Saturday, 27 September 2014

Incredible India: Part 5: Amritsar to Agra

world-map delhi

This week’s post describes one of the most awful rail journeys of my life. Three hours spent in the end vestibule of a carriage with fifteen other people. That’s 21st century Indian 3rd class for you! It’s certainly a far cry from the trains of many countries today, including my own, although in our quest for safety I do believe that we have lost one of the greatest pleasures of rail travel: the window that opens.

Today however, I was granted a reminder that we haven’t always been so “civilised”. I had the immense pleasure to travel on the Knotty Heritage Train at the Foxfield Light Railway, a train made up of Third Class carriages from the 1870s lovingly restored by the railway. They’ve done a remarkable job with the coaches and I’ve always appreciated seeing them in the museum, but not until you ride on them do you get to understand just how uncomfortable hard wooden seats and a lack of suspension can be. Imagine that crammed to overflowing and it doesn’t bear thinking about.

kht The Knotty Heritage Train

Thankfully, unlike Indian National Railways, the Foxfield Light Railway does not cram its passengers on like sardines and so I recommend heading down there some day and checking out rail travel from almost a century and a half ago. Travel does not always involve distance; time is another method.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

Prologue: Al-Ain and Dubai

Part 1: Delhi – Paharganj and Chandni Chowk 

Intermission: Sikhism

Part 2: Amritsar – The Golden Temple

Part 3: Amritsar – Jallianwala Bagh and the Border with Pakistan 

Part 4: Amritsar – Silver, Golden and Psychedelic Temples

Part 5: Amritsar to Agra

map_india_northwest 4


On the bunks opposite me on the Golden Temple Express2 were an interesting couple. They were a middle-class, newly-wed woman who was very chatty and her mother-in-law. It was the former who told me about the Mata Lal Devi Temple being a copy of a genuine cave temple up in Kashmir, but not until she had informed me that her husband was not romantic in the slightest, this apparently being a problem with all Indian men. She then quizzed me on my origins and travels. “England,” she declared with great confidence, “is a very good country but not worth migrating to as there are no opportunities for Indians there.” She was more interested in New Zealand and after discovering that I had been there, grilled me on visa requirements and career opportunities. Since my two-week stay in that country over a decade ago largely consisted of me mooching around my friends' house in Nelson due to me losing my wallet on the plane over and needing to wait for a bank transfer from the UK, I'm afraid that I wasn't much use to her save to impress on her how rural and unpopulated New Zealand is in comparison to India. This caused her to launch into a lengthy monologue on the pros and cons of city life as opposed to village living, she herself being a big city girl which perhaps caused a shadow of doubt to pass over her Down Under Dream. Whatever the case, I was still feeling decidedly iffy and after she settled down to sleep, I attempted to do the same, although I struggled to actually achieve that blessed release for several hours as we rattled and rocked through the dark Punjabi night.


The Golden Temple Express deposited me not at at new Delhi Railway Station, but instead another of the Indian capital's terminals, Hazrat Nizamuddin at the ungodly hour of 07:05. After booking my onward ticket to Agra with surprising ease, (and very cheap too), and dumping my bags, I grabbed an auto rickshaw to take me to the Sufi shrine that the station and indeed that whole district of the city was named after.

Prior to coming to India I'd consulted Holger Brüne,3 a friend much-travelled in India and he'd said that if I only visit one place in Delhi, then Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah should be it. A 'dargah' is a Sufi Islamic shrine built over the grave of a revered religious figure,4 and the figure in question at Hazrat Nizamuddin is one Nizamuddin Auliya (1238-1325), one of the pre-eminent saints of the Chisti Order, who stressed love as a means of realising God since for him, his love of God implied also a love of humanity. This manifested itself in opposition to political and social oppression, an identification with the poor and oppressed, and tolerance towards other faiths. Taking all of that into account, for an incurable old liberal and socialist like myself, paying homage at such a shrine was definitely a worthwhile way to spend my hour or two before catching my next train.

The Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah was reached by walking through a crowded bazaar of narrow, twisting alleyways. Hawkers offered to look after my shoes whilst also trying to sell me cloths to place and baskets of fragrant flowers to scatter over the holy man's tomb. I bought some of the latter along with a Muslim skullcap – the only head-covering that I had was the orange bandanna with “Golden Temple” printed all over it; hardly appropriate – and then entered the sanctuary.

I could tell right away that Holger had been right: this was a special place, a tranquil oasis in the bustling city. It was no architectural masterpiece but a sacred domain of calm and content. I walked through the tombs of Nizamuddin's disciples towards the main shrine itself, situated next to a fine Mughal mosque. The shrine itself was intimate and busy yet not overpowering, and the smell of fragrant flowers gave it an aura of gentle sanctity. I deposited mine as a gift to the saint and then departed. The only slightly jarring aspect to it all was that the female devotees were not allowed inside the shrine itself; the many that were present petitioned Nizamuddin through latticed screens and whilst I have no doubt that their prayers will be heard just as much as those of the men inside, I felt sad to see them excluded so, like inferior beings or second class citizens. After the very visual equality of the Golden Temple it seemed wrong.

The Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin

My visit to the dargah was shorter than I would have liked for I had a train to catch and I rushed back to the railway station to board it. Once there I learnt the folly of booking my ticket at the railway station ticket window. Yes, it had been quick and cheap, but there were good reasons for that. I discovered to my dismay that my berth onwards to Agra was no berth at all but instead a place in the standing-room only non-reserved third class coach. I was destined to spend the next three to four hours in the end vestibule of said coach along with no less than fifteen other souls. It was crowding-room only on that, maybe the worst rail journey of my life and I spent my time drifting in and out of sleep, reading Paulo Coelho's distinctly average 'Aleph' and gazing at the flat landscape that we passed by.


By the time that we pulled into Agra Cantonment Railway Station I was fed up and just wanted a hotel in which to lay my bags and stretch out. That was probably why I accepted the first hotel that my taxi driver took me to even though it was rather out of town and, at 900 rupees p/n, hardly represented great value for money. Nonetheless, it served its purpose and after freshening up I was ready to see a little of what India's Number One tourist hotspot has to offer.

1The Satanic Verses, p.4-5
2Previously the 'Flying Mail', the renaming of this train was a political demand of the Sikh Akalis.
3See my travelogue 'Latvia, Georgia and Turkey 2010'.
4The literal meaning of the word 'dargah' is, interestingly, similar to that of the term 'gurdwara', both meaning a “gateway” or “portal” to God or the Guru. 'Dargah' has Persian roots whilst 'gurdwara' is Punjabi.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Incredible India: Part 4: Amritsar – Silver, Golden and Psychedelic Temples

world-map amritsar
This week’s offering is a day early since I shall be attending a funeral tomorrow and in no mood afterwards for blogging. Events like that make you think about things and assess where your life is at. Indeed, it was a funeral many years in 1996 that inspired me to make the leap and try living abroad. Time is limited and if you want something, then go for it. That has always stayed with me and served me well as an inspiration. So, if you are wondering whether to take the plunge and visit that country that you’ve always wanted to visit and never got round to, then please do it.
You won’t regret it.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

Prologue: Al-Ain and Dubai

Part 1: Delhi – Paharganj and Chandni Chowk 

Intermission: Sikhism

Part 2: Amritsar – The Golden Temple

Part 3: Amritsar – Jallianwala Bagh and the Border with Pakistan

Part 4: Amritsar – Silver, Golden and Psychedelic Temples

Part 5: Amritsar to Agra

map_india_northwest 2


Back in Amritsar, I was dropped off in the old city and took a leisurely walk back to my hotel. En route I checked out a few of the shops and made a couple of purchases: a Punjabi dictionary and English textbook for my students back home. I also passed a shop where they made custom rubber stamps, (you know, the type they ink into passports), and thought that it would be rather cool to have one with my name so I placed an order and then went for another tasty yet unbelievably greasy “Punjabi Menu” meal to celebrate. I then went to a travel agent to book my onward train ticket back to Delhi for the following night before heading back to the one place that I wanted to be.

Before coming out to India, people had said to me that you have to see the Golden Temple by night and they were right. The gold glitters and the reflections in the pool are beautiful. Still busy yet tranquil, I sat on the parikarama and drank it all in. the truth was, prior to setting foot inside the complex that morning, I'd neither been particularly impressed with nor enjoyed India all that much. Still, outside of the Golden Temple and the Sis Ganj Gurdwara, I was so far none too impressed with the India that I saw; filthy and scruffy, like Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam where I lived for two years and never managed to fall in love with. However, sat there as the voice of the granthi accompanied by the sounds of the ragis washed over me and the moonlight glittered on the waters of the Amrit Saroyar, I knew that, if only for that moment alone, coming to India had been truly worth it.

75347-Golden-Temple-at-night-Amritsar-0 The Golden Temple at night

That night it happened.

That which I'd been dreading; that which I'd strenuously tried to avoid.

I blame the “Punjabi Menu”.

Either that or the shock of turning on the telly in the middle of the night and learning that, for the first time in six hundred years, the Pope had decided to resign.

Delhi Belly struck and when I slept – which was for short periods only – that sleep was filled with chaotic, nonsensical dreams, weirder than even high-kicking Pakistani soldiers, temples of gold and resigning popes. Past experience had taught me that food poisoning only lasts twenty-four hours but during those hours you feel like the living dead and absolutely nothing is possible. So, I would not be seeing anymore of Amritsar. Oh well, at least I'd seen the Golden Temple.

Yet the following morning I was up and, although weak, tired and ready to vomit, it was clearing! Who knows, perhaps staying off the meat had been worth it after all? Or maybe it was simply the praying? By eleven I was up and out, ready to see what Amritsar has to offer beyond its two star attractions.

My guidebook informed me that one of the main sights worth seeing was the Sri Durgiana Temple, the main Hindu holy site in town and referred to as the Silver Temple, presumably to differentiate it from its more illustrious neighbour. I decided to stroll through the old city to reach it rather than take a rickshaw which I did, marvelling at some of the crumbling Mughal Era buildings on the way before I hit the main drag of the Circular Road which I wandered along for some distance before I realised that I'd somehow managed to miss a temple as big as the Golden Temple and my weakened state was not really conducive to walking any further so I fought my stubbornness and hailed a rickshaw.

