Thursday, October 15, 2009

Weekend in Amritsar.

Friday night

Nine of us booked a last-minute overnight ticket to Amritsar for the weekend. For Rs300 ($7), we got a 9-hour trip on a decent sleeper bus with bunk beds, two people per bed. That's what was supposed to happen anyway.

on the top bunk of the bus

What actually happened is that I was aroused at 3am telling me that our bus had malfunctioned. We were shepherded out in the pitch-dark middle of nowhere, and then were shepherded back on another bus -- except that this bus had no available seats, let alone beds. We spent the rest of the night trying (failing) to sleep on the floor.

Saturday afternoon

Amritsar was noisy, crowded, and hopelessly dirty. Navigating through the narrow streets was a constant, perilous struggle to avoid being run over. Delhi is spacious in comparison, and trust me, that says something.

We started off the day with a gigantic brunch. Between four of us, we shared dhal makhni, aloo ghobi, tawa paneer, and mushroom mutter. Seeing how much we enjoyed ourselves, the restaurant owner added in a complimentary and delicious Amritsar special aloo parantha.

Having eaten to the point of bursting, we jumped in a taxi and drove 24km to the India-Pakistan border in a town called Wagah.

Every day around dusk is a ceremonial closing of the border gate, displaying goodwill (or, I guess, tolerance) between the two countries. Before the ceremony, as the grandstands filled up on both the Indian and Pakistan sides, Indian pop songs blared over the loudspeakers, and impromptu dance parties formed as volunteers ran back and forth waving the Indian flag. The word "peprally" comes to mind.

The actual ceremony was bizarre, almost comical, and certainly entertaining. The border security force of each country went through a series of drills -- chanting, marching in sync, stamping their feet hard on the ground, kicking their heels so high they almost knocked off their colorful hats. It was a distinct show of bravado that incited nationalistic fervor on both sides of the gate.

Pakistanis in dark suits on the other side of the gate

Saturday night

After street food for dinner (gol gappas and fried potato "sandwiches"), and some drinks in the hotel, we went to see the Golden Temple in its nighttime splendor.

It was obvious how the temple got its name. Where the Taj Mahal was breathtaking in its white glow, the Golden Temple, religious center of the Sikh faith, was dazzling in its gold. The temple rises out of an artificial lake, connected to land by a narrow causeway. I couldn't take my eyes off of it. Even visitors without an ounce of religion in them can't fail to be stunned by the sight of gold reflected off water.

Sunday afternoon

Breakfast of yellow dhal, tomato uttpam, and a terrific malai kofta that tasted of coconut.

We returned back to the Golden Temple to see its transformation in the daytime. Shoes off, headscarf on, we pushed our way through the impossibly long line to get inside the temple. I will forever regret not being allowed to take pictures inside. All the windows were thrown open, illuminating the intricate and colorful marblework. Sikh elders sang, played instruments, and read texts in the middle of the space while raking in the huge sums of donations from worshippers. People sat all over the floor, reading texts and absorbing the music.

walking into the Golden Temple

Characteristic of every Sikh temple is a langar, or communal kitchen, in keeping with the Sikh belief of equality for all mankind. The one at the Golden Temple serves tens of thousands of meals per day at no cost, for anyone who wants it, regardless of age, class, gender, or religion.

The huge meal hall was totally covered with people sitting and eating side-by-side on the floor. We were served portions of black and yellow lentils with roti and rice, with volunteers coming by frequently for refills. The massive tasks of cooking and clean-up were done by assembly line with remarkable efficiency and speed. For a great description of langars, read here.

Following the Golden Temple, we headed to the much smaller Hindu Matha temple, which is modelled off a woman's reproductive organs. The place was a literal maze through the different anatomical parts, decorated with symbolic representations of phalluses and uteruses. Hindu women come here if they want to conceive.

doesn't it look like the inside of a (woman's) body?

Sunday evening

For dinner, I had goat brain curry, a north Indian special. Yes, it sounds exotic and all, but the taste and texture were quite normal. Creamy, spicy, bold - quite like any other Indian dish. Dinner was followed by a brownie a la mode, with liquid chocolate poured over it in a sizzling pan.

After killing more time in Amritsar, we boarded our Rs150 busride back (damned if they don't give us a refund for making us sleep on the floor on Friday!) and made it home the next morning.

More pictures here.


justinnhli said...

You also need to tell me what you think of The Fountainhead when you're done. I am dying in anticipation of having that conversation with you.

Stu said...

I love it. The food looks great and the mechanical difficulties of India's buses just seem to add to the adventure.