Following our four days of fun and chaos in Delhi, my husband Craig and I headed north to Amritsar. While we had planned to spend more time in northwestern India, due to some complications with Craig’s visa, we had less time in the country than we hoped and had to prioritize things… And, honestly, Amritsar wasn’t that high on the initial list of places to visit. However, Craig told me about the great experience he had at a Sikh temple in New Mexico in seminary and then Nicholas Krisof listed Amrtisar’s Golden Temple as one of the “world’s coolest places” in his NYT column on July 26 — just days before we left on our trip — so, I knew that we had to go! And, I’m so glad that we did.
Amritsar is located in northwest India in Punjab state just 28 km from the India – Pakistan border and just 50 km from Lahore, Pakistan. The city is home to 1.13 million people, as well as the Golden Temple – Sikhism holiest shrine. Despite not expecting much from our visit to Amritsar besides visiting the Golden Temple, our two days there were some of my favorite during our six weeks in India.
Rather than running around and seeing as many sights as we could, we decided to focus on two key experiences in Amritsar: the border closing ceremony at the India-Pakistan border and the Golden Temple.
We arrived in mid-afternoon to Amritsar via train from Delhi. It was our first train ride in India. As we were still figuring out the system, which class to ride in, etc., we decided to take AC Chair class, which is one of the nicer and more expensive classes, for the 6-hour ride. Upon arriving to Amritsar, there is a free bus available to all between the train station and a bus stop just outside the Golden Temple. As we planned to stay in a guest house near the shrine, we took a bus into town and went on the look for a guest house. The first guest house we visited wasn’t interested in negotiating their rate so we moved on to another option – Grace Hotel. While they were quoting 1,800 rupees for a room with AC (which is listed in Lonely Planet India), we were able to negotiate with the manager for 800 rupees per night. A bit more than we had hoped to pay but much lower than the initial rate the hotel was offering!
India – Pakistan Border Closing Ceremony
After dropping our bags in our room, we immediately returned to the front desk to ask if our hotel could help us in getting two spots in a group taxi to the border with Pakistan to see the daily border-closing ceremony. While the hotel thought that it might be too late for us to go, we pressed for their assistance and a few minutes later, a jeep pulled up, piled with a group of Indians to head to the border. Craig and I jumped in the front seat, and we were off!
On the way to the border, we made a brief stop at the Sri Durgiana Temple, which Lonely Planet India refers to as the “Hindu version of the Golden Temple.” We followed our new Indian friends into and through the temple before getting back in the jeep and continuing on to the border.
On the drive to the border, we were all pretty hot and sweaty. Temperatures in India were high, and there were at least 7 of us packed into the jeep to get to the ceremony. Just as I was wiping sweat from my brow, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Though she didn’t speak English, the only other girl in the car, passed me the wash cloth that she had been using as a sweat rag. It was such a kind gesture. I patted the sweat from my forehead for a bit, and when I tried to return the cloth to her, she wouldn’t accept. Even at the end of the evening, Sicasi insisted that I keep her cloth – a small gift from an Indian girl to an American girl. A small way that we could connect with each other and remember crossing paths during this crazy adventure.
All of the cars transporting people to the ceremony dropped visitors off about 1 km or so from where the ceremony took place. People lined the streets walking from the parking area, which was full of vendors selling food, clothing, and everything in between, to the ceremony entrance. The ceremony took place in what I can also describe as a small stadium with a large fence through the middle it. As we were foreigners, we sat in the “VIP section” on the Indian side. Just beside the fence separating the two countries was the actual VIP section and next was the foreigner VIP section. On down from where we sat, thousands of Indians piled into rows of seating to witness the closing of the border between the two countries. Bollywood music blared, cheers rang out, and an impromptu dance party started in the street that ran through the “stadium.” I had read that there would be a “carnival-like” atmosphere; however, this beyond my expectations!
Things on the Pakistan side of the border were a bit calmer. There was also loud music playing with some cheering from the crowd. But, between the face painting, flag waving, and dancing on the India side, you could definitely see a difference between the two groups in attendance.
