PART 4: FEELING SIKH AND BHANGED UP
Punjab was split down the middle in 1948 between India and Pakistan,
partly because the dominant religion in this northern state is neither Hindu
nor Islam, but Sikhism. Symbolic posterchild of the Partition, Punjab's
two cultural hubs are Amritsar in India and Lahore in Pakistan, linked by
a border crossing that is often closed in times of tension but remains the
only open border crossing between the two nations. Amritsar is most
well known for being the site of the mother temple of Sikhs, the Golden
Temple, but it is also the site of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919.
In one of the ugliest colonial massacres in cold blood, unprovoked
British and Gurkha troops fired upon and killed or wounded two thousand
Punjabis in a closed courtyard with no escape. This incident convinced
Gandhi that the British must go and steeled his resolve to resist the occupation.
Most of the sacred ground surrounding the Golden Temple at Amritsar,
Punjab, has been drained but one corner sector still retains water.
There may not be much to see in Amritsar aside from the Golden temple,
but it's worth the trip just by itself. The brilliant gold leaf plated
temple is accessible to worshippers and tourists like from a causeway that
normally passes over a water-filled moat. However, when I arrived most
of the moat was drained for cleaning, a labour intensive chore done manually
that was last performed 20 years ago because of fears that Pakistani terrorists
may have buried arms under the water. It's a monumental event for
many Sikhs and thousands of pilgrims were there to join in the manual task.
Indian Prime Minister B.J. Vajpayee was even scheduled to come observe
the event, no doubt beneficial for his ongoing reelection campaign as well.
I was fortunate to be able to visit the temple with an Australian Sikh
traveller who could explain to me some of the rituals and symbolism associated
with the religion (like: do they all wear turbans, and do the colours signify
anything? no, and no. and why is this temple so special? because
it is the embodiment of the most recent prophet).
Pilgrims scour the foundation walls of the Golden Temple of
Amritsar and work on the ground level of the moat at night.
Above all, I was pleased to see so many Indians working together peacefully
on a common constructive cause, such a change from the dog-eat-dog every-man-for-himself
lifestyle that I had become accustomed to seeing across this chaotic land.
Inside the temple complex, the Sikh pilgrims were respectful and kind
to each other and to foreign tourists like myself. All Sikh temples
provide lodging and food to those who seek it, paying whatever they can
afford to pay, and the Golden Temple additionally maintains a simple foreigners
dorm room where I got to interact with other backpackers. We ate in
the amazing mess hall serving chapati bread and dal (lentils) with factory
line efficiency to thousands of hungry labourers. Some of the backpackers
pitched a hand into the day and night cleaning. Without a doubt, this
is the largest religious gathering I have ever witnessed and it was a gratifying
experience for me even as an outsider. The spirit of dedicated unity and
harmony is infectious.
View of the western entry gate from the roof of the Golden Temple
Grungy cleanup pilgrims at the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Mmm,
Tea (chai) is prepared in flame-heated vats, and pilgrims serve
themselves through a clever pipe and multispigot system.
By bus, it was relatively quick crossing Punjab and heading up into the
mountains of the state of Himachal Pradesh, which lines the western border
of Nepal, divided by the 6000m Great Himalayan mountain range. My objective
was the village of McLeod Ganj, near Dharamsala, and the home of the Tibetan
government in exile and of his holiness, the Dalai Lama. McLeod was
packed with tourists but surprisingly, only a relatively small fraction
of them were there to attend the exceptional lecture series being given
by the Dalai Lama, open only to experienced Buddhists. The rest were
backpackers hanging out and enjoying the calm ambience, escaping the heat
of India, and quite honestly, fleeing Indians themselves. The Tibetan
dominated town is a low-key tourist centre geared toward Westerners, and
most hotels are run by Tibetan families. The sudden lack of pressure
was indeed a startling feeling and may explain why there are so many long-term
travellers unwinding in McLeod. Tibetan momos rather than Indian thalis
became the default dish, and it's fun to watch the many bald red-robed Tibetan
monks and monkesses living daily life, haggling with merchants, banging
out e-mails at the Internet cafes and milling about in the town square.
A nice dayhike trail up to the ridge at Triund allowed for a great
view of the snow-covered Himalayas. While it would have been fun to
putz about a bit longer, my time was limited and I needed to head back down
to the plains. On my way back to the nearest railhead, I spent a day
at the 2000m hill station of Dalhousie, which was downright freezing at
night, but afforded stunning Himalayan panoramas. I found a direct
train from the north all the way through Delhi and on to Agra.
