Monday, 10/23/2017 - Delhi: Qutub Minar; Amritsar: Golden TempleAfter a thoroughly amazing visit to Bhutan, today we would fly back to India. We woke up and gathered our things together, packing everything for the flight. We were once again amazed at how good we felt; we had expected our bodies to feel wrecked following yesterday's hike to the Tiger's Nest. But we felt great; Craig's knee was even feeling better. Perhaps Guru Rinpoche had blessed us. Craig made coffee in the room while the three of us got dressed. Sonam's Ama called him to wish us a safe journey, and was excited and surprised to hear that we had made it all the way to the Tiger's Nest on foot. Even Dasho and one of Sonam's brothers had advised against it. But we all had so much heart that it was possible with Sonam's tireless help.
We went down to breakfast shortly before 7 o'clock. Sonam wasn't himself, as he was sad that we were leaving and hadn't slept at all overnight. Though we were also sad to be saying farewell to Sonam, we knew that one way or another we would be seeing each other again soon. Spending this week together has really solidified our bond with him, and we know that fate will see to it that we meet again soon.
We gave Sonam our leftover snacks, as well as an extra case of Boston Baked Bean candy to share with his friends when he got back to college. He would later send us photos of his classmates enjoying them.
At 7:30, we checked out of the NakSel Hotel. Kinley and Gyem Phub drove us to the airport. Craig chatted with Kinley during the ride, but Sonam and I were silent, with my arm around his shoulder, reflecting on our time together.
When we got to the airport, we said our farewells. Sonam and Kinley waited at the entrance waving until we passed out of sight to go through security. We were able to keep our bundle of three thangkas with us as carry on luggage. We suspected that it was a fairly common occurrence for people to transport such things on Bhutanese airlines.
The airport is quite small, with only two airlines servicing the entire country (that's double the amount from ten years ago). We sat in the inner waiting room and talked to a woman from Kerala whom we had seen on the hike to the Tiger's Nest. She said that Craig, with his cane in one hand and Sonam Tshering holding onto his other arm, had inspired her elderly parents to continue the hike when the going got tough. We were humbled by this.
I went into a small artisan shop and purchased a wooden incense burner. I also stopped at a coffee shop to buy a pound of local coffee beans. As our departure time approached, we went to the large room that serviced all of the departure gates. We sat near our gate until being called to board.
We were on the wrong side of the plane to see the Himalayas today, but we were seated next to a very friendly Muslim man from Mumbai.
After a short and uneventful flight, we arrived in Delhi. The immigration officer had it in for us. I had written "Amritsar" as our final destination on the arrival card, but he needed a specific address. Mukul had booked the hotel, so we hadn't worried about it and didn't even recall the hotel name let alone its address. We explained this to the officer but he was stern. He would not let us in without a proper address and he sent us away.
We knew that Mukul was here at the airport waiting for us on the other side of immigration/customs, so, slightly panicked, I called him on my cell. I explained the situation and he was caught a bit off guard that this was a problem. He told me that it was the Hyatt in Amritsar, and that he would call me back with the address. By now the entire crowd at immigration had dispersed.
We decided to approach the officer again and tell him that it was the Hyatt. While we were speaking with him, Mukul called me with the address. Though I know cell phone use isn't allowed at the counter, I was so flustered by the whole experience that I answered it by reflex. The officer got even angrier at me, and told me gruffly that cell phone use wasn't allowed.
He eventually accepted "Hyatt Amritsar" as specific enough, stamped our passports, and opened the gates and waved us through. The gate suspiciously slammed on Craig as he walked through with his cane.
This whole ordeal had taken so long that by the time we got to baggage claim, there were only a few bags left from our enture flight. We saw ours immediately. The woman asked for the baggage receipts. I had somehow misplaced them; I couldn't find the boarding pass they were attached to. This was very unlike me, but par for the course today, apparently. We explained that I couldn't find the receipts, but that the bags were clearly marked with our names and addresses which could be cross-referenced with our passports.
She looked at Craig accusingly and said, "You're sweating, sir," as though it was somehow suspicious that a person might be sweaty in 90 degree heat when rushing through the airport. Craig replied that he was hot. "It's not hot, sir," she replied, unsmiling. We knew better than to argue with her, but we thought to ourselves that although 90 degree humid weather might not be considered hot by Delhi standards, it certainly is to us northern-dwelling Americans!