Once the “pre-party” ended — including relays of young people running with flags up to the fence at the border and back — and everyone was seated, it was time for the actual ceremony to begin. The activities themselves are really hard to describe. But, there was a lot of loud yelling, drumming, high kicking and marching up and down the street in the stadium to the fence at the border, and some aggressive-looking exchanges between the guards on each side of the border. At times, it seemed that a competition as to who could yell the loudest and longest was happening between the two countries…followed by quick high stepping to the border. It was so interesting to watch! Words don’t do it justice. I took a few video clips. Hopefully, this will give you a better idea of what was happening at the ceremony. (Don’t miss the cross-border handshake at 3:30!)
Once the official marching ended, the gates between the two countries opened, and we could more clearly see those sitting on the other side. As we peered through the open gates, we saw people equally as interested peering back at us. In time with each other, a representative from each country slowly lowered his country’s flag to officially close the border for the day.
When the ceremony officially ended and the gates closed again, people ran to the gate on both sides to greet and take a look at those who live just across the border from them. Indians and Pakistanis waved and took pictures of each other across the fence. It was such an amazing moment. The image of a woman smiling, laughing, and waving from the Pakistan side is seared in my mind —so curious, happy to see “the other,” and excited to be so close to people so different but so similar to her. Everyone seemed thrilled to see and greet those who live so close in distance but are separated so far by the politics and tension between the two nations. For a moment, it seemed that those on both sides of the border stopped clinging to their nationality and saw those who looked through the fence at them as fellow human beings. Briefly, all of the tensions that plagues the two nations disappeared. And, for that moment, people were just people. Just interested in seeing and connecting with others just across the border.
While this part of the trip to Amritsar wasn’t necessarily about finding faith in a religious way, it was definitely a way to find greater faith in humanity. In a world where there is so much conflict, seeing the Indians and Pakistanis smile happily and wave to each other across the border was a stark reminder of the humanity in all of us. Whether our countries like each other or not, at the end of the day, we are all people. Most of us want similar things in our lives. And, as we reach across a man-made fence that stands between us, we are more connected than we ever have been before.
As I reflected on this amazing moment at the fence, Craig reminded me that it was time to go as the thousands of Indians who were sitting in the stadium seats were readying to run and take their turn at the fence. Luckily, we got out of the way just before a stampede of many more people arrived to the fence!
On the walk back to our jeep, the carnival-like atmosphere continued. More vendors were out and about. As we were the first to return to our car, Craig and I grabbed a soda at a small restaurant beside the jeep and reflected on the odd yet so interesting ceremony that we had just seen.
Eventually, the other members of our group returned, and we loaded back in the car to return to Amritsar. The group briefly stopped for a lassi on the way back into town. Despite the language barrier, we took a few group pictures together and bid each other farewell – happy to have met some locals who were able to get to know a little bit in sharing sweat rags and broken conversations over lassis.
Overall, attending the border-closing ceremony was one of the highlights of our trip to India. On both a personal and tourist level, it was an experience that I definitely won’t forget!
The next day in Amritsar was devoted entirely to the Golden Temple.
The Golden Temple
We rose early and headed over to the temple to spend the morning exploring before eating lunch prepared by the Skhs living and working there. The temple itself is part of the larger Sarmandir Sahib (or Darbar Sahib) complex in Amritsar. The temple shines in gold, sitting out in a tank that pilgrims from around the world come to bathe in called the Amrit Sarovar (Pool of Nectar). Most of the men bathe in the open, public areas, while there is a private, enclosed space for women to use for bathing. The water in the tank is considered to be sacred.
Seemingly floating in the sacred water is the temple itself. Lonely Planet India notes that the temple is “a blend of Hindu and Islamic architectural styles, with an elegant marble lower level adorned with flower and animal motifs in pietra dura (marble inlay work, as seen in the Taj Mahal).” The second level of the temple is “topped by a dome gilded with 750 kg of gold.” All throughout the day and until about 10:30 at night, leaders and musicians chant from the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. There was never a moment during our visit that the chanting was not happening in the complex.
After taking in most of the complex, it was time to join pilgrims, locals, tourists, and anyone else who was hungry for lunch. At the southeast end of the complex sits the Guru-Ka-Langar, which is a huge dining area where 60,000 to 80,000 people are fed for free every day. As we sat down on the floor to eat, everyone from rich Western tourists to Indian pilgrims to poor, begging children sat down together to share a meal. Upon entering the hall, you are given a plate and utensils and then directed to the next line of people to sit in. Sikhs come around with food (including seconds!) to fill your plate. For the number of people they have to feed each day, the food was surprisingly delicious. It was such an experience to sit with people from all walks of life and enjoy a meal together. Despite their social standing, wealth (or lack of), caste, etc. outside of the temple, for a moment, everyone was equal.
