On our way down the mountain from Dharamsala, we figured we did not want to bus it to Delhi for another 14 dark, ass-numbing hours. We did our research and found a city worth breaking our journey in. Again, this was a part of India different from the rest of it primarily because of religion. We decided to stop by another one of India's holy cities on our way back to the capital. This holy city is not Hindu nor Buddhist. It is Sikh. And it is called Amritsar.
I realized looking back that Michael Palin also stopped by Amritsar in his BBC series, Himalaya. First, we went to Dharamsala, it being our contingency plan having missed our train to Jaisalmer. Now, we were heading to Amritsar on a whim. Later on, we will be following his itinerary in the Nepal Himalaya. And that wasn't planned as well! Freaky.
There was a bit of a hurdle, however. One, we can only spend 12 hours in Amritsar, having booked our tickets onward from Delhi early on in the trip. Two, and this one was something I dreaded, there are no tourist buses from Dharamsala direct to Delhi. There was no other recourse but to take public buses. One rickety, cramped and open-air government bus from Dharamsala to Pathankot, the transport hub in northwest India, and another rickety, cramped and open-air government bus from Pathankot to Amritsar. The clincher was, we were traveling during one of the biggest festivals in all of India: Diwali.
Granted, Diwali is not a Sikh festival, but rather Hindu. However, this was still India and I think as far as noise and street congestion levels go in this chaotic country, we were experiencing the height of it. No matter. We were now in Amritsar and we came here for a reason, the same reason for which the most religious of the Sikhs make the pilgrimage here. To the Sikhs, it is called Hari Mandir Sahib, meaning Temple of the Gods. To the rest of the world, it is called the Golden Temple.
After depositing our bags in our hostel, we headed straight to the Golden Temple. You need to leave your shoes (and all other worldly vices, i.e., cigarettes and alcohol) in one of the manned lockers right outside of the holy site. We did that amid the frenzy that is the Indian holiday of Diwali and entered the place. Suddenly, the chaos became bearable. It was probably one of most spiritual, other-worldly sights I have ever come upon. Rarely do passion for religion gets so tangible that you can unmistakably feel it in your skin. People were bowing, prostrating, offering all sorts of trinkets, primarily money, on that beautiful building, whose walls and domes were shining even more golden under the sun. I never considered myself religious but standing there, I felt overwhelmed for the first time by devotion, faith and belief.
As it was holiday, there was a bit of a festive mood. Families made the day trip here, to soak in the sights and to soak themselves in the pond, which they call Amrit Sarovar, the Pool of Nectar. This pond is where the name of the city actually comes from. At some point, Amrit Sarovar became Amritsar.
Our day was not done yet. There are two things you do in Amritsar. One is the Golden Temple. The other is the bizarre military theatrics at the dusty India-Pakistan Border Crossing in Wagah, something I wrote about in a previous post. We did that and when we got back, we knew we had to figure out a way to get out of the city. This proved to be quite a challenging task.
Bus terminals were canceling buses here and there, a fate suffered by our roommates from the hostel. Trains were fully booked as it is holiday season in India. When I did find an availability, the online system crashed during booking. Thrice! Final recourse, we fly. Which is exactly what we did the next day at 6 in the morning. At that point, I had not had a good night's rest and a shower in the last 48 hours. I hadn't even washed my face then. Our filthy hostel toilet in Amritsar made sure that would happen. I was feeling more and more like a backpacker each day that passed. Which is good, I think. It only means that our Indian adventure is going quite well.
Have you ever had a spiritual experience during a visit to a holy site, whether or not it is your religion that considers that place sacred? How as it? Which other holy sites do you think are worth a visit?