Hot and sticky from wandering in burning sunlight, I carried my towel and small zippered bag to the ladies’ common bathroom. I had seen showers somewhere; hoping for a bit more privacy, I climbed the stairs to the second floor. The common shower area was already occupied by two older ladies who were washing their clothes and themselves. Stripped bare except for large, simple, boxer-like underwear, they glanced up when I hung my things on a couple of the hooks.
A quick check revealed that the underwear I had grabbed in the dark the night before was not my most modest.
I slowly undressed, accepting the looks from the two women, knowing my white skin and different body would be of interest. When I stepped towards the spouts, one of the women waved at my chest.
No bras allowed. My plan to discreetly slip by and splash around a bit failed. Slowly, awkwardly, I turned back and hung it on the hook.
Washing my hair in the cool water, I felt grateful I had learned how to do it properly from my Tibetan friends. The women and I communicated with laughter and waving hands. They posed questions through expressions and pointing, and I apologized for my mistakes – a typical interaction. My deodorant proved unusual, and my prayer beads demanded attention.
Still under their eyes, I dressed carefully and braided my hair. We had spoken no words, but understood each other.
Far from being a quaint story turned towards condescension, this simple experience is one of my most meaningful from Amritsar. These women were comfortable with their bodies and their cavalier demeanor was infectious. When they could have isolated me, they treated me as one of them. Our bodies follow the same template, and although my strangeness did set me apart, it did not prevent my inclusion.
Sikhs seemed to give without hesitation or question.
The off-duty tour guide who had corrected my foot placement freely gave explanations of Sikhism and his time despite my being clear that I could not compensate him financially. I was slightly concerned about his interest, although, at his invitation, my friends always accompanied us. With his guidance and explanations, we had observed the night’s closing ceremonies.The softly reading voices waft out of the rows of rooms where six men take turns reading the holy book without ceasing, having been hired by someone for the blessing. Each replica of the sacred book is wrapped in white and gold among incense and prayers, and carried to a special resting place — miniature carved beds with soft white cushions. In the morning, they will be taken out again with equal ceremony, and one page will be read at random, becoming that day’s wisdom. Volunteers haul the heavy golden litter onto their shoulders to carry the original holy book from the temple at the center of the pool. The text read from that book is posted on the wall, along with translations.
Our guide even took us to a few smaller nearby temples; at one, we observed a ceremony in which a lithe priest is hauled into the air on a simple wooden seat and unties the long swathe of fabric covering one of the tall sacred poles. This sought-after fabric brings good luck and prosperity; every morning the pole is wrapped with fresh cloth, funded by the donation of a particular family who would then stand and receive the blessed pieces of the previous day’s wrapping. The extra bits would be passed to the waving, eager hands of pilgrims pushing each other aside like a bouquet-tossing scene in a bad romantic comedy. Seeing two men argue, both gripping tightly to the last piece of fabric, was the most un-Sikh thing I had seen in Amritsar.
Our guide spoke to the priest, who returned with a piece of the fabric and, relatively unceremoniously, handed it to me, The Tourist. Stunned by the significance, I felt that I did not deserve such a sacred item, not being Sikh, but our guide was proud to see me with it. I stood there, stunned, as a small group gathered around to watch me having my photograph taken. I slowly began to wonder if this man was eager to indebt me to him. Although courteous and informative, he, twice my age and a bachelor, did inquire about my perspective on marriage and relationships, as the two of us walked back to the Golden Temple just ahead of my friends, as we seemed to navigate the chaotic narrow streets more easily.
Remaining respectful in case he was genuinely curious about a foreign person’s ideas, I gave a more conservative view than I actually hold, as well as tossed in a lie — that I was very likely going to convert to Judaism so that I could marry a serious boyfriend back in the States.
As I walked into the Golden Temple with my new orange scarf fluttering, an elderly Sikh woman said something I could not understand and reached to touch the sacred fabric. She may have been merely pointing it out, but, suddenly inspired, I offered it to her, remembering to hold it with both hands in the greatest respect. She looked to a younger man seated near her, eyes wide and confused; he spoke, and, of course, I could not understand him either. She slowly allowed herself to take the fabric into her arms.
It felt natural and beautiful.
I had forgotten the guide. He had walked farther ahead as my friends were sorting out their shoes (you can only walk in the temple barefoot), and came striding back, upset. