March 16-17, 2009

From Delhi we started doing a small loop to the northwest, visiting places that Pnina had already seen on her last trip in India but that were new to me (Pnina was gracious enough to repeat them).  Our first destination was Amritsar.

What a Pisser

Pnina has this funny story from the first time she visited Amritsar.  She took a long bus ride from Delhi to Amritsar and on that ride she sat next to a 19-year-old woman with her 1-year-old boy.  At one point during the ride Pnina saw the woman pull down the boy’s pants so he could piss: right there, on the floor of the bus!  What the hell??  🙂  Of course, Pnina immediately pulled up her backpack from the floor, wondering how many other kids pissed on it.

So, this time we decided to take the train instead.  Our friend Madhu helped us purchase the tickets online.  Most of the trains were full, but we did find seats on a train whose name translated as “poor man’s express”.  When we boarded the train, we saw that our compartment was nearly empty.  But as luck would have it, our seats were taken.  We walked up to our row and tried to speak with the passengers – a small family, mom, dad, and two boys.  But it was useless.  They just didn’t get what we were trying to explain.  So we figured, oh well, let’s just sit in some other seats.  We were kind of worried that the compartment would get full sometime later, after the next few stops, and that we would have to argue with this family after all, but for now we decided to put off that conversation.

A couple of hours into the ride, what do you know.  One of the boys had to piss, so without his family noticing he just pulled his pants down to his ankles and started to piss – on the chair!!  When his mom eventually noticed, she grabbed his pants off his ankles and used them to wipe the urine off the chair onto the floor.  She didn’t yell at him.  I think she found it funny; his brother definitely did.  She fetched another pair of pants for him from her duffle bag, and that was that.  At this point we’re thinking “it doesn’t matter if the compartment fills up – there’s no way we’re sitting there!”  🙂  Luckily, we didn’t need to.  The compartment stayed empty the whole way.

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Golden Temple

Amritsar is the center for the Sikh religion.  Their most important temple, The Golden Temple, is located here.  I saw photos of this temple before and it looked amazing, so I asked Pnina to add it to our itinerary.

Some history.  The city was founded back in the 1500’s.  The temple was destroyed in 1761 and rebuilt in 1764, after which it gained its golden top.  In the 1980’s the temple was occupied by extremists who wanted to create a separate homeland for Sikhs (presumably Punjab as a country?).  The president of India at the time, Indira Gandhi, ordered military action to clear the extremists from the temple, which caused hundreds of Sikh deaths.  Indira was assassinated later that year by her Sikh bodyguards.

Despite all that historical bloodshed, the temple itself is very peaceful.  Unlike many Hindu temples, you have no Swamis trying to give you rosewater or to touch red paint to your forehead, no hassles like that.  You need to leave your shoes outside and cover your head inside (Pnina and I chose to wrap our heads in our shirts instead of buying the bright orange bandanas sold outside).  We walked around and watched the crowd go about their religious business.  A few Sikhs dipped in the holy water of the man-made lake.  Some came up to us and asked to be photographed with us, which was amusing and flattering.  Eventually we joined the long line to enter the golden temple at the center of the lake.  Many of the people in line held a small glob of sweet millet which they donated (the food is distributed to anyone who asks; generally it’s for the poor, but I had to try some).  Inside the golden structure there were a few Sikh priests singing hymns and masses of people listening.  The music was very relaxing.

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Sri Durgiana Temple – The Other Golden Temple

They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, and here in Amritsar there’s a good example.  Sri Durgiana Temple is a Hindu temple that was built not long after the Sikh’s Golden Temple.  It’s not an exact copy, but it’s pretty darn similar.  We find this very interesting.  I can’t think of an example in the west where one architect copied so blatantly from another; I imagine it would bring up a copyright lawsuit.  But here in Amritsar it’s all good; nobody seems to mind.

This temple complex was far emptier and photography was permitted in the building in the middle of the lake.  We saw a few young girls in costume singing and dancing as part of some ceremony.

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Mata Temple – The Fun House

We visited one other temple in Amritsar: Mata Temple.  Our guidebook described it as a “cave temple”, saying that going through it requires crawling through small tunnels and wading through ankle-deep water.  We started to wonder if we should leave our valuables at  the hotel – we didn’t want our cameras or laptop to get damaged.  But then we decided, eh, let’s just give it a go.

The temple was not at all what we had in mind.  It’s not set in a real cave; it’s all man-made.  It’s smack dab in the middle of the city.  The temple has a kind of maze that does indeed require crawling through tunnels and wading through water, but it wasn’t too intense (our electronics survived).  This is clearly the most fun temple I’ve ever visited.  It felt more like Disney or Vegas than like a religious house.

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More locals who wanted to be photographed with us…

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And more locals…

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Notice that in general they prefer to be photographed with Pnina 🙂

Border Ceremony

Amritsar is only 30 km from the border with Pakistan.  Even though the two countries are not on the best of terms, every evening they perform a fancy ceremony at this border crossing to officially close the border.  We heard the ceremony is kind of like a pep-rally, where Indians packed into bleachers on one side of the border try to out-cheer the Pakistanis on the other side of the border.  We had to check it out for ourselves.

We started with an hour-long ride to the border.  Our minivan was pretty full so I ended up sitting front-and-center, with the shifter between my legs.  That was a bit uncomfortable.

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As we neared the border, we saw an immense line of trucks carrying products (mostly produce) headed for Pakistan, all parked on the side of the road.  I didn’t start counting early enough but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were 400 trucks or more.

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The border ceremony really was like a pep-rally.  There were far more “fans” on the Indian side, and I’m not sure if that’s because Indians have more spirit or because there are simply a lot more Indians.

Before the actual ceremony started there was a long warm-up period.  First they brought out a bunch of Indian flags and let some women from the crowd run them up to the gate and back.  The women did a great job, until one of them tripped on her own sari and fell flat on her face.  Ouch!  You can imagine the reaction from the crowd.

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Then they took the flags away and they started blasting Bollywood tunes.  Immediately, a bunch of women ran to the road and started dancing.  Every few minutes the “MC” picked up the microphone and started a chant: “HINDUSTAN!!”.  The crowd went nuts.

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Meanwhile the small Pakistani crowd on the other side was doing the best it can, and for its size I have to give it credit.  But it just wasn’t a fair fight.

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The actual ceremony involved all these peacock-dressed soldiers doing some impressively long-winded shouts and then doing a quick high-step walk to the gate and back.  After they shouted and walked back and forth for  a good half-hour, they lowered their respective flags, folded them, and marched them back to a storage house.  This part was kind of long and, frankly, not as exciting as the flag-running and dancing that the crowed performed before.

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All in all it was a good time.  If you’re in the area, we highly recommend it.

Bonus Shot

Transporting bananas…

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