‘There are in life a few moments so beautiful, that even words are a sort of profanity.’
I struggle to note experiences I remotely enjoyed in India but, when I do, they are of extreme beauty and cause for deep reflection. None so powerful as visiting Sri Harmandir Sahib, which stands for The abode of God, in north-western India, pretty close to Pakistan. The moment I stepped off the bus in Amritsar, I experienced India as it is often portrayed in the media – intense, hot and chaotic. I couldn’t see the ground, everything and everybody moved so quickly and the incessant sound of drilling and rickshaws hooting consumed me.
In the chaos of the crowds and heat, I didn’t realise that the 3 gentlemen who greeted us were policemen there to protect us – I presumed they were official guides. As I walked with one of them, he explained the history, basic premise of Sikhism and the turmoil experienced at the shrine (and its repercussions in Indian history). I was not able to ascertain exactly what we were being protected from but, the fact that our university felt we needed a police escort in a place of worship, was unsettling but that’s probably just my ideological peace & love thought process.
Having read only a paucity of information on Sikhism, the Sri Harmandir Sahib was like a treasure trove of knowledge and human connection. Contrary to what many people think about Catholic education, my school was amazingly open and we discussed different religions (from an informative aspect rather than doctrinal, obviously), particularly in relation to holy days/festivals and attire, so I was aware of Sikhism and the Five Ks. And, having grown up surrounded by life-affirming diversity in inner city London, I have had the privilege of seeing all sorts of people and obtaining tiny glimpses into their respective cultures. Still, nothing quite prepared me for the devotion and spirituality I felt.
Once inside the temple complex, the atmosphere shifted towards a more peaceful environment. Thousands of people yet barely a sound. That is the most immediate memory. As an introvert, I don’t like noise. It makes me anxious and uncomfortable. I also don’t care for crowds but I was in India… Yet, there at the Golden Temple, it was calm and everybody seemed to be at peace. People stared at me as I obviously look different, I smiled and, as I have found during all of my travels, they smiled back. I politely waved. They waved back.
Men undressed and bathed in the sacred pool (women did the same in to closed off area to protect their modesty). We were invited to enter the water too, which was terribly kind, though I felt it somewhat improper (for me) to carry out religious ablutions I neither understand nor believe in, so observed respectfully from the side-lines. Religion fascinates me – the rituals and art, mainly – so, to be in the holiest place in Sikhism was like a dream. The white marble floor scorching hot under the blazing sun, dazzled invitingly as devotees sought their personal moment of connection with God.
‘Every one of us living on this planet is an Other in the view of Others – I am in their view, and they are in mine.’
Ryszard Kapuściński, The Other
People queued for 5 hours to enter the most sacred part of the Golden Temple; my group was given a private escort but not the Indian PhD students whom had accompanied us on the trip – just the international students. People took photographs of us foreign women, and our professors and the police officers rapidly marched over and demanded the ‘culprits’ delete them. Nobody stopped us from photographing local people in their place of worship. I grew up in mixed race family in inner London, surrounded by every type of person – I never felt different to anybody (based on my appearance/religion/nationality) until that moment. That’s when I understood the frustration and injustice of discrimination which many people experience every single day and, despite being on the ‘privileged’ side, it hurt so much. The Other: them vs us. So much shame attached to this light bulb moment. I wrote about this type of inequality in my article about the Taj Mahal.
The beauty of the Golden Temple stands above anything I saw in India, not only because of its design but because of the people, and this was particularly evident in the kitchen/dining areas. Thousands of people donate their time to help prepare, cook and serve food for people of all creeds. Money donated is used to purchase food items which are served to over 100,000 people per day. Apparently, this type of food kitchen is the norm in Sikhism. When I visited the Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) in Delhi I helped out (only for 30 minutes or so) to prepare vegetables – it’s really a fun and meaningful way to get involved with your host country and her people. This idea of everybody chipping in to create and share with each other, irrespective of your religion, warmed my heart. As people, I think we have a proclivity to seek affirmations for what we want to see in our world, and I’m trying to keep that in mind when I think about my experiences in the two Gurdwaras I visited – still, love this way of life. I experienced openness and human connectivity to a people I didn’t really seem to have any connection to. I felt safe and welcome, and my questions were accepted without suspicion and gratitude at being genuinely curious.
