December 13, 2008
In Amritsar, I insisted that the cab driver take me to the Grace Hotel near the Golden Temple even though he had another hotel in mind. The owner of the Grace was welcoming. I took a 1200-rupee room touted as super deluxe that turned out to be just another ordinary grungy hotel room on the lower end of the scale. It does however have clean sheets and good hot water. These, I’m learning, are things not to take for granted in India.
I hadn’t eaten in a long while, so I went out in search of a restaurant recommended in the guidebook. It took a while to find the Punjabi Rasoi because the Old City where I’m straying and where the Golden Temple located is the most congested, colorful quarter I’ve experienced so far. The din from vehicle horns is incessant and the traffic aggressive and frantic. I have to be very careful walking here. Because very few people on the street speak English It’s hard to get proper directions. In the end I found my restaurant and ate some stuffed naan and drank a lime and soda.
Amritsar is the Holy City to the Sikhs, and the Golden Temple is akin to their Mecca. However, I don’t want to push the analogy too far because at the Golden Temple everyone is welcome. Shoes must be checked in the square outside and every visitor must walk barefoot through a foot bath in front of the main gate. Inside the high wall surrounding the temple the sight is spectacular and unique. The smallish temple itself sitting in the middle of a vast pond and reached by single causeway, is resplendently golden. It’s ‘said that the roof is gilded with 750 kg of pure gold.
Surrounding the pond, in which some young people were bathing, is a wide area surfaced with smooth marble for thousands of people to walk on. There is an area next to the walls that is shaded by a colonnade and where many people sit and rest. Above the gates are white, temple-like structures that add to the exotic ambience. I walked around the enclosure taking photos of the crowds and the temple, but I realized I was running out of time if I wanted to get to the border and see the famous theatrical border-closing ceremony.
I found a tout who got me into a shared-taxi arrangement with a driver. Because we didn’t have enough passengers I paid more than I would have otherwise. As it turned out, the border is 30 k from the city and not a pleasant drive.
We arrived too late, and I saw only the final moments over the heads of a large crowd. The driver could have advised me that we had a late start, but that wasn’t in his interest. Caveat Emptor!
I did have the experience of getting caught in the mad rush of people surging toward the gate. I think it was the first time I’ve actually experience being caught in a large crowd and not having any control. It was scary, the kind of crowd that crushes people. Finally, I got out by climbing over a low wall and then a fence into an area where I could walk back to my vehicle.
Back in the old city I really wanted a drink but had to get in a tuk tuk and go quite a ways to a fancy hotel that had a bar. No alcohol is sold near the Golden Temple. I had the best night’s sleep in a long time.
It’s Sunday; some shops are closed and the crowds at the temple are even larger. Also, today, the first Sunday of the month according to the Punjabi calendar, has special significance. It’s called Sangrad. Groups of country people travel to Amritsar from outlaying villages. They travel rough in the backs of large trucks and in open trailers pulled by farm tractors. I visited the temple again and spent some time squatting and listening to the four officials who keep up a daylong chant from the Sikh holy book. It’s rhythmic and quite pleasant to listen to. I’m still amazed by the Golden Temple Complex.
My other visit was to Jallianwala Bagh, now a large park and memorial, but on a day in 1919 it was the gathering place of thousands of Sikhs staging a peaceful protest. A British officer, named Dyer, was told to disperse the crowd and without warning or ordering the crowd to disperse, he ordered his troops to open fire on the crowd. In all the British murdered 2,000 men and women by that infamous act.
It’s very moving to walk through the park, see the memorial, read the history and stare at the bullet-scarred structure, which has been preserved. I have no feeling of empathy for the depraved mentality that would do such a thing. This tragedy was the final spark that set Gandhi’s movement to free India from the British in motion.
I averted an uncomfortable situation today by calling Kingfisher Airlines in the morning to reconfirm my flight to Delhi. What I learned was that I had no reservation and no ticket. This is another instance of what happened for my flight to Mali earlier this year. I thought I had done the necessary steps to have a seat on a flight when I hadn’t. This time I was lucky enough to learn the problem and, since there was still room available on the flight, buy a ticket. Ku Ku, the patron of the Grace hotel, helped me by sending me to his friend nearby who runs a travel service.
I ate again at the Punjabi Rasoi. This time I ordered a dish called Sarson Ka Saag, which turned out to be spinach pureed with lentils and other vegetables and served hot in a bowl. This tasted good with a couple of pieces of buttered roti and fresh lime soda to drink.
The people at the Hotel Grace were very helpful to me. The only thing Ku Ku asked from me in return was a blessing. I took his hand and wished him a long life, good health and prosperity.
My flight to Delhi, on a 30-passenger prop plane, left on time and arrived early. A nice feature of the Delhi airport is a prepaid taxi counter. I told the clerk where I wanted to go and he charged me a reasonable price and gave me a slip, which I gave the taxi driver. It’s a very organized system.
I spent the night again in Pharganj, this time at the Hotel Star Villa close to the New Delhi Station. My train to Jaipur leaves early in the AM.