A trip to India is not complete without a visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab.
This mecca for the Sikh faith is an ideal representation of compassion, hospitality, and socialism. Though it's comparing apples & oranges, I found the Golden Temple to be somewhere between 10-100x a better visit than the Taj Mahal.
This immaculate white-marble square surrounds a massive, sacred, holy-water-filled tank. The pilgrims come here to bathe in the holy water, in which fish swim happily (the Sikh are pure vegetarians). At the center of the tank is a beautiful Golden Temple. All are welcome to visit the Golden Temple, and the square is open on 4 sides 24/7. The friendly spear-and-sword-armed guards only require you to follow a few simple, respectful rules: don't bring socks or footwear in the square & cover your head.
You can also sleep for free in the complex, in Air-Conditioned quarters. They serve free food & tea constantly throughout the day & night (Langar). And there's a free museum to learn about the history and theology of Sikhism.
I spent 2 glorious days in Amritsar, most of which was spent reading in the square, admiring the Golden Temple and the utopian atmosphere.
I also went to Jallianwala Bagh, the site of the 1919 massacre where British troops--without warning--fired upon men, women, and children; killing over a thousand. I was shocked to find many Indians taking smiling selfies in front of the still-standing bullet-hole-filled walls. For the first time in my 3-month stay in India, I denied requests to selfies.
And I briefly visited the Wagah Pakistani border and left with an intense desire to cross to bear witness to the culture of the more tranquil Pakistanis.
My last night in Amritsar, I caught the midnight train back to Delhi for a cheap flight back to Bangalore.
Sad packs of technicolor-painted donkeys wander down the street outside my hostel just next to the East Gate of the Taj Mahal.
I sit nibbling at my peanut butter & raisin burrito trying to overcome the weakness due to hunger following this morning's stomach issues from the Dal Fry I had last night at the Bob Marley Cafe (Bob Marley--a true legend that will never be forgotten as the icon of commercialization, a perfect marketing tool to attract the middle-class youth backpackers to hostels). More donkeys pass and I'm reminded of the sad camels I saw pulling carriages of tourists between the Agra fort and the Taj Mahal. The camels, unlike horses, don't have shoes. They are massively tall with their snouts covered with a bag and their back bound to carts full of jeering Indians. I could see the misery in her eyes as the driver hit her with a stick to go faster.
But Agra is more than just unconscious lovers, tourists, rickshaws, and animal cruelty--it's a grand city of history & architecture. They say its best to go the Taj for the sunrise, but I didn't want to queue for an hour, so I decided to catch the sunrise from the hostel roof--where I'm told the Taj can be seen in the distance.
a permanently-affixed, wall-mounted, scrolling LED marquee hanging on the old mosque assured visitors to the Taj Mahal that the air pollution today was "safe" for today.
I waited until 06:30. The sun was up, but not visible behind the cloud of post-Diwali pollution that blocked visibility to only a few km in every direction. When I arrived at the Taj a few hours later, a permanently-affixed, wall-mounted, scrolling LED marquee hanging on the old mosque assured visitors to the Taj Mahal that the air pollution today was "safe" for today.
I saw piles of burning trash in the streets...poorly tuned exhausts of autos spat thick black smoke into my lungs. If you look carefully at the ubiquities photos of tourists pinching the top of the Taj, you can see a dark horizon of pollution that hangs sadly on this awkward city.
The Taj Mahal is located just south of a wide river, but the ubiquitous "fog" covering the magnificent structure's white marble edifice is anything but water vapor. Last night, constant streams of firecrackers were exploding in nearly all directions from our rooftop of the Bob Marley Cafe. This morning I saw piles of burning trash in the streets as I walked to the Taj ticket counters. In the afternoon I was choked in the streets as poorly tuned exhausts of autos spat thick black smoke into my lungs. If you look carefully at the ubiquities photos of tourists pinching the top of the Taj, you can see a dark horizon of pollution that hangs sadly on this awkward city.
After Admiring the beautiful gem-inlayed flowers surrounding the tomb at the center of the Taj, I went to the backside, plopped down upon my backpack, and studied the impressive structure. But my mind hardly had time to take it in, for within a minute someone and his boy came up to me asking for "one photo" of me. He did his pose, I tried to smile, they switched, snapped the second photo, and thanked me. Then another, "one photo please sir?" And another. Before I knew it, there was a queue of Indian tourists standing between me & the Taj Mahal. Everyone wanted a selfie with me. The impatient ones wouldn't queue, the just stood next to me with a stranger, as their friends traded turns snapping the photos. A passer-by told me I should charge 20 bucks/snap or they'd never stop. Sadly, he's right. Eventually, a guard came and made it clear that I wasn't allowed to sit here, so I took the opportunity to rush away from the crowd.
My time in Agra is all but finished. When I finish my lunch, I'll head to the station for a trip to Vrindavan. I can only hope that the mass of Krishna devotees are more grounded than the people here in Agra.