And the rickshaw that I hailed took my breath away. Literally. The man who pedalled me for pennies stank to high heaven making me wish to turn my head away. I realised that he probably slept on the street, had only one set of clothes and had not bathed for months. After the stark cleanliness of the Golden Temple, this reminder of India's grinding poverty hit me, and not just through the nostrils. Upon arrival I went against the habit of a lifetime and tipped him, especially since the rate that he charged me was the lowest that I'd come across so far.

When I entered the compound of the Sri Durgiana Temple I did a double-take. Wait a minute, hadn't I just left this place behind? For the so-called Silver Temple is not silver at all, (the name comes from its silver doors), but instead rather more gold. In fact it is, all in all, a pretty good lookalike of the Golden Temple itself: a small square golden mandir with four entrances sat in the middle of a large rectangular pool. Hell, they were even offering langar! (Which I didn't dare try, my stomach being far from settled). Intrigued, I walked the (far less crowded) causeway to the temple itself but here I began to notice the differences: the Golden Temple had been scrupulously clean and smart, this place was dusty and peeling at the edges in a very Indian way; in the pool here there were statues of various gods and goddesses, but these, alas, smacked more of Disneyland than divinity, and inside the temple it was all completely different: whereas the Hari Mandir Sahib had been tasteful and classy, the interior of the Silver Temple was merely tacky, a phantasmagoria of glass mosaic, more Great Yarmouth fairground than Guru Ram Das. Most telling of all though was the focus of the whole complex, for the devotees inside all had their eyes fixed upon a large idol of the goddess Durga rather than the book as in their temple's Sikh sister.1

II021 The Silver Temple

I returned to the parikarama rather exhausted by all my exertions and sat down in the shade to think for this place fascinated me as it appeared to shed more light on my earlier trains of thought. Two temples of two different faiths in the same city and looking virtually identical, yet why? My guidebook informed me that the Silver Temple was in fact built in the 16th century making it older than its famous neighbour, so was it that the Golden Temple was in fact modelled on this – and other similar – Hindu temple? That made sense for the name 'mandir' generally refers to a Hindu place of worship and those are generally square, that being seen as a sacred shape in the faith, whilst the rituals of bathing in or circumnavigating sacred pools are both common in Hinduism. Had Guru Ram Das merely copied the standard Hindu temple form when constructing the holy shrine for his new faith? The Golden Temple was begun only thirty-five years after the death of Guru Nanak and at that stage there was little to differentiate the two faiths, particularly since Hinduism has always had numerous sects and sub-sects following the teachings of one particular guru or another. The clear blue water between the two faiths evolved slowly over time, widened and solidified under Guru Gobind Singh's tenure with the institution of the Khalsa and the raising of the Adi Granth to the status of Living Guru, and these differences were then further emphasised and widened by the Khalsa itself and Akali movement of the 19th and 20th centuries. Had not my visit to the Udasi gurdwara the previous day shown how very Hindu Sikhism could have been?

This temple showed more and it made sense. What is that clear blue water that now exists? Not the local style or culture, but instead what lies at the heart of the faith: an idol or a book; the presence or the Word of God? To a Christian this dichotomy should be familiar for in many ways it is what separates a Catholic from a Protestant: in a Catholic church the altar – where bread is transformed in the Real Presence of God through Transubstantiation – is central, but in the Protestant church it is always the lectern, the Word of God that counts. I felt in this Hindu temple that I'd learnt something more about Sikhism. Sadly though, I felt no closer to comprehending or experiencing the religion that it was dedicated to.2

In the outer precincts of the Silver Temple I met Carlos and Montserrat, a young Mexican couple who were doing a similar trip to mine, albeit in the opposite direction, this being their last stop before flying home. They'd Enjoyed their trip and were shocked when I told them about the Pope resigning; they'd been so engrossed in India that they'd lost touch of the world outside. I got that; in places like the Golden Temple, the world outside can seem unreal and unimportant. The question was, would I find anywhere else in India like that? Carlos and Montserrat then asked me about my travels and since we all found each other's company agreeable, then I accompanied them to Amritsar's other Hindu hotspot, the Mata Lal Devi Temple near to the railway station.

Expecting a temple in the “normal” manner of such places, none of us were prepared for what we encountered for although I've been to some pretty weird worship sites on my journeyings, (most of them in Vietnam), nothing has been quite like that place. The guidebook described it as a “cave temple” but there were no caves in sight, instead a large square building, several storeys high, with a gaudy entrance. Once inside you were signposted around a surreal labyrinth, more like a fairground House of Fun than aught else that I've visited. There were tiny passages, rows of lingams, cartoon-faced deities, halls of mirrors, a tunnel to climb through and then finally wading through a foot or so of water in a cave of the finest polystyrene. A Health and Safety Officer's nightmare or a mushroom-induced vision? A bit of both in fact, all in the very worst of taste. If the Silver Temple left me a little unsure of Hinduism, then the Mata Lal Devi Temple left me totally bewildered.3

II022   II023 Inside the weird and wonderful Mata Lal Devi Temple

I said goodbye to Montserrat and Carlos outside the temple and then went into the neighbouring pharmacy to buy some medicine for my still-sulky stomach, hoping that some tablets would coax me into a state of being somewhere near to being alive. Then I took a rickshaw back to the city centre to cllect my rubber stamp before retiring to an internet café for over four hours after which, either due to the drugs or the rest or both, I was feeling rather better.

