Back in New Delhi again after several days in Amritsar, Punjab. We took the Shatabdi Express train from New Delhi, and I was really looking forward to the food, because when we took the Shatabdi Express to Chandigarh, Punjab on our last trip, the food was amazing. This time it was a super disappointing “vegetable cutlet” which is a common Indian food item, of spiced mashed potatoes and vegetables fried into a patty. It was just OK, and I kept thinking another bigger meal would arrive at some point during our six-hour train ride, but this was not to be. To me the vegetable cutlet was bland, but I love extremely spicy food, and I realized that if an American who doesn’t like spicy food were to take the same train, they would probably find the cutlet too spicy to eat. As disappointing as the food was, they do bring you as many pots of hot water as you want to make your own tea, a large bottled water, a newspaper, bread, butter and jam, and a box of mango juice, which was more than we got in twenty hours of flying Western airlines.
Amritsar is home to the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest site. Unfortunately any place in India that is home to some place considered spiritual that attracts a lot of visitors, will feature hordes of unsavory characters doing their aggressive best to make a buck off you. In a scene that is very typical for India, Anjali and I were assaulted by scores of aggressive touts as we tried to exit the train station. We hadn’t made a hotel reservation, which is tricky, because if a taxi cab or auto rickshaw takes you to a hotel where you don’t have a reservation, they will get a hefty commission for giving the hotel business, which will be tacked onto your bill. The micro map of Amritsar in our guidebook made it look like the hotel we were looking for would be a short walk directly across from the train station. And in a way it was, but the road was incredibly wide and hectic, with a large median, and there were so many signs on the other side of the street covering all the buildings which were scrunched up together, that there was no sign of the “Grand Hotel” for which we were looking. Our side of the street was mobbed with auto rickshaw wallahs and cycle rickshaw wallahs, who swarmed around us the second we paused. When a Western tourist tries to avoid a mob like this and make their way on their own, the auto wallahs eventually realize they won’t be making a buck off you, so they will often settle for mocking you and making jokes to each other at your expense. Not a fun way to be introduced to a city.
After some very stressful moments we finally made it across the traffic-clogged highway and into the surprisingly serene lobby of the Grand Hotel, where the manager then attempted to pressure/sweet talk us into using his services to hire a car to go to the Pakistan border, where an elaborate gate-closing ceremony is staged every evening. We knew from our guidebooks that we could catch a bus to the border for 15 rupees, take an auto for 200, or a cab for 400, and the manager wanted 850! “Friendly management” said one of the guidebooks. I would be friendly too if I was scamming people for that much money.
There were vacancies, and we inspected a room, which looked nice enough, but after paying for the night, and taking a closer look, we realized how ripped off we were. In Amritsar you can stay for free at the Sikh gurdwara, there are guest houses for 200-400 rupees a night, and this place was 1200-some plus taxes, so we had every right to have fairly high expectations. In India you can find places to stay for only a few dollars a night, or you can stay at the most luxurious hotels in the country for hundreds of dollars (or a thousand!) a night. Twenty-five or thirty bucks will usually get you a very fancy place, that would be far nicer than any place I will ever stay in the United States. Anjali and I are not extreme bargain hunters, as we want a private bathroom, hot water (at least in the cold North), clean sheets, relative quiet, etc. The Grand Hotel was recommended by the Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, and Footprint, so we thought it was a sure bet. Hardly. All three publications will see a future complaint lodged by us. There were no sheets or towels, the pillows were filthy gray, the blanket looked very scary, and neither of us wanted it anywhere near us, there were no light bulbs in the lamps, no soap was provided, the wash buckets had been used to mix cement, there was mold growing in the fridge, the shower water never got hot, and the TV didn’t work. (I don’t watch TV in America, but in India I watch as much of the many music video channels as possible, to catch up on all the pop music of the subcontinent.) If you are spending $25 on a room in America, this might be acceptable, but when you spend this much in India, this is outrageous. Clean rooms could be found for a sixth of this.
