Uttarayan I – Amritsar

     I was reading a Chetan Bhagat’s novel on my Kindle. I peeked outside a huge window pane and saw an open sky and a humongous runway. A ‘Jet Airways’ flight had just landed and was slowing down on the runway before taking a turn towards the boarding area. I was waiting for my flight at the waiting lounge which was on the upper floor providing a nice view of the entire runway below. Passenger buses, airport cars, and other cargo carriers resembled small Lego toys and were moving on the ground at a constant slow speed as if they were controlled by a remote control. Few airport employees in uniforms were performing their daily safety checks. My Vistara plane had already taken its position near the airport boarding ladder.

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At The Mumbai Airport

I checked my watch, it was 11:30 am. I had arrived way before my flight time. Mumbai traffic is ridiculously unpredictable these days, therefore, I didn’t want to take any chance. Check-in process was very fast as there was hardly any crowd. I sat in the waiting lounge, reading the novel on my Kindle.

I was ‘Leaving On A Jet Plane’ for my second solo trip. After an amazing solo road trip in South India (which I named as ‘Dakshinayan’), I was craving for another one. The opportunity arrived in the month of March and I decided to go to north India especially Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. I was more inclined towards Amritsar and Dharamshala, McLeod-Ganj. I already knew that this trip would be named ‘Uttarayan’.

I boarded the flight at 12:55 AM, it flew and arrived at the ‘Sri Guru Ram Dass Jee International Airport’, Amritsar at 3:30 pm, i.e. 20 minutes earlier than the scheduled time. The very first thing I did after picking up my check-in bag from the conveyor belt was to call my friend’s relative. My friend who is a Sikh, had made an accommodation arrangement for me in the Golden Temple Nivas (Residential Complex) and had asked me to get in touch with his relative there once I reach Amritsar. After exchanging few hi’s and hello’s our conversation came to the main subject. He asked me, “how many are you?”
“Ummmm….. I’mmmmmm… alone. I’m traveling solo”, I said suspecting something is wrong.
“Give me some time, I’ll call you back in five minutes”, he said.
I thought my accommodation had been arranged but this conversation gave me an intuition that I’m not going to get it. He called back.
“Sorry Sirji, The Nivas does not offer rooms to single individuals. But don’t worry, I’ll make arrangements for you in a guest house nearby. Just give me some time”, and he hung up.
He called me back and gave me the address of the guest house where my accommodation arrangements had been made. I took a private cab from the airport and reached the Golden Temple. My guest house was in a very close proximity of the Golden Temple. The cab charged me 550 Rs. It was too expensive. I should have had hired an auto rickshaw. It could have saved me at least 200 Rs.

After finding its way through the busy streets of Amritsar, my taxi dropped me at the perimeter of the Golden Temple. The Golden Temple and its surrounding locality have recently been developed. No outside vehicles are allowed inside this enclosed locality. It’s like an independent city situated in the middle of the busy Amritsar town. I got down from the cab. In the Golden Temple’s locality, only electric rickshaws and cycle rickshaws are allowed. The Temple is hardly half a kilometer walk from the locality’s perimeter. Hence I decided to walk to my guest house which was next to the Golden Temple. I had a heavy backpack on my back and I was holding another small bag in my hand. I walked past a police check post onto a busy narrow street. I was deeply engrossed in my observation of the locality, shops, people and their traditional clothes, language when I heard a voice. It said, ” Something, something…. Golden temple Something something?”. Someone was speaking in the Punjabi language. Though I have many Punjabi friends and I can usually make out what they are saying when they speak in Punjabi, I could not quite understand what was being spoken. The accent was too heavy for me and I didn’t even realize that the guy was speaking to me until I heard the same statement again. This time more closer to my ears. I looked through the corner of my eyes and saw a front wheel of a cycle. I turned around and saw a bicycle rickshaw and an old man who was riding it. I realized that a heavy backpack on my shoulder presented itself as a business opportunity for him. He again asked me some things which I could not understand but the words Golden Temple and his hand gestures implied that he was asking me if I needed ride till Golden Temple.
“No Sir, Thank You. It’s a short walk and I prefer to walk till my guest house”, I said in Hindi with a smiling face.
“Something something…. Bohni….. 10, 20, 30 Rs…. something, something”, he said. From what I understood, he was saying ‘just sit in the rickshaw, I’ll drop you till the Golden Temple, and you can pay anything like 10, 20 or 30 Rs, whatever you want. I just want to make my bohni (day’s first income)’.  The ‘bohni’ is usually made in the morning but still, I looked at the old man and his rickshaw and even though I didn’t need the service, I sat in it. He again said something but I only understood his gestures. He was asking me where I needed to go. Which guest house?
“It’s AJ Guest House, you have to take a left from the Jallianwala Bagh”, I told him. The look on his face told me he didn’t understand a word of what I said. An imaginary light bulb flickered above my head. I took out my cell phone and called up Gurusevak Singhji, my friend’s relative I had called up earlier, remember? Since he had made the booking I thought he would be the right person to give directions to this guy in the right language and accent. After explaining the situation to Gurusevak ji, I handed over the phone to my rickshaw driver. They spoke to each other. The call was over, the phone was back in my pocket without any word being said. He stood on the pedals to exert full pressure and the rickshaw moved at a slow and steady pace. I resumed my observation of surroundings.

