Fully Sikh

After Pushkar we decided we had had enough of Rajasthan and we were keen to travel further north. One Indian highlight we had always wanted to visit was the Golden Temple in Amritsar, which is the most holy site of Sikhism.

Sikhism is a forgotten religion, relatively unknown in the West but apparently the fifth largest religion in the world. It is essentially a blend of Hinduism and Islam, and most of its followers live around the Punjab area between Pakistan and Hindu India. One interesting aspect of the religion is the acceptance of all people. Sikhs cast aside the rigourous Hindu caste system and welcome all creeds to their temples, which are known as Gurdwanas. A sikh man generally wears a turban and, more often than not, has the last name Singh.

True to Sikhism's welcoming nature, visitors to the Golden Temple are welcome to stay in the huge number of dormitories free of charge, and are invited to a free meal in the massive dining rooms. Shoes are not allowed inside the temple, so there are a series of warehouses just near the entrance dedicated purely to shoe storage. Also, heads must be covered inside the temple so everyone wears a turban, bandana or scarf.

We first visited the temple at night when the 500 kilograms of gilded gold is lit with floodlights and looks simply stunning. The temple sits in a lake where Sikhs bathe to purify themselves. The buildings surrounding the temple are all built from white marble and look very elegant. A constant chant is performed by four priests inside the temple and is broadcast through speakers around the temple complex.

We joined the queue to go inside the temple itself where photography is forbidden. This was worth the wait as the interior was very beautiful. People were giving so many donations inside the temple that there were priests whose only duty was to sweep them up into boxes. Other priests read from enormous books and many people sat around to appreciate the chants or read from their own holy books.

The next day we returned to view the temple complex in sunlight.

We visited the dining area which serves around 40,000 people each day. This was the largest scale food operation we had ever seen, and was captivating to watch in action. Volunteers run the show with great efficiency - just the washing up process took our attention for several minutes.

On our last evening in Amritsar we took a mini bus to the Pakistan border to witness an unusual ceremony. To our surprise and delight, the mini bus took us to two interesting temples along the way which we had considered going to but didn't get around to organising! The first is known as the Silver Temple, as it resembles a lesser version of the Golden Temple in many ways but has interesting silver work on the doors. The second is the most unique temple we have seen in our travels (and we have definitely seen a lot of them now!) It is known as the cave temple because visitors go up a flight of stairs and then follow a maze of passages which include rooms with mirrors on every surface, walking through ankle-deep water and limboing under low ceilings.

Then we drove on to the border to see the ceremony performed every day by officials at the only open border between the hostile nations of India and Pakistan. This is a bizarre spectacle which makes one think that the two nations are the best of friends and that the hostility is just for show. Crowds come and sit in stadium style seating on both sides of the border and cheer for their country while emcees lead chants and children dance to pop music. Some children are given the honour of carrying the national flag whilst running up to the border gates and back to the cheering crowds.

As foreigners, we were able to sit in the VIP section, so we got a good view of the proceedings. The formal part of the ceremony involves strangely uniformed officers (all very tall and moustached) bellowing long shouts into the microphone, marching up to the opened border gates at full speed, and performing ridiculously high kicks in front of the Pakistani officers, who do the same thing on the other side of the border. They stand metres apart from each other and scowl ferociously, and then the lead officers of each country shake hands, the gates are closed, and the flags of the two countries are lowered at the same rate. The marching resembles Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks to an uncanny degree, and the patriotic crowd atmosphere could have come straight from an India / Pakistan cricket match.

We were very happy with our decision to visit Amritsar, which was a very welcoming place to visit. The Golden Temple is a real gem, and the unusual cave temple and border ceremony added some interesting colour to the city.

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