It was September of 1979 and I was so happy to be finally leaving for India. Because the flight to New York left relatively early in the morning I had to go to LA the night before. I could barely sleep, excitedly thinking that I would soon be on my way.
Our LA group flew to New York where we would meet the rest of the party. All told there were close to eighty people who boarded the Air India flight from Kennedy Airport that night.
I was so full of devotional fervor that I decided to sit on the floor in the aisle of the plane and sing kirtan. Since it was Air India and most of the passengers were Indian, I figured no one would mind. I borrowed a portable harmonium from someone and sat with a few other people and began to sing kirtan. This went on for a while and no one objected. Finally one of the flight attendants respectfully asked me to stop as people wanted to go to sleep.
We flew overnight to London, stopping there briefly, then on to Frankfurt. By the time we reached Kuwait, our next stop, it was already dark.
We were told to stay on the plane but my insatiable curiosity got the better of me. I headed for the exit door of the 747 and looked out. The night air of the desert was hot against my face. A high, movable staircase was pushed up against the door and I stepped out onto the landing at the top, hoping to get at least a brief glimpse of Kuwait on what might well be my only visit.
No sooner had I stepped out into the night air when a Kuwaiti soldier, armed with a machine gun and standing at the bottom of the stair, growled at me and angrily waved me back inside.
For reasons that I have never been able to comprehend every international flight I have ever taken to Delhi – whether coming from New York, Hawaii, Taiwan or Malaysia - has deposited me there in the wee hours of the morning and this one was no exception.
Again I stepped out into stifling night time heat, but this time no one stopped me. I, and the rest of our party, walked across the tarmac towards the terminal and I smelt for the first time that unforgettable – if not terribly pleasant - smell of India by night.
Incredibly, before we even got to the terminal, we met two other members of our group who had arrived from Paris, also by 747. Their plane had disgorged its passengers in the same manner as ours which meant that there was a huge crowd, the combined contents of two 747 jet liners, that was heading for immigration and customs, all at the same time. Thus it took the best part of two hours for us to emerge into the public area of the terminal.
There we met our welcoming committee, a group of Sikhs who had come to welcome us. I, being a newbie, had no idea who they were but others of the party, who had made this trip regularly, greeted them as old friends.
Our reception committee had brought refreshments in the spirit of hospitality so typical of Sikhs. We found an area with a lot of plastic chairs, speeches were made and refreshments were served. I was not surprised to be given cold pakore and samose but the liquid refreshments puzzled me. Our hosts had brought several crates of soft drink bottles but what was in them was clearly not Limca Cola which, as I soon would find out, was the favorite soft drink of India during the days when Coca Cola was banned from the country. It was some kind of whitish liquid and didn’t look too appetizing to me, particularly since the bottle didn’t look like they had been washed very thoroughly. One of the ladies took a swig and almost choked because she felt a solid lump go down her throat, thinking maybe she had swallowed an insect. It turned out that our hosts had made Pistachio Milk for us and what she had imbibed was nothing more than a piece of pistachio nut.
After greetings, speeches and refreshments we were led to our bus. We duly filed aboard and sat there feeling totally shattered. However there was a problem; no one could find the driver. After maybe fifteen minutes someone had the bright idea of looking on the roof of the bus. There was our driver, stretched out, fast asleep.
Shortly before our driver was found I had suggested that, since it was amrit vela and we were on a spiritual journey, we should at least recite Japji Sahib. Most everyone agreed and we began. Once the driver started the bus engine, the roar of an Indian diesel totally drowned out our voices and so we had to give up the group recitation.
As we left the airport, I was amazed to see bullock carts piled high with some with some kind of farm product rolling along the Delhi streets in the middle of the night. I remembered the words of one veteran of several India trips:
“When you arrive in Delhi you will think it is the most primitive place in the world; when you return to Delhi after touring Punjab, you will think it’s the most modern place in the world.”
Amazingly, we did not head for where we were staying but instead arrived at Bangla Sahib Gurdwara which, in spite of the early hour was already buzzing with activity with the main diwan packed.
Finally we arrived at the place where we were to stay, which was an elegant house in Delhi’s Defence Colony district. We piled in to the house, found places on the floor or couches, wherever we could, and settled down for a few hours’ sleep.
Before too long we were back on the bus, heading back to the airport to catch an afternoon flight. We would be flying to Amritsar, home of the Harimandir Sahib, the most sacred shrine of the Sikhs, better known throughout the world as the Golden Temple of Amritsar.
During our early morning drive from the airport, the Delhi streets had been deserted; now they were crowded. I was amazed at how many people there were waiting at bus stops and how many were just standing around.