We seriously thought that she wasn't going to allow us to collect our bags, but she eventually relented. We have never had this much trouble. But I suppose turnabout is fair play and we now can empathize even more with what foreigners deal with when entering the United States these days...
When we were finally allowed to exit the airport, we met Mukul and Suresh. Sunita was at her sister's apartment awaiting our arrival. Mukul noticed a spring in Craig's step and was absolutely incredulous and delighted that Craig had climbed to the Tiger's Nest. Mukul has completed the trek four times in his career, and had thought, like the rest of us, that it would probably be too challenging. Like all of us, he was happy to be proven wrong on this one.
Mukul asked how we were feeling: did we want to see a famous historical site before heading to Sunita's sister's place? Or did we want to go straight to her apartment now to take a rest?
This is our fourth trip to India. Each time, we have only seen any sites in Delhi through the windows of a car. We are always just passing through. We were both feeling good, and wanted to take advantage of some elusive free time in Delhi.
We went to Qutub Minar. Today was about 90 degrees and humid. Getting out of the car, the heat hit you like a brick wall. The warm, sticky, polluted air was quite a shock to our systems after the cool fresh mountain air of Bhutan. "It's not hot, sir." We beg to differ!
We entered the complex are walked down a hedge-lined stone walkway toward the massive Qutub minaret which dwarfs all of the buildings surrounding it.
At 238 feet tall, the Qutub minaret is the tallest brick minaret in the world. This impressive example of Mughal architecture dates back to 1192. Verses of the Koran are carved into the sandstone facade in Persian calligraphy. The walls are fluted and the tower is breathtaking.
The scorching noonday sun made it rather difficult to see the top of the tower from some angles, and made us seek shade. Apparently, this site is right in the flight path of the airport. It seemed that every five minutes or so, a plane would pass by the tower to dramatic effect.
There were other buildings in the Qutub Complex in addition to the minaret. The Mughals destroyed 27 Hindu and Jain temples in the immediate area. They used materials from these to build this complex. As such, in some of the buildings, you notice Hindu and Jain motifs carved into the stone blocks and columns. However, any faces have been chiseled away in order to not violate Islamic tradition.
After marveling at the minaret, we walked through the Alai Darwaza. It is a gateway to the Qutub complex and was built in the 14th century. The ceiling is lotus-inspired, and the building is adorned with delicate marble jali screens.
We walked through the remnants of Quwwat-ul-Islam Masjid, the first mosque to be built in India. The mosque consists of a courtyard surrounded by corridors supported by elaborately carved columns and archways.
Mukul guided Craig around, explaining the site, while I ran back and forth getting photographs. We knew that this would be a short visit because we had such a busy day ahead, so I made the most of the time by photographing the site from many angles. While I was on one of these solo missions, a security guard approached me and offered to take my photo in front of the minaret and framed by an archway. He posed me in several locations. Mukul and Craig were observing from a distance, and Mukul smiled and said to Craig, "He will be disappointed when he figures out that she's with us." As I returned to where they were standing, it did seem like a brief look of disappointment crossed the guard's face.
When we were done exploring the site, Suresh picked us up and drove us all to Sunita's sister Renu's apartment. Renu was very welcoming and had taken the day off from her job as a schoolteacher to host us. We had a lovely homemade lunch. We rearranged our things so that we only took an overnight bag of essentials to Amritsar, leaving the bulk of our luggage at Renu's apartment.
After chatting with Renu, we said our farewells and headed back to the airport, this time joined by Sunita. The timing seemed tight to us; traffic in Delhi can be so unpredictable! But Mukul was confident; it was only a domestic flight to Amritsar, after all. But by the time we were checked in and through security, it was the final boarding call. And it was literally the furthest gate in the terminal. Luckily we now knew that they provided golf cart service for the disabled, and were able to catch a ride to the gate just in the nick of time.
The flight was only an hour long, but we were fed yet again. Before we knew it, we were landing in Amritsar. Its proximity to the border with Pakistan was belied by the fact that absolutely no photos can be taken anywhere in the airport, not to mention the presence of armed military on the sidewalks.
Mukul hired a cab to take us to the Hyatt. Along the drive, Mukul pointed to a highway exit which would take you to the Pakistani border at Wagah, only 20 miles from here. A tense political situation here probably contributed to the immigration officer's rigidity earlier today; no doubt they want to keep tabs on people coming to the area.