II024 With Montserrat and Carlos outside the Mata Lal Devi Temple

On Amritsar Railway Station, as I was waiting for the 21:25 Golden Temple Express to Delhi, there was one of those little moments that make travel so wonderful. One feature of Indians that has long amused me is how, although they tend to speak English well, they often add their own twist to my native language. As an ESOL teacher, their propensity for using the continuous aspect rather than the simple, “Sir, I am going to the class and I am studying the English and I am liking it very much...”), is both infuriating and incurable. But their word play is often marvellously creative and is exploited admirably by many of the country's writers, such as here by Salman Rushdie in his controversial 'Satanic Verses':

See, there, at the Willingdon Club golf links only nine holes nowadays, skyscrapers having sprouted out of the other nine like giant weeds, or, let's say, like tombstones marking the sites where the torn corpse of the old city lay there, right there, upper-echelon executives, missing the simplest putts; and, look above, tufts of anguished hair, torn from senior heads, wafting down from high-level windows. The agitation of the producers was easy to understand, because in those days of declining audiences and the creation of historical soap operas and contemporary crusading housewives by the television network, there was but a single name which, when set above a picture's title, could still offer a sure-fire, cent-per-cent guarantee of an Ultrahit, a Smashation, and the owner of said name had departed, up, down or sideways, but certainly and unarguably vamoosed...”4

But it was from a simple food vendor on Platform 1 of Amritsar Railway Station that I heard my favourite snippet of “Inglish”: after ordering a cheese sandwich, (the only food my stomach could cope with), he asked me in all seriousness, “You want hotting?”
1Another difference is that the Silver Temple only has a wall around much of its compound whereas the Golden Temple has buildings. However, old photos of the latter show that many of the peripheral buildings are relatively new and that it once looked even more similar to how the Silver Temple appears today.
2As an interesting postsrcipt to all this, I made a video on the parikarama which I later posted on YouTube where it caused some controversy. Apparently my guidebook was wrong and whilst the site upon which it is built has ancient Hindu connections, the Silver Temple itself only dates from 1908 and so is copied off the Golden Temple and not the other way round. According to one poster, Gurpreet Singh Sandhar, it is part of a concerted campaign by “Hindu radicals” who are “building replica Sikh temples” and “distorting Sikh scriptures” in order to prove that Sikhism is actually a form of Hinduism. Is this the real truth or a symptom of a post-Operation Blue Star paranoia? I for one, am not qualified to answer.
3Later research on that particular temple helped little either. Lal Devi was a 20th century female saint who is apparently well-known amongst Hindus but seems to be totally absent from the internet. Apparently she came from Kashmir and had a cave temple there. The temple in Amritsar is a replica of that temple that has been built for devotees who are too poor or ill to make the journey to Kashmir; rather similar in concept to the replica of Christ's Tomb that was built under the tower of Ripon Cathedral in mediaeval times.
4The Satanic Verses, p.4-5

Friday, 12 September 2014

Incredible India: Part 3: Amritsar – Jallianwala Bagh and the Border with Pakistan

world-map amritsar Greetings!

This week we’re still in Amritsar, but going beyond the precincts of the Golden Temple to some of the other local sights. One was hard for me to take: Jallianwala Bagh, the site of one of the worst atrocities committed by the British. How strange to think that less than a century ago my country controlled much of the globe, its flag flying proud and high yet next week the very future of that entity known as the United Kingdom is in great doubt. Will the Union Jack be flying anywhere in a year’s time, let alone in Amritsar. I for one hope that the Scots see that it is always better to co-operate rather than separate oneself from a neighbour, but the romantic attractions of nationalism are strong. After seeing what it has done to the Balkans however, it is a brew that I can never partake in. Still, every cloud has a silver lining: if they do vote ‘Yes’ next week, then at least I can say that Uncle Travelling Matt has visited another country.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

Prologue: Al-Ain and Dubai

Part 1: Delhi – Paharganj and Chandni Chowk 

Intermission: Sikhism

Part 2: Amritsar – The Golden Temple

Part 3: Amritsar – Jallianwala Bagh and the Border with Pakistan

Part 4: Amritsar – Silver, Golden and Psychedelic Temples

map_india_northwest 2


I did not leave the Golden Temple complex immediately when I finally arose from my meditations, but instead checked out the Central Sikh Museum above the main entrance, a collection of paintings and artefacts connected with the Gurus and a host of martyrs depicted dying horrible deaths, usually at the hands of the Mughals. Then I went outside to buy some mementoes of my visit including a plastic bottle which I filled with water from the Amrit Sarovar to give to my Sikh students who, of course, had no way of visiting the temple for themselves in their present condition.1

Having seen the Golden Temple, I now moved onto Amritsar's other main site of significance, a site sacred to all Indians for very different reasons than the Hari Mandir Sahib. Anyone who has ever seen the film 'Gandhi' will be familiar with what happened at Jallianwala Bagh.

On the 13th April, 1919, a crowd of over 5,000 Indians were holding a peaceful demonstration against the recent passing of the controversial Rowlatt Act which gave the British the powers to imprison Indians without trial. The demonstration was in Jallianwala Bagh, a large open space surrounded by high walls. Fearing that things might turn violent, the local British commander, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, entered the compound with a hundred and fifty troop and gave the order to open fire. Six minutes later, more than four hundred were dead and one thousand five hundred wounded. It was the worst British atrocity in India since the Mutiny of 1857.