Our journey to Amristsar was uneventful. Upon arrival we found another welcoming committee who garlanded us with marigolds which, as I was soon to find out, tend to leave orange stains on white clothes.
After the inevitable speeches we climbed aboard yet another bus, while our baggage was loaded on to a colorful Punjabi truck, the first of many I was to see during the ensuing weeks. I bagged the seat up front, on the other side of the bus from the driver. With my ever insatiable curiosity, I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss a thing!
We drove towards the city on what must have been the main highway between Amritsar and its airport, yet was barely wide enough for our bus. The road was lined with mud brick homes. Outside many of the houses I saw Sikh men sitting on charpoys (cots made of string and wood that people use for sleeping) with their long hair down, apparently drying it in the sun. This surprised me because, in all my previous encounters with Sikh communities in the UK and USA, the men had been very careful about keeping their hair covered especially in public.
We passed the Amritsar train station and my memories of the crowds in Delhi paled into insignificance when I saw the mass of people around the station. The phrase “teeming masses” popped into my head.
I noticed the gurdwara of Saraghari, although it would be some time before I understood ins significance and soon arrived at the main entrance to the Harimandir Sahib We could not yet see the Harimandir as the Clock Tower, which is deemed to be the main entrance, is a massive building and makes it impossible to see the temple itself. I did, however, briefly glimpse a flash of gold through the entry arch where the steps lead down to the prakarma, the marble walkway that surround the tank in the middle of which sits the Harimandir.
We had to drive around what is called the Golden Temple Complex to reach the Guru Nanak Nivas, the rest house in which we would be staying for the duration of our time in Amritsar.
As we turned a corner we came into a street, really little more than an alley, which barely looked wide enough for the bus. Shops with canvas awnings lined each side and it was packed with pedestrians. Without thinking I blurted out: “Surely he’s not going to take this bus down here!”
Since I was closest to the door, I wound up hanging out of the door, pushing shop awnings back up on themselves so the bus could clear them. With liberal use of the bus horn the pedestrians scattered.
As we passed out of this glorified alleyway into a street that was considerably wider, the Sikh bus driver turned to me, smiled and said:
“This your first time in India?” To which I had no option but to answer in the affirmative.
As we entered the roadway on which the Guru Nanak Nivas stands, we finally caught a glimpse of the Harimandir Sahib itself, which elicited “oohs” and “aaahs” from all the newbies in the party – including myself.
Our rooms were on the third floor of the Nivas and there was no elevator. We found our rooms and everyone else began to collapse on their beds. Hardly surprising since it was now 5 pm and we had passed two nights with no bed and a minimum of sleep.
I felt hat I had waited for years to visit my most cherished spot on earth. I was not going to wait another minute more than I had to. Sleep could go to hell.
Once I found my room I ran downstairs to where the sevadars were unloading our baggage. In spite of their protestations, I grabbed my two heavy suitcases and hauled them up three flights to my room. I went into the bathroom and found a typical Indian type set up – a squat toilet, a faucet about three feel up the wall and a drain in the floor. That was just fine for me.
I squatted under the faucet and gave myself a shower, then went to my suitcase and grabbed some clean clothes and a clean turban.
In less than five minutes I was running back down the stairs with only one thought on my mind – “let me get to the Harimandir Sahib, I’ve waited way too long.” Finally I passed through the arch leading to the prakarma. At the sight of the temple in all its glory, shimmering in the late afternoon sun, I fell on my knees and bowed my head deeply until it was touching the smooth marble that was still warm from the hot, Indian sun that had beaten down on it all day.
I got back to my feet and began to slowly walk in a clockwise direction around the sarovar (the sacred tank or pool of water). It was part dream, part fantasy come true. The sacred music of the raagis (singers) in the Harimandir was being broadcast on a powerful sound system and the sonorous, divine cacophony reverberated off the surrounding buildings. Hearing it elevated my mood even more, into a state of divine ecstasy.
For the first time I felt like I understood the term soul bride which is used so often in Gurbani. I felt like a bride on her way her wedding, flushed, ecstatic, innocent, devoted.
It was a time when there were comparatively few people around. Very often the prakarma is packed and the causeway across the sarovar is so jammed that you have to wait for a couple of hours to get inside. But this was a time and a day of relaxed energy. There was nothing frantic, all was calm. I strolled along the causeway and into the inner sanctum of the Harimandir Sahib where I bowed low to the Siri Guru Granth Sahib and took a seat to listen to the divine kirtan.
I could not sit for very long in my divine bliss as my lack of sleep was catching up with me fast. Before too long I was in bed asleep.
