Friday, 30 October 2009

Singh when you're winning

Our primary reason for visiting the city of Amritsar, I suspect like most foreign travellers, was to see the legendary Harmandir Sahib - the Golden Temple; the most holy shine in the Sikh faith and supposedly one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture in all India. We'd heard enthusiastic reports from people we'd met who'd been and were really looking forward to being back in a proper city too after the desert.

Our first experience of Amritsar however, was...well, weird. Arriving after a ten hour bus journey, we hadn't bothered to book anywhere on the basis that we might be able to get some decent accommodation if we rocked up and did a bit of haggling. We pulled in to the bus station just before sunrise and grabbed an autorickshaw to the city centre and asked the driver to take us to some decent hotels to check out. "I take you to nice place of my friend" was the response, which generally sets the alarm bells ringing, but being too tired to argue we agreed and hoped Nice Place was indeed a nice place. Naturally, Nice place turned out to be not nice place at all; being down a dark dirty alley, run by one of the living dead and having rooms that looked like something out of Guantanamo Bay. We didn't hang around.

The next Nice Place was still on the grim side but not quite as bad, so we figured we may as well just take it for a half day and move on later - that was until Sam discovered that the shower didn't have a head and fired horizontally out of a hole in the wall at waist height, the sink made a loud nasty gurgling sound of its own accord, and there was what appeared to be a bucket full of crap in the corner by the bed. Argument then ensued with the hotel owner who claimed that there was in fact nothing wrong, and the 400 Rupees we paid him for the half day were not going to be returned.

After some heated words we got our money back and headed out into the misty half light of a city we didn't know to find some where to at least sleep. Amritsar like many Indian cities in the small hours looked pretty much post-apocalyptic, with the poorest of the poor burning fires of plastic and other rubbish by the side of the roads, mangy dogs and stray cows eating out of bins, and people everywhere sleeping on pavements and in doorways. It doesn't matter how many times you see (and smell it) it it still pretty shocking. Anyway, we got our heads down in the end, but learnt a lesson - if you're going to take a chance on accommodation, maybe do it in the middle of the day and not at five AM when you're deprived of sleep and judgement, and every thing has a tendency to look like a scene from a George Romero film...

Anyway, Zombie breakfast meeting aside, Amritsar turned out to be fascinating. We took a rickshaw around the old town to get our bearings and check things out before heading to the Golden Temple, which really is a quite remarkable place. Neither of us are in the slightest bit religious, but both of us agreed that there was something fairly magical about it.

The temple itself is a huge white marble walled complex filled with chambers and a vast kitchen which apparently can (and often does) feed around 100,000 pilgrims and homeless people a day. Inside the walls sits a giant glassy lake with the Golden Temple itself set the centre, looking almost like its floating on the water. Prayer music and tablas echo round the building and people throw themselves on floor in prayer or immerse themselves in the water of the lake which boils with huge orange and gold Koi Carp. Thousands of pilgrims wander around the lake and family photos are taken everywhere in front of the temple. Chai is served at stalls and there's even a changing room for devotees who feel like having more than a paddle. For the centre of a major world religion it seems a fittingly uplifting environment and has none of the austerity and gloom of other holy HQs like the Vatican, which gives the impression of being designed to make one feel small and subservient.

We took a slow walk round chatting randomly to some locals and a few people who'd come from further afield and then headed into the Golden Temple itself, which is entered along an ornate pontoon. Inside, hardcore devotees sit in prayer and scripture is read out by Sikh high priests, while pilgrims throw notes and coins onto a carpet collected in the manner of a blackjack dealer by an elderly man, with what looked like a long blunt sword. We wondered if we were the only people inside the temple who registered the irony of poor people giving all their money to rich people sitting in a building made of solid gold, but thats religion for you... That aside, we both found the Golden Temple an amazing spectacle. It really was hard to believe that twice in the 1980s the temple complex was the scene of full on siege battles.

The first took place in 1984 after Sikh separatists fortified the building and took it over and the army was sent in to sort it out - which they did badly. Tanks were driven into the complex, mortar shells fired and armed soldiers sent into take out the militants, with little respect for the Sikhs holiest building. Many people were killed and injured, the temple was riddled with holes and badly damaged and the handling of the siege by the government was viewed almost universally as an embarrassment and a disaster. The second siege took place in 1988 after separatists had again got away with attempting to fortify the complex for their own use. A police officer was shot in a skirmish and violence erupted again, with snipers sent in to take out the armed separatists who this time barraged themselves inside the actual golden temple with hostages. The hostages were eventually released but the bodies of many more were discovered inside the vaults of the temple later. It all sounded like something from a Hollywood action film, but the effects on the people of Amritsar were very real, with curfews imposed around the city and some dire treatment of innocent suspects during the sieges as the army tried to gather information under pressure. Not once since we have been here have we seen the slightest hint of any tension between religions, but its clear that when things have gone wrong in the past, its been the result of political decisions that have nothing to do with the interests of ordinary people and generally yield the worst results for those with least control over their involvement.

We spent a further day in Amritsar, before heading North again to the state of Himachal Pradesh and the hill town of Mcleod Ganj in the lower Himalayas, home of the Tibetan Government in Exile and the Dalai Lamas residence. Traveling through the Punjabi countryside by train it was easy to see why the state has the name the Breadbasket of India; the view outside the window for nearly the entire journey to Pathankot consisted of lush green fields of farmed crops and vegetables interspersed with streams and rivers with Black Buffalo bathing in them. From Pathankot we then caught a packed and rather shaky old public bus to Mcleod Ganj (upper Dharmshala), which snaked its way through some fairly spectacular gorges and mountain roads on the way.

Mcleod Ganj (which I thought sounded like some strain of weed grown by a Scottish bloke) turned out to be a cool little town with a sort of alpine Christmassy feel to it. Being home to the Dalai Lama there were lots of Tibetans wandering around which made it feel very relaxed and almost like a different county all together. It was also chock full of foreign tourists; some of whom (mainly Americans) appeared to have gone way over the top with the cold weather gear and were sporting woolly hats, fleeces and mittens - even though it was still about 15 degrees. A few people we'd met in Rajasthan had said they'd ended up staying in Mcleod Ganj much longer than they'd planned and it was easy to see why with its holiday feel and busy bars.

Having done only limited research before we arrived, we hadn't realised that whether the Dalai Lama was in residence or not had a sizable bearing on whether the tiny town was busy or quiet. As it turned out, he was, and, as we discovered the morning after we arrived, there were also about 1200 Taiwanese there to visit him too; 90 of which had booked out in the hotel literally joined to ours and who got up every morning at 5am on the dot to belt out mantras in the hotels function room assisted by a monk on a mike. The first morning it scared the shit out of day four we nearly knew all the words were singing along them in bed. Resistance was futile. The Taiwanese seemed to be everywhere, and moved in large heards too talking up whole roads at a time. Also, each tour group all wore coloured baseball caps giving them a specially moronic look, but they seemed not to care as were clearly far too busy thinking about enlightenment and selling all their possessions, and possibly which mantra they were going to use the next morning to wake us up at five AM...

Being an atheist, I had always thought Buddhism, in a fairly simplistic way I suppose, one of the more sensible religions. From my limited understanding it seems outwardly as if its based fundamentally on living well and in a considered way, respecting other people, and treating them as you would expect to to be treated yourself, but surprisingly, confronted with its devotees in such large numbers concentrated into such a small town, I have to admit that I found the whole thing almost cultish. We took a trip the main temple at the Dalai Lamas complex and there was none of the chatty conversation and friendliness we had encountered at the Golden Temple - in fact we found most people there seemed self interested and almost indifferent. It felt a little like an exclusive club which one needed to be invited to, as opposed to the turn up, get your kit off, jump in the water inclusiveness we'd seen in Amritsar. Overheard conversations in restaurants involved awed talk of things like "needing to be truthful to ones inner self" and "choosing the right path"... it was as if everyone had turned up to a self help workshop expecting to get the secret to eternal life.

Maybe I'm a massive skeptic and become immediately suspicious when confronted with religion that seems to totally absorb the individual, but from experience so far there seems to be something far more real in the basic way Hinduism intertwines with peoples lives in India than the other faiths - plus, Buddhism doesn't have glow in the dark toy Ganeshes riding musical flashing bicycles for sale on every street, which surely should be a fundamental part of any religion...

We spent a total of five days in Mcleod Ganj and I have to say the Dalai Lama did his homework when it came to choosing a location for the Exiled Government; it was a beautiful place to stay. We mainly spent time just relaxing, reading and wandering around the area doing not a lot, and had some entertaining evenings in the bars in the town, one of which was always rammed and had a live band that seemed to have a fetish for smashing out Dire Straights songs very badly. We also went on our first trek, a short walk by Himalayan standards of 25k to Triund which was a 1000m climb from the the town to the summit - a ridge with spectacular views over the valley and villages below. Our plan at the end of the week initially had been to head East through Himachal Pradesh to Manali, then on to Shimla before heading South to Delhi, but having chatted to other travelers the lure of bigger mountains, wilder terrain and maybe some Trout fishing in Kashmir was too strong, and so we booked ourselves a trip further North...

View our pics here:

Amritsar and Mcleod Ganj

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