We’ve finally reached India! Half of us girls wore strappy tops and shorts under our Muslim clothes so we could gleefully strip as soon as we crossed the border. I have now thrown away my curtain tent, never to be seen again. My apologies to anyone who desperately wanted to borrow it. This is quite a famous border, as they have daily ceremonies between the Indian and Pakistani guides, but we were crossing too early in the day so we made plans to come back later on.
Our first stop in India is Amritsar, which is the holiest city for the Sikh faith as the original copy of their holy book – the Guru Granth Sahib – is housed inside the Golden Temple. We’re back onto camping, which feels really odd – after not pitching my tent since halfway through Iran I’m not sure I can remember how to do it properly. It’s not bush camping at least, we’re staying in the grounds of a guesthouse, so we have showers and a restaurant and a really nice swimming pool which is frankly a godsend. I’d love to be able to say it’s got so much cooler since ditching all the excess clothing, but the humidity has shot up since leaving Pakistan so the sweat is still pouring off us. The tents are almost unbearable, but I’m being stubborn in my budgeting so no matter how much I’m cooking I’m not upgrading to an air conditioned room. Stupid stubborn streak. Our Goan contingent joined up with us again when we arrived, so it was drinks all round on the first night to celebrate being back together again!
We booked a taxi tour for our free day to take us round the major sites – our first stop was one I hadn’t heard of, but was possibly my favourite. I would recommend the Mata Temple to anyone who is suffering from temple overload as it is just so damn weird.
This is a Hindu temple dedicated to the 20th century saint Lal Devi, who women pray to to get pregnant. I was careful not to pray. Originally I thought it was going to be quite a short stop – the downstairs section, while crazily colourful, is just a couple of rooms with statues. Then I was pointed upstairs. Upstairs is like walking into a funhouse at the fair. The route leads you up and down stairs and in and out of rooms filled with Hindu gods and covered with painted or mirrored walls. You have to go crawling through tunnels, walking through doorways shaped like mouths and at one point wading through shin deep water in almost pitch black. I was half expecting the floor to start moving. If Christianity was like this I would have gone to church a lot more often.
Our next stop was back to the border for the closing ceremony – you’ll have to forgive photos with heads in I’m afraid, it’s absolutely packed here.
This happens every day, but it seems like the whole population of Amritsar can’t help but show up for it every time. The actual ceremony only takes about half an hour but there’s about an hour of building up the crowd beforehand with chanting, dancing and flagwaving. Volunteers from the audience come up to run up and down with the flag, and this is apparently only supposed to be women and children, but after a bit of badgering one of the guards was persuaded to give Alex and Sean a go as well.
At the same time the Pakistani crowd is getting worked up on the other side of the gate until a bugle blast signals the start of the real craziness. Then the Indians and Pakistanis march up and down towards the gates competing in who can shout the loudest, flex the biggest muscles and kick the highest. And of course, who has the silliest headgear. It goes on until all the guards have had a turn at kicking themselves in the face, at which point the gates are opened and they salute and shake hands before lowering the flags and packing up for the night.
After the insanity (and extreme heat) of the ceremony we were all wilting a bit, but we managed to squeeze a night visit to the Golden Temple in before bed – no photos allowed inside, but that’s ok, since the outside is totally stunning.
Amritsar’s been a great introduction to India, I can’t wait to see the rest of it!