Amritsar, India

November 30, 2002

Weather: high of about 80ºF and sunny

We take a 6-hour train ride to the northwest of New Delhi and arrive at Amritsar near the Pakistan border.  This is the site of the Golden Temple, the most holy Sikh site and destination for pilgrims.

First upon arriving we book a taxi to take us to the Pakistan border for the sunset border closing ceremony.  The guide book describes the ceremony as Monty Python-esque.  I wonder how it could be possible that a perfectly serious government ceremony could warrant such a description.  We arrive near the border in late afternoon and the crowd is just starting to swell on both sides of the border.  There is fresh popcorn and postcards for sale near the bandstands blaring classical Indian music.  
The ceremony involves what looks like a game of chicken between double-time, high-stepping, regal troops – Pakistani and Indian.  There is cheering and chanting from the crowd.  There is belligerant stomping and flag lowering.  The locals compare it to a good cricket match.  But cricket metaphors are lost on us.
The next day we visit the Golden Temple.  It is spectacular.  We don our headgear and remove our shoes and wander around the pool.  Sikh guards with spears or scimitars patrol the grounds and ensure the rules are kept.  After we get over the nervousness of being surrounded by so many  adherents of a religion that urges willingness to protect the faith with arms if necessary, we become quite comfortable in the absence of beggars or hawking vendors.
The beautiful melody of the Sikh scriptures being sung over the loudspeakers is haunting.  The marble tile is shockingly cold on our feet in the shade, but toasty warm in the sun.  We meet a Sikh on pilgrimage from the UK who greets us cordially and offers to answer any questions or assist us in any way.  We feel warmly at home here.
The Sikhs believe in a formless God and so have no idols or sculpture.  They also believe strongly in equality which they encourage by offering a free meal for all to eat together.  This is contrary to Hindu custom where castes eat separately.  Here, a platoon of volunteers feeds 70,000 worshippers and tourists a day. We eat sitting on the floor with about a hundred others.  The meal consists of chapati (flat bread) and black dhal (spicy pea soup).  Indians stare at us. As I was politely cleaning my plate and planning my exit, I was served a second helping as big as my first despite my best gestures indicating I was full.  I kept my eye on the seconds man from then on, and hurriedly finished before he could come around again.
Here we are wearing our head coverings that we hope are suitably respectful and don't cause suspicion from our heavily armed hosts.
We walk around the bazaars of old Amritsar trying to find a famous dhaba (kitchen).  Luckily we started looking early because it took us until dinner time before we found it.  We sit down to a fantastic meal of dhal, chapatis, chana masala, palak paneer, and Pepsi.  That's me taking my picture in the mirror.
Next door is the kitchen.

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