To travel in many places one must experience untold exhaustion for the sake of sublime moments which hopefully transcend the difficulties of one’s journey. There is nothing easy or glamorous about this type of travel and few people realize how much suffering occurs from one destination to the next. Travelers must endure repeated delays, physical discomfort, and mental distress amidst sleepless nights on an extended journey that poses little opportunity for solace or rest. Such was our experience just four days into our trip as we made the long journey from Agra to Amritsar.
Horrendous pollution and dust-choked streets had sickened my sinuses and left me feeling like a 3-pack a day smoker. With nose constantly running and a hacking cough, I was happy to bid farewell to India’s hot and dusty plains in favor of the mountainous north. Rachel was running on little to no sleep with neither of us having fully recovered from the 30+ hour flights. Desperately in need of rest and recuperation, we had searched the map for an ideal spot. What at last we settled on the northern state of Punjab, we shuddered with the realization that our path led straight back through Delhi. With a thick cloud of smog resting upon a city of around 20 million, even to breathe in Delhi spelled disaster for our current state.
Weary and worn but determined to leave, we woke well before sunrise and big Agra farewell. Our seats were confirmed for the train to Delhi and with some luck we would be continuing on another train from there. Rachel’s exhaustion was showing but ever the fearless traveler, she refused to complain. I was sure a difficult day lay ahead and I worried the trip might be more than she could bear.
Under the darkness of the early morning hours, we slumped on our packs swarmed by flies as we waited for the train. Like the homeless who occupy the stations, we sat faceless with all our possessions hoping to be delivered to some distant place. An air-conditioned coach was our only respite and I hoped the 4-hour trip might afford us some rest. So we were pleased to find our train less crowded and immediately crashed onto our bunks.
When the train arrived in Delhi, it was clear that we both were a mess. Rachel stumbled through the station as I barked “NO!” at any touts who crossed our path. Having been waitlisted for the train to Amritsar, we checked and found our seats confirmed. Now, faced with a 4-hour wait and a 7-hour train, I knew the real hardships were just beginning. Immediately, I found myself choking on the Delhi air and fighting the urge to gag. Every breath felt like poison and the stale heat was only making things worse. We ducked into a nearby bar, found a secluded corner table, and tried to kill the time with drinks and snacks. I could see the exhaustion was wearing on us both, but not enough to hamper our retreat. If things continued as planned, we would be departing shortly and escaping the city now becoming our personal hell.
All hopes for an easy trip were spoiled when we arrived at the station to find our train delayed. The last thing we wanted was more time in Delhi, yet we were forced to find a narrow, uncomfortable bench and begin the wait. What began as a short delay continued to grow and hours later we were still perched next to the trash-covered tracks. Our patience had long disappeared and now survival instincts were kicking in. I watched Rachel close as I struggled to breathe, hacking from my grime-covered lungs. The stench and heat hung about us and covered our bodies with a nasty film. Still, the clock continued to tick and our train was nowhere to be seen.
Three hours late, it finally arrived and only a brave Indian would have become us and our seats. The two bunks above were open for sleeping and no man, woman, or child was going to beat us there. We tucked into the narrow spaces and resigned ourselves to sleep. At last our journey was beginning and with some luck it would go by quick. Yet, such good fortune was not with us that day and hour after hour the train dragged on. Our 8pm arrival in Amritsar was long past due and already the 7-hour trip had turned into 8. Then there was 9, followed by 10, and when Rachel told me it was now past midnight I wondered if we had slept through our stop. Stepping out of the coach to check our progress, I passed by the horrendous bathroom and nearly vomited in disgust. The sight and smell was more than I could bear and I could only jump from the stalled train to control my gagging.
When at last we arrived in Amritsar, it was well past midnight and the streets were cloaked in darkness. Our rickshaw carried us down eerie streets past closed shops to the heart of the old city. It was here that Amritsar was founded in 1577 by Ram Das, fourth guru of the Sikhs. The city is the beating heart of the Sikh religion and during the next two day we would receive a crash course in this fascinating faith.
Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak who was born in 1469 near Lahore in present-day Pakistan. Guru Nanak was unimpressed by both Hindu and Muslim practices and unlike many Indian holy men, he believed in family life and the value of hard work. The saintly mystic preached equality centuries before it became fashionable and campaigned against the caste system, worship of idols, fasting and diet restrictions. He was a practical guru- “a person who makes an honest living and shares earnings with others recognizes the way to God.” Before his death in 1539, he appointed his most talented disciple to be his successor, not one of his sons.
Sikhs believe in one god and revere the Guru Granth Sahib, a holy text which contains the teachings of the 10 Sikh gurus. Fundamental to Sikh religion is the concept of Khalsa, a belief in a chosen race of soldier-saints who abide by strict codes of moral conduct, including abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. There are five kakkars (emblems) denoting the Khalsa brotherhood: kesh (the unshaven beard and uncut hair symbolizing saintliness); kangha (comb to maintain ritually uncut hair); kaccha (loose underwear symbolizing modesty); kirpan (sabre or sword symbolizing power and dignity); and karra (steel bangle symbolizing fearlessness).
