18 July 2014

Notes from the Golden Temple

Up early, away shortly after seven, and already the heat's building. If I'd been more motivated I'd have been up before dawn and at the temple by sunrise, but this will have to do. I take a detour through the back streets to avoid the chaos of the main route--a good move and much more enjoyable; a glimpse into a more genuine Amritsar, largely free of the trinket and souvenir hawkers--and, as it turns out, a detour that takes me almost directly to the main entrance. I already have my head covered with the Buff, and I slip my scuffs off and put them in my backpack before walking barefoot through the footbath. This, I'd heard, was a thick, slimy soup, but that's far from the truth; when I walk through, the clean, cool water feels delightful. If I'm going to catch anything unpleasant, I doubt it'll be from that welcome to the Golden Temple.

The number of people visiting almost defies belief, particularly in light of the knowledge that this is still early in the day and is neither peak hour nor peak season. I don't know whether to think the crowd awe-inspiring or appalling. Thousands circle the great pool--the Amrit Sarovar; the Pool of Nectar--where the Golden Temple stands in the centre at the end of a causeway and devotees bathe at the edge. As the bathers emerge, they carry water in cupped hands and drink it when they've stepped a few paces from the edge. This would poison me for sure, but is it simply the adaptation to local water that means these people are apparently unaffected, or does their devotion, their belief, protect them? This devotion makes me acutely conscious of my own lack of belief, but at least I respect theirs.

The enormous queue waiting to enter the temple itself puts me off, though. Even if I could swelter for long enough without suffering heat stroke, the ordeal would ruin the visit for me. Also, I have mixed feelings about visiting holy places as a spectator, so I'm happy to admire from a distance. What does strike me, though, is that the temple looks much smaller than I'd imagined: still brilliant in both senses, and I'm never again likely to look at hundreds of kilos of gold, but the edifice isn't the vast structure I'd expected. It doesn't matter.

A huge carp cruises through the bathing area; further out, a fish jumps. The presence of such obvious life in this pool gladdens me; it feels fitting in a place that seems imbued with respect. Shortly after I entered, an elderly Sikh man came up to me and asked me in poor English whether I would like cold milk. He gestured to the nearby stand where several people were dispensing small steel dishes of milk to a large crowd. I declined as graciously as I could and he smiled. Any place where generosity and hospitality are so evident touches me; even now, remembering that brief encounter, I think this is truly one of India's great places. Perhaps partly that's because, unlike the Taj Mahal for example, its primary purpose hasn't changed and has nothing to do with tourism.

In the whole time I was there, I saw just one other obviously foreign visitor.

At a flight of steps, I climb a short way to look out over the crowd and frame another photograph. A young, turbanned man comes over and asks me to 'snap him'. At first I'm wary, wondering whether I'll be asked for payment. Eventually I say O.K. and photograph him with his two friends, then show them the photograph on the LCD. They seem pleased. 'O.K., thank you,' he says, and they leave, leaving me feeling too suspicious, as if I've been slightly disrespectful. Nevertheless, some caution is in order: the big red LED issues warnings to take care with purses, handbags and jewelry, and not to give something (I don't remember the word) to unknown persons. Holy places attract huge numbers of people; huge numbers of people also attract unholy people.

After the Golden Temple I take refuge in my air-conditioned room for a while, until I've recovered enough to venture out again. This time I make it most of the way to the railway station before giving up and taking a rickshaw to the Grand Hotel. I like the way the driver moves through the chaos--careful but efficient, not aggressive. At the Grand, he asks me where I'm from. 'Beautiful country,' he says, beaming.

The Grand Hotel, however, has no budget rooms available, only an excessively expensive one. The rickshaw driver takes me a hundred metres down the road to the Volga and follows me in. Yes, they have a room: 800 rupees, a/c, free wifi. I check it out and it looks good: spacious and clean. I sign up and get the rickshaw man to take me back to the Bharawan da dhaba, a landmark he'll probably know (he does) and won't confuse with the Golden Temple. I've learned quickly that when any rickshaw driver here doesn't understand me, he'll assume I want to go to the Golden Temple--apparently, all English words translate to 'Golden Temple'.

I'm almost sad to say goodbye to my helpful, amiable driver. Sure, he's had a profitable morning's work, but on the way to the dhaba he took pains to point out places of interest and help me get my orientation (unsuccessfully).  'Hall Market', he said at one point, turning to smile and explain to me something I couldn't understand. At least the traffic was light then and he had several metres of clear space before running into anything. At the dhaba we shake hands and I walk the few hundred metres back to my hotel, feeling as if I'm leaving behind a friend.

1. Again, this is just an edited selection of more extensive writing.

1, 2. Two views of the temple itself.
3. The edge of the Amrit Sarovar, the 'Pool of Nectar'.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor


Lydia said...

Your travel writing is as fluid as the gorgeous last shot. Oh, what a surprise delight and respite from a day of chaos it was to find your new post in my sidebar. With a few tears of gratitude I bid you a safe a happy journey. I will read of this trip with great interest, and wish I was there.

pohanginapete said...

Thank you, Lydia. My intention with the posts is to give an impression rather than create a record. Necessarily, I'll have to skip a lot, but so far I've been pleased with the amount of writing I've managed. I hope that continues :^)

Robbie said...

Pete, it's so nice to be able to read as you travel rather than have to wait for months afterwards! :-) I think I must have told you about my visit to Pushkar -- Uff.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Robbie. Yes, I remember your account of Pushkar. I think you'd have appreciated the Golden Temple -- no hassling, and I don't think that was just a matter of luck.

vegetablej said...

It's a long time since I read something with such pleasure. You are in India again and writing and photographing the small and the large. This is probably the closest I will ever get to visiting that amazing country, so thank you, and have a wonderful trip.

pohanginapete said...

VJ, thank you :) I'll try to keep the posts coming, but I don't want to spend the entire time writing!