After recovering from how much we had been ripped off on our accommodation, we caught a cycle rickshaw to the old city of Amritsar to see the Golden Temple. The main “street” (filthy, congested alley lined with dingy storefronts and clogged with auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, motorcycles and scooters) leading up to the temple was a mob scene, and we were pounced on by people trying to sell us head scarves (one must have one’s head covered to enter the temple complex, although scarves are available for free there) or other trinkets, trying to arrange a trip to the Pakistan border for us, or simply begging. India may be filled with spiritual places, but you have to have great patience wading through the commercial and material world before you can get there. It was nearing sunset, and we hadn’t had a full meal, after being up since 5:30am, so we didn’t follow the worshipers streaming into the temple complex, but instead ate at one of the recommended, filthy, fly-smothered dhabas serving incredibly oily Panjabi food across from the temple. When in doubt we take sulphur pills after our meals, and we downed quite a few after that one.
There are very clean bathrooms outside the temple complex, as well as sinks and soap directly to the side of the temple entrance, and a trough of water across the entrance you wash your bare feet in before you enter. Cleanliness and bathing are very important to the Sikh faith. Our giving into our physical needs before tending to our spiritual ones meant that by the time we checked our shoes and entered the temple complex, there were only the faintest pink cloud trails remaining of what I imagined to have been an amazing sunset, which no doubt looked glorious reflecting off the Golden Temple. I took lots of pictures anyway, and Anjali was brought to tears by her first sight of the temple. The whole temple complex is a sea of tranquility and beauty in the middle of a very filthy, ugly city, Punjab’s biggest. (I should comment hear that the Northern half of Amritsar is allegedly the shiny, leafy, suburban new area of town, but we spent all our time in the old city.) The entire complex is always filled with the sound of chanting voices, tabla, and harmonium, occurring in the center of the temple, and broadcast throughout the complex on loudspeakers: hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib, the eternal guru, the holy book of the Sikhs. The temple is surrounded by an enormous placid pool, the Lake of the Holy Nectar, believed to have healing powers. As you circumnavigate the rectangular pool, you see constant signs of devotion. People touch their hands and head to the ground upon entering the complex, siting the temple, arriving at the edge of the water, passing any of the many windows where you can see Sikhs assigned to maintain a constant vigil of unceasingly reading from the Guru Granth Sahib, a complete reading of which takes forty-eight hours. There is a spot for bathing in the pool, where the men strip down to their skivies and bathe morning or night, next to a covered, private bathing house for women. There are many sacred spots along the marble path enclosing the temple, and I can’t pretend to have memorized the meaning and importance of all of them, but I duly noted that the devout, of which there are always hundreds in the complex, no matter what time of day or night (the temple is only closed for a few hours in the late evening, and reopens at 3am), would not cross these spots without praying and prostrating themselves on the ground. When we tried to enter the long causeway to the temple proper in the center of the pool, I was separated from Anjali, and I was not allowed in with my backpack, so she found herself in the temple without me. I waited outside the temple in the twilight, and listened to the music and the sacred hymns, and I was approached by a friendly Sikh named Lucky (short for Lakhwinder) who was one of the Sikhs who has reading duties at the temple for many hours a day. He was very curious to know my impressions of the temple, and he was very excited to find out I was a bhangra DJ, as he was a big fan of bhangra music (although he admitted he was not much of a dancer), and we compared notes on our favorite singers, and he was so happy to know that Punjabi culture was being shared as far away as Portland, Oregon. Anjali eventually found us, and Lucky toured us around the complex, inviting us to witness part of a sacred reading, and chatting with us for a while on the side of the pool, in the lamp-lit darkness surrounded by the sounds of the Sikh hymns.
