Sikhs are one of my favourite people of India. I knew very little about them until I went on my 3-month India journey in 2008. I knew Sikh men wore turbans, didn’t cut their hair or shave their beards. But that was pretty much my knowledge about them.
I travelled to Amritsar, the location of the Golden Temple (the main Sikh temple), with Dieter whom I met in Kashmir. Dieter was from Austria and we were staying in the same hotel in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu & Kashmir. He had just arrived from Austria and I had been in India for around 1.5-2 months by then.
After a few days in Srinagar, we decided to travel south together and got a jeep to Jammu. Because of roadblocks and the presence of the army the journey through the mountainous terrain took the whole day. Scared by the treacherous road, ‘Allah! Allah!’ the elderly Kashmiri man sitting next to me in the jeep kept on chanting.
By the time we arrived in Jammu it was midnight. There we checked out a few hotels but all seemed to be in a terrible condition, perhaps because not many travellers stopped there. Hence I was not keen to stay in any of them. Then Dieter asked, ‘If you were travelling alone, what would you do?’
‘I would go to Amritsar,’ I said.
So we went back to the bus station and, as luck would have it, there was a brand new jeep getting ready to go to Amritsar which had a few available seats. Finding such a new and clean vehicle in India was unusual.
But what was more striking was our Sikh driver. His upright posture, solidity, confidence, neatness. When we stopped at the petrol station, his son who was barely more than 18 took over. At that moment, Dieter and I looked at each other, slightly concerned about how he might drive. You might expect that a young boy would want to show off his driving skills by going fast and taking risks. But there was none of that. The teenage Sikh boy drove as calmly and maturely as a 50-year old.
Those drivers were our first introduction to Sikhs.
We arrived in Amritsar around 3:30-4am. The hotels we looked at wanted us to pay for that night as well. As I was on a budget, I was reluctant to pay for a hotel just for a few hours and my guidebook said that there was a free guestroom at the Golden Temple for foreigners.
So we headed to the Golden Temple. The temple is open 24-hours a day and all the lights were on. There were a lot of people around. And some people were sleeping on the grounds of the temple, which was remarkably clean. With its shine and buzz, the temple seemed to be the centre of the city. It felt like we were onto something special.
Sikhism is a monotheistic religion which was founded in the 15th-16th centuries. It has elements from both Hinduism and Islam. Like in Islam they have minarets from which there is singing. It is against the caste system that exists in Hinduism, though in practice for example in marriages caste is still observed. At every temple there is free food.
In the guestroom for the foreigners there were a couple of hippies and the air didn’t smell very fresh. One of them, an English guy, told us that he had been staying there for 4 months and that it was great.
Dieter and I decided that it was better to actually sleep outside on the grounds of the temples with Sikhs than in that guestroom. Sleeping there was perfectly safe. It was like we were in a caravanserai. And after a few hours we headed to the hotel.
In the daytime the temple was just as remarkable. Orderliness and structure were ubiquitous. Cleanliness was the norm. The posture, confidence and strength we saw in our Sikh jeep driver seemed to be common traits among Sikhs. The man selling fruits on the street was dressed as smartly as an official, and exuded dignity and pride. Boys demonstrated solidity from an early age.
All Sikh men are warriors, and quite tough ones, as it was evidenced in the museum next to the Golden Temple, in for example paintings showing them boiling their enemies alive.
Dieter was so impressed by the Sikhs and their perfectionism that he said they seemed extra-terrestrial. And the funny thing is that not far from the Golden Temple there is a water tank which looks like a UFO that adds to this observation (below picture).
In Amritsar we ate all our meals at the same restaurant which had large windows looking out onto the street. We mused about how cool it would be to have a restaurant in a Western European city which, instead of having windows, showed the streets of Amritsar live.
I was also so much in awe of Sikhs that one evening I wondered, ‘Is it possible to convert to Sikhism?’
Dieter laughed, as though I really wanted to become a Sikh.
Then we saw a group of students wearing navy blue robes and white turbans walking past. Among them were non-Indians. We spoke to a couple of them. One of them was half-German half-Canadian, and her parents had converted.
So if I wanted to…