a bloody past and is so influential in the shaping of modern India. Midori (my Japanese coworker and roommate) said she was afraid to go to sleep that night because she thought she would have nightmares about Amritsar.
Onto something happier, we then visited Jinder’s (another roommate and coworker, but from India) cousin’s family. They fed us a ridiculous amount of food and talked about why we came to India and what we were looking for here. When Indians travel, they said, they are always searching for something – whether it is spiritual, economic, or to visit family. They were confused why I would leave the United States, a place where they said that any Indian would go in a minute if given the chance, to come to a place like India, working for very little. I couldn’t explain it in terms they could really understand, I’m still working out how to explain it in terms that I understand. There was a little girl there that wanted to know all about America, and told me that it was her dream to go there. She even showed me her coin collection of two quarters (one of which was made into a ring by welding it onto a ring of copper wire) and a penny. I gave her a dollar and told her to visit me in America. It was so amazing to listen to them – they are incredible people and have definitely shaped my perception of culture and hospitality in India.