Anjali and I said our goodbyes after Lucky realized we had distracted him to the point where he was fifty minutes late for his reading shift. We toured the gift shops lining the front of the temple complex, and discovered the Sikh Book Company. I asked for an English translation of the Guru Granth Sahib, since I learned from Lucky that you can’t get the actual Guru Granth Sahib in English, just a translation. Important distinction. The proprietor brought over an enormous five-volume set that had the book in Panjabi, romanized transliteration, and English. When I explained I was traveling and I needed something smaller he suggested a small introductory book written by Dr. Davinderpal Singh. I opened the book to a passage that said, “My name is Lucky.” (Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo) When I asked for a book on learning Panjabi, he recommended another book by Dr. Davinderpal Singh. I thought I knew who I was talking to at this point, and after Anjali and I talked to him about our lives as booksellers in the US, he admitted that he was, indeed, Dr. Davinderpal Singh. His family has been in the book business for 110 years, starting in what is now Pakistan. We talked at length about the Punjabi author Khushwant Singh, and Anjali bought a special edition of the book “Train to Pakistan.” Dr. Singh claimed that some Punjabis think in Punjabi and write in Punjabi, and some think in English and write in English, but Khushwant Singh thinks in Punjabi and writes in English. “Blunt” was how Dr. Singh described his writing. The man was so wise and such a font of information, that it would have been easy to spend days with him chatting and sipping chai. After being accosted by so many unpleasant people upon our arrival in the city, it was great to meet two such wonderful people at the end of our first day in Amritsar.
After taking leave of Dr. Singh, we wandered a street directly across from the temple and discovered the high-end CJ International Hotel we had read about in our books, and next door, the Indus Hotel, of which we had read nothing. It looked way too fancy for our budget, but at Anjali’s insistence we went and inquired anyway. For slightly more than what we were paying for our shithole, we were shown an immaculate room, and to cinch the deal, were taken on a tour of the rooftop terrace that directly overlooked the Golden Temple. Sold. We knew where we were spending our next two nights.
Our next day we did indeed take a share-jeep (for a fraction of what the Grand Hotel manager was asking) to the “Wagah border” to see the daily border-closing ceremony at the only land-crossing from India to Pakistan. We were not alone; a few foreigners, and thousands of Indians joined us. There are two cement bench stadiums set up, one on either side of the border. The Pakistani stadium was sparsely filled, especially in the women’s section (the Indian stadium was divided by sex as well), but the Indian stadium was packed with raucous revelers. A loudspeaker boomed out the chants of an Indian military officer which were responded to by the crowd. Chants in Hindi along the lines of “Long live India.” Soldiers would strut and puff and the crowd would go crazy. The same was going on over on the other side of the border, only “Pakistan” was substituted for “India” in the chants, and the smaller Pakistani crowd tried to make up for their lack of numbers by yelling all the louder. At one point Bollywood songs started blasting out of the loudspeakers on the Indian side and children flooded down from the concrete bleachers to dance, and men held back by a barricade on the far side of the stadium danced with manic energy. I actually took some videos of this scene, as it was incredibly over the top. If the loudspeaker was quiet for too long and people could hear the chants on the Pakistan side, then they would spontaneously start their own chants. Eventually after much pomp and circumstance the two flags were lowered, the gate was slammed shut, and everyone went home.
Anjali and I had read that an Amritsar specialty is fish fried in lemon, chili, garlic and ginger, which sounded so good to us we went in search of a recommended restaurant called the Makhan Fish House. Well, we walked the entire length of the shop-lined Lawrence Road (which had some very fancy shops, even if the “sidewalks” were just muddy shoulders of a filthy road), asked many locals about the location of the Makhan Fish House, and after hours of frustration, gave up. We didn’t see any other fish houses either, just really sketchy looking roadside eating stalls that looked neither hygienic, nor appealing. We finally settled for the Crystal, Amritsar’s fanciest restaurant, where we ordered from the Chinese section of their menu. “Chinese” food is very popular in India, and most restaurants will have a small Chinese section on the menu. In the same way that we have Chinese-American food in the States, in India they have Indo-Chinese, or Indian Chinese food, which is a distinctly Indian take on Chinese food. It used to be you couldn’t get it anywhere in the States, but now several Indian restaurants in the West suburbs of Portland carry it on their menus. Since we couldn’t get our Amritsar specialty fish, we ordered fish in hot garlic sauce, and the fish wasn’t that great. Anjali loved the spicy Manchow soup, and the fact that in a major development since she was in India five years ago, she can now order wine from the menu. Indian wine, probably too sweet for the Western palate.