Walking around Jallianwala Bagh was a strange and unnerving experience. Today it is a well-kept, rather pretty garden, and although the locations of where the troops stood and the crowd fell are clearly marked, and even though there are still bullet holes in the walls, it is hard to imagine that anything so horrible ever took place there. But then it is always difficult to imagine human barbarity. But what made Jallianwala Bagh so difficult for me was that the British were the perpetrators. I have been a number of sites of evil on my travels – Auschwitz, Pol Pot's Killing Field, Hiroshima, Hebron, Berlin and the many towns of Eastern Europe where once the Jews lived, but always the group to blame for the barbarity had been someone else or, such as in the endless tombstones of the Somme, British killing was somehow justified as being in a war, part of a fair fight. But there in Jallianwala Bagh, we were the bad guys and what we did could never be justified. And whilst I didn't fire a bullet myself, I still found that difficult to deal with.

II014 Jallianwala Bagh

One aspect of the Sikh faith that I find infuriating is that there is very little written about it in English. Go into any quality bookshop in the UK and head for the 'Religion and Spirituality' section and you'll find shelves of tomes on a myriad of different forms of Christian expression, Islam, Kaballah, Buddhist thought magick, Tantric wisdom, Atheist retorts to faith, and even Mormonism and Scientology, but nothing whatsoever about the Sikhs.2 This is, if you think about it, a little strange since we have the largest Sikh population outside of India, around half a million souls which makes it the fourth-largest religion in the country after Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Indeed, despite extensive searching, the only books on the faith that I managed to read before coming to India were Navtej Sama's short but readable 'The Book of Nanak' and Hew McLeod's excellent 'Sikhism'. However, outside the Golden Temple I'd spied a building with a huge sign on the side declaring it to be a Sikh bookshop. I just had to go.

A little surprised to be attracting non-Sikh custom, the Khalsa gent inside responded to my request for books on the history of his faith by displaying an array, out of which I picked Khushwant Singh's two volume 'A History of the Sikhs' which is seen to be the seminal work on the subject. With my other two requests however, he struggled. The first, recalling my study on Guru Nanak at Edge Hill University, was for a book on Nanak's travels, the Four (or Five...) Udasis. Such a book, he admitted, did not exist and nor too did my next want: a study on the Udasi3 sect of the faith.

I'd read about these in McLeod's 'Sikhism' and they fascinated me. Whenever one studies Sikhism, one is struck, particularly if coming from Christianity with its thousands of churches and denominations, of how monolithic Sikhism is, how there is one clear narrative to be told from Guru Nanak's conversion, through the Ten Gurus to the establishment of the Khalsa and the establishment of the Guru Granth Sahib right up until the present-day. Yet McLeod revealed that there are other narratives about and principal amongst them is that of the Udasis who, although a tiny and insignificant group today, have been massively influential throughout much of Sikh history, controlling many of the important gurdwaras right up until the 1920s including no less a shrine than the Golden Temple itself.

The Udasis differ from mainstream Khalsa Sikhs in that they believe that after Guru Nanak died, although they recognise the Ten Gurus, of equal importance was another chain of succession through his son, Baba Sri Chand right down to the Mahant, the present-day leader of their sect. They also revere the Adi Granth4 but do not treat the book as a Living Guru as the Khalsa Sikhs do and they give its teachings a different twist whilst also revering, unlike mainstream Sikhs, Hindu deities, principally the Pancha-Deva (Five Gods) of Ganesha, Devi, Shiva, Surya and Vishnu.

Reading about this sect got me to thinking, a process that only intensified after visiting the Golden Temple. Sikhism is a separate, unique and beautiful religion today, that is clear, but at the same time its relationship to Hinduism is, at times, blurred. My assistant at work referred to one of our students as a “Hindu Sikh”, that is to say, a Sikh, yes, but following many Hindu practices, (and the inference in this was not positive). Yet Guru Nanak himself was originally a Hindu of the Sant tradition and his teachings and lifestyle are little different to those of many Sant holy men, some of whose writing are included within the Guru Granth Sahib. Plus, visiting the temple, I was struck by how very Hindu some of it was. True, the langar stands in stark contrast to the Hindu ideals of caste, but bathing in a sacred pool and then a square temple called a mandir! The only difference was that in the Hari Mandir Sahib there is a book rather than an idol. But what if Sikhism had followed a different, more Hindu path, where idols were permitted, the book never raised to the status of a Guru and the Khalsa never instituted? It was an intriguing train of thought.5

But one that the bookshop could little help me with. There are no books written on the Udasis (in English) but the helpful gent did provide one on Baba Sri Chand, Guru Nanak's son whom the sect revere, and he also told me where their gurdwara is. Interestingly, I had just walked past it and assumed it to be a Hindu temple, so different was it to an orthodox Sikh gurdwara. I thanked the assistant, bought the books and then check it out.