This little girl really made me smile. She was utterly obsessed with me and stared constantly, trying to figure out who this strange-looking person was. Her parents tried to call her away but she wouldn’t move. I reached out my hand towards her, she held my gaze and moved her hands behind her back, making her stance perfectly clear. I asked if I could take her photograph, and her parents obliged, et voilà, here she is: little miss curious.
Even today, 6 months after my time in Amritsar, I struggle to elucidate what was a profoundly-moving experience. There are rare those moments which change you and alter your way of navigating life, and this day is one for me. I remain troubled by the economic and gender inequality of India and I will not forget the gut-wrenching pain of seeing so much extreme poverty, as I observed it, yet the kindness, smiles and donation of time and resources to those (by people already struggling) in a less-comfortable situation astounded me. On one hand, India broke my spirit (for many reasons – classmates, poverty, isolation etc.) and I still don’t feel completely ‘fixed’. As a neophyte gender studies student, I was mentally unprepared for what I witnessed and learnt about the lives of women (particularly at the lower end of the caste system) there, and I am unwilling to deny/ignore this reality. On the other hand, against the backdrop of this darkness, I saw kindness in its purest form and feel invigorated by it. I don’t know what happened to me there; even as I write this, I feel teary and uneasy. Nowhere has tested me quite as much. Upon my return to London, inspired by the open-to-all kitchen here, I began volunteering with two charities in the hope that I can use my time, knowledge and compassion to positively impact others (in need). And, so, when I think about my time in India, at Harmandir Sahib and beyond, I feel grateful for the push it gave me to look beyond myself and my privilege, and contribute towards a better society for us all.
“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”
― Alexander Pope
My rickshaw driver dropped me off at a small side road which was under construction. The smell was intense and, in this dreamy head of mine, I couldn’t imagine that the Taj Mahal was there. He didn’t speak very good English and my Hindi is non-existent so I just hoped my hotel had explained where I wanted to go and asked him to wait 2 hours for me. Not for the first time in India, I felt uncomfortable and scared. There was a police booth: an officer smiled at me and I kept looking at him hoping for some indication that I was going in the right direction. On the right, small shops with tourist trinkets and postcards depicting the Taj gave me some comfort. Sadly for the staff, an open sewer ran directly in front of the shops and they had to jump over it to enter/exit. I did not enter.
I walked over to buy my ticket and was immediately asked by a local gentleman if I needed a guide or someone to take my photos. I declined politely; he smiled and left me alone. Almost every guidebook I’ve read told me people hassle you non-stop in India but this certainly wasn’t my experience. A smile and a simple “no-thank” worked fine for me, and I didn’t feel harassed at any point. Tickets cost 1000 Rupees (approx. £11) for non-Indians and 10 Rupees for local people. Although this can negatively impact the chances of people from neighbouring countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh being able to afford entry, it seems perfectly aligned with Western budgets, and I was mortified to hear some tourists complaining of being “exploited”. It was pretty calm there as it 5:50am but I was shocked to see the main area littered with plastic and other rubbish, and locals sleeping on the floor there (as there was little cover from the elements), presumably awaiting the start of their working day. Litter is a huge problem here, as in many developing countries but, I don’t know. I just didn’t expect to see the area surrounding India’s most famous site in such disarray. I keep questioning why I had those preconceptions? Should tourist areas be cleaner for foreigners? Trying to understand my own thinking is proving difficult. Despite what I had already seen, particularly in Delhi, this took me by surprise and served as a reminder that what we are shown (in our own countries) is not necessarily all there is to see. And, having now been to the Taj Mahal, I can say with complete certainty that every image I have ever seen of this monument has been edited (including my own on this very blog). At this point, I felt very confused. I had already had rather tumultuous 3-weeks in India, also known as the most challenging experience of my life since 2011, but this was supposed to be my saving grace. Why didn’t it match up with what I had seen all over social media and on blogs? Why aren’t people showing this? Why is my truth so radically different to what others have experienced? And why had I allowed myself to be conditioned in such a superficial manner? I felt disheartened once again.
Once passed the shambolic security, I was greeted by a huge sandstone gateway which had been inscribed with Quranic verses. For what felt like the first time in 3 weeks, I smiled a genuine smile. I hadn’t seen this structure before in magazines but it felt very familiar. Though this gateway was in poor shape, memories of shrines and mosques in Iran came flooding back. Just through its arch, a sliver of white marble caught my eye, and my breath. I marched through the arch; I had to see it. All of it. I walked through the gateway, looking up and expecting paintings and mosaics that adorned similar structures in Iran. Alas, it was not to be, but that was okay, for the Taj Mahal beckoned.
The complex consists of 4 buildings: the gateway, the Taj Mahal, the mosque on the west and the jawab built on the east for subliminal symmetry. People had told me that the Taj Mahal is unlike anything in the world. Every image I have ever seen looked dream-like, too perfect to have been created by man, let alone designed and constructed in the 17th century long before CAD existed. From a distance, across the gardens, the Taj Mahal looks like a mirage. A glistening, unreachable mirage. I just stood there with my heart racing and a sense of wonder consuming me. It was peculiar because in those first few moments I didn’t notice anything or anybody, it was just me and the Taj Mahal, and it was perfect. Against the powder-grey backdrop of clouds, the semi-translucent marble looked like a painting. An exquisite piece of that belonged in the finest art gallery in the land. I had to get closer, to touch it and pinch myself. Crossing the Persian garden, however, I rapidly left my dream world. It was impossible not to notice the discoloured and worn out paving and plastic bottles carelessly discarded but, as the water was perfectly still, the Taj Mahal reflected beautifully.
Maybe I should write a blog post called ‘I have this thing with mosques’. Ever since I went to Iran, I have been obsessed. And, true to form, though in a shocking state of disrepair, my favourite place was the mosque within the Taj Mahal complex. Boards covered with bird droppings, damaged yet beautiful tile works and formally elaborate calligraphy galore – it was so peaceful. There are 569 individual prayer mats and, if you plan to visit, it’s worth noting that the entire complex closes on Fridays (to non-Muslims) for prayers. With the white marble mihrab built in the direction of Mecca, the mosque is adorned with scripture from the Quran; even though it’s now rather dilapidated, its beauty is profound. It is rather unfortunate that people ignore the no shoes rule and use it as short cut, whilst shouting and acting like hooligans. Irrespective of what you believe, I feel it is important to respect the sanctity of religious buildings, if only to show respect to one’s fellow human beings. This is not a universal opinion. And the ‘guards’ don’t seem to mind. This is my favourite structure in (the small part of ) India I’ve visited (and the best place to view the Taj from).
Before entering, I walked round the upper area of the Taj Mahal, marvelling at the perfectly cut marble was cut and deeply saddened to see that most of the precious stones had been stolen. The symmetry is unlike anything I’ve ever seen or imagined. It is absolutely magnificent. A young, American tourist posed provocatively as her friend snapped away. Climbing up on the wall, she reclined, pulled her scarf back to reveal a halter top and bare shoulders. Her brightly-coloured dress, much like the rich, bold traditional colours women wear in India, against the white marble was picture perfect, except it wasn’t. I’m not one to lecture others on what to wear, however, I feel we must all observe etiquette and, after all, this is someone’s final resting place. I observed as the ‘guards’, and I use this term loosely, watched this young woman cavorting around. A few metres away, 2 young local teenagers sat on the wall talking calmly and using their mobiles. 5 guards walked over and aggressively ushered them off the wall because, you know, it’s a mausoleum, and deserves a particular level of respect. Apparently, this does not apply to tourists. I had the same experience in Harmandir Sahib – we were provided with a police escort around the temple complex and every time the police or our professors caught someone taking a photo of us (just as we were photographing locals) they would march over and force them to delete it. How many photographs of local people did I take? And how many did I ask permission first? Us versus them. Tourists/Westerners vs Indians. Why is this okay? I hated it. And, in fact, one women in group questioned this. There was no response.
