Amritsar came to me like eyesight to the blind.
At one point during my traveling years I decided that I was not interested in temples, museums and sights in general and I regularly skipped those pages of my travel guide in favor of markets, neighborhoods and cafes which is what I enjoy and consider a better testimony of a culture as it exists in the present. For that very reason I had long dismissed the golden temple in Amritsar, along with the Taj Mahal in Agra, as 2 places I was in no hurry to see. Thankfully, in the case of Amritsar, a prophet in the gestalt of Matthew, a handsome Irish travel guide told me about the true nature of the golden temple and spoke so warmly about it that his enthusiasm infected mine. 36 hours after meeting Matthew we boarded the bus to Amritsar.
Upon arrival in the city we checked into what must have been the most unpopular hotel in town. The guys at the reception seemed to have “thugs” written on their forehead and had nothing but smeary frowns for us. Not a good start. We dropped off our stuff, had a fight over nothing and left to find a place to eat. Walking through the small alleys we agreed that the atmosphere was strange and very unlike the India we had come to know. After finding an OK food place, and having thalis, and cleared the air about our fight, we decided to part ways for 2 hours until meeting again at 3 to take a taxi together to Wagah, where we wanted to witness the Pakistani-Indian border closing ceremony we had heard so many good things about. Caroline took off to see sights while I hung out online for a while before entering the golden temple for a sneak peek. I’m not all that good at describing feelings of awe without sounding like a total cheese ball but I was really taken by the atmosphere, the building and the people. I’ve always been quick to pick up other people’s emotions, something I blame on being a Pisces, so any boy band concert, airport arrival gate or, like in this case, place of pilgrimage are great hangouts for me because there is so much happiness and excitement in the air that it makes me feel right at home.
The golden temple is the holiest of places pilgrims from all over the world seek out as a destination. It belongs to the Sikh, a religion which I don’t know much about other than that they’re not allowed to cut their hair and the men wear turbans. I’ve always taken a particular liking in Sikh men who are often tall and strong and their beards make them look masculine. Just my type. This is only one of of many (more important) reasons to come here and I’ve listed a few to encourage you guys to go see for yourselves.
1. The golden temple is not just a building, it’s thriving with life.
An estimated 40.000 people come here every day and although it’s a Sikh temple, everyone is welcome because the Sikhs appreciate people having other beliefs.
2. You can sleep here for free.
The temple provides free accommodation in a dorm for tourists. This is perfectly safe and may well add to the intensity of your experience.
3. You can eat here for free (donations are appreciated).
In a huge room people sit on the floor in rows on carpets after being given a dish and silverware. Then people go around with buckets of dhal (a tasty and typically Indian lentil dish), bread, a sweet puree I don’t know the name of and water. Caroline and I agreed this to be one of the most wonderful experiences of living culture from an insider’s perspective we’ve both ever had (you can tell, those lentils were very good).
4. The smiles.
The Sikhs are very proud of their religion and this temple and we’ve felt warmly greeted by staff and visitors of the temple alike. Photography was no problem and many people actually asked us to take pictures of their children.
5. The Pakistan-India border closing ceremony at Wagah.
Just 30km north of Amritsar is Wagah, where the India’s border to Pakistan is located. Every morning and evening there is an incredible ceremony here celebrating the opening and closing of the border. It looks a bit like a “show off” between tall and handsome soldiers in fun costumes from each side of the border. Indian women are dancing and people are shouting things to greet their Pakistani neighbors. A heart-warming and fun experience. This is a free event, just grab a taxi from Amritsar (400 rupees) for a return trip here. It’s on from 5.30 to 6 and westerners are seated in a reserved-seats section.