I came back from Amritsar, Punjab’s largest city, this afternoon with Alex, Brandon, and Jenny. What a trip! Here are my thoughts and experiences, in no particular order. Most of the pictures in this post were taken by Jenny (whose eye for photography and phone camera resolution are both better than mine) and Brandon.
- The Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple, is a truly holy space, no matter what religious tradition you subscribe to (or if you subscribe to none at all). You have a sense of tranquility and contemplation within the temple complex, particularly at night when the temple’s reflection shimmers across the water. Pilgrims from all corners of the Punjab, India, and the world gather here to look in awe at the Golden Temple, hear the chanted words of the Guru Granth Sahib, and bathe in the sacred waters. All pilgrims cover their heads–if not with a turban or scarf, than a saffron-colored bandana. The temple itself is the holiest site in the Sikh religion. The Akal Takht, the temple behind it, is the second holiest site.
- Sikhism is an incredibly egalitarian faith, in many ways a reaction to the caste system associated with the Hindu religion. In Sikhism, no one is higher or lower than another. There are five Kakkars, or items, that are required of Sikh men and women: 1) Kesh: never cutting one’s hair, since this would be altering God’s creation, 2) Kangha: a special type of wooden comb used to brush one’s hair, 3) Kara: A metal bangle worn around the wrist to remind Sikhs not to commit acts against the teachings of the ten gurus, 4) Kachera: a specific type of underwear, comfortable for battle and also a reminder of monogamy, 5) Kirpan: a dagger carried around the waist that is used to protect others. Only Sikhs who have gone through the amrit sanchar, the baptism ceremony, wear the kirpan. Initiated Sikh males are titled Singh, and initiated females are titled Kaur.
- The history of the Sikhs is marked by battles with the Mughals, contributing to a strong warrior culture. In a museum dedicated to Sikh history above the main gate of the temple complex, many of the paintings depict battle scenes and various Sikh gurus being gruesomely tortured by Mughal emperors. There is also information about Operation Blue Star, the 1984 ham-handed military operation to retake the Harmandir Sahib back from Sikh nationalist Jarnail Singh Bindranwale that resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths and destroyed the Akal Takht. Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards later that year in response to this operation. The days following her assassination were marked by some of the worst riots in India since partition, as more than two thousand Sikhs were killed, mostly in Delhi. These riots shamefully happened with the tacit support of the Congress party.
- The hospitality of Punjab strikes you immediately. Everyone was incredibly kind and helpful, curious to know what brought us to Amritsar and happy to tell us about local food, culture, and Sikh religion and history. When I went with Brandon to purchase a prayer book from a local vendor, the burly storekeeper patted us both on the heads and told us we were good boys with good mothers. I told him this was surely true, but how could he know it? The storekeeper said smilingly that he knew because we were in his store buying prayer books, and not drinking and partying at nightclubs like so many of the youth he encounters these days.
Guru ka langar: the dining hall in the Golden Temple complex where all comers, woman or man, rich or poor, Sikh or non-Sikh, are served a more-than-filling meal of rice, lentils, beans, and pudding.
- The Chief Minister of Punjab Parkash Singh Badal was holding meetings with other Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) officials at the hotel at which we were staying. There was a sizable security detail. Over the weekend, the Akali Dal announced that they will be contesting seats in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections for the first time to represent Punjabis in this state. But this is also about gaining leverage against the BJP, with whom they are currently in coalition. No idea as to whether the SAD meetings at the hotel were related to this decision.
Us with the Chief Minister of Punjab. Just kidding. It’s us with a random man (or woman?) dressed in a Mickey Mouse costume. I suppose it is possible that this is the Chief Minister of Punjab. But I doubt it.
- We also went to Jallianwallah Bagh, the site of the 1919 massacre of thousands of unarmed protesters by the British military that helped fuel the Indian independence movement. If you have seen the movie Gandhi, you will be familiar with this event. The site is now a memorial with beautifully maintained gardens and exhibits on India’s independence leaders from the early 20th century.
- Lastly, we visited the Wagah border crossing connecting India to Pakistan. Travelers from all over India come to this site to witness the pomp and circumstance of Indian and Pakistani border forces competing to see who can kick higher, who can scream loudest, who can lower their flag fastest, as the border closes at the end of the day. It is surreal sitting amongst an Indian crowd beside a portrait of Gandhi, staring at a Pakistani crowd only hundreds of feet away beneath a portrait of Jinnah. Before the ceremony, nationalistic songs are played and schoolchildren run about with Indian flags. “Hindustan zindabad [Long live Hindustan]!” the crowd around me yelled. From the Pakistani side of the border, “Takbeer!” was shouted, with “Allahu Akbar [God is great]!” called in response.