Sikhs can be found in countries worldwide and are easily noticed with their long, uncut beards and tight-fitting turbans. Unfortunately, for many of us (myself included), our ignorance of their religion and a paranoia in our culture causes us to profile Sikhs as if they were terrorists. In actuality, nothing could be farther from the truth. Having explored religions the world over, from Christian churches to Muslim mosques and Buddhist temples to Hindu shrines, never have I encountered a people more friendly, welcoming, and void of discrimination.
Perhaps good karma was upon us because our arrival in Amritsar coincided with the Baisakhi Festival. Central to the Sikh religion, the festival celebrates the new year and the first grain harvest. During this two days, hard-working Sikhs from around Punjab state dress in their finest clothes and give thanks at Sikh temples. Of these, none is more holy than the Golden Temple at Amritsar. This grandiose complex is an exceptionally beautiful and serene place built in a blend of Hindu and Islamic styles, but still very different from both, much like their faith. The temple itself is enclosed by high walls and multi-storey towers through which pilgrims enter on four sides. Within this impressive complex is a vast sacred pool called Amrit Sarovar (Pool of Nectar). A causeway (Gurus’ Bridge) leads to the two-storey marble temple which stands in the middle of the pool. Its golden dome represents an inverted lotus flower and is gilded with 750kg of pure gold. The lower parts of the marble walls are decorated with inlaid flower and animal motifs in the pietra dura (marble inlay) style of the Taj Mahal.
The Golden Temple is open 24 hours a day to people of all faiths and no one asks for even a penny. Pilgrims and visitors leave their shoes at a well-manned storage area and cover their heads with scarves provided before washing their feet and entering the complex. The air of serenity immediately hits you as you join the throngs of people casually circling the pool. Round and round you walk as bearded Sikh men and their children strip to their underwear and ceremoniously enter the pool. A separate area is provided for women where they can bathe in more modest fashion. People talk and laugh while strolling the square amidst pilgrims kneeling and praying reverent to the Sikh’s holiest shrine. At the center of it all stands the immaculate Golden Temple and the seemingly endless line of people waiting to enter. Four priests keep up a continuous chant from the Sikh holy book which is broadcast by loudspeakers around the temple. Meanwhile, a community kitchen (a feature of all Sikh temples) prepares lentil soup and chapatis for around 30,000 pilgrims a day; all for free.
I have visited churches and temples around the world and never have I experienced anything like the Golden Temple. While other faiths proclaim an openness to all, the Golden Temple exudes a sense of community from which all other religions could benefit. Within those walls there exists a genuine feeling of equality among all that transcends the differences of color, creed, and faith. It matters not in what you believe or to who you pray. Whether homeless or wealthy, free food and accommodation is open to all and no person asks for your money. An embodiment of the Sikh religion, the Golden Temple is a place where discrimination does not exist and a man is only as important as the family he keeps and the love in his heart.
We would visit the temple several times during our stay in Amritsar. Each experience was no less spectacular as we slowly circled the pool and absorbed our mystical surroundings. We were surrounded by a people more foreign that I have ever known. Heads covered with turbans and swords at their side, these bearded strangers all around us appeared as if from another time. Confident and imposing, I may have feared these gentle warriors in another time and place. Yet, with a welcome hello, even the oldest and strongest among them returned our greetings with childlike curiosity and gracious, friendly smiles.
The last night of the festival found the temple alight with thousands of blinking bulbs and colorful lights. Countless pilgrims gathered at the edge of the pool lighting candles that covered the entire square. Prayers echoed from the speakers and together the massive crowd spoke in unison. Then a flare blasted into the sky and all heads turned skyward. Suddenly, explosions filled the air as colorful fireworks erupted in the sky. From all sides rockets were racing and brilliant displays shone overhead. Minute after minute the fireworks continued until a grand finale had filled the Amritsar sky and the new year had begun.
Only two days before we arrived in this town, sick from pollution and exhausted from travel. We had only hoped for rest and respite, but instead we had been granted an experience more precious than we had ever imagined. A people so foreign to us had welcomed us unconditionally into their lives and their faith. On the streets they waved goodbye and some already knew our names.
I look at the faces in these photos and no longer do I see a stereotype that my culture creates. Beneath those unfamiliar beards I see a bright, smiling face. Turbans that once suggested terrorist now mark the customary dress of a loving husband and father. So I want to challenge you all today to look at these people and ask yourself: Would you welcome this man as your neighbor? Would you invite these people into your church? Though it is easy to fear what we don’t understand, it is our responsibility to rise above ignorance and discrimination and create the world in which we want to live. I, for one, am taking a lesson from the Sikhs; and already my world is better for it.