British writer Rudyard Kipling described the Taj Mahal as “the embodiment of all things pure” and the moment I stepped inside the mausoleum, I felt that purity. For the first time in 3 weeks, and on my penultimate day in India, I felt a deep sense of spirituality. Standing inside the pitch black mausoleum (bring a flash light!) with the cool marble beneath my feet, I understood my journey to India and trying 3 weeks I had endured. It was a moment of clarity, of connecting with God and listening to, rather than fighting against my journey. The India I had imagined was nothing like the India I visited (it was worse). Planets apart. The life I had envisaged is nothing like the life I am living (it is better). Sometimes we need to leave our expectations at the door (or immigration control in this case). In that moment inside the tomb, I was myself for the first time since leaving my island. I stood there, barely able to see and filtering out the respectful whispers of other visitors, and I felt strong, free and focused. My life has shown me that there is a lesson in pretty much everything I experience – the good and bad. Maybe the trials, tribulations and crushed expectations of my visit will serve a higher purpose but for now, I remain grateful for those moments of serenity inside the tomb. Upon exiting, I walked round the back of the mausoleum again, which overlooks the Yamuna, the longest tributary river to the Ganges. Silence paired with serene river views. Bliss. Coupled with the visit to the mosque, this view made the trip worth it.
Walking out and up the hill, I saw my Rickshaw driver waving, trying to capture my attention. I smiled. He was a nice man and I felt safe with him. In broken English he told me about his daughters going to school and his life in Agra; I thought about how different my experience might have been if I had made more of an effort to learn Hindi, how I would have been able to better communicate with the people I encountered. Whenever I travel, I try to learn the basics such may I have, please, how are you and so on but, beyond that, particularly in a short time (and having been in India for academic purposes), it was difficult. As we drove back to the hotel, we passed 3 little school girls in blue & white uniforms: we waved and smiled widely at each other. They looked so cute, happy and welcoming. Outside a small house a little toddler in a t-shirt several sizes too small for him, and without any undergarments, fell over and landed in cow manure. He just got up and carried on walking around the 3 roped up cows. Whenever I think about India, this scene comes back to me; I think about the open sewers and the effects of bodily effluvia on the vulnerable, and I feel helpless, disgusted and ashamed. I switched off my video recorder, put my sunglasses on and cried. My driver asked me if I wanted to go to Agra Fort or other historical sites but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I mentally could not handle any more. He was surprised (and I think he thought I was penny pinching) that I didn’t want to do the tourist thing but know thy self, as I always say. Instead, I asked him to collect me later that day to take me to the train station for what was sure to be my last rickshaw trip in India.
Would l I return to India? Well, a few days ago I saw some photographs of Mumbai and thought I might visit. But, there are so many other places to visit first. There are entire continents I haven’t visited yet, and they take precedence over visiting a country that made me weep and question my sanity. Still, just last year I said I would never study French again but I just signed up for classes. What I do know for certain is that this trip renforced what I had learnt in Iran: question everything you’re told and presented with, and never take another person’s opinion for reality. It sounds obvious but ‘my’ India is nothing like the India I’ve read about. Would I recommend the Taj Mahal? Yes, absolutely. Go, marvel at a 17th century wonder and imagine a time gone by. Just be prepared for the realisation that all that glitters isn’t golden.