The Udasi gurdwara next to the north-western corner of the Golden Temple complex is a fascinating place to visit. Unless you had been told any different, you would think it to be Hindu. There are no turbans and beards here, (Udasis do not wear the Five Ks, another of Guru Gobind Singh's innovations), and no Guru Granth Sahib is at the heart of things. Instead there are idols surrounded by flashing lights and offerings as at any Hindu shrine. There were the five recognisable Hindu deities but the one in pride of place I knew from somewhere else: the book which I had just been sold. It was Baba Sri Chand, Guru Nanak's first-born son.

Orthodox Sikh tradition is rather dismissive of Guru Nanak's two sons. Contrary to protocol, he did not pass his guruship onto either of them because Sri Chand was too ascetic and Lakhmi Das too worldly, implying that the Sikh path is a middle way between withdrawal from the world and complete immersion within it. There are also suggestions that both sons were disobedient. The Udasis however, revel in Sri Chand's asceticism and 'A Spiritual Biography of Baba Sri Chand Ji' by Dr. Davinderpaul Singh states that “The Udasis were the true messengers of Sikhism”6 before cataloguing a plethora of miracles such as turning Mughal soldiers into statues, causing a farmer to go mad, saving the sinking ship of a devotee, providing a city with fresh water and bringing his nephew back down to earth after his brother, the child's father, was leaving for Heaven. It was like reading a mediaeval hagiography and a world away from the book-centred atmosphere in the Golden Temple next-door. This alternative, very Hindu Sikhism continued to intrigue me.


II017 The Udasi Gurdwara

Excursion: Attari-Wagah

Intriguing or not though, it was now time to put religion to one side and engage in some far more secular activities. I went for lunch in the old city and enjoyed a rather tasty but very greasy “Punjabi Menu” whilst listening to two young American sisters in their twenties on the next table talk incessantly about hairstyles. I ask you; you travel thousands of miles to one of the holiest cities on earth and all you can find to talk about is what to do with your bangs7 and curls!

After dinner I made my way back to my hotel where I rested awhile and then was picked up by a minivan to take me to that evening's entertainment: the Border Closing Ceremony at Attari-Wagah some 20km distant.

The ceremony, ('Beating the Retreat' is its official name), has been enacted everyday since 1959. the emotions behind it and the attraction of it are obvious: one-upmanship. Michael Palin attended on his 'Himalaya' journey and described it as a display of “carefully choreographed contempt” and I could not have put it better myself. Let's see whose soldiers can shout the loudest and longest, can kick the highest, can be cheered the most and can scare the other side. Whatever the case, so long as you don't take things too seriously, it was all rather good fun and, just in case you're wondering who won, here's my non-partisan verdict:

Pre-Ceremony Entertainment
Shouting, flag-waving, music and schoolgirls dancing energetically to Bollywood hits
Shouting, flag-waving, music 
India – the schoolgirls were a nice touch
Crowd Size
c. 5,000
c. 2,000
Shout Outs
Loud and long 
Louder and longer
Equality and Diversity
Many races and faiths present; mixed seating and girl soldiers as well as the boys
Segregated seating and no women in sexy uniforms
High and silly
High and silly

And so there you have it, the official Uncle Travelling Matt verdict: an Indian victory, although to be fair, since India is five times bigger than its noisy neighbour, then I reckon it would be a pretty poor show if it didn't win, don't you think?

II018 Schoolgirls dancing…

II020 Soldiers marching…

II019 … and gates closing.

1I taught in a prison at the time.
2Perhaps is one downside of it not being a missionary faith? If you don't pester people with your religion, then perhaps they don't want to find out about it so much?
3The name is confusing as 'udasi' also refers to one of the Guru's sacred journeys. In the original Punjabi different stress marks differentiate the two very different terms. The name for the sect comes from the term 'udas' which means 'detachment' or 'renunciation'.
4The non-honorific name for the Guru Granth Sahib which does not reflect its status within Orthodox Sikh belief as the Eternal Guru.
5There may well be another, rather unexpected reason for the sharp distinction now drawn between Sikhs and Hindus: the British Army. After the British defeat of the last Sikh kingdom in 1849, the priviliges of the Khalsa now a thing of the past, many Sikhs relapsed into Hinduism and practices began to merge to such an extent that the Governor of Bombay, Sir Geoffrey Clerk predicted that in fifty years the sect would have disappeared, (A History of the Sikhs: Vol. II, p.96). However, following the Indian Mutiny of 1857 when the Sikhs overwhelmingly supported the British over their Muslim and Hindu brethren, then the Sikhs gained great privileges under the British, particularly in the army where they formed 25% of the soldiery and had their own battalions in which soldiers who cut their hair or followed other non-Khalsa practices were expelled (Ibid, p.119).
6The Spiritual Biography of Baba Sri Chand Ji, p.12

Friday, 5 September 2014

Incredible India: Part 2: Amritsar – The Golden Temple

world-map amritsar

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working hard at getting my Flickr page into some sort of shape. Please take some time to visit it as it contains photos of a lot of the travels contained within this blog as well as some more that aren’t. Some of the trips on this blog that are on offer so far are as follows:
As well as those familiar trips, please have a look at some of those not yet documented on UTM:
And of course, most of important of all for this week, the country that my camerawork fails to do any justice to: India 2013.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

Prologue: Al-Ain and Dubai

Part 1: Delhi – Paharganj and Chandni Chowk

Intermission: Sikhism


The sun was setting as we pulled into Amritsar's railway station, a grand British edifice although tastelessly adorned with numerous faux cupolas since independence. I hailed a rickshaw for the short journey to the Golden Temple, although when we had to cross the railway tracks that I had just ridden in on, it all proved too much for the wallah so I got out and helped him push.

