Saturday, August 27, 2011

City of Lakes

Punjab, India. Secretly, and selfishly, I've always wanted to see, in real life, a flooded street. The kind you see on the news where the cars are halfway under the water and random items are floating merrily along... How could it be? How could there really be that much water with no where to go? Enter Amritsar in monsoon.

After a long train ride, from Delhi we arrived in Amritsar, home of the Sikh's famous Golden Temple. Throughout India so far, we have been blown away by people's friendliness and genuine interest in helping out us useless tourists wandering in the wrong direction (always). Even some rickshaw drivers have pointed us in the right direction after we've have declined their services. We met the most incredible, friendly family on the train into town as well, but more on them later. So, there we were, holding our Rough Guide map upside-down (we've decided to veer from the Lonely Planet as an experiment) and a friendly young woman approached us to see if we needed help. Usually, you can tell right off the bat, which people actually want to be helpful, and which people see you as an ATM. Being the former, the nice woman called a couple guesthouses from our guidebook for us, and then negotiated with no less than three cycle rickshaws before one finally agreed to take us down to the Golden Temple area for a price that she deemed acceptable: About one dollar. For one dollar, he was to cycle us and our luggage across town. Sounded like we were getting the better end of the deal! Especially after we turned around the corner and were met with a completely flooded street. The water was, no exaggeration, half way up car wheels. People were wading through the water almost to their knees. The flood didn't seem to slow anyone down in the least. Life went on, as usual; places to go, things to do. Bicycles pedaled by, scooters, cars, pedestrians, dogs, cows, garbage, all flowed along the street come river. Our cycle rickshaw had a lot to contend with, pulling not only our weight, but compounded by the resistance the water was putting up. We were grinning gleefully as we pedalled down the street, taking the spectacle in.

'Hello! Where are you from?' called a cyclist to our right. 'Canada!' we replied, as he cycled along side us, matching our pace. 'Ohhh! Beautiful Country! I've been! Welcome to the city of lakes!' he joked, motioning to the water-filled streets, laughing. We laughed along. Good one! City of Lakes! haha 'Where in Canada are you from? Toronto?' he asked. 'Close,' Jonathan replied, 'Niagara Falls!' The cyclist smiled at us. 'Ha! This is just like Niagara Fa...' SMASH! He didn't get to finish his sentence because he then rode into the back of a stopped garbage truck. Seriously, this happened. He wasn't hurt, thankfully. He wasn't going fast and the 'lake' broke his fall. He smiled and waved goodbye to us as our cycle rickshaw splashed past him. We never got the chance to ask, though. What was like Niagara Falls? Was he referring to the fast moving water, or tourists causing car accidents? haha

We found a passable guesthouse and headed for a walk through the old town surrounding the Golden Temple itself. We were surprised at just how friendly the people were. The narrow lanes were lined with shops selling colourful scarves, shawls and saris. What a backdrop! Their shop canopies stretched out so far that they just about met the canopies of the shops across the way. Everywhere it was possible, some colourful piece of material hung. It was like wandering through a kaleidoscope. Colours to the left, right and above. Everywhere. The smell of spicy, sweet chai wafted through the alleys. We followed our noses. Everyone wanted to say 'hello' just to say 'hello' and to shake our hands. Most importantly, they all had to know: 'Where are you coming from?' The alleys weren't flooded and the on-lookers were all very entertained that I was interested in taking photos of the main flooded streets from a dry vantage point. Wasn't this just how it was?

As the sun dropped lower in the sky we caught a glimpse of the tip of the gold of the namesake Golden Temple light up like a flame. The golden setting sun reflecting on the tiny slice of the golden temple that we could see from behind the gates was nothing short of spectacular. I had to see more. Not one to miss such an amazing photo op, we headed into the temple for the first time. The Golden Temple, is just that, a temple plated with actual gold. It just shines. It floats in the middle of a man-made lake/pool surrounded on all sides with a glossy white marble courtyard and wide gathering areas. For Sikhs there are 65 holy sites in the world, and one visit to the golden temple is akin to visiting all 65 of them! Needless to say, it is an important pilgrimage for any Sikh. The pilgrims themselves are in such high spirits, just because they are there, that it illuminates the entire atmosphere. Even if you were not remotely religious, it would be hard to imagine that anyone could be immune to the overwhelming feeling the peace, serenity and devotion here.

I would be lying if I said I didn't literally stop in my tracks and gape in awe when we rounded the entrance gate and I caught my first glimpse of the whole temple scene through the white arched marble, reflecting perfectly on the calm lake. Spectacular. Not often does architecture take my breath away. But the Golden Temple did. It was just stunning. Guru and devotees sing and chant live music the whole time from the inner sanctuary of the Golden Temple itself, and it is played throughout the temple, enriching the ambience further. The sun, the temples, the music, the people, the smiles... it was overwhelming, in a calm way.

Every person entering the temple must have a covered head. They provide bandana scarves at the entrance to lend, or, of course, you can bring your own. Sikh men never cut their hair, so they are always wearing a turban, or cap of sorts, and the women wear scarves. You must take off your shoes and leave them with a shoe attendant at the gate. They also have a place to store your bags, if necessary. You wash your hands, then walk through a shallow pool to wash your feet. A carpet leads around the courtyard to protect everyone's bare feet from the hot marble, and there is much shade for pilgrims to relax in. Every corner of the complex has a water station where everyone is offered free, cold water. On one side of the compound is a free kitchen. Yes, free (and VERY tasty) food! 24 hours a day, 365 days a year! The temple serves up at least 10,000 free meals a DAY! Oh, and there is free accommodation too, for anyone, and a free bus service to the train and bus stations! Oh. And all of this is run by volunteers and paid for by donations. Wow! Everyone is so welcoming and everything is free!

I know you are all wondering, so this is how the kitchen works. There is a constant rotation of people through the dining hall. You head up to the veranda whenever you please. On route you are handed a plate with divided sections, a bowl and a spoon, all from volunteers. Then you wait a few minutes for the previous diners to finish. When its your turn you move along with the crowd into the dining hall. Everyone quickly finds a seat, cross-legged on the floor. Volunteers come around and drop chapatis from above into your awaiting hands. Then buckets of dahl, sweet rice pudding and water are brought around and slopped, with amazing accuracy, from the ladle into the correct section of your divided plate or bowl. Seconds and thirds are brought around, and you eat until you've had your fill. After a short prayer of thanks, everyone eats together. On your way out you deposit your dishes into the correct bin. You pass the volunteer dish washers, probably about a hundred of them, and the the chefs, stirring table-size cauldrons of dahl, and finally the multitudes chopping garlic and peeling fragrant onions. All volunteers, giving to their community in faith. It brought tears to my eyes- literally. The onions were strong.

Its a place you could spend hours. Sitting by the lake, talking with the pilgrims, enjoying the peace, taking it all in. In frantic, loud, chaotic India, the Golden Temple is an absolute piece of heaven.

1 comment:

Parentals said...

Amazing Pictures Opn blog & flickr) of the Temple and the mountains.... who would think it was India?