The Intercity train from Chandigarh to Amritsar leaves at 7am, usually from platform 3. Surprisingly the new escalator in the partially renovated Chandigarh Railway Station was working on the ascending side but reluctant to wake up on the descending side. We thanked the lord for small mercies and found the train waiting for us. You learn to figure out which direction your designated coach is by experience; there is no help offered by the railways. That is only reserved for the Sahibs on the now ageing Shatabdis.
The train started at seven on the dot at a leisurely pace which was acceptable to us being on a religious holiday trip to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Our coach was blissfully not crowded with the usual wailing children. Neither did we encounter the pushing and shoving and loud mouthed conversations on mobiles. These were thankfully missing. Passing Mohali, Ludhiana, Jullundur and Beas Junction (and somewhere Phagwara in between) we arrived at the old fashioned Amritsar railway station having tried the tea, coffee and vegetable cutlets offered by peripatetic salesmen on our way. I also managed to read the newspapers which I had bought from a vendor who arrived similarly and kindly at my figurative doorstep at Ludhiana station.
The scenario changed in Amritsar to one of mayhem and harassment. Over-excited auto-rickshaw wallahs, rickshaw-wallahs and a new variety of electric rickshaw operators, all wanted to transport us to the temple. Some offered to whisk us away to hotels with only 700 rupees fare. Lonely Planet advised Rupees fifty to hundred for the auto ride to Golden Temple. We succumbed to the superior sales tactics of a very fat auto-rickshaw man and had to dish out a hundred rupees (about 2 dollars). Roaring and bouncing, almost colliding with pedestrians, buses and cars we zoomed through filthy environs towards our destination.
The dirtiness was unbelievable. I immediately wanted to write letters to the Prime Minister whose Swachh Bharat Campaign (Clean India) had obviously missed this city by miles. The results of the municipal elections were coming in and I was shocked to see that the citizenry had voted in many of the corrupt councilors who had done nothing for the people for decades. Mercifully we arrived at our destination before I could compose a fiery epistle.
We sought rooms in the NRI Temple Serai. There was a huge rush and the receptionist told us to wait. Many people were taking their time in vacating the rooms by the noon deadline. At last when we got a room it was a bit disappointing its window facing a brick wall and one wall filled with putty in preparation for a paint job. First come first served. Our religious inclination for the day and the very reasonable tariff made us hold our complaining horses and venture forth to have langar inside the Golden Temple complex. Food is served to visitors 24/7/365 days. It is amazing to see the operation of this langar institution. Volunteers serve, clean and wash the dishes. Young and old cater to the people seated in rows on strips of rugs. The food is served from buckets into large steel plates divided into four sections. We finished with alacrity our Chapatis, daal, potato and nutrinuggets with a sweet-dish of kheer. Everyone loves the food mainly because it is considered as a blessing (Prasad) from the religious place. People also contribute large amounts of cash for the langar. Farmers donate wheat, vegetables and whatever else they produce on their farms. Volunteers peel potatoes, chop vegetables and onions for the next meal. Generally about 100,000 people have their meals here in the Langar Hall. Langar is a binding part of the Sikh faith. Rich and poor eat together forgetting their various castes and creeds.
We had the opportunity to watch enthusiastic volunteer sewadars wash the marbled floors of the huge complex. Boys and girls splash the floor with buckets of water taken from the big pool which surrounds the Golden Temple. Another regiment of volunteers arrives with massive wipers and pushes the water into the metal-mesh covered gutters at the edges of the floor. Within minutes the marble floors are impeccably clean.
We joined the people sitting around the pool’s edge listening to the soothing Guru Baani being broadcast from the speakers placed all around Harmandir Sahib.
After some hours we decided to venture forth into the famous Amritsar market nearby where you can buy religious trinkets, clothes and the famous papad and wariyan of Amritsar. Another famous product which is available at colorful shops is the Punjabi Jutti(moccasin like shoe claimed to be made from Camel leather) for ladies and gents too.
The hustle and bustle of this bazaar is to be seen to be believed. Rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, electric rickshaws, pedestrians, mini vans, small buses, cyclists, scooters and motorcyclists vie for road space all the time making sounds in a typical horn blasting, bell ringing, verbal admonishing (Thaan Shad Dey—Leave some space) in hoarse and Theth Punjabi. Policemen shout curses at the rickshaw pullers and threaten to take out the air from their rickshaw tires.
Still they hover like honey bees around the Golden Temple complex offering to transport you at very reasonably priced rides to various cloth markets and hotels. Amritsar once used to be the hub of textile mills. The rich here are very rich. The poor can be painful to watch in their misery. Everyone visiting this holy city seems very stone hearted. Beggars wail away for alms at passers by.
An astounding variety of shops sell products like, carpets, iron grills, fried mathis (large hard salted biscuits), musical instruments, kitchenware, hardware, farming equipment and wholesale cloth.
Touts for travel agencies and taxi stands offer great discounts for a trip to Wagah border where there is a traditional Border Rangers’ competition of aggressive strutting for the benefit of the public on both sides of the India-Pakistan border. Cheer leaders on both sides encourage visitors to out-shout the praises of their country in loud slogans.
Back to the market near the Golden Temple, Kulfi sellers abound. Very near to the Golden Temple complex are numerous Punjabi food joints and International takeaway restaurants like McDonald’s and Subway. There is a Café Coffee Day. This coffee chain seems to have acquired a curse for bad service which I have encountered in Mumbai, Panchkula, Amritsar, Lajpat Nagar New Delhi and a Mall in Gurgaon.
People and things bang into you while you shop for souvenirs near the Temple. You have to have a very tolerant and Punjabi attitude to maintain your place on the road. Families and religious jathas march past you in endless batches. All wear turbans, choonis or head covering handkerchiefs. You cannot enter the precincts of the temple with your head uncovered. Also you have to deposit your shoes or sandals at the Joda Ghar (Shoe House). Volunteers man this shoe Inn for 24 hours a day. It is a very efficient system where you are given a metal or plastic token for reclaiming your shoes later after your Darshan.
We took the electric rickshaw on our way back to the Railway Station. It was a smoother and calmer ride than that in the fiery and aggressive auto-rickshaw. We soon parked ourselves in our designated seats and proceeded home with a religious glow in our rejuvenated soul.