March 15th-16th, Golden Temple, Amritsar, India (Punjab border with Pakistan)
We had arrived at the Golden Temple, Amritsar, spiritual centre of the Sikh religion. It had been a long ride, and after dozing off in the temple dorm, I awoke in time to catch my first view of the shrine itself - its golden domes shimmered in the last light of the setting sun, casting an ethereal light, reflecting rays in the lake that surrounds it.
I joined the many families padding round, barefoot, my shawl around my head as the religion dictates. Though all eyes seemed fixed on me, the atmosphere felt more relaxed, serene, than the Hindu temples in India.
Across the bridge in the Golden Temple, the melodies of 'kertans' could be heard - gentle religious chanting over a tabla and keyboard background. Pilgrims constantly streamed in and bustled their way through - touching the inlays on the marble floor, looking up at the richly gilded walls, pressing their foreheads to the floor, lost in prayer.
A green carpet had been laid down all around on the cold and pristine marble slabs, forming a rectangle round this manmade lake; white marble plaques announced donations to the temples funds. A few Sikhs, beards bushy and dignified, wearing an assortment of turbans - lime green, aqua blue, bleached white - bathed in the holy waters, purifying themselves.
Stopped by an old man, a watery mass was slopped into my hand - part of the Sikh mentality is to provide food for everyone, bringing people together peacefully, and underlining the importance of equality. A few ageing 'Crocodiles' past by, warrior-pilgrims who carried long curved sabres on their hips, wrapped in knee length blue robes, followers of the militaristic tenth Sikh Guru. Tall and broad shouldered guards, eyes gazing solemnly ahead, patrolled the complex with fierce looking spears. There are a few strict rules to adhere to: no alcohol, shoes, display of hair, and contact between the sexes.
That evening Kate, David and I sampled the canteen, serving out literally tens of thousands of chapatis and dahl to the pilgrims who gather there. Hundreds of Sikhs from all walks of life swept into an enormous hall and settled themselves down, cross-legged, in long lines. Steel plates, mugs and food were flung out in rapid fire by a team of volunteers; waiting for the end of the evening prayer, we all tucked into our basic but wholesome food, as servers patrolled with seconds and thirds.
Offering board and lodging to visitors embodies the Sikh mentality; bringing people of all backgrounds together, furthering the cause of equality - the renouncement of the caste system is a key difference to Hinduism. Nanak, it's founder, declared: God is neither Hindu nor Muslim, 'the path which I follow is God's.' He regarded God as Truth, made known through gurus. Caste and sex discrimination is condemned, and the emphasis is more on meditation than ritual. As we filed out, another army of pilgrims were waiting to take our place. Others hastily washed up, creating the most enormous pile of steel plates I have ever seen. I thought wistfully of my days as a washer upper in England - I had it easy!
It was indeed a peaceful scene as dusk fell and the temple reflected the lights that lit it; a mirror image wavered in the surrounding water. But hidden within the temple's past is a dark history, a moment that remains sharp in the history of the Sikh religion. In 1984, preacher-warriors took control of the temple and set up their headquarters, calling for their own Sikh homeland. Met with a stern reply from the Indian government, a paramilitary attack called 'Operation Blue Star' was ordered. Much of the Golden Temple was destroyed, bullet holes and tank fire tore through the shrines and army troops clambered in their leather boots - this, and the destruction of the shrines, was seen as the greatest affront by the Sikh people. As a result, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, in turn inciting widespread violence against the Sikh people throughout India. The bodyguards themselves were hanged just a few years ago, after years of delay over this volatile issue.
Yet an even more shameful event occurred in 1919, when thousands of Sikhs demonstrating against colonialism and were massacred by British troops. Hundreds leaped to their death down a nearby well to avoid the volley of bullets fired unexpectedly and indiscriminately - now a sacred site in the city. It's another moment that made me feel uncomfortable as a British citizen; the not-so-distant memories of colonialisation are still very much alive in India, and travelling in India has shown me a little of the way this country was exploited before independence.
Outside the Golden Temple, a tangle of backstreets seeped into the old city - fruit stalls selling chopped papaya on slabs of ice, chai stalls, dhaba restaurants, cloth shops. Curvaceous archways etched with ornate Punjabi script, wooden balconies, shafts of sunlight piercing narrow and winding alleys... The internet revolution has reached the Temple too. In a nearby cyber cafe, its two young Sikh owners proudly surfed a Golden Temple web site, and took me through the events of 1984 on another, pulling out a clipping from a newspaper of the time. We talked about the wide range of Sikhs in the temple. There is an old saying, quoted one: ' You can find potatoes and Sikhs all over the world!'
Throughout the night, pilgrims arrived, camping out in hallways, filling the dorms. Turbans everywhere. I picked up a pamphlet entitled Hair - an indispensable symbol of Sikh identity. Cutting hair is seen as self destruction, and the text called on readers to stop 'de-naturalising the God-given body.' It spoke of the glories of long hair and the strength it gives, and told of a father and son with incredible hair power who toured their state. 'Their repertoire included such hair-raising feats as pulling a bus with fifty passengers by the hair.' (!!)
When I nipped out to go to the toilet, a pile of mummified bodies wrapped in shawls littered the way like a Indian train station at night. Back in our foreigner designated dorm, I was vividly aware of this atmospheric night, and felt grateful to the wonderful welcoming and thoughtful Sikh people. A few hours ago, I knew next to nothing about this religion, and now I look forward to returning to England with a deeper understanding and respect for the Sikh community who live there.