When I got off the plane I didn’t have any plans. Go near the Golden Temple and figure out where to stay. So I asked the information desk and the guy working there, a Sikh with an orange turban, said there’s a free shuttle to the Golden Temple and you can figure it out there. Then on the bus, he told me that there’s free lodging too, and I was suspicious. In the map he handed me, I realized Amritsar, in Punjab, is the holiest place in the world for Sikhs. That’s why there were so many turbans on my flight. If I stayed with them would they inculcate me with their desire to believe in the sanctity of their gurus and not cut my hair? They must know they have very little chance.
I was waiting for the axe to fall when we arrived at the temple grounds, where thousands of turbanned men, sareed women and kerchief-covered children bustled through the white gate and across the marble floor leading to the temple itself. The people here are bigger, heavy bearded men, some with blue or green eyes, tall and virile, official ones carrying sheathed swords. I followed the driver of the bus through a door and saw a tall English-looking man. The walls were gray and the beds were dingy, but everywhere were young people. I asked one Columbian girl from New York what the deal was. She said it was kosher, they operated on donation, 100 rupees worked, and they even offered free food, which to make up for, you could clean the dishes, but you totally don’t have to.
To get a free lunch I had to take off my shoes and store them in a locker, put on a headcover, already used, and sit on the burlap mats they had placed on the marble ground with my hands out for bread. They had handed me a silver tray and bowl for water when I entered and a cross-eyed man with a curled mustache in a white robe and a red turban pointed me exactly where to sit. He pressed on my shoulders when he placed me in the right spot and I watched as hundreds more filled up the open-air hall spaced six feet across from me in parallel rows.
A man with a bucket of black dal walked through the gap next to me, left by sitting where the red-turbanned man had placed me. He spooned some onto my dish and a little splattered. Another man came by with a coconut rice milk porridge. Another came by with hot paratha and flopped it into my hands. I was thirsty and although it’s maybe ten degrees cooler in Amritsar than in Delhi, I still didn’t drink the water. Another man came with a bucket of potato curry, with one chunk of mutton, which when I cut it with my spoon, seemed too tender to possibly be good (but hey, knowing the Sikhs, it was probably lamb cutlet).
Women were singing music, with lyrics that sounded like “40 days and 40 nights.” It was very good music. The people I faced were not young, there were old men with white beards, wrinkle-faced ladies with small eyes, and skinny middle-aged men with scrawny legs and unkempt black hair. The man sitting next to me, who might have been my age and chuckled when he first came in and saw me, finished his meal first, which I was thankful for, since now I could watch someone else to learn where my empty plate went. I finished my next two bites and walked out handing my tray to a man who passed it down the line where it crashed into a bucket with its friends to be washed. Continual crashing, since the kitchen is open 24 hours a day and the pilgrims take advantage.
I walked out into the sun wishing I’d brought sunglasses. A man with blue eyes and milkcoffee colored skin handed me back my shoes. I was very pleased. I surmise the Sikhs are trying to revamp their militant reputation with all this charity and egalitarianism. Why ever they’re so friendly, I love them anyway.