Amritsar, a journey to the Golden Temple

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Amritsar—A visit
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. photo-4We 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.

Travel Spy

Shah Jehan with Angel musicians
Shah Jehan with Angel musicians (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Badal Kar faqiron ka bhes “Ghalib
Hum Tamaasha-e-Ahle-Karam Dekhte Hain.”

When I was younger I worked for a newspaper. Over years of reporting I got sick of the regular news beat and somehow convinced my editor to give me the assignment of a roving spy on Delhi buses. I would take a bus let us see from INA to India Gate or even ISBT and just sit down and listen. I listened to the taunts and jibes of the people on the bus. There political comments amongst themselves and their abominal use of the English language. It became a very popular column and many people copied the idea and did it for their newspapers.

Now as the roving custodian of my father’s properties I leave aside one day to roam the NCR on the Metro Rail. This way I keep in tune with the people. Over the years I have observed the gradual acclimatisation of the common people to the metro rail. At first the common man, the poor man was wary of the portals of the Metro regarding it as a foible of the rich. Now I see the democratisation of its use. Everyone uses it from the rich to the very poor beggar.

A certain behaviour inside the metro has become developed amongst the people. A non staring gaze at the fixtures of the insides is a gesture of politeness towards your looks and your behaviour. The amorousness of couples inside the train is increasing. Last night on my way back from a drink with a friend in a five star hotel I sat transfixed as a couple licked, kissed and fondled each other in the corner of our coach in utter ignorance of other people’s presence. I was like seeing a young pair of dogs play with enthusiasm on the roadside as a preliminary to some serious mating. Young men stared unashamedly at the couple while the women and older men stared away. It was uncomfortable while it lasted and everyone heaved a sigh of relief when they got off at AIIMS.

The metro demographics are changing. I watched with amusement and pride the four friends obviously from a software company who were engaged in solving an office problem while they travelled. They sat facing each other and did a brain storming which showed to me why our boys and girls are so brilliant in the world of Information, Telecommunications and Internet Technology.

On the other hand was the young man with a Shah Jehan beard dressed all in black. He was thin as a reed and obviously high on something. I could not determine whether it was on God or a drug. I was sitting down, I must admit in a very expensive Armani suit with patent leather shoes shined to a mirror finish. He took an offence to my rich look and stood in front of me and just stared at me. I was not looking for a fight. I did not look back in to his eyes. He wanted to provoke me into a fight. I am not afraid of a scrap. I am a black belt in Judo and have a solid muscular body which is not an accident of birth but a result of some working out in the gym and The Chawl swimming pool. I am sure I can take care of myself otherwise I would not ride the Metro wearing Armani suits. I breathed in and out gently and long in order to cool my slowly heating brain. Finally four stations later the modern version of a Sufi saint got off my coach and I sat back and relaxed.