Today the northern Punjabi city of Amritsar, with it’s long and bloody history of unrest, repression and uprising, boasts two big tourist draws: it shares a border with Pakistan (see below for David’s take on the daily pageant that goes on there), in addition it is the location of Sikhism’s holiest shrine: The Golden Temple.
href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harmandir_Sahib”>The Golden Temple
We arrived by plane from Delhi and we were immediately struck by how absolutely flat and fertile the land appeared. It was as if we had landed in Kansas – wheat fields, which I automatically assumed were rice paddies due to their emerald green color. The road from the airport was lined with sprawling convention-center like buildings fronted with long covered walkways hung with waving metallic streamers that glinted painfully in the blazing sunlight. They looked a bit like giant car dealerships, but with empty parking lots and had names like Paradise Farm and Sublime Fantasy Farm. Given that they were separated by fields of cows I assumed they were dairy farms, but in fact are wedding venues. Apparently tying the knot at one of these places is the dream of every middle class Indian bride-to-be.
We had arranged a guide to take us around the city the next day, but decided after checking into the hotel (a five star Hyatt that should serve as the model for every other Hyatt – in fact every other hotel – in the world), to strike out on our own to see the old city.
When we travel we always dress appropriately and try hard to neither stand out too much as foreigners nor in any way to show disrespect for the local culture. I never wear shorts or sleeveless tops. I typically wear either long pants or an ankle length skirt and always have my arms completely covered. I often bring a long scarf in case I need to cover my head in a temple or shrine. David as well wears long pants and long sleeved shirts. We keep our voices low and you’ll not find us clambering off a tour bus behind a guide with a flag or megaphone. We’ve certainly been in places where western people are not so common and we get curious looks, but they are almost always followed by a smile and a greeting. Not so that first afternoon in Amritsar. People stared at us blatantly and then nudged the people with them to look as well, as if to say, “Hey, check out those weirdos.” The hard looks I got from men with and without beards and turbans were particularly disturbing. Perhaps it was the daily headlines about escalating violence against women in India, but the aggressive, leering stares of the men made me feel distinctly uncomfortable. David couldn’t help noticing it as well. We went into the Golden Temple complex as far as the pool that surrounds the temple itself. However, after experiencing the unwelcoming stares of the people, joining the long, slow moving line to get into the Golden Temple itself would mean spending more time in what now felt like a hostile environment. Therefore, we called it quits and made our way back to the hotel.
The next morning when our guide met us in the hotel lobby we expressed reluctance to return to the old town explaining how it was the only time during this long trip that we felt uncomfortable and unwelcome. Young, bright and fluent in English, Harry was fresh out of college where he had gotten his degree in tourism. While he was a Sikh, he had neither long hair or a beard. He didn’t wear a turban. He tried to explain that people here weren’t used to seeing westerners. We pointed out that one look around the hotel lobby discredited that excuse. “Well,” he said, you’ll be fine with me and I will make sure you get a first class visit to my city.” So I put on my albeit thin disguise
and we set off.
We still haven’t figured out what exactly accounted for the vastly different experience we had, but it was amazing and wonderful. Perhaps we were more relaxed following in the wake of our 6’2″ guide who knew everyone and everything. He breezed us through the process of checking out shoes, washing our hands and feet and entering the temple grounds. Even though he had angered his father by cutting his hair and refusing to wear a turban, he was still an obviously, serious devout Sikh, bowing, touching the ground and reciting prayers as we moved through the complex.