ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤਸਰ

So I flew from Mumbai to ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤਸਰ (Amritsar) last Wednesday. I’ve been here for four days now. I was immediately excited upon arriving into town because of the beautiful stone pedestrian street. Statues of warriors with Arabian style swords and mustaches provide places to sit in the shade and a massive statue of a man riding a horse stands prominently at the center of a roundabout. There is music playing through speakers lining the sides of the streets: a man sings prayers while accompanied by the patatap of dhol hand drums.

Amritsar is majority Sikh. Sikhism is a religion a bit like Judaism in that it carries with it also a unique history, culture and language. They’re the guys with turbans and big beards with curly mustaches and curvy swords. In case you’re wondering, apparently Aladdin is set in pre-Islamic Arabia, which has nothing to do with Islam and geographically it also has nothing to do with Sikhism, but you get the image; had to look that up. Oh and fun fact, it was apparently set in Baghdad, Iraq.

Sri Harmandir Sahib, more easily remembered as The Golden Temple, stands at the center of Amritsar, and is the main pilgrimage sight for Sikhs. I had heard from another traveler that it is possible to stay at the temple absolutely free. After going past numerous people offering cheap stay who seemed to be shamefully denying that there is free stay, I eventually found my destination. There is a large premises surrounding the temple of beautiful white architecture. Within these limits thousands of people sleep and eat daily. There is a special quarter for foreigners, so I checked in and dropped of my stuff in my dorm.

The Golden Temple makes a powerful first impression. Everything going on, between the beauty of the architecture, the calmness of the pool, the soothing ambiance of the music and the masses of devout visitors, leaves an impression that I won’t soon forget. Guards holding spears pace back and forth down the walkways. Devotees with turbans twice the size of their heads sit and pray. Men sit inside glass windowed chambers and read massive religious texts while common folk stop to say a prayer. There isn’t all that much to do other than participate in religious rituals, but the management is welcome to photography and the area is really just a great place to sit and relax or read.

There are some stories of past leaders and martyrs translated in english. I enjoyed reading about one guy in particular: Baba Ji. So Baba Deep Singh Ji, (Baba Ji for short), was the chief of the most reputed Sikh state. He participated in a bunch of battles, wrote manuscripts and overall had a great C.V. There were some other guys, especially Jahan Khan (just sounds like a bad guy) who disgraced the Golden Temple somehow, so in response, Baba Ji (76 at the time) took up a 16 kg double-edged sword in his hand and swore to liberate the temple and to “teach the tyrants the befitting lesson”. So Jahan Khan gets word of this (he’s the bad guy) and gets his troops ready. They get in a big fight and Baba Ji, not even having reached the temple yet, get’s his head cut of by Jahan Khan… So then one of his brodies is looking at his decapitated body and he’s all like, “Yo Baba Ji, you didn’t fulfill your pledge.” And Baba Ji is like, “Oh yeah. Good point.” So he picks up his own head, holding it in his left palm and starts swinging his huge-ass sword all around and the bad guys are all so freaked that they book it outta there. You did it Baba Ji! Nice work!

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Baba Ji holdin’ head and double-edged sword. Classic Baba Ji!
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I made a failed attempt at going inside the golden temple. After waiting for half an hour, the entire half of the line that I was standing in got kicked out. We were apparently standing in the exit lane or something? I ended up going at 4am instead. Much shorter line, but surprisingly, by 5am it’s already packed again.
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The Golden Temple at Night

That night I went to eat at the free food hall for the first time. The food hall, called a Langar, is a community kitchen present at Sikh places of worship where one can get a free hot meal, regardless of faith, or any other ways you can come up with to discriminate. The Langar at Golden Temple is the Langar of Langars. This place is absolutely incredible. The efficiency and cleanliness and overall effectiveness of this system is something unrivaled. I have never seen anything work this well at this scale, especially considering that it is predominantly donation and volunteer based. 70,000 meals are served on the premises, daily.

After being handed my bowl, spoon and tray, I followed the cattle herd up to our dining room. We lined up on the floor and laid our our trays in a row. Volunteers race back and forth with buckets of dhal, curry and a sweet porridge dessert as well as drinking water and chapatis. Before I could even grasp what was going on I have a wholesome meal laying out in front of me. No sooner could I finish a dish than a worker came by and refilled me. I had to learn quickly that my thumbs up was being interpreted as a “more please!”: I may have been overstuffed the first meal or two!

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the eating assembly
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sleeping quarters for Indians

So I’ve been hanging out at the temple for a while now, just enjoying the atmosphere and of course, everything being free. I have bought an occasional coffee or snack or whatnot but I was excited to note that the other day I actually did not spend a dime (or a rupee). I have to say, considering rent and all, I am not sure if I could say that about a single day in my adult life until now.

I participated in some volunteering over the past few days. I started off with dish washing. You just walk in and start working. There’s no paperwork or check-in desk or any of that nonsense. The dishes get run through five different washing and rinsing bins and then a while of drying before being used again. I was at the very end bin and I almost felt like there was no purpose to our stage, everything was so clean by the time it got to me. I do not envy the guy that I watched gathering the freshly dirtied dishes. He had food splattered all over his clothes! So yeah, I really can’t believe the standards for cleanliness here. Even by western standards, for an operation this scale it is unbelievable, then consider the fact  that I’m in India.

The bathrooms are the same way. There are wash stations all over and there is always plenty of soap at these. By the way, soap is not a given in India.