I was dropped off just a few metres short of the temple compound and I booked myself into the first hotel that I saw, the 600 rupees p/n 'Golden Castle Rooms' where I got an early night in order to be fresh and bright in the morning to experience what I had travelled all this way to see.

I was up early and eager and out of the hotel by the time that the clock struck nine. I had chosen not to visit the Golden Temple the night before because this was what I had come to India to see, the main impetus behind the entire trip and so if I was going to do it, I would do it properly and savour every holy moment as is only proper for such a sacred site.

I bought an orange bandanna with the Khalsa symbol and “Golden Temple” printed across the front in both English and Punjabi, (covering one's head is mandatory within the temple compound), and then went to the vast cloakroom to deposit my shoes, (where I also picked up some free Sikh literature for my students' perusal), and then, after ritually washing my feet, walked into the compound itself.

The Golden Temple – or 'Hari Mandir Sahib' as it is known in Punjabi – is the holiest shrine in Sikhism, although I must admit to being a bit puzzled as to why. It was founded in 1577 by the Fourth Guru, Guru Ram Das, who was granted the land by the famously tolerant Mughal Emperor Akbar. He began to excavate the pool and invited traders to set up around the site, in essence establishing a Sikh holy capital, Guru Ka Cak (modern-day Amritsar). The excavations were finished by the Fifth Guru, Guru Arjan, who then built the original gurdwara in the centre. The site then developed as the centre of the Sikh World until the Sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind, was forced to abandon it in the early 17th century after coming under attack from the (now far less tolerant) Mughals. However, afterwards it was rebuilt and has remained the principal shrine of Sikhism ever since, although as I alluded to earlier, that surprises me somewhat since it has no connection with the founder of the faith, Guru Nanak,1 and has precious little to do with the Tenth and final living Guru, Guru Gobind Singh. Nonetheless, ever since I first saw a picture back in that classroom in Ormskirk of that tiny temple seemingly floating in its pool of clear blue waters, surrounded on all sides by ornate white buildings, then I knew that this was a place that I would have to visit before I died.

And it did not disappoint. As I rose the steps up through the main entrance and the shrine came into view, I can only describe it as marvellous, special, holy. It was busy, yes, possibly thousands of devotees milling around, yet it was quiet, calm, sanctified and, in stark contrast to the chaotic city outside, scrupulously clean. I descended the steps onto the parikarama (the walkway around the pool) and felt a peacefulness descend over me. My faith or not, I could say without doubt, “The Lord is in this place.”

II010 The Golden Temple

I circumnavigated the Amrit Sarovar2 clockwise, stopping off at the relevant places of interest. I deliberately hadn't eaten so I stopped off at the langar behind the two watchtowers, (which I'd always assumed to be minarets belonging to a mosque beyond the compound. As at Sis Ganj, I found the langar a humbling and beautiful experience. There I was, sat cross-legged in a row with a hundred others. The woman on my left looked rich, perhaps an emigrant or local businesswoman, whilst the man on my right was filthy, perhaps a beggar or farm labourer. Yet for that meal we were equal. No one thought it improper that one of obviously another faith, let alone another race, was sat there partaking in the food, just as no one thought it improper that a woman was sat touching shoulders with a non-related man, nor that a rich man such as I was brushing clothes with the lowest on the social scale. And what of the Khalsa Sikhs who were serving us? They all looked well-heeled, perhaps community leaders used to ordering about those whom they now waited on, and I have not even mentioned the countless unseen volunteers who prepared, transported and donated the food. No, despite the inequalities and unfairness of the world, for that brief meal we were equal, just as we are eternally in the eyes of God. In the langar Heaven itself is glimpsed. Is there any better and more fitting tribute to the beautiful theology of Nanak? Alas, all of us other religions have, at times, a lot to learn.

II011 The Langar

After the langar I continued round the Amrit Sarovar, past Ath Sath Triath, the Baba Dip Singh Shrine and round the parikarama to the Hari Mandir Sahib itself. There was a lengthy queue waiting to go inside the temple and I joined them and fell into conversation with a Khalsa Sikh from Coventry who was on pilgrimage with his (devastatingly pretty) daughter. He explained that it was busy because it was a holy day3 although apparently everyday there are always throngs of worshippers.

