Our last night in Amritsar, Jill and I were invited to a friend of a friend’s home for dinner. This was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. On a trip with new and exciting experiences daily that is saying a great deal. We met a couple, their grandfather, and two of their female friends in a private home near the central part of the city. Their home is filled with Oriental rugs, hand crafted furniture (from Spain), antique artwork and Indian charm. It was immaculate and if I didn’t know any better I could have been in a museum but pictures occupying the tables signaled this was indeed a home. The family is in the education business and we got the impression it was a very lucrative business while our gracious host said it has changed (and copied) in the last 20 years. Our new friends were very well educated and versed in several languages. The husband and one other guest were pilots for KingFisher air and another guest born and raised in Bangkok studied in Amritsar where her grandmother lived. She is a cake designer and interestingly enough will be taking a course in Chicago next year.
They dressed in modern clothes – jeans and sweaters and in their late 20’s – early 30’s seemed like any other person in the world of the same age. They are no longer religious but adhere to some of the customs and observances. One of the women is a Brahman (upper caste) Hindu but married a Muslim. Our host and her husband had an arranged marriage of sorts – she met him once and then he phoned a few months later and they were engaged and then married. The woman from Bangkok is still single at 29. That of course made me happy.
We discussed a great deal about Pakistan. They believe Osama Bin Laden was already dead and that is why we never saw a body (on the attack). The Indian theory is that we attacked his follower’s house and then took credit for his death but he had been dead a long time. Jill and I shared our 9/11 stories and how government works in the United States. I was fascinated by the Indian connection to Pakistan. Our host loves Pakistan and explained that in her opinion Indians and Pakistanis were the same. The partition of India and Pakistan by the British was based solely on religion. While we learned today that Pakistan is moving toward a completely Islamic state pushing out or even killing many of the remaining Hindus, it remains that Pakistan and India were once the same people. The husband expressed his concern that Indians and Sikh’s in general are mistaken as terrorists because they wear turbans and have dark skin. It made me a little sad that we as Americans don’t take the time to recognize the difference and immediately jump to negative thoughts. In a world where we are all faced with the threat of terrorism, these feelings are very real.
We dined on traditional Punjabi food that consisted of a spinach type of lasagna, chicken with peas and paneer(cottage cheese type of dish). It was all delicious food. Our hosts have a nearly two-year-old child who entertained us with his dance moves and beautiful smile. (By the way, they pay roughly $200 USD a month for a nanny). We thoroughly enjoyed our evening of great conversation and new friends.
This time we embarked on a six-hour journey from the Himalayas to Amritsar, which is located in the northwest part of India close to Pakistan. It was a rough drive and I found myself very irritated by the horns, the bumps, the cows, the dust and the people. Take information overload and multiple by 100. We drove through villages, cities and even farms (detours) to get to Amritsar. Some streets resembled the Wild West, while others were constructed with asphalt and perfectly paved. Every time we saw the sign, “Take Diversion, Work in Progress,” I giggled. A road with 20 feet piles of sand every few feet is definitely a work in progress.
When we finally arrived in Amritsar, I freaked over the quality of our hotel. The long journey mixed with the hunger in my stomach did not help matters. I demanded to see the room and then called the tour company and asked to be moved. The commotion in the lobby brought a lovely woman and keys and after checking out three rooms, we settled on a penthouse style room. Let’s not get too excited. It does have cable, it is clean but the Ritz Carlton it is not. Coincidentally, it’s the Ritz Plaza and the staff is so eager to please, they jump at our every request.
Amritsar is the spiritual study of the Sikh religion and the capital of the state of Punjab. There are about 1.2 million people living in Amritsar so it’s a medium sized city. The region is best known for Punjab suits, pashminas and carpets and the Golden Temple (see below). We learned Buddhism in Dharamshala and now Sikhism in Amritsar.
Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world with approximately 30 million Sikhs most of whom live in Punjab, India, however, they only make up for two percent of the entire Indian population. Guru Nanak Dev founded the Sikh religion during the 15th Century. Sikhs follow the teaching of the first 10 gurus and then a type of scripture, which is essentially the writings of six of the 10 Sikh Gurus. They also meditate and seek justice for all humans.
