Eight of us caught the bus to Pathankot, three hours away on the Pubjabi side of the state line. Besides myself there was Jeremy, Pascal, Ingrid, Mala (a jovial lady from Myanmar who is about to start a PhD on the position of women in Buddhism), Fabien, and then Patricia (another Lha volunteer from east Lancashire) and her Tibetan boyfriend with whom I never spoke and whose name escapes me. We said goodbye to Courtney, Konrad, Artur and Azul, who came to see us of, and we rattled away on the state bus (which cost about 180 rupees). My ipod ran out of batteries after one song but the view was enough as we wound our way from the Himalayas towards the flat plains of Punjab to the west. Pathankot was a frontier town that reminded me of other such places I have passed through, like Corumba in Brazil or Uyuni in Bolivia. There is a sense of there being no there there, but I always seem to like these places for the short time I visit them. It was unglamorous and dusty and grey, but seemed pretty friendly from the moment we disembarked and found a single autorikshaw to take all of us with our baggage across town to the bus station. I found myself sitting in the driver’s seat, while he leant across me to drive (this being possible since autorikshaws are controlled like motorbikes). We were a little early for the bus so we stopped in for a quick thali and Jeremy and I admired a fleet of ancient-looking estate-class rikshaws, which looked like they were straight off the set of a Mad Max film, then it was back onto a bus for the 4 hour stint to Amritsar.
We arrived in the old town after dark, and my first impression was of a place a lot like Delhi in appearance, but with much less hassle. This impression didn’t last long. Amritsar is the spiritual centre of the Sikh religion and the city centre had a distinct air of reverence about it, even away from the holy sites. The closest thing I can come up with as a comparison is the Easter Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday). When I was young this was always right in the middle of the holidays. We would go to mass and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament on Thursday evening, then mass again on Friday at 3pm, then the vigil at 8pm on Saturday. In between times I was on holiday and free to do as I pleased, but the whole period was permeated with an atmosphere of religiosity; like the volume dial on everyday life had been turned down just a little. That is definitely how Amritsar felt to me.
We stayed in the international section of the pilgrim’s accommodation across the road from the Golden Temple; a series of high ceilinged rooms with beds pushed together and lockers and blankets, and in keeping with the Sikh emphasis on charity and service the hostel was free (donations of course being welcome).
The Golden Temple is open 24 hours a day. A beautiful edifice of gold and marble inlaid with precious stones depicting plants and flowers and animal life, the temple is surrounded by the Pool of Nectar – a huge moat considered to have healing properties. At 5.40am the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikhs’ holy book and living guru) is brought from its resting place in another building whose name I can’t remember across the causeway to the Temple on a golden palanquin. Then at 9.40pm it is taken back the same way, then the temple is cleaned and polished by an army of devoted pilgrims and lay-people. A couple of nimble young men tie ropes around their waist and climb onto the golden rooftop and the parapets to bring them to a gleaming shine. Throughout the day an night the three rooms in the temple each have a priest (if that’s the word) reading from the enormous tomes of scripture in a musical drone, while the devout sit on carpets or the marble floor and pray.
I went twice to the temple in the evening. You leave your shoes and socks at the compound entrance and cover your head. The air was cold and the marble floor underfoot bitterly so. Still, stepping through the gate and seeing the temple for the first time in its otherworldly splendour it was easy to forget the cold for a moment. The second night I must have sat in the temple for well over an hour. The floor inside had collected the heat of thousands of pilgrim feet through the day and was slightly warm to the touch, and it was easy to drift away in that atmosphere of holiness. Sacred places of all religions seem to me to share a similar energy or atmosphere. Perhaps it is something to do with the intentions of those to whom a place is sacred; that all of that focus and energy creates some kind of imprint that is tangible in the air. Or so it feels to me. On the Camino de Santiago there is a place in the mountains west of Leon called the Cruce de Ferro; a small iron cross mounted atop a high wooden post. I don’t know its origins, but there is a tradition that peregrinos on the Way will carry with them a small stone to symbolise their burdens and intentions, and that they lay this down at this place. A couple of days before reaching it, I met an Englishman who waxed lyrical about the holiness of this particular spot and how special it was to reach it. I had my own stone, but I was sceptical and resistant to the idea (partly because I don’t like to be told what to do or how to feel) and I didn’t give it much thought until I reached the spot. Walking up the mound to the foot of the cross, I had a sudden and profound moment of recognition that the hundreds of thousands of stones on which I was standing were the physical manifestations of the dreams, desires, fears and sorrows of all those pilgrims before me. I sat down and I bawled my eyes out. Anyway, there were no tears now, but the Golden Temple had a similarly strong ‘vibe’.
Afterwards we went through to a large refectory where a host of volunteers chop, cook, clean and serve food to up to 60,000 pilgrims every day, free of charge. You take a metal thali tray as you enter, and sit on the floor in rows, then people come by with rice, chapatis, daal, vegetables, pickles and a sweet rice and almond pudding. I enjoyed this proximity of spirituality and food, since few things work up an appetite so much as contemplation of the higher states of existence.
I explored a little of Amritsar, but most of my time was spent in the precincts of the Temple. The notable exception was a foray to the Pakistani border to se the daily closing of the border ceremony. There were seven of us, so we hired a taxi to drive us out there; or rather a beat-up old minivan. It started off okay, but after about 15 minutes we noticed that we were being overtaken by pretty much everything on the road. By the time a horse-drawn cart edged by we knew that the game was up. The van limped to a halt on the side of the road and the driver got out and started to stroke the fuel tank in an attempt to either warm it or give it comfort, I’m not quite sure. After a minute he gave us some reassuring nods and we decided to pile back in and give it another try. We were on the road for about two more minutes before the van finally gave up the ghost, and we got out an hailed an autorikshaw to take us the rest of the way, with Jeremy and I hunkered down in the tiny luggage section at the back, to the amusement of many passersby.
The final kilometre to the border had to be done on foot, passing through four separate checkpoints where my passport was checked and re-checked and I was frisked pretty thoroughly each time. Eventually we were directed to seats in the foreign section of a stand of seats where there were already several thousand Indians being led in cheering by a moustachioed man in a white tracksuit (who looked like a highschool P.E. teacher) and a team of dancing girls. There was a speaker system set out, which blared out a medley of nationalistic pop songs and everyone looked to be having a good time. Over on the other side of the border I could make out a stand of women in saris and children watching the Pakistani version of this pageant. I couldn’t make out the men’s section but I could hear their cheering roar every now and then through the gaps in the Indian wall of sound. The ceremony centred on the marching and posturing of the border guards, who with high-kicks, head shaking and jabbing thumbs performed a dance of ritualised belligerence. There was also a shouting contest, where the gym-teacher held a microphone to the mouth of a big-voiced soldier while he roared as long and loud as his lungs would allow, to the adulation of the crowd, before an answering call drifted over from Pakistan. I am generally uncomfortable with displays of nationalist fervour, but the whole thing was clearly run as a joint collaboration between the two border forces, and a good time seemed to be had by all.
After visiting the temple that night I said goodbye to Jeremy and to Ingrid, who were both staying in a nearby guesthouse, and to Mala, since I would be rising early to catch a ride to the airport for my flight to Delhi and then to Goa. In the morning I rose to find that Fabien had gone out to buy bread and cake and tea for a farewell breakfast, which we ate with Pascal, who also got up early to see me off. It was sad to say goodbye to all these lovely folk with whom I had become friends over the last couple of weeks, but I was looking forward to the heat of the tropics and a new leg of my little adventure.