2018 India – Punjab

The next day I had booked myself an early massage at nine, enjoyed breakfast afterwards and then took a taxi or Haridwar railway station. There a train was waiting for me to another experience, only an eight hour train ride away…

According to Indian customs the train got in late at Amritsar but a short Tuk Tuk drive later I checked in at my room. I grabbed a well deserved beer at a wine shop nearby after which it was time to go to sleep.

Next morning I had a long sleep in and an extremely lazy morning. Actually I did not leave my room till after one and looked for a nearby place for lunch. Fortunately a good lunch is never far away in India. I enjoyed an excellent “chef special” chicken curry, a vegetable pulau and garlic naan. Less than 24 hours in Amritsar my biggest wishes at my time of arrival, meat and a beer had been fulfilled. Strange what a week of vegetarian food and mocktails (as nice as they were) can do for you.

That day I decided to have a time out, listen to music and do bugger all. With five more nights in Amritsar I did not feel any pressure to rush and see things and as it was Sunday most places seems to be closed after all. The effect that that a day of doing nothing had on me was amazing. Slowly I was starting to feel much better again, although my dizziness was still stronger than usual.

In spite of having slept that much during the day I had no problems sleeping through the night and I woke up just before my already went off. Breakfast was served at my room after which I took a Tuk Tuk towards the golden temple.

The area surrounding it was extremely well taken care off, and I had to pass some squares where large monuments formed the unmistakable centerpiece.

Before I could proceed to the temple I had to buy a scarf to cover my head and leave my shoes behind. Only then I was allowed to proceed to the immense Gurdwara complex.

The legendary Golden Temple is actually just a small part of this huge Gurdwara complex, known to Sikhs as Harmandir Sahib. Spiritually, the focus of attention is the tank that surrounds the gleaming central shrine – the Amrit Sarovar (Pool of Nectar), from which Amritsar takes its name, excavated by the fourth Sikh guru, Ram Das, in 1577. Ringed by a marble walk- way, the tank is said to have healing powers, and pilgrims come from across the world to bathe in its sacred waters.

Floating at the end of a long causeway, the Golden Temple itself is a mesmerizing blend of Hindu and Islamic architectural styles, with an elegant marble lower level adorned with flower and animal motifs in pietra dura work (as seen on the Taj Mahal). Above this rises a shimmering second level, encased in intricately engraved gold panels, and topped by a dome gilded with 750kg of gold.

The Golden Temple, another iconic Indian monument, that actually attracts more visitors than the Taj Mahal. I could not help the goosebumps crawling all over my arms. So where to begin… I decided to walk around the holy pond in clockwise direction, as most people did.

There was so much to be seen, the devotees going for a holy dip, whilst others were totally occupied with their prayers. At each corner volunteers were offering free water to everybody who was in need of a zip. The atmosphere was extremely friendly and every request I made to make a picture of someone was reacted to with an overwhelmingly friendly smile.

Punjab is the state of men with beards and they looked absolutely stunning under their bright colored turbans and contrasting colored dresses. One of the most beautiful and deep blues I have ever seen combined with a bright orange scarf or dress. It all had an extremely high fairy tail feeling but the wholehearted smiles on their faces made it almost unearthly.

Whilst men had a holy dip in public there were several, carefully covered areas especially for women so they could experience their dip in a more private atmosphere.

At several areas there were immense food halls. It is almost unbelievable but on a daily basis about 100.000 meals are provided for free. Donations are appreciated but not required to enjoy a simple but tasty meal. Everybody pays what he or she can, or not…

The queue to the central golden temple was massive and although this would be the same day after day I decided to leave that for another visit.

As I was getting dizzy again I returned to my hotel, where after a simple tandoori lunch I had a rest and booked a massage. I was brought by an arranged Uber drive to the location where ‘the doctor’ had his practice. There I had to fill in a questionnaire about my health status after which a splendid massage was given, a reason to return…

Next morning I returned to the golden temple area in order to visit Jallianwalah bagh. In 1919 the British introduced the Rowlat Act which gave them he power to arrest every Indian suspected of sedation without trial. Amritsar became the focal post of resistance. On 13 April 1919 (Baisakhi Day), more than 5000 Indians convened for a peaceful protest in Jallianwala Bagh, a public courtyard surrounded by high walls on all sides, with only a narrow lane on the northern side for entry and exit. Under orders to make an example of the protesters, Dyer arrived with 150 troops and ordered his soldiers to open fire. When the barrage of bullets ceased, nearly 400 protesters were dead, according to the British authorities (although Indian National Congress placed the death toll of this monstrous action at more than 1000), and around 1500 were wounded, including many women and children.

Security around the courtyard is still tight. At places you can still see the bullet holes in the walls, a monument has been erected as well as an eternal burning flame. There was some kind of campaign going on, but as everything was in Hindhi I did not understand what it was about, but most likely it had to do with upcoming elections. The atmosphere in the courtyard was peaceful, so much different than on that terrible day of the 13th of April 1919.

Impressed and overwhelmed I continued my trip to the nearby Partition Museum, that dealt with the process of independence that also lead with the separation between Hindustan (India) and what are now Pakistan and Bangladesh. It was the most impressive museum in India I have visited so far and definitely one of the best executed (together with the Gandhi house in Delhi). During a tour that led you in chronological order past the main events leading to independence and separation I got a good idea of what had been going on in history. I could not help feeling extremely emotional and sensitive after this visit, I needed a short break…

After lunch I had a short nap but at two o’clock it was time to get on to another visit related to the separation. A short taxi ride brought me to the India Pakistani border where I had to walk another kilometer to an amphitheater erected with only once purpose, to witness a daily spectacle that has no equal.

