Saturday, July 24, 2010

India-Bangladesh pilgrimage #7

Our hotel in McLeodganj had a restaurant on the roof. The second morning I was there I sat outside in the sunshine, drinking tea, and looking down into the valley. McLeodganj is about 6000 ft above sea level, and everywhere there are spectacular views.

Our second day started with a bang... literally. As we were driving into Dharamsala, our driver tried to pass a bus on a curve. As we rounded the bus we slammed head on into another bus coming our way. Fortunately, our vehicle and the one we hit were going very slowly. We suffered only a few cuts and bruises.

Palden, our guide, got us 2 taxis and we continued. Our first stop was a Tibetan cultural center. It was one of the loveliest places we've visited in India. The grounds are beautifully manicured, flowers were everywhere. We crossed a bridge over a koi pond going up to the temple. While there we watched Tibetan artists painting traditional Tibetan Buddhist icons, doing needlework, and making furniture. The temple featured a status of the Buddha as the "warrior monk" and it felt like a really prayerful place. Before we left we had a really good lunch in the cafeteria.
After lunch we visited the temple or monastery of the 17th Karmapa lama. He is the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism. Along with about 100 people we sat cross legged on the floor until the Karmapa lama and other monks entered. Then one by one we went forward to receive his blessing.
The next day our two taxis took us from McLeodganj to Amritsar. I think we were all a bit nervous as the taxis descended the mountain on narrow and windy roads. Also, it rained heavily at intervals. But about 6 hours later we arrived in Amritsar.
Amritsar is the holiest city in the Sikh faith because it is the home of the Golden Temple. Our hotel was located just around the corner from the temple. It sits in the middle of a large compound with other buildings on the four sides. In the cener is the "pool of immortality" and in the center of the pool is the temple itself. Its walls are stone but they are covered with gold and it's a brilliant sight in the day and even more brilliant at night when the light reflects in the water.
Sikhism is a synthesis of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam and began in the 16th c. Today there are about 20 million Sikhs, mostly in India, and it may be the 6th or 7th largest religion in the world. The goal of Sikhism is to eliminate the 4 evils: ego, greed, anger, lust, and attachment. The central ritual of the Sikh faith is reading from the scriptures written by their gurus. The Sikh holy book is kept in the center of the temple. From 4 am to 10.15 pm every day it is open and there is constant singing of its texts. We were able to look down upon the book and the musicians from a gallery in the temple. There were 2 singers, each playing a "lap accordion" and a drummer who was drumming extremely complex patterns. Just before the book was closed and put away for the night, the music changed. It became louder and everybody began singing along. Then a portable throne was brought in, the book was packed up, and with great ceremony it was put away until 4 am the next day.
Also in Amritsar we saw the site of the 1919 massacre at Jallianwalla Bagh. Gandhi had called for a national day of purification but the British interpreted this to be a national strike. A British general fired on peaceful protestors in Amritsar, killing hundreds and injuring over a thousand. It was one of the most significant events leading up to independence in 1947.
Later that day we drove 30 km to the Pakistani border and watched as Indian and Pakistan troops changed the guard and lowered their flags. Then we were off to the train for our last overnight train journey. The train left Amritsar right on time and arrived in Delhi only a little later than scheduled. After transferring to our hotel and resting a bit we went out to see the Jama Masjid mosque (the largest in India) and to have lunch at Karim's, a famous Muslim-oriented restaurant near the south gate of the mosque. Our guide in Delhi, Ali, ordered for us and the food was delicious (even though I afterward learned that I was eating goat).
The highlight of our first day in Delhi for me was a visit to the site of Gandhi's cremation. It is a national shrine and like all holy places in India one is required to remove one's shoes. I removed my shoes but not my socks and afterward regretted it. There is something different in these holy places when one feels the cold marble or sun-warmed stone or earth beneath one's feet. One feels a deep connection with the place and also feels strangely vulnerable and exposed.