The street became narrower the further we traveled. After few lefts and rights, the rickshaw stopped at huge cylindrical barricades on the street. The area beyond those barricades showed no resemblance to the area where I stood. The flooring was covered with clean tiles, all the shops had same color walls and the signs with the shop names appeared identical. Even the walls of all the premises in that area were painted in same beige and tan color mixture.

I got down from the rickshaw. The rickshaw driver gave me directions to my guest house using hand gestures. I handed him 50 rs note and with my hand gesture asked him to keep it. He looked at me surprisingly and gave me a smile. I presumed that some kids will get sweets from their grandpa this evening. waved him goodbye and walked on. When I crossed the barricades and came on to the other side, I noticed a marble mural in the center of the street. It had many human faces on it and had a marble torch in the center. All the faces had their eyes closed. When I reached closer to it, the sign below it read ‘Jallianwala Bagh’ and had many names written all over it. The mural was in memory of everyone who lost their lives in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. I saw the gate to the Jallianwala Bagh, it was closed. I took a right turn and the Golden Temple’s entrance was in clear view from there. A huge crowd on the street was walking towards the Temple. I walked on and took a left turn and reached my guest house. I dumped my bags in the room, freshened up and took a nap.

     In the evening when I was feeling fresh after a nap, I decided to visit the Golden Temple. Found my way through the crowd and reached the destination. From outside the beauty of the place was stunning. White marble floor and the temple were all washed in bright lights. I removed my shoes and handed them over to a Sevak at the counter. Golden Temple has its own footwear storage service and its free of cost. You just have to hand over your footwear and collect the token which you have to exchange later to take your footwear back. I walked on and reached a huge marble entrance. Two gatekeepers stood guard with huge orange turban over their head. I saw two buckets placed near the entrance. Pilgrims were taking pieces of cloth from the bucket and wrapping it over their head. In Gurudwaras, you are supposed to always cover your head. I picked up an orange piece which had the Sikh religious symbol on it and wore it on my head to cover it. Right at the entrance, there’s a small pond where you have to wash your feet before entering the main temple premises. As passed through and was stunned to take my first look at the Golden Temple. The night sky, brightly lit temple, the lake around the temple all looked so stunningly beautiful together. I climbed down from the stairs and joined a mass of people who were making rounds of the temple. I don’t know what it was about that place but I felt very calm and relaxed. After a round, I sat by the lake. I must have sat there for about an hour but I hardly realized how time passed by.

I came out from the temple feeling hungry. I saw a very small shop selling Kulcha-Paratha. I entered the shop and ordered Special Kulcha Paratha. When it arrived at my table, the Paranthas were all bathed in butter and served with Chickpea and chutney. Even though the food was greasy, which I normally avoid, but the taste was out of this world. I munched on it. Went back to my guest house making my plans for the next day…

…. To Be Continued

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