Don’t. Trust. Anyone. That was the motto of the ten-hour overnight train from Delhi to Amritsar. Well, at least it would have been if we had been awake enough to heed it. We were already exhausted from overnight travel to Delhi, from the fleecing at the hands of Lucifer’s travel agency, and from the whirlwind tour of Delhi – what should have taken three days crammed into a single afternoon.
And now, an overnight train, again. The rails were already crackling away beneath us, the dark and toasty cabin was melting away my coats and layers, and the steady drone of banter from the gentlemen sharing our cabin was more than drowsy. It was downright hypnotic.
One was a retired army officer returning from Delhi on a medical checkup. Another was a factory owner traveling up to Punjab to check on his investments. Another had sons in the US and enjoyed parleying around place names and cultural commentary to impress the foreigners. All were middle aged; all were courteous and helpful; all were men. I don’t know how far down the compartments you’d have to travel before you found a lady on the overnight train.
They discoursed on politics, on wages and living situations, on health care and home remedies, on any number of other banalities that strangers might comfortably speak of. It was quaint, really.
But still, Andy’s Romanian ways would not let her—or me—sleep until all the valuables were tucked away from thieving hands that might strike during the night. “If we’re not careful, We’ll wake up in Amritsar with nothing left to us.”
Normally, she’s the first to smile, inquire, and strike up an instant friendship. But on the heels of Delhi’s scheming, and going on two nights without decent sleep, we were both getting paranoid. Even grinning mustaches in the gathering dusk seemed less like Hindi gentlemen and more like pirates.
I yawned and nodded and tucked the passports deeper into my coat pockets and deeper still beneath my cubbie-holed nest of coats and jackets.
The passengers were discussing education in the villages. They wanted my opinion as an teacher. Or maybe I dreamed that part. Maybe I sleep-talked on curriculum and assessment for an hour. Nightmare for all.
All I know for sure is that I spent the night fitfully twisting along my shelf-like board of a cot, fighting and clawing for moments of shut-eye. Waking glimpses included an ever-darkening cabin, a row of gentlemen’s eyes catching the flashes of light from the passing village posts, and the hum and the drone of their vigilant voices, rocking me back to sleep.
Andy was long since collapsed in the shadows, a fitful kitten wrapped in scarves mummy-style around her eyes and over her ears.
In the quicksand of deepening sleep and the frustration of eyelids rusting shut, I wondered whether these guys were not just lolling us off to sleep to slip away with our backpacks, or if we would ever wake for the stop or just plow right on into Jammu, or if we had even boarded the correct train at all.
Dreams collided with reality, watches clicked time forward and back, shadows deepened as the train plowed north. Stars whirled wildly overhead while train tracks fused with Shiva’s hourglass and cryptic elephant messengers delivered hooded emissaries to the first class wagon.
I was definitely sinking.
What would the morning actually bring us?
There was never any question of not going, however inconvenient and worrisome that train might be. Amritsar, after all, had been a “must-have” on our initial plans for Operation Pav Baji. Sri harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple of the Sikhs, perched studiously over the reflective pool while the ancient chants rang round the mystic air—images such as this had long called us over to take a snapshot or two ourselves. Add to that the fierce Punjab mystique—that strange combination of daggers and beards and swaggering success that makes the turbaned patriarchs world famous for travel and battle and business and all sorts of cultural exploits in between—and it’s just a place we had to go.
But aside from an exotic temple and unfairly “Orientalizing” the culture, we were really quite clueless. We just knew that we had to go.
What we’d read along the way included these tidbits: Amritsar is the capital of Punjab province. Amritsar sits near the border of Pakistan. The Punjab culture straddles the political border between the two nations. And, yeah, it was the impetus of some truly monumental massacres and riots and assassinations a generation ago.