Sikhs are prohibited from the following:
Cutting hair – men and women (men wear turbans and women mostly braids or buns)
Alcohol – no drugs, alcohol or tobacco (hence the fruit juice on every corner)
Blind Spirituality – no superstitions or pilgrimages, no idols
Material possession – no material wealth
Sacrifice of creatures – forbidden
Non-family oriented living – a Sikh is not to live alone or celibate
Worthless Talk – backstabbing, bragging, lying is not allowed
Priestly class – No priests. The 10th Guru abolished them
Eating meat killed in a ritualistic matter
Having premarital or extramarital sex
After the hotel room drama, our driver escorted us to the changing of the guard at the Pakistani/Indian border. I got a little nervous but abnormally excited when I saw a directional sign that read, Islamabad 365 Kilometers but remembering my mother’s words, Jill and I remained on the Indian side. As we walked closer, we started hearing roars and shouts of OOH and AAH and clapping. We found stadium seating and a ceremonial gate with soldiers on the Indian side dressed with red Mohawk hats and tan uniforms and the Pakistani soldiers dressed in similar fashion but in black. The Indian soldiers were fun and light hearted, whereas the Pakistani soldiers appeared stoic. It was fascinating to see a mere 20 feet away women covered according to the Islam religion and a large gate with the Pakistani President’s mug shot and the words PAKISTAN. Jill coined the ceremony a dance off with Indian and Pakistani soldiers marching to the roar of the crowds, spinning and sometimes jumping in long split like steps. It lasted about 25 minutes and when it was all over the gates were closed and the people disbursed.
We celebrated our Thanksgiving Day at the Golden Temple. It is the central religious place of the Sikhs. To say it is magnificent is one thing; to say it’s awe inspiring is quite another. It’s an enormous stark white fortress with four outer walls and four entrances with a small ornate Golden Temple situated in the center and surrounded by water. The Temple was built in 1588 by the sixth Guru, who wanted a temple for people of all backgrounds and socioeconomic levels to worship.
Even more impressive than the Temple itself is the fully operational kitchen, which works to feed more than 100,000 people EACH day. Whether you are poor or not, you are welcome to eat here. We watched volunteers stirring soup, baking chapattis (tortillas) and cleaning dishes all to serve the community. (Pictures below). You would have thought the Temple was trying to feed the entire Northwest by the number of plates, bags of flour and size of the heating pots. The Golden Temple is not to be missed on any visit to India.
On a side note, Jill and I are very popular in India. We will likely be appearing on billboards soon. We probably had about 30 pictures taken with local tourists until it was taking too much time and becoming so embarrassing that we had to start saying no. Jill started referring to me as Madonna and herself as Katy Perry. We posed with young girls, young men, mothers and fathers and even grandparents. In this very conservative culture where men and women are very separate it seemed ridiculous for us to be posing especially with nearly naked men dunking themselves in the holy water behind us and women fully covered restricted to dipping in the holy water in an enclosed and separate quarters.
Finally, I want to conclude giving you a full picture of what I have learned thus far about India. It’s L-O-U-D and noise is only part of it. Picture women dressed in head to toe hot pink, turquoise, yellow, red and covered in jewels on their forehead, wrists and ankles. The men are more demure yet modern dressed in suits and sweaters and jeans unless they are Sikh in which case they wear bright purple, yellow, red and orange turbans. There are horns and they make all sorts of sounds and come from anything with a wheel. Women who are married have red dots between their eyes called Bindi’s. A dot on a man simply means he worshipped at Temple that day although many say they wear a smudge/dot just so others know they are religious. Women with a red line or jewel from the hairline down the forehead are wearing this to announce their recent marriage (honeymoon phase). Cows are sacred. You will find chicken and mutton (cheap lamb) to eat on the menus and in most cases lentils, chickpeas and lots of naan (Indian bread). I prefer garlic and cheese naan and boy do I love this dessert called Rava Kesari that looks like applesauce and tastes like a grainy heavenly sensation of honey and gooey goodness.
The power has just gone out in our Ritz Plaza hotel. I am busy writing, while Jill has already called the Front Desk. My response, “this is why I told you I wanted to get new batteries for my flashlight.” The answer from the front desk, “five or 10 minutes.” Jill upon hanging up, “Everything is 5-10 minute here.”