To Amritsar on the Shababti Express

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Saturday, June 11, 2005

We wake up early and head down to New Delhi Station in the Austin Ambassador with 'Our Man in Delhi'. He has already bought us our ticket which apparently saves us 3hrs of red tape at the station ticket office.

This train is really luxurious, with mineral water for every passenger, a choice of breakfast an copious quantities of tea. During the 6 hr journey on the train we listen to ambient Indian music played on the train's announcement system. The music somehow confirms where we are, as a we moved steadily through the slums and out into the open country.

We arrive in Amritsar to 42 degC heat and a bustling station so we were pleased find 'Our man in Amritsar' waiting at the Station Entrance. We stay in Hotel Grand - it certainly does not live up to its name with its rather seedy rooms and lackadaisical staff. However we can't really complain because the A/C and the shower work.

Later that afternoon we go down to the Pakistan border to see the outlandish ceremony involving the Pakistani and Indian border guards. The crowds for this spectacle are enormous - reminding me of a Rangers v Celtic football match. On the Pakistani side women are on the left and men on the right - sitting in an orderly fashion. On the Indian side swathes of people herd into a much larger seating area pushing and jostling and dancing. An MC guides the crowd through a series of chants declaring India's supremacy and encourages the crowd to jeer at the Pakstani attempts from the other side. The main spectacle is the goose-stepping soldiers marching as aggresively as possible towards each other. The ceremony ends with the Pakistani and Indian flags being lowered at precisely the same time.

At Dusk we go to the Golden Temple. It is the most holy site for Sikh's and so equivalent of Mecca for Muslims. Once we enter the temple we are stuck by the scale and tranquil beauty of the place. In the centre of an enormous quadrangle is a lake and in the middle of the lake is the Golden temple itself. The gold of the temple is lit up by thousands of lights and is reflected stunningly in the dark waters. Around the periphery of the quadrangle are placed candles which mark the edge of the water. People meander around quietly in a clockwise direction, some choosing to stop and reflect at the waters edge, a few ceremonially bathe in the water, and some just sleep. A long bridge across to the temple is packed with pilgrims slowly waiting their turn to see the holy book placed in the middle of the golden temple.

After walking part way round we enter the huge kitchens adjacent to the temple. Here we are among the 10,000's every day provided with a tasty meal of dal and chapati. Afterwards we complete the experience by washing our dishes. The entire catering operation is dependent upon people volunteering to do certain tasks from giving out spoons to serving the food. Like a giant McDonalds, all the skill has been taken out and replaced by a cleverly thought out system and process which allows thousands of people to pass through every day. Unlike the fast food chain, the people helping want to make the visit to the temple significant, and of course the meal is free. We find the people inside the temple friendly and warm; like the 13 year old girl who wants to be an astronaught and comes to the temple every night with her father to practise her English.

Back outside the temple its a completley different world of pushy touts, blaring horns, and squalor.
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