Of course, I was going to visit the Taj Mahal and they don't hesitate to
pump the wallets of foreigners who feel similarly obliged to see it. Walled
in and invisible from the city side of Agra, I was obliged to pay USD$15
to enter the grounds, an obscene sum that could cover 3 complete days of
expenses for a backpacker in India. The edifice itself is lovely but
honestly, it didn't look or feel to me to be any different or transcendent
than the many pictures you and I have already seen of the Taj. There
is nothing of note inside the building apart from a gloomy, unremarkable
tomb. I appreciated mostly the fine details of the exterior facades,
featuring fine designs chiseled out of marble and of inset precious stones,
and of the tranquil gardens and reflecting pool on the grounds of the Taj.
Aware of the nasty and aggressive reputation that Agra has earned,
reviled almost universally by travellers, I made a quick escape to nearby
Fatehpur Sikri for the night. I was quite disappointed by the ruins
there, or more precisely the abandoned city, and the hassles probably weren't
a whole lot gentler than in Agra, so I decided to move on quickly.
Some detail on marble and precious stones on the facade of the
Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh
Upon a friend's recommendation, I decided to hightail it to the idyllic
temple town of Orchha and it was excellent advice. Surrounded by bucolic
farmland and populated by friendly locals, Orchha is a wonderfully peaceful
resting base, and in fact, I met a Hawaiian fellow working all over India
as a tour guide for 20 years who chooses to spend his off-time periods in
Orchha. The mellowness of the village belies its tourist value, which
is considerable. Sharp spikey temples, mausoleums and fortresses are liberally
and generously sprinkled in and around Orchha. I'm amazed that it remains
as untouristed as it is, but I know it won't last. Any traveller doing
the Agra-Varanasi tourist route would be well advised to visit Orchha now.
By this time, the mild intestinal problems that had begun to afflict
me in Himachal Pradesh was worsening, and I wanted to get to Varanasi quickly
to install myself there and recover. In so doing, I skipped Khajuraho,
one of the most famous and respected temple cities in India. I didn't
relish taking hours of punishing bus rides and getting hassled, while getting
sicker by the hour. I do somewhat regret not seeing Khajuraho, but it
just wasn't to be this time.
Chaturbhuj temple in Orchha, Madhya Pradesh
And so we arrive at my final destination in India, Varanasi or Benares,
the most sacred Hindu town. Dying here, getting incinerated on a funeral
pyre on one of the burning ghats (wharfs) and having one's ashes scattered
over the sacred Ganges River promises better karma and better odds for one's
next life after reincarnation. That's reason enough for a lot of believers
to find their way to Varanasi and the faith is almost palpable along the
ghats. The atmosphere pervading the old city is difficult to describe
but it is definitely unique in India. Because of my unstable bowels
and an unexpected transport strike in Nepal (my next destination), I ended
up spending four full days in Varanasi, and it was a nice place to hang out,
inexpensive and interesting. I got well mostly by eating strictly
from the hotel menu, while other travellers were falling sick right and
left around me (Varanasi is known for unsanitary food.) One Japanese
girl was headed toward the rail station to go to Delhi when she became dizzy
and started puking in the dorm room. She opted to remain in Varanasi
and sought medical attention. Almost every traveller has some kind
of gastrointestinal problem sooner or later in India and I was lucky to
have avoided anything serious during my time. A Canadian man that
I helped out in Delhi had fallen ill three times on the trip, and was eventually
hospitalized to treat the recurring parasite infection. I was in perfect
health my last couple of days in Varanasi and enjoyed sharing a boat with
other travellers at dawnbreak to observe the rituals and sights along the
ghats of the Ganges.
Indian and foreign visitors set out in boats on the Ganges River
in Varanasi shortly after dawnbreak
Every day at sundown, an elaborate hour-long Hindu prayer ritual
transpires at the main Dasaswamedhgat ghat
The 3-day general strike called by the Maoist rebels in Nepal finally drew
to an end, and that meant that I could head out toward the Nepali border.
A part of me would miss certain aspects of India. Over the course
of five weeks, I had gotten used to the pattern and tempo of life. I
knew how things worked, what things really cost, and how to get around efficiently.
More importantly, I learned how to quickly sort whom to trust or believe
from whom not to, a critical survival skill in India. I would miss
the pell-mell open market where you could find virtually anything you wanted
quickly and at dirt cheap prices. I would miss the slow but strangely
comforting trains. I would miss the distinct flavour of a culture
that stubbornly resists the relentless inevitability of modernization and
changing times. And of course there were plenty of things I would not
miss about India too, and I had reminders right up to the end with unpleasant
experiences and frustrations dealing with Indians. Some western travellers
visit India for spiritual and self-development reasons and are charmed by
the logical vagaries and uncompromising devotion of the Indian culture. Faith
recognizes and respects faith. I confess that this was not a reason
or motivation for me visit India, but I certainly got my tourist value out
of India, a country resoundingly like no other.
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