The Sikh tradition had become so fiercely storied and proud, it seems, that a few of its more extreme leaders started advocating for an independent state of Khalistan. India wasn’t about to let the economic and agricultural gem of Punjab just waltz away, though, and things started to get ugly. The militants moved in to the Golden Temple grounds, holed up behind homemade fortifications and stocked up on machine guns and ammo, and dared the Indians to further “negotiations.”
It was June, 1984, when the Indian army threw down the gauntlet and invaded the holy space of the Sikhs. Artillery rained down on the Golden Temple, soldiers poured in to its narrow alleys and holy shrines, blood spilled across its sacred tiles, and after a week and half of rising body counts and media blackouts and scores of alleged human rights violations, the Khalistani movement was defeated.
Aftermath included mass desertions of Sikhs from military and government positions, violent mutinies among Sikh servicemen, and even the assassination of the prime minister by her Sikh bodyguards. It was ugly.
India rebuilt the temple, and the Sikhs pulled it down and rebuilt it themselves. It’s the principle, and the pride, of the thing.
The controversy over the Khalistan madness erupted once again recently, with Canada’s defense minister being being given the cold shoulder by Punjab officials over alleged Khalistani sympathies.
Yes, this was Amritsar and its storied temple. This place, we were about to find out, had a lot to teach us about its cold, its gold, and its kulchas.
When the gentlemen woke us to gather our bags for the Amritsar train stop, Andy and I were both in the zombie phases of half-human comportment. Our hosts made sure we collected all our bags and valuables, escorted us to the doors, and said goodbye to two of the coldest squanderers of local hospitality they’d probably ever run across. These guys were polite, and sincere, and educated, and willing to have an enlightening conversation. We were sleepy, dull, unresponsive, and suspicious.
I humbly apologize to India for that one.
And speaking of cold—outside the train station, I felt like we’d just walked into, not an exotic temple city of the Orient, but rather a blistered surface settlement of Mars. Not in the sci-fi techy way, but in the bitterly frigid, biting winds, utterly dark save a few sparse streetlights casting feeble cones of orange through the whirling red pre-dawn kind of way. Grainy, gritty, red, crumbling—all else was darkness.
We hoisted the backpacks, glanced at the rumpled map I pulled from my pocket, and stumbled into the dark streets.
Traffic was beginning to wake, and in India, that means a deafening slough of honks and hawkers, shouts and screeching fanbelts, rumbling diesels and merchants’ invitations. When it’s fully awake, just multiply all that by five.
But for a morning hike in the freezing temps, it’s a nice way to warm up. Another nice way is to find the hotel we had booked. We turned out to be better suited for the first than the second.
Eventually, we found the guys at the front desk were portly, bearded, turbaned, and gruff. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Andy and I sprang for a cozy room–including a toasty little heater, hot water on tap, and a bed big enough for two. I was starting to warm up to Amritsar already.
If we suffered the cold in Delhi’s December, we had another thing coming after the overnight train north. Sure there’s a degree or two difference when you make it up to Punjab’s capital. But the real trick, the real reason to dread the December freeze, comes when you finally make it to the Golden Temple. Here is the rumbling Mecca of the turbaned clan of Sikhs, the golden conglomeration of chanting and chains and dunking into a marbled pool of “holy nectar.” Here, yes here, sits the temple at the heart of one of the most puzzling religions to call India home.
It’s the heart of Punjab’s storied past, and the center for its tourism, and its, well, its really cool get-up.
The Sikhs have a storied history of faith in their strangely-birthed religion, in their stalwart warriors for armed services worldwide, and in their fierce loyalty to their causes. They have risen to the top in politics and science and music and sports and all kinds of notable endeavors that anyone can read about on Wikipedia and elsewhere.
Sikhs are certainly a minority in the big-picture of the nearly-billion population of India. But they have certainly made their presence known, creating business success and athletic prowess and international travelings and hotel holdings worldwide. Perhaps in more than a few places, it’s the Sikhs of Punjabi – bearers of the Singh surname – that have carried the name of India to the rural and insular hometowns and neighborhoods of the globe, venturing in to skeptical communities who think they’re not ready for the foreigners.
