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Tourists come to Amritsar primarily for two reasons – to visit the Golden Temple sacred to the Sikh religion and to watch the closing ceremony at the border crossing between India and Pakistan.  After a 7-hour train ride from Delhi, we checked into our hotel with the goal of checking these two activities off our list the next day.

The Sikh religion is relatively new compared to the other predominant world religions.  Sikhism began in the 15th century when Guru Nanak became dissatisfied with the Hindu religion, primarily due to its acquiescence to the caste system that pervades Indian society.  The Guru believed that all should be treated equal, regardless of birth.  The Guru’s teachings (and the teachings of the 9 other Gurus that followed him) are written down in the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib.
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While the religion’s followers are a small minority in India (and virtually unknown to the rest of the world), they have played a large role in recent Indian history.  In response to repeated persecution by other religious groups (predominately Muslims in present-day Pakistan and nearby Afghanistan), Sikhs learned the art of warfare and became respected as great warriors throughout India; in fact, many of the leaders of the Indian army are Sikhs.  Male Sikhs are easily recognized by the turban worn to cover their head and a typically long beard (one of the customs of Sikhs is to never cut their hair). Shanna’s father’s family is Sikh, so our visit to Amritsar had particular importance.

After covering our heads and removing our shoes, we entered the Golden Temple complex.  The Temple is a stunning site, covered with over 1,500 pounds of gold that sparkles throughout the day and night (with the help of spotlights).  The Temple is surrounded by a pool of water considered holy by Sikhs – it is said to have cured diseases of devout followers.  Inside the relatively small temple, priests and musicians take their turns throughout the day chanting scripture from the holy book, which is broadcast on loudspeakers throughout the complex and on cable tv throughout India.
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One of the most noteworthy practices of Sikh temples (called gurdwaras) is langar – the free meals that are offered at all gurdwaras to anyone regardless of religion, caste or nationality.  The langar at the Golden Temple, which is run by volunteers, is massive – approximately 40,000 people dine here for free each day (donations, of course, are accepted, but not at all obligatory).  We were able to tour the impressive operation required to feed this mass group, and to eat a simple lunch of chapati, dhal and rice.  They even let me attempt to cook some of the chapatis (Indian flat-bread); my service was short-lived considering my skills at flipping the chapatis and transporting them to a basket were woefully inadequate (at least seven of the chapatis ended up on the floor; luckily, it appears that the five-second rule applies at the Temple since they were quickly placed in the basket alongside the non-soiled chapatis).
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That afternoon, we made our way to the nearby India/Pakistan border.  While India shares a huge border with Pakistan, the crossing near Amritsar is the only one currently open.  On each side of the border, football-style bleachers have been erected for the thousands of people (mainly Indians; the Pakistan bleachers were nearly emptly, possibly related to the current political turmoil of the country) who come to watch the enigmatic border-closing ceremony each evening.

Shortly after we were escorted to the VIP section of the bleachers (oddly, foreigners are given the best seats at this pro-India event), the 20-minute ceremony began.  The border guards on each side of the gate took their turns marching to and from the border, atte
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mpting to look as intimidating as possible; however, their flamboyant style and dress looked more like something out of a Monty Python movie. Particularly amusing was the Rockette-style kicks they executed with regular precision.

Eventually, the gate was open and the opposing guards stood chin to chin in a staring contest.  After a couple of minutes, the stares were broken, the flags of each country were lowered in unison and the border was closed for the evening.  Throughout the event, the crowds on each side of the border chanted nationalistic songs with the fervor of fans at a Duke/Carolina basketball game.  Restrained by Shanna, I was unable to start a “Taste Great – Less Filling” cheer or to introduce the wave to India – the only negative of my visit to Amritsar.

Golden Temple Video:

Border Closing Ceremony Video: