Tensions were rising in Srinagar and there had been a bomb blast days before, so it seemed wise to leave town before any potential trouble broke out in advance of the imminent Independence Day. The drive south to Jammu was beautiful - lush, green, mist-shrouded slopes, monsoon-swollen watrerfalls cascading down the mountainsides, and a turbulent mud-enriched chocolate-coloured river racing over the boulders in the valley below. Monkeys capering at the roadside as we wound our way up the mountain road added to the view. And then the 'shooting stones' made their presence known... We rounded a bend to be confronted by a long snake of traffic which had ground to a halt. The rains and resulting mud had caused a rockslide, totally blocking the road. It was two hours before we could proceed and I was fascinated by people's reactions and their total acceptance of the situation. No point in losing the head, nothing could be done, better to wait it out calmly than expend energy getting wound up...sitting in a stationary vehicle in the rain for two hours? No problem! A million miles from the road rage at home when traffic doesn't move quite fast enough!
It was somewhat unnerving, when we eventually did move on, to feel more 'shooting stones' bouncing off the roof, but we made it to Jammu Railway Station in one piece. I settled into my basic but comfy berth on the sleeper train to Amritsar, alarm set for 4a.m., ready for the 4.30 scheduled arrival. I was bewildered, therefore, to wake at 3.40 and have a helpful policeman in the carriage inform me that we were just leaving
Amritsar! So much for schedules... Arriving in an insignificant wee station in the arse-end of the Punjab at 4.30 a.m., there was no option but to sit and wait 2 hours for a train back again. Finally I reached the Sikh's holy city of Amritsar...
Sunset at the temple is a magical experience. I can't imagine that it would leave even the most hardline atheist unmoved. Entering the complex in bare feet, to be washed in the footbaths, through an arched gateway and down steps, the Golden Temple lies ahead, appearing to float on the water in the holy pool. Hundreds of Sikhs walk the route around the edge of the pool on cool, white marble floors, shaded from the intensity of the sun by the white buildings forming the outer limit of the complex.
Some bathe in the holy water, others bow down to kiss the ground, yet others sit reading Sikh scriptures. The most striking are the older, extreme orthodox Sikhs in their dark blue robes with vivid orange turbans, carefully groomed white mustaches and beards, traditional swords hanging by their sides. As the sun sinks, the temple glows, as does its reflection, and the religious music becomes hypnotic...people sit gazing out at the sight, and I am one of them, unable to take my eyes off the reflection, almost in a trance from the effects of the music.
Sunrise is equally magical...even at 4 a.m., the complex is busy with worshipers as the holy book is processed around the edge of the pool and along the walkway into the holy temple, to the same hypnotic music. And then the light gradually increases in the sky and the temple roof begins to glimmer...I'm spellbound by the appearance and the atmosphere of this place... it is truly magical.
I've become used to the entertaining Indian road signs urging caution and careful driving ("Better Mr. Late than late Mr."; "Drive like Hell and you will arrive there!"; and my personal favourite, "Be gentle on my curves!") but "Beware shooting stones!" was a new one to me...