First the good. The Golden Temple in Amritsar was one of the standout highlights of this trip so far, perhaps of all the trips I’ve ever made. Surrounded by a maze of chaotic, filthy, medieval lanes and alleys, it’s a haven of tranquility, even when it’s buzzing with hundreds of devout pilgrims. I’m not religious, but there’s something intense and moving about being in a place where there is a unity of purpose, where everyone is intent on the same thing. You can’t help but be swept away by the fervour of it all, with the temple itself reflected in the pool and musical chants being broadcast all around.
I also learned a lot about the Sikh religion, how it came about in reaction to the caste system of Hinduism and how one of its main tenets is equality. To this end, the temple offers free lunches to anyone who wants to eat and this can number tens of thousands every day. It’s fascinating to watch the almost military operation as many volunteers help out and the sound and clatter of metal thali trays being washed is incredible.
It’s fun just to walk around the pool, watching pilgrims bathing and praying. Priests sit in rooms chanting and passing huge fans over the holy books. The people are very friendly and curious and are keen to stop and chat. The first question is usually, “What your country?” I went back three times at different times of day, and each time it never failed to impress.
Now the bad. Chandigarh is the complete opposite to Amritsar. It’s a modern, clean and ordered city, but that’s about all it’s got going for it. After Partition in 1947 Punjab lost its capital Lahore to Pakistan and so a new city was ordered, and the commission went to Le Corbusier. Like all planned cities it hasn’t aged well and I found it soulless and sterile.
The one saving grace is the Rock Garden built over many years in secret by Nek Chand. He built a maze and warren of passages, in direct contrast with the ordered grid of Chandigarh. He peopled it with statues and sculptures made out of the debris and rubble from the villages demolished to make way for the new city, old bits of crockery and coloured bangles. It’s an astonishing outdoors gallery and has more style, wit and creativity than the entire city.
Finally, the ugly. Just a few kilometres west of Amritsar lies the Pakistani border. It’s now a tradition for the border to be closed at dusk with pomp and ceremony and it’s become a tourist attraction. Stadium seating has been built and Indians and Pakistanis sit on opposite sides and wave flags and jeer and boo each other. Absurdly dressed guards strut their stuff in high-kicking marching which reminded me of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.
It’s supposed to be good-natured, but I found it jingoistic and unappealing. With tensions high between the countries and real violence a frequent occurrence, it seems odd to encourage such nationalistic sentiments.
All in all, though, I’ve enjoyed my week in Punjab. It’s very different from Himalayan India. It’s hot, dirty and crazy, but rewarding. You just have to adapt to a different rhythm and deal with the hassle. Momos and thukpas are no longer to be found, just tasty, fiery Indian food. I’m off to Delhi next which is going to require all my patience and nerve. When I’m snarled in traffic or being hassled by a rickshaw driver, I’ll try to imagine myself back in the calm serenity of the Golden Temple.