Our flight from Calcutta was at 4.30 in the morning, so I had prepared myself for losing a nights sleep. We were on our way to Amritsar to visit the Golden Temple. Another adventure. This was a trip where I was tagging along. We were going to meet another friend who had travelled up from Jaipur. I try and avoid being totally honest about the people I meet travelling, but Nitin and Summit are worthy of my written word. They make me laugh too much and respect my sense of adventure even if I am twice their age.
There is a large queue at the airport, ‘Go to the empty desk’ Nitin instructs me, ‘they will serve you quickly because you are a foreigner.’ Not sure why this is the case but it was worth the try I thought to myself as I clambered under the barrier.
‘I have nothing to check in” I grumble as he pushes me forward.
‘Tell them it is one bag.’
This is so typical of one cheeky Indian as he hides behind a column, then as soon as the guy behind the desk agrees to check us in, he runs forward with his bag laughing.
‘So where are we going again? I ask him.
‘The Golden Temple in Amritser, you will be so amazed.’ ‘ I gratefully follow. I like to experience places before I look them up on Google, that way I am always overwhelmed at the first impression.
We arrive at a small hotel to meet Summit. He is huddled under a big blanket fully clothed. Our rooms are freezing, ‘forget sleep’ I am told, ‘we need to get to the temple as there is free food. Now I love free food, it always tastes better so I am in, in favour of this plan rather than sleeping in a room which resembles a fridge. It is a basic room, no shampoo or toilet paper and apparently no heating. I am told this is normal in Hotels close to the Temple. We hurry outside into the busy street of bikes and street sellers. I still cannot see a Temple.
“You need to cover your head,” the boys think it is funny as I buy something bright orange. it looks like a cooks hat, I want to be respectful and I am convinced, it is an extra piece of clothing. I have given up worrying about what I look like. I have had no sleep and I am still freezing, but we are in Punjab. I am already loving the brightly coloured turbans perched on every other head. Running behind two excited Indians we arrive at the entrance of the temple, where we leave the dusty street behind. I am praying it is warm in there.
Why is there always suffering where there is worshipping. I am respectful of other peoples religions, I have even walked the Camino de Santiago and walked up hills in heat to visit churches, I get it, I really do. Nitin could have asked me to walk on hot coals. ‘No take your shoes off and walk on the ice-cold ground. I look around, everyone is barefoot and they are not complaining. Of course, I should have known I would be asked to take off my shoes, it is custom here, but can’t I just leave my socks on.
“No! take off your socks” I am instructed. I’m not feeling very divine, I cannot feel my toes and I get arthritis when my feet get cold.
As we walk towards the Temple, a ‘Golden Beauty’ which appears to float on a bed of holy water. I am in awe and my feet have lost all feeling. There are people dipping themselves in the water, that is devotion 100% I seem to be the only white person, but I feel I can belong here as much as anyone. It is a holy place and everyone is welcome. We queue on a walkway over the water towards the Temple. A Man and his Wife talk to me as we wait to enter. She excitedly tells me this is the holiest place in the world. Once inside I welcome the warmth of the carpet under my feet. It was bliss. We move slowly with the other people. It is magical.
In 1984 parts of the temple were destroyed when Indian guards stormed the temple. http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/june/6/newsid_2499000/2499341.stm
Hard to believe looking at it now that over 1000 people died here in 1984. I have walked over many gravesites on this trip and I feel sad. Our humanity has a lot to answer for. All we can do is pray, says the lovely man in a blue turban who is explaining it all to me. I fear it is not praying that is going to solve the world’s problems but the wake-up call we all need to listen to. As we leave the temple we move quickly towards a large hall where people are guided to sit cross-legged in lines. I have picked up my metal plate and about to be served the most delicious food. The rice pudding especially was warming and sweet. The food is served by volunteers and people come here for a free meal. As soon as we are finished we are ushered on so more people can eat. Summit and Nitin are both happy they have enjoyed their free meal. I am excited, I am getting my socks back.
As we returned back to our hotel we saw the entrance to Jallianwala Bagh. This was the park where British General Dyer in 1919, ordered troops of the British Indian Army to fire on an unsuspecting crowd of unarmed men women and children. He killed over 400 people including 41 children. Before I knew it I was following Summit and Nitin down the alleyway where so many poor soles had tried to escape the massacre. I had read about this event previously and was shocked that General Dyer, was given a medal by the British for his despicable services. Evidence of the bullet holes can still be seen. Sadly it has become a tourist attraction as people pose for photographs in front of the wall, but no more than other places I have visited recently where atrocities have also taken place. Nevertheless, we must still respect those who have suffered and make sure things like this never happen again and are not forgotten.
I do not know much about the Sikh religion but I am obviously inspired to ask questions. Travelling does that to you. It opens your awareness, inspires you to learn and more importantly, tolerate others and their customs. I know of people who would have said no to this experience I had visiting the temple. The suffering of cold feet was painful but I tolerated it. After a while you forget it. It is not really tolerating, it is accepting. If religion and politics could just accept we are all different without question, then perhaps we could all live a golden life together under one big temple of PEACE.
Travel to India at the moment is still restricted due to COVID19. I will go back as soon as it is possible.