My biggest source of frustration in Amritsar was how difficult it was to find any bhangra CDs for sale. The gift shops near the Golden Temple sold vast selections of Sikh devotional music, and there was a stand that sold a few bhangra CDs, but I spent days looking for a store with any kind of decent selection. There were many television stations that were little more than 24-hour ads for the latest bhangra releases, and I was in the biggest city in Punjab, and I heard bhangra blasting from people’s cars, so how come I couldn’t find any bhangra music? Along the shopping strip of Lawrence Road I found an outpost of the Music World chain, but they didn’t have much of a Punjabi selection, like several smaller stalls along that road that featured mainly Hindi music. The few places I found that carried Punjabi music carried either VCDs (cheapo super-compressed DVDs) or MP3 CDs, but not what are called Audio CDs here, with the sound quality I need to play music over a club sound system. Finally on our third day we hired a cycle rickshaw driver to take us to a CD store, which after stopping to ask for directions several times, he managed to do. It was a little hole in the wall in a narrow alley, but tightly packed with drawers of disks, and I managed to slake my thirst, since I know that outside of Punjab, I won’t be finding much Punjabi music in India. My next major quest is to buy up all the Tollywood (Telugu soundtrack) music in Andhra Pradesh, since that has been one of my major musical inspirations over the last year.
While our hotel room was only on the first floor (this is what we in America would consider the second floor, since ground floor is below the first floor in India) and didn’t afford a view of the Golden Temple, we could hear the music from the temple in our room around the clock, especially at night when the activity outside the temple quieted down. We would lay in bed and listen to the melisma, harmonium and tabla. At one point I couldn’t sleep in the early hours before dawn and I went and walked around the temple grounds by myself. Sometimes I would just go to the rooftop terrace and listen, gazing down on the temple.
Both Anjali and I managed to get sick in Amritsar. This is an unavoidable aspect of any significant time spent traveling in India, and as bad as we felt, we could only be thankful that we spent our nights squatting on the toilet, and not hugging it. I was also glad to be without an appetite in Punjab, rather than anywhere else in India. Since it was the Punjabis who opened the world’s Indian restaurants after fleeing Partition, it is Punjabi food that most Americans think of when they think of Indian food. Even Indian restaurants opened by South Indians in America will usually feature a Punjabi menu. Because of this, I would rather make sure I have an appetite for rarer delicacies in the South, that aren’t as common in America. I did notice that the menus in Amritsar featured dozens more paneer dishes than I have ever seen listed before, and I was curious, but I was not in the mood for such heavy food. the Punjabi food we ate in Amritsar was either doused with oil on top (at the cheaper places) or butter (at the more expensive ones); rich and heavy food, served with heavy (often oily) flat breads, and not rice.
One thing that really stood out in Amritsar is that you would see the occasional man and woman walking the street holding hands. In India you never see public displays of affection between men and women, unless they are being surreptitious in a “lover’s lane” area of a major city (usually a park in a rich area). It is just not done. Instead you are far more likely to see men holding hands, or women holding hands, as there are no homosexual connotations for displays of same-sex affection.
It rained in Amritsar while we were there! Having not been in India during the monsoons, I had never witnessed rain in India before. It made things very, very muddy. It also meant that I never witnessed sunrise or sunset at the Golden Temple as the sky was completey overcast.
I hope everyone in Portland is doing OK in the cold and snow.