While I have volunteered in soup kitchens before (and not that there is anything wrong with doing so), the experience at the Golden Temple was a very different feeding and eating experience. The service came with no expectation and no judgment. It wasn’t middle-class suburban Christians coming into the inner city to feed some homeless people a meal and then retreating back to the safety of their neighborhoods. The feeling of the dining hall was so distinct from these experiences. My lunch at the Golden Temple felt like community – actual community. Despite cultural and language barriers. Despite concerns over whether the food was “safe” for western tourists to eat. Despite knowing at some point that the little girl sitting beside me might approach me on the street asking for money, for a moment, we were the same. Just two girls sitting down for lunch served by those dedicated to their faith in the shadow of their holiest shrine. The sense of community I felt at lunch in the Golden Temple is one that I think many churches strive for in their outreach ministries but never quite find. My lunch amongst the Sikhs was both a humbling moment and a moment of revelation.
After eating lunch, Craig and I returned to the tank to walk around the complex again. As the sun rose in the sky, we found a place to sit among locals and pilgrims in the shade. As we sat down amongst them, we joined their dosing and resting in the shadow of such a pillar of their faith. One of my favorite moments of the day was resting against the side of the complex, slipping in and out of a light sleep, feeling the faith of those sitting around me.
To escape the afternoon sun, we eventually returned to our guesthouse for a few hours (grabbing a 5-rupee — less than 1 cent! — Coke just outside the complex!) and then once again returned to the Golden Temple after eating dinner and the sun had set.
We had another great experience at the temple that evening. Just sitting alongside the tank and watching the people who went by, we met Vishali, a young girl who was at the temple with her parents. She practiced her English with us and translated a few questions that her parents had for us, as well. (Where we were from, how we liked India, what our plans were for our 6 weeks in the country, etc.) We also posed for pictures with a few locals and pilgrims who were visiting the site. Later, a man around our age and a few friends sat down with us. He was a Sikh and became very interested in talking to Craig after learning that Craig had been a pastor. With the Golden Temple in the background, Craig and his new friend discussed religious in India vs. the U.S., Sikhism vs. Christianity, and a number of other topics.
As we prepared to leave for the evening, the Guru Granth Sahib who had been leading much of the chanting throughout the day from the temple itself was ceremoniously carried from the temple to where he would rest for the evening. While we didn’t expect to see anything else that night, seeing the removal of the leader and the closing of the temple was a pleasant surprise! As we said goodnight to friends that we had met in the complex throughout the day (and took a final few pictures), I was so pleased with our visit to Amritsar and couldn’t believe that I had almost nixed it from the itinerary.
While certainly not a church, the Golden Temple is one of the religious sites that I have felt the most welcome and at home at during our trip. Despite not being Sikhs, we were welcome to visit, eat, observe, and take part in life in a place that is so scared to Sikh believers. There wasn’t one moment where I felt like I wasn’t welcome or shouldn’t be at the temple just because my beliefs were different (as I have felt at many other religious sites during our trip). For me, I was able to find God and find faith in a faith community outside of my own. And, from my experience at the Golden Temple, I see a number of practices that I wish I saw in churches of my own faith today. While our churches must challenge believers and visitors alike, we must also make a greater effort to form community – not just among those within our doors but among those who live on the blocks and neighborhoods that surround our churches but never come in. Christianity demands everything we have. But, it does not mean that we should only be around and welcome believers. We must be Jesus and be in the world around us – not hiding behind the doors or our churches from the scary world outside. Particularly in the meal at the Golden Temple, I found followers of another religion who embody Jesus much more than many of our churches do. Not only are they feeding the hungry, but they are building a community where everyone has a seat at the table and everyone is worthy of a meal together.
As I continue throughout my journey of India, Nepal, and beyond, I hope that I can continue to have faith experiences like the one I had in the Golden Temple and can continue to see ways in which I can be a better Christian and the church can better serve the world through the faith and religious practices of others.