Cycling Plus #18:
Dharmsala to Amritsar, India - Buddhist to Sikh
Lost under a pile of Tibetan silk scarves ceremoniously placed around our
heads, Frenchman David and I bid farewell to Dharmsala's Buddhist monks.
Our multi-coloured prayer flags, strung across the handlebars, flutter
wildly on the descent out of the mountains.
The road to Pathankot is steep and winding, crossing fields of lush terraced
farming and connecting frenetic, lively villages. After a few days amongst
the peaceful Tibetans, we're back to normality again. Buses blast their
horns mercilessly, trucks pour forth noxious fumes, cratered roads shake our
bodies and over zealous bystanders seek our attention - all classic
ingredients that make up the Indian cycle experience.
Looping through the valley, bands of jagged snow-capped peaks gradually
soften into rolling hills. In the lowlands of Punjab, a stream of dusty
towns do little to break the monotony of the fields. Indians on Jurassic
'Hero' steeds rush past with the wind, shirts billowing like open sails,
only to slow right down as they overtake us. At a railway crossing, a medley
of motor rickshaws, mopeds, buses and cars face each other, revving engines,
blasting and buzzing their horns. The gates are up and the crowd lurches
forward instinctively. Keeping to respective sides seems too logical; each
vehicle, regardless of size, weaves randomly forwards, leaving a gridlocked
road behind. India...such a fascinating and vibrant country, yet in so many
ways a mystery!
We arrive in Amritsar, home to the Golden Temple and just twenty five
kilometres from the border with Pakistan. A tangle of backstreets seep into
the old city where fruit stalls sell chopped papaya on slabs of ice and
curvaceous archways are etched with ornate Punjabi script. Like Mecca to the
Muslims, the Golden Temple is a magnet to Sikhs. All around, turbans bob
this way and that, a range of colours, an assortment of sizes. Huge,
broad shouldered and bearded, a carbon copy of a Bond henchman towers over
for a close inspection of the much admired 'gear system'. Passing a group of
ageing warrior-pilgrims, long curved sabres slung to their hips, we wheel
our bikes towards the temple dorms, where men are unravelling turbans and
revealing shoulder length hair.
Foregoing cycle locks, we leave our steeds under the watchful eye of the
fierce, spear clutching custodians of the Temple. Meanwhile, families walk
barefoot round the cold bleached-white marble paving, touching heads to the
floor, lost in prayer. The golden dome shimmers in the last light of the
setting sun, its image reflected in the surrounding lake. It's been a long
day, and we merge with the hundreds of Sikhs sweeping into an imposing
canteen, settling ourselves down cross-legged in long lines. Steel plates,
mugs and food are flung out in rapid fire by a team of volunteers; tens of
thousands of chapatis and dahl are served every night. We eat to our fill,
and as we file out, another army of pilgrims wait to take our place. Eyeing
so many plates heaped into a mountain of glittering silver, I think
meditatively of my days as a washer-upper in England.
In offering board and lodging, the Sikh mentality aims to unite people of
different backgrounds and further the cause of equality. Throughout the
evening, pilgrims arrive and camp in hallways, an ever increasing zigzag of
bodies wrapped in shawls from head to toe. Back in our foreigner designated
dorm, I'm grateful to our friendly hosts and vividly aware of this
atmospheric night, the last one I will spend in India.
Tomorrow, just an hour's ride away, lies the border with Pakistan.