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The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was a horrific event that occurred in 1919 at the height of tensions between Britain and independence-seeking India. British General Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on a group of unarmed peaceful protesters, leading to over 1,000 deaths. The park is now a memorial to the lives lost that day.
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On a lighter note to this dark point in history, the statue above is a memorial to Shaheed Udham Singh Ji Sunam. To summarize the plaque below, after the massacre this guy left the country and traveled for a while, and then he found General Dyer and assassinated him. He then got sentenced to death and was hung in the gallows shortly after. The plaque describes him as a “Great National Hero of Indian nationalism and freedom struggle”.

Today I volunteered for some chapati rolling. (Chapati’s are basically tortillas). The locals are very friendly here but they generally have very poor english. “Which country?” is generally the first thing out of a strangers mouth. Otherwise it’s just “Picture” and then they take a selfy without really asking for your permission. I chatted with some locals while rolling chapatis. Most of the people visiting the temple are from towns kinda close by. I think many of them make a routine of it. They often don’t have a very good grasp on the world at large. I mean no offense at this, but, as a simple example, I told a guy I was from New York and he asked what I did for work. I can’t recall if I answered yet but he then was asking “Taxi? Taxi?” as in, “are you a taxi driver?”.

On that note I want to note something that I’ve observed here in India. I should first mention that I mean no offense to anyone, I’m just making observations, and it certainly doesn’t apply to everyone. Moving on, I’ve noticed that there is a very dated and otherwise distorted idea of presentation and looks here. When looking at the older generations, people don’t seem to dress in anyway to “look good”. Dress seems to be determined by functionality, religion or otherwise apparently arbitrary reasons. As a simple example, the guys grow out beards here and you’ll notice that some men grow absolutely badass beards, but others can’t pull it off: they have scraggly and patchy beards that really don’t look presentable, and yet they stick with it. I’m trying to find the non-racy expression for this, but I feel like there isn’t much sense of “sex-appeal” or finding that important in society, as in, people don’t dress or maintain themselves in such a way as with the goal of “I want people to think I look good”. This stands out especially when you see the people that do have this superficial interest because it’s often very off target. I saw a guy while we were in Bangalore that had arms bigger than my legs, but from the waste down you would have guessed he weighed 120 lbs. Or people will wear “fashionable” clothing but you can so easily see how hard they are trying; you can look at a guy and just imagine him earlier that morning going: “I’m going to ruffle up my hoody on the left side so that it looks messy”. I don’t think I really have a point to this, I just thought it was interesting.

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100% vegetarian McDonalds. I gotta say that’s a first. The McAloo Tikki is potato based.
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By complete coincidence I ran into my friends Khaleem and Holly who Andrea and I had met in Pondicherry. What a coincidence!
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Khalsa College, the nearby Sikh university

I spent an unknown amount of time chopping onions today. After the initial streaming of tears down my face, I gained my composure and just got into a meditative state peeling onion after onion. Didn’t stop until the massive pile in front of us was gone. By the end of this visit I want to participate in roughly every stage of the Langar assembly line.

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Typical Langar meal. The white porridge is a sweet rice dish with saffron in it.

And then I was reunited with Andrea! Always fun to watch you be the guinea pig with new foods! 🙂

I’ve been reading a bit on the Sikh faith. It’s a very new religion. The founder started spreading the belief in only 1499. Still, the faith has more followers world-wide than judaism, and I have seen them around, such as in the states, well before coming to Punjab, India. The faith originated with a primary goal of equality and reprioritizing our energies. At the time there was a lot of tension between Muslims and Hindus in India and the caste system was still at large. Guru Nanak, the founder, preached equality, regardless of things like caste, and that no matter what your word for him was: Allah, Ram, Gobind, God…it’s the same guy, the same thing, that everyone is praying to. The other main teaching was that action is more important than word, and that taking care of the needy is more important than anything else. This is where the idea of the langar comes in. Sikh’s started opening volunteer based food halls where all could sit and eat together, regardless of faith, caste, etc.

Despite all this, I have seen t-shirts for sale that read “Last name Singh, Enough said”. Singh is apparently a super common name in Sikhism, and I think is says something about missing the point to identify more with your last name than your practice. I raise this only to say that we’re all struggling to actually treat one another as equals and I’m yet to see a following that genuinely succeeds at this.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a bit of interesting stuff about the Sikh faith! Here‘s a video embarrassingly discussing American perceptions of Sikhs.

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So Andrea and I left after staying five days at Golden Temple to get to Hoshiarpur, a town about two hours away, where we will be attending our Vipassana meditation for the next ten days. In that time I’ll be completely disconnected from the outside world, so I’ll see ya on the other side!

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Leaving Amritsar: I had to assist the bicycle rickshaw pedaler with getting our luggage up the hill

But first, a quick description of Hoshiarpur: this place is weeeiiirrdddd. As usual, some locals recommended that we go to this hotel that runs $65 per night, and explained that there isn’t anywhere cheaper. Um…no? So we get off the bus and start looking for accommodation. Going into separate hotels and asking, Andrea and I confirmed with each other that people seem to be totally disconnected from the idea of customer service here. It really felt like they didn’t want our money. We finally found a place that wasn’t completely weird and creepy, but I still feel like I’m in The Shining.

The highlight of the visit to this weird-ass town has been going into a pure veg. burger joint and talking to the super friendly owner, who, might I add, is the first and last friendly person we have met. We asked what there was to see in Hoshiarpur and we were quickly interrupted with “Nothing! Absolutely nothing! …well there’s this one painting, but it’s not even open, so yeah, there’s nothing.” He was the sweetest man, offering us to stay with his family if needed, but also encouraging us to just get the hell out of Hoshiarpur!!!

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