Every afternoon, just before sunset, members of the Indian and Pakistani border guards meet at the border post between Attari and Wagah to engage in a 30-minute display of military showmanship that verges on pure theatre. Officially, the purpose of the ceremony is to lower the national flag and formally close the border for the night, but what actually occurs is a bizarre mix of pseudo-formal and competitive marching, flag-folding, chest beating, forceful stomping and almost comical high-stepping.

I have never ever witnessed anything like this before. The sheer atmosphere, the patriotism on each side, the crowds cheering and the loud music coming from both sides making it a cacophony of noise that was unbelievable. Each side tried to outdo the other side. Groups of women were waving Indian flags while they ran towards the border, being held at a safe distance by security forces. Sellers of national caps and flags seemed to have golden times…

No pointing of camera to the Pakistan side Sir… Yes Sir, sorry Sir, but who was stopping me once the ceremony was in full flow and the chaos amongst the ecstatic crowds was complete…

And then the ceremony started, a well orchestrated show of force between the Indian and Pakistani officers. The crowd loved it and so did I as I found myself screaming along ‘Hindustan, Hindustan…”. The ceremony ended with lowering the flags of both countries after which the gates at both sides where closed with a Big Bang. At that time the crowd went mad once again. Next morning the gates would be opened again until sunset when the whole ceremony would be repeated. What an event !!!

That evening I did not feel very hungry as I somehow felt a bit bloated and not at ease. It soon turned out why as the next 30 hours I felt so incredibly ill and miserable…. It turned out my lunch earlier during the day was the cause of this misery. In between my toilet breaks (how much fluid can one loose) I slept a lot. There is nothing worse than traveling on your own in a situation like this. Feeling helpless, weak and vulnerable with no one around to support you. I was close on cancelling the trip and return home but I knew I was in no state to arrange or make this journey right now. Maybe for the better… Even a highly necessary walk to the bathroom (and there were plenty of those) was an effort.

Two nights later the worst seemed to be behind me and although I drank a lot I had no appetite and even had issues finishing off a bowl of boiled rice for breakfast. I had to force myself to even have a couple of spoons as there would be no strengthening without any form of (solid) food.

It then hit me my stay in Amritsar was coming to an end and with having lost precious time I would have to make choices on what to see. Time had run out to visit everything still on my list.

So after a very slow start in the morning I got the energy to get dressed and grabbed a rickshaw at the Main Street in front of the hotel. As soon as my driver started cycling I soaked up the atmosphere and realized what I had been missing whilst sick in bed.

My first place to visit was the Sri Durgiana temple, a Hindhu variety of the Golden Temple. Like it’s more famous counterpart it was located in the middle of an artificial pond and as there was no queue I could easily make it to the heart of the temple.

My driver had proposed some points of interest and the next one was the Mata Tempel, another Hindhu place of worship. Now this is without doubt the most outrageous and bizarre temple site I have ever visited. Hindu temples are known for being vibrant and colorful places but the Mata Temple is just on another level and even though I’ve been to hundred of temples in India this one completely took me by surprise.

When I entered the Mata Temple it just looked like another Hindu temple, although an especially colorful one and there were many colorful, elaborately decorated golden shrines in the main mandir. When I looked to the left I was guided towards a small door, and once I passed through there and climbed the stairs the surprises and the fun really started to begin!

Hindu temples are known for being vibrant and colorful places but the Mata Temple is just on another level and even though I’ve been to hundred of temples in India this one completely took me by surprise.

This temple reminded me of a fun house or house of mirrors that you find at the fair ground with its labyrinth of psychedelic narrow winding stairways and passages, colorful, garish and slightly tacky mirrored mosaics line the hallways. At times I even had to crawl through narrow tunnels to make it to the next section.

There must be hundred of statues of deities meaning that you can pray to almost every single god you can image (and most of which I didn’t recognize) whilst taking in the crazy, out of this world carvings, mirrors, mosaics and statues.

Once I made it downstairs again I did enjoy the ceremony in the main hall where it seemed sensitivity had returned to this place which was completely out of this world.

My next stop was Ram Bagh, a beautiful garden with an old summer palace located in the center. But instead of visiting that my driver brought me to a building with a huge panorama, commemorating important victories during the ages.

Then it was time to return to my hotel for a short nap so I could recover from my short tour. My condition still was not the same, I had a long way to go.

But if there was one thing I certainly did not want to miss out on was the sight of the Golden Temple in the evening so shortly after sunset I took a Tuk Tuk to the golden temple area and walked the last bit towards it. With the lights being on now the streets looked even prettier than during daytime but the best was still to come.

As soon as I had left my shoes at one of the many shoe keeper stalls I made my way to one of the entrances. I could see the golden temple through the gate and that was when my jaw fell wide open and goosebumps ran down my spine.

The gold was so much more intense than during the daytime and the temple and surrounding buildings formed an almost surreal reflection in the pond.

I was blown away by the sheer beauty, a scene that could easily have come out of a fairy tail of 1001 nights. It appeared I had chosen my timing right as the evening prayers had just started. I decided to walk one circle around the pond and soak up the atmosphere the best I could.

What can I say, magic pure magic. It does not happen often I have tears in my eyes because of the sheer beauty surrounding me but witnessing the evening prayer at the Golden Temple definitely was one of those occasions. What a way to finish of my visit to Amritsar.

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