Headed North Pt. 4 – Fun house temples, golden pilgrimages and the Dalai Lama’s home – Amritsar, McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala





 We arrived in Amritsar on a plane with about 30 men wearing turbans – Amritsar is a pilgrimage city for Sikhs, home to the beautiful and holy Golden Temple. From what I’ve seen there, Sikh fathers, as a whole, are possibly the most incredible ones in the world. They were doting on their children, taking them from their mothers when they were crying, holding them while they slept – it’s hard to explain but that just doesn’t happen very often in India. Women are always the caretakers, usually carrying a child or two, holding another by the hand, dealing with them when they get upset, disciplining them. I’ve very rarely seen fathers, if they are, say, on a family outing, even respond to the children. But not with Sikhs – this is such a generalization, but they seem to take very clearly equal roles in raising the children. The fathers are just so much more aware and attuned to what is going on and the role they play in raising them.

Anyway, moving on from my love of Sikh fathers, we arrived in a beautiful, tiny airport, a drastic change from the craze of the Delhi one, where no one ever seems to know where we should go or what we should be doing to get to our gate and will just give the ambiguous Indian head bob when we ask. From there, we took a rickshaw to our hotel, one of the only times we had prebooked, to one recommended by the Lonely Planet. What an excellent decision. It was clean and lovely, with two floors, balconies, a gardened courtyard and an excellent restaurant. We got in late and walked around the neighborhood. It was very…India – busy, rushed, street vendors yelling at us to buy their product, come to their restaurant, look in their shop. We bought some fruit (it’s mango season right now) and returned to our hotel early and slept for a delightful 12 hours.

The next day we booked a small city tour with our hotel – they had a van and it was far cheaper to take it with 2 of the other people staying at our hotel than it would for all of us to take rickshaws. We started at the most bizarre temple I have ever been to. The only way I can think to describe it is a funhouse, with hundreds of absurd technicolor statues of deities lining the inside, gold engravings everywhere, and strangest of all, mazes to go through, showing Hindu stories and legends, tunnels to crawl through, water to wade in! It was easily the most surreal place I’ve visited, more amusement park than holy site. Towards the end, there was a single priest in an alcove near the floor. We knelt down and he showered us with fresh flower garlands, roses and marigolds, handmade ghee sweets (literally made out of sugar, wheat, ghee [clarified butter] and some kind of flavoring [this one was pistachio] ) and gave us tikkas (red powder dots they place on you after you’ve visited a Hindu worship site)…all of us, except S, who is half-Indian and who very often gets treated in a very different way than the rest of us. She grew up in America, has a Filipino mother and a Mexican step-father who raised her and knows, if possible, even less about India than we do, having met her Indian father only once, when she was 6 years old. Anyway, the priest treated her very differently, gruffly tikka-ing her and sending her on her way with a sugar cube – no ghee sweets or flower garland. It was such an uncomfortable paradox – she’s as much a tourist as the rest of us, but is treated so differently. In some ways it’s so cool – she gets to experience a totally different side of India, but in times like that she is bizarrely discriminated against.

After the strange Hindu temple without a name, we left for the border ceremony – a strange tradition wherein on the Indo-Pakistani border, 20 kms from Amritsar, and 20 kms from Lahore, the capital of Pakistan. Every day at 5:30, the borders are opened and closed again, with the guards on both sides ending the day with a dance. It’s been happening every night for decades, a strange show of patriotism from both sides, with ARENAS full of people watching it go down, both flags lowered, and the gates closed once again. The dance is harsh, very militaristic, but also so silly, a satire almost, the guards on each side trying to kick higher than the others, regimented into tradition. Each side also has a professional MC almost, who leads the crowds to cheer louder and drown out the opposing side. Nearly 3000 people were on the Indian side, with around 1000 or so on the Pakistani one. The differences between the two were apparent. On the Pakistani side, men and women were separated into different arenas, far less enthusiastic and definitely less frightening than the Indian side, where it was like a major sporting event was going on. Women and children lined up to volunteer to run down the aisle between the two sides of the Indian arena, holding a gigantic Indian flag. At one point, they played a Hindi pop song, to which a large portion of the Indian crowd rushed to center aisle and began a gigantic dance party. We were separated from the Indian crowd by a barrier, given better seats as foreigners, right next to the VIP section, made up of celebrities, persons of honor, governmental officials, etc. I’m not even sure what to say about it except that it was one of the more bizarre experiences of my life.

After the dance and ceremony ended and with night falling, we joined the throngs of people leaving the stadium to walk back to the huge parking area, which had, since we had arrived 3 hours before, been filled with vendors of every variety, selling popcorn and cotton candy, chat masala and samosas, roasted masala peanuts and every variety of ice cream, koli and kulfi. It was a sporting event, marketed and capitalized to encourage the patriotism and pride in the country. It was also strange and unnerving, since it meant there had to be an opposing side. I can’t decide whether it was something valuable to the Indo-Pakistan relations, or detrimental. Maybe this is a good way to get out that aggression, without warfare… or maybe it just rekindles peoples’ hatred of the border nation. Who knows.

We found our taxi with the Israeli couple who had also gone on this tour with us, and headed to the Golden Temple, the holiest site in the world for Sikhs, and quite a site to behold at night, when it is lit up and everyone sits down, chanting or meditating, both in the temple, which is located in the middle of a man-made lake, or on the pathway surrounding it. It was one of the most peaceful and meaningful times I’ve had here in India, utterly beautiful and entirely calming, worth every penny we spent to get to Amritsar and almost entirely worth our trip to the North as a whole, just for that sight and feeling.

The next day we woke up at 4am for our shared taxi ride, again with the very sweet Israeli couple, to Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama, with monasteries and the Himalayas and…the most tourist shops I’ve ever seen. It’s so strange for these supposedly holy places to be so full of commercialism and materialism, but oh well. The drive there was the most stunning I have ever seen. As we drove over this lush forest, with a river below us, the sky suddenly opened up, and there were the Himalayas, closer than I’ve ever seen them before (except when I flew over them in Nepal) and looking so absurdly majestic. The group I was with had never seen them, Darjeeling had been too cloudy while we were there for a view of them, and they were as shell-shocked as I had been the first time. They are just absolutely unbelievable, soaring so far above where they look like they should be, their peaks still snow-capped in the hottest of weather in the valleys below. I never knew nature could inspire me that much. One girl in our group just looked up, awestruck and said, reverently, “Oh. That’s why they climb Everest.”

We reached Dharamsala in the mid-morning and began looking around, walking to the monastery The Dalai Lama now calls his home, (which was of course, beautiful) and enjoying a few minutes of serenity…before dozens of Indian tourists started taking our pictures and asking for photo ops with us and their children, and their cousin, and their husband’s mother’s brother. There were delicious rooftop Tibetan restaurants everywhere, incredibly nice people, Tibetan flags and freedom signs spotting the landscape and tons of shopping.

We bought what we wanted and went on our way, making it down the mountain before night fall (it’s a very dangerous road, especially in the dark) and back to our hotel by 11 that night, ending our incredible Northern trip the next morning, connecting in Mumbai and Delhi before finally reaching home that evening… to write three papers due the next morning. It was so worth it. I can’t wait to come back to India and explore Darjeeling and Dharamsala more, see the River Ganga in Varanasi, the houseboats in Kerala, the ruins of Sanchi. There are just still so many more things to see before I feel satiated with India. However, on that note, this round of India is just starting to come to an end, before the next great adventure.