Inside the temple it was crowded indeed, particularly on the ground floor where devotees crowded around the granthi4 who was chanting aloud from the Guru Granith Sahib – the eternal Guru of the Sikhs – accompanied by ragis.5 I moved upstairs where there was a little more room and there in an alcove on the eastern wall I sat cross-legged and lost myself in meditation as the sacred chanting washed over me.

upstairs golden temple Upstairs inside the Hari Mandir Sahib

The Hari Mandir Sahib truly is a beautiful building. We all know what it looks like from the outside, its exterior of glittering gold gracing a thousand sacred images, but inside it has its own particular beauty too. Unlike many sacred sites of global importance, it is small and intimate, built on a human scale in stark contrast to many of Europe's great cathedrals, the Levant's famous mosques and indeed other notable gurdwaras that I have visited. It is ornate but tastefully so; no one could ever abuse it with the labels of 'tacky' or gaudy' which are sadly only too applicable for many holy sites including a good number of gurdwaras. Its architecture is classically Mughal to me which should come as no surprise as the present temple dates from 1765. I reflected as I sat there how, in so many ways, with its sacred pool, square shape and even the name 'mandir', the Golden Temple reminds me of a Hindu mandir. But there is one key difference: no idol is to be found here, no image of a god, instead only the book for the book, the Guru Granith Sahib is the only object worthy of veneration for, following the death of Guru Gobind Singh in 1708, that has been the eternal living Guru of all Sikhs.

II012 On the parikarama

After meditating I made my way up onto the roof where another copy of the Guru Granith Sahib was being read by another granthi, before making my way down and out along the causeway and back to the parikarama. Then I investigated the Akal Takht, the building at the eastern end of the causeway, set at a slight angle to the rest of the complex. That is traditionally where the Takht (Sikh parliament) meets and it represents the temporal presence of the Guru whilst the Hari Mandir Sahib symbolises the spiritual. From an historical perspective though, this building is of little interest since all but a fragment of it is under thirty years old, the original structure being almost completely destroyed by Indian artillery during the traumatic assault on the temple in 1984 known as Operation Blue Star.

Operation Blue Star, still indescribably dirty words for the majority of today's Sikhs, had its roots in the activities of the Akalis, the Sikh “Guardians”, a movement that seized control of principal gurdwaras from other branches of the faith, (particularly the Udasis – more on them later) during the 19th and early 20th centuries and had begun to act as a political and spiritual leading authority for Sikhism. After Indian Independence in 1948 they began to demand more independence and autonomy from the Indian government, a process which culminated in 1966 in the Punjab being recognised as a state of India, (previously it had been lumped in together with Haryana). Contrary to quietening things down however, this concession emboldened the Akalis to start demanding for even more autonomy right up to full independence for the Sikh-majority state which they referred to as Khalistan (Land of the Khalsa). This set the Akalis on a collision course with the government of Indira Gandhi and with neither side willing to back down, the result was a full on military assault on the Akali stronghold: the Golden Temple compound.

That assault was codenamed 'Operation Blue Star' and it still evokes controversy to this day. Holed up and heavily-armed in the Akal Takht was Bhindranwale, the fiery Akali leader, with his most hardened supporters. That was beyond doubt. What Indira Gandhi miscalculated though, was the support that he had amongst the Sikhs. Many did not support Bhindranwale, including General Ranjit Singh Dayal, one of the commanders of the government forces, but when the tanks rolled into the temple compound on the 5th June, 1984 and blew up the Akal Takht, virtually all were horrified at the sacrilege. The Sikhs inside fought to the last man but by the morning of the 6th June all were dead. The episode ignited Sikh anger with many feeling that they could no longer live within India and calls for an independent Khalistan only grew stronger. Then, on the 31st October, whilst walking from her house to do a BBC TV interview in her office next-door, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for the desecration of the Golden Temple. India erupted into communal violence which, when everything subsided, left a Sikh death toll in its thousands.

Amritasar-Blue-Star The Akal Takht after Operation Blue Star

Since then things have calmed down. True, Khalistan sympathisers occupied the Golden Temple a second time in February 1987, but this time the government had learnt its lesson, (perhaps the most controversial aspect of Operation Blue Star was that most analysts believe that Bhindranwale could have been defeated without a bullet being fired, simply by starving or gassing him out), and only the police entered the compound this time and were careful not to desecrate any holy places.

Khalistan is still mentioned occasionally – my Sikh assistant came into class one day soon after I returned from India wearing a T-shirt declaring 'Khalistan: It's our right!' but most support these days comes from ex-pats like him and not those who would actually have to live in the country if it ever did achieve independence. And finally, as a footnote, as an act of reconciliation, the Indian government immediately rebuilt the Akal Takht but that is not the building that I visited: as soon as it was finished and the Indian Army had left the compound, this new Akal Takht was torn down by the Akalis who declared it to be “unclean” and then rebuilt it exactly the same. The langar shows Sikhism at its best; you can be the judge of what that action shows.

II013 The rebuilt Akal Takht

Returning to the parikarama where once Indira's tanks had rolled, I sat down cross-legged and meditated. The chanting of the granthi in the Golden Temple itself was relayed over loudspeakers and once again I let it envelope me. I stayed there for some time, connecting with God and trying to make sense of the holy place in which I was sat. Then, so taken by it all, I decided to make a video expressing my feelings. Watching it back now, whilst I know that it will never win any awards for camera-work or script, I am startled by how immediate ad fresh it is. The effect that the Golden Temple had had on me is there for all to see.

1I have heard of a tradition which states that Guru Nanak visited the site and possibly started excavations on the pool but this is far from being central to Sikh beliefs.
2The pool from which the city AMRIT SARovar gets its name, (in English it translates as 'Pool of Nectar').
3The 14/02/13, although try as I might, I never managed to find out why that particular day was holy, (aside from being St. Valentine's Day of course).
4Reader of the Guru Granith Sahib.
5Musicians in the band playing music to accompany the reading.