I awoke at around 1 am. It was raining and I walked in the rain to take my first ever ishnaan (bath) from the amrit sarovar. In all my vists to Amritsar, so far this is the only time I have experienced the Harimandir Sahib in the rain.
When I returned to the nivas, I found two of our ladies, both of whom had been to India several times before, fully dressed and ready to go out.
“Where are you going?” I asked, not wanting to miss out on anything.
“There’s an Akhand Kirtani Jatha rehnsabhaikirtan (all night kirtan) going on near here. Do you want to go?”
I give full marks to the AKJ for their commitment and their devotion but I have never been enamored of their kirtan for what seems to me to be a prejudice – conscious or unconscious – against gurbani sangeet.
Since I firmly believe that it was Guru sahib’s intention that Gurbani should be sweetened with the beauty of Sangeet, I have always found the AKJ’s overly simple melodies to detract from the joy of Gurbani. Nevertheless, here I was in Amritsar and this was an opportunity for an adventure.
“Sure,” I answered, “give me a second to get dressed.”
We awoke a reluctant sevadar to guide us and soon we were walking through the dark alleys surrounding the GoldenTemple Complex. In those days there was no division between the buildings making up the complex and the surrounding bazaar. It was indeed a rabbit warren of back alleys and rambling buildings which, even in the days of the Indian army’s blockade of the complex, allowed Bhindranwale’s men relatively free access to the outside world.
Since those days, much of the bazaar has been demolished and now there is a scenic park known as the Galiara. I have long been curious as who was behind this idea which, although looking good from an ecological standpoint clearly also prevents the kind of infiltration of the GT complex that happened in the early 80s. So far my inquiries have not yielded any concrete information.
I have to admit that my imagination was running a little wild as we traipsed through the darkness, trying to avoid the mud and puddles that had been created by the sudden rainstorm. I could not help but wonder if we were safe, or were there perhaps robbers lurking in the shadows.
In spite of my paranoia, we arrived at a school and found our way to its assembly hall. The only light in the darkened space was a lamp made from one fluorescent tube, held vertical by a tripod stand; there was not even a light for Siri Guru Granth Sahib. Around this lamp and a harmonium that stood next to it, were a handful of men and women who were reciting kirtan in the AKJ style. As far as I could see in the darkness everyone else seemed to be stretched out on the floor, asleep.
We bowed to Guru Sahib and sat near the kirtania. As my eyes accustomed to the darkness I realized that I had been right. Everyone else was stretched out asleep. Before too long a fierce looking sevadar walked in with a long spear. He began to walk around the hall using the blunt end of the spear to wake everyone who was asleep. He wasn’t poking them. Rather he was using his left hand near the middle of the spear as a fulcrum, while jerking with his right hand so that the blunt bottom of the spear shaft wacked against the ribs or other body parts of the poor unfortunates sleeping on the floor.
The AKJ people are made of stern stuff and pretty soon everyone was sitting upright in varying degrees of wakefulness. The first grey light of dawn was starting to intrude into the room when someone turned to me and asked if I wanted to do kirtan. I agreed, sat behind the harmonium and started to sing a shabad.
About half way into the shabad, I got this very strong feeling that the sangat wanted to do some Waheguru simran and so I started to sing “Waheguru, Waheguru.”
How can I adequately describe what happened next? I was totally unprepared. Generally, when there is simran, the ragi takes the lead and the sangat responds. Within a few seconds, however, my contribution to the proceedings was all but irrelevant. Everyone was calling, singing, even shouting “Waheguru, Waheguru” at the tops of their lungs. It was as if someone had opened some floodgates and a mighty, uncontrollable mass of water had come surging through. The guy playing tabla with me had his eyes rolled back up into his head and was making noises like “Guuuuuuu, guuuuu”. I was overwhelmed by all this and didn’t quite know what to do. I did, however, remember that I had to finish the shabad to give full respect to the Gurbani. Finally I just stopped playing and took my hands off the harmonium and the simran slowly died away. I then resumed the shabad.
Towards the end of the shabad, I began the Waheguru Simran again. I guess I was curious to see if the same effect could be achieved. It could. Again I had to totally stop playing the harmonium to get the sangat to calm down. Certainly in interesting experience when I had been in Amritsar for less than twelve hours.
We spent the next few days recovering from the trip and sight-seeing around Amritsar, especially in the bazaars. The shop keepers seemed to have a knack for spotting the newbies and enticing them into their stores.
After a few days, it was time for us to leave for Hemkunt Sahib. In those days there was only a 3rd class train service from Amritsar to Hardwar and that is how we were booked.