And if those homogenous homespuns would prove as savvy as I had on the train, well, God help the world of international relations. It’d be a sorry sight for us all if everyone were as sleepy and selfish and suspicious. Yes, I had been a jerk, and I needed to get back out there and prove to Amritsar, regardless of that cold, that I was indeed an ambassador for Good.
We dropped the bags, stifled a yawn, bundled up, and hit the sunrise streets of Amritsar. One tuk-tuk to the Golden Temple, please!
At first, I thought I’d somehow confused the Gold Temple with a monster roller coaster – the lines to get in were about as long. But I came back to my senses when my bare feet hit the freezing marble. That’s right, bare feet on the marble slabs—in December. I thought Andy would either leap into my arms or slap some bearded guru who made that rule.
She doesn’t fare well in the cold.
Shuffling feverishly along the route, skipping between the conveniently-arranged carpets for walking, shivering part from the frigidity and partly from finally reaching a long-dreamed of destination, she looked something like an energizer bunny with five too many espressos and a few too many winter layers. I could hardly keep up with her weaving in and out among the fellow pilgrims to toward the gate. She dodged the children and zipped past the elderly and skirted the hale young men on their way to pray. She was unstoppable—only her eyes visible between her layers of scarves and her wooly sock-cap—either she couldn’t wait a moment more for the first glimpse of the gold, or she sought to warm herself by prodigious volume of the kinetic energy she generated. I grunted and struggled behind, desperate on one hand to not lose my little wife in the crowd and on the other to repay my debt of kindness to the guys on the train.
I breathed a million “excuse-me”s and a thousand-thousand “pardon”s and no few “Sorry!”s for the children I trampled and the elderly I bowled over. Andy is tiny and light. I was loaded down with camera gear and tripod and a backpack full of gloves and snacks.
Then she stopped. No frenzied terrier jerking to the end of its chain could have been more sudden. Fortunately, the one smashing into her back was her husband—the guy wrapped up in coats and lugging a half-dozen bags and plowing through the local populace and mumbling and bowing excuse me’s to everyone—and not some weirdo.
She glared through the tiny slit visible between her scarf and hat. But no, it wasn’t that dreaded look I normally get for accidentally tackling her. No, this was a glare of terror—for lo, there before her, cutting her off from the long-awaited gate of the golden temple, was a shallow channel of rippling water – one inch deep, two-feet wide.
“What! We have to wash our feet out here?” Around us, the crowds were calming shuffling through the stream and, now properly cleansed, passing under the vaulted archway and into the courtyard.
Around us, the rhythmic chantings of the guru elders filled the winter air. She stood and stared at the impossible river. “My feet are already freezing!” She glanced around at the giant spear-wielding guards (uh, yeah—that part is no exaggeration—those guys really are really tall and really do have spears). “I’m just going to jump over.”
That would have been the easy way in. It would have saved us some suffering. No one would ever know the difference. Surely our feet couldn’t stain the marble. But she couldn’t do it— It just wouldn’t be the proper thing for a visitor to do. And as a guest and a visitor, as all good Romanians know, are required to pay careful attention to what exactly you do with your shoes when you arrive at your host’s place.
Plus, we still had the debt of kindness to pay to the gentlemen in the train.
The water was surprisingly warm—user friendly tweaks to the system from the tourist-friendly temple, I suppose.
The next step out, though, was the killer: frigid marble, meet wet foot. Wet foot, frigid marble.
The cold grip snapped us up to the knee, and wouldn’t let go for the next two hours. Andy looked something like a Bollywood princess in a parka bursting into an impromptu dance routine there in the gateway to the temple: a hop or two on each foot, back to the other, shrieking some sort of lyrical distress that didn’t quite register in its details.
I don’t think I was much different—perhaps a little less graceful and a little more bearded.
But the important thing was the Indiana Jones moment – just a fistful of steps away from the storied Golden Temple of Amritsar. Hang on to your fedoras; we’re heading in.