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A visit to Amritsar India... (Read 1 times)
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A visit to Amritsar India...
Jun 27th, 2009, 10:29am
Only in Amritsar, India.

Crossing the state line from Rajasthan, the surrounding environment changed almost immediately from harsh, dry, golden desert to lush, green, fertile, agricultural lands that, along with a strong work ethic, have made the Punjab the most affluent state in India. Such a work ethic is strongly promoted by the Sikh religion, as is the Punjabis’ legendary hospitality, which in my experience is second to none. For five nights through northern Rajasthan and the Punjab, upon entering the town in which I intended to rest my head, I would not stray from fruit-wallah to paan-wallah to rickshaw-wallah asking for “hotel sasta-wallah?” but would make a beeline for the sparkling white dome of the local gurdwara, the golden spire of which always stood high above the dull buildings around.

For five nights, my requests for a bed were not met with even an inkling of hesitation, only goodwill, warmth and of course; chai.

For five nights, I ate in the various guru ka langars, the communal kitchens that have a place in all gurdwaras. It is here that people of all religions, races, castes and genders are welcome to receive as much food as they desire, free of charge. The long rows in which diners sit side by side, cross-legged on the ground, symbolise that no man is above any other – we are all brothers and sisters and we shall eat and live as such.

For five nights, I was mesmerised by the beautiful kirtan played by each gurdwara’s priests on harmonium and tabla and accompanied by hauntingly sweet vocals. Contained in what is considered to be the last guru, the Guru Granth Sahib or the Holy Book, these kirtan are beautiful songs of prayer. Despite my not understanding the words, they invariably drew me into a deep tunnel of meditation each morning and evening during the respective ceremonies of placing the Guru Granth Sahib upon the alter for the day and returning it to its resting place in the evening.

For five nights, I was not given a moments rest by the locals - kids and adults alike – who had no hesitation in entering my room uninvited and unannounced to attempt a conversation in 'Hindish' or to simply stare. This, I felt at times, was the trade off – I gave others the opportunity to exhibit goodwill and charity and in return, I was given the opportunity to strengthen my virtues of patience and tolerance.

Strong is exactly how I felt when on the sixth night I arrived in the gurdwara of all gurdwaras; the Golden Temple of Amritsar. The city of Amritsar itself is, in a word, a shithole – polluted, overcrowded, obscenely loud and any other number of adjectives common to most Indian cities. But in its midst lies a sanctuary – a place that emanates peace, compassion, harmony, goodwill, love and indeed, God. So strong are these positive vibrations that I felt them as soon as I entered the outer square and when a man wearing a turban and carrying an almighty spear beckoned me to follow him, I blindly did so, somehow simply knowing that he had my best interests at heart. He led me to one of several gurdwaras that house thousands of pilgrims every night free of charge, either in rooms or on the floor of the courtyard. The foreigners are provided with a sanctuary within a sanctuary in the form of a friendly and lively dormitory, complete with hot shower and washing machine, away from the ever prying eyes. A volunteer guards the door at all times, just as volunteers manage the guests, provide bedding and clean the bathrooms and rooms, at no point directly asking the pilgrims for any donation.

If I was impressed by the sleeping arrangements, the kitchen was to absolutely blow me away. This, the biggest guru ka langar in the world, is capable of feeding 40,000 mouths per day including up to 10,000 in a single sitting and remains open and ready to satisfy 24/7. Such an operation can only be achieved through the right blend of chaos and organisation and an overwhelming amount of selfless goodwill that manifests itself as chopped veggies, cooked rice, flat chapattis, warm kiel, cold water, served thalis, mopped floors, clean plates and hot chai. The thing that surprised me most in this madhouse of activity – accentuated by the constant clang of metal as stainless steel thalis and bowls flew through the air from diner to scrapper to washer to server – was that there was a constant surplus of volunteers. Everyone was filled with such a great sense of gratitude that they felt compelled to convert it into service for their fellow man. It made me wonder if the material focus of religious groups should not be on simply taking donations, taking offerings and taking praise, but on giving with the aim of instilling this sense of gratitude in its followers and thus allowing it to circulate.

I felt blessed to have the opportunity to return a fraction of the goodwill shown to me by some means other than my rupees and I made sure that I spent a couple of hours each day, sitting on the ground, chopping carrots, potatoes and garlic, while chatting to the locals and pilgrims who came from all religious backgrounds from all over India and the world.

Stepping out of the guru ka langar, invariably with a very full, satisfied stomach, one enters the gateway to the historic centrepiece that is seated in the heart of a great water-filled tank, dating back to the 16th century. Whether the middle of the day when the sun reflects brilliantly off its golden plating; or dusk when the oranges and purples marking the end of another day soften its surface; or the late evening when it sparkles as an enormous beacon against the black of night, the Golden Temple is an amazing spectacle at any time. A particularly magical time is pre-dawn when the crowds are still in bed and just a few devotees are braving the early morning chill to bathe in the icy waters of the tank, stroll around its perimeter or meditate to the melodic kirtan being chanted within the compact, atmospheric temple.

Words can not describe how this very special place made me feel, but after several days, I saw it in the face of a newly arrived Dutch traveller. As we strolled around the tank together at dusk, her expression was one of awe. I knew that she could feel the energy and see the magic.

“You can feel it, can’t you?” I asked.

“Wow,” she replied – her mouth involuntarily curving into a smile.

Just thirty kilometres from the exit door and I had forgotten all about my desperate desire to rid myself of India – to scrub its dirt from my pores, cough its particles from my airways and wash its stench from my body (indeed, after ten months in Southern Asia, I well and truly smelt like a curry-munching Indian. Often, after taking a shower, I would lay on my bed with my hands behind my head, ‘Woah,’ I would think, ‘Did I forget to do my underarms?’

Nope, that is just how I smell now).

For this, I was very thankful, for it is not what such a legendary, fascinating and unique country deserves. It is undoubtedly deserved of the bitter taste that it has left on my tongue, but this is unavoidable if one is to experience the sweetness.

I have been asked by many if India is worth visiting. To them I say YES!, but remember; India is a land of extremes and an assault on the senses – it must be swallowed whole; wince at the bitter, suckle on the sweet; bear the pain, embrace the pleasure; wrinkle your nose at the putrid, deeply suck in the aromatic; shudder at the scratching on the blackboard, listen to the melodic.

Do not shy away from the ugly and the beautiful will reveal itself.

Let go.

Amritsar, India will be.

Be with it.
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