Mukul suggested that we take half an hour to refresh and relax at the hotel before visiting the Golden Temple. We definitely wanted to visit the temple at night when it is lit up, but a quick chance to freshen up after two airplane flights and a hot and sticky day in Delhi sounded good to us.
Mukul checked us all in to the hotel while we enjoyed a welcoming glass of cold fruit juice. He was told that the only free shuttle from the hotel to the temple which had availability was at 7:30 p.m. It was now 7:15.
So rather than having 30 minutes to prepare, we made a mad dash to the room to drop our things, use the restroom, and meet in the lobby within 15 minutes. A nice intern took us to the room but I was quite impatient as he went into depth on how to use the TV (which we never intended to use) wasting valuable time. Please let me use the toilet. Time is ticking!
We met Mukul and Sunita downstairs at 7:30. We took the free shuttle, a small bus which brought us to within a few blocks of the temple. We then caught a tuk-tuk to go the rest of the way. Amritsar reminded us of Varanasi in its chaos. So many vehicles in the maze of small streets.
We were dropped at the entrance to the temple. Mukul has visited the temple before when leading tours. However, although Sunita has familial ties to the Punjab region, she had never visited Amritsar. We were excited to be traveling with her. It would be the first time at the temple for the three of us.
Everyone must cover their head to enter the temple. If you don't have a scarf or bandana, you can purchase one from a myriad of vendors for "10 rupees only." Sunita and I had each brought a scarf that we draped over our heads. Craig and Mukul had brought bandanas. We took off our shoes and left them with a shoe attendant. We had to perform ablutions before entering the temple. We washed our hands at an outdoor sink. Then we walked down a white marble corridor with piedra dura inlay reminiscent of the Taj Mahal or Baby Taj in Agra. A marble trough of water bisected the walkway, and walking through it washed our feet.
The Golden Temple is known officially as Sri Harmandir Sahib, the abode of God. It is the holiest of temples and places of pilgrimage in the Sikh faith. The temple and its man-made lake (sarovar) date back to the late 16th century. After being destroyed several times, it was rebuilt in 1830 from marble and copper, and overlaid with gold.
According to Wikipedia:
The fundamental beliefs of Sikhism, articulated in the sacred scripture Guru Granth Sahib, include constant spiritual meditation of God's name, being guided by the Guru instead of yielding to capriciousness of mind or psyche, living a householder's life instead of monasticism, truthful action to dharam (righteousness, moral duty), being of selfless service to others, equality of all human beings, and believing in God's grace.
The gilded temple was amazingly beautiful at night. It cast shimmering reflections on the waters of the surrounding pool. Mukul asked if we would like to go inside. We hadn't known this was an option, but people of all faiths are welcome to enter. We certainly wouldn't pass up an opportunity to visit such an important pilrimage site, which most Sikhs visit at least once during their lifetimes.
We joined the back of the queue on the narrow marble causeway. In order to prevent the sanctum from becoming too crowded, they would wait for enough people to exit before allowing another group inside. Mukul said that at times the wait can be four hours long. Though there was a roof overhead to provide shade, it still must get very hot when waiting during the day. We were glad that we were here in the relative coolness of the evening.
People were packed in like sardines. It was a surging throng of chanting fervent pilgrims eager to make their way to their destination. I must admit I was a bit overwhelmed as I got jostled and pushed by those behind me. My mind flashed to reports of stampedes at religious locations, and I was immediately worried for Craig. I started to feel a little panicky and claustrophobic. Craig, meanwhile, was loving every minute of it, feeling the positive side of the religious zeal and electric energy of the place. When I looked at him with concern in my eyes, he flashed a broad smile. I wish that I could detach and experience the same feeling of bliss that he did, but my mind was racing. Despite having hiked to the Tiger's Nest a mere day before, Craig had boundless energy, riding on adrenaline.
I think that I was just physically and emotionally exhausted, having flown two separate times in one day and having had to say farewell to our son in Bhutan. I had really been looking forward to this temple visit, having seen the site on television and being very curious about the Sikh faith. But my state of mind was not the best to enjoy it to its fullest. I regret that, but it is one of the realities of travel. You can't function at 100% indefinitely.
After 30 minutes, we got our chance to enter. The interior was amazing. The ceilings were decorated in maroon, navy blue, and gold geometric patterns. We saw the Guru Granth Sahib covered in an elaborate cloth. We were immediately enveloped by the sound of people chanting and playing golden harmoniums.
Sikhs refer to the hymns of the Gurus as Gurbani (The Guru's word). Shabad Kirtan is the singing of Gurbani. The entire verses of Guru Granth Sahib are written in a form of poetry and rhyme to be recited in thirty one Ragas of the Classical Indian Music as specified. ..Guru Nanak started the Shabad Kirtan tradition and taught that listening to kirtan is a powerful way to achieve tranquility while meditating; Singing of the glories of the Supreme Timeless One (God) with devotion is the most effective way to come in communion with the Supreme Timeless One. - Wikipedia
We climbed the stairs to the second level, where a gallery around the perimeter gave a nice view down to the first floor. We then climbed up another set of stairs, emerging on the roof next to the gilded cupolas. From there we had a beautiful view of the entire complex.
Getting some fresh air from the rooftop calmed my anxiety, and when we re-entered the temple, I was considerably more relaxed. We were entranced by the kirtan music, and just let it wash over us.
The sanctum has two floors. The Sikh Scripture Guru Granth Sahib is seated on the lower square floor for about 20 hours everyday, and for 4 hours it is taken to its bedroom inside Akal Takht with elaborate ceremonies... The floor with the seated scripture is raised a few steps above the entrance causeway level. The upper floor in the sanctum is a gallery and connected by stairs. The ground floor is lined with white marble, as is the path surrounding the sanctum. The sanctum's exterior has gilded copper plates. The doors are gold foil covered copper sheets with nature motifs such as birds and flowers. The ceiling of the upper floor is gilded, embossed and decorated with jewels. The sanctum dome is semi-spherical with a pinnacle ornament. The sides are embellished with arched copings and small solid domes, the corners adorning cupolas, all of which are covered with gold foil covered gilded copper.
Sikhism evolved in times of religious persecution. Two of the Sikh gurus - Guru Arjan (14. April 1563 - 25 May 1605) and Guru Tegh Bahadur (12. April 1621 - 19. December 1675 ), after they refused to convert to Islam, were tortured and executed by the Mughal rulers. The persecution of Sikhs triggered the founding of the Khalsa, as an order to protect the freedom of conscience and religion, with qualities of a "Sant-Sipahi" - a saint-soldier.We exited the sanctum, and as we walked back to collect our shoes, we passed a procession of uniformed Khalsa. Other Sikh faithful chanted along with them. We took a few more photos and then exited, walking once again through the water trough and collecting our shoes.
We took a tuk-tuk to the famous and popular Bharawan Da Dhaba for dinner. Its slogan is "mouth watering deliciousness since 1912." The place was crowded, noisy, and frenetic. There were long tables and we found four chairs together, sitting next to an expat family who lives in Malaysia and had come home to India to prepare for their daughter's wedding.
A waiter came over with a large bottle of water and four metal drinking cups. Mukul ordered some dishes to share. Although my anxiety had subsided, I could tell that I wasn't the only one who was tired after a busy day. Mukul seemed very impatient while waiting for the food, even though they delivered it as soon as humanly possible to do so in such a busy establishment.
Mouth watering deliciousness indeed! We immediately understood why Mukul had insisted on this restaurant. (Later we would also see it featured on Anthony Bourdain's web site as a place to eat during a single "perfect day in Amritsar"). Everything was amazing! We enjoyed
The ride back to the hotel went much quicker than the ride to the temple had been, due to the fact that rush hour had passed. Back in our room (across the hall from Mukul and Sunita's), I posted a few quick photos to Facebook and then we took a well-deserved rest.
Golden Temple, Amritsar
Breakfast with Sonam
Flight from Bhutan to Delhi
Steph in front of Qutub Minar
Men chatting at Qutub Minar complex
Repurposed columns from former Hindu and Jain temples, Quwwat-ul-Islam Masjid
Sisters Sunita and Renu
Approaching the Golden Temple
Sunita, Steph, and Craig at the Golden Temple
Steph and Craig at the Golden Temple
The Golden Temple and the queue to enter
Waiting in the queue to enter the Golden Temple: Steph, Sunita, and Mukul
The Golden Temple
Bharawan Da Dhaba
Bharawan Da Dhaba
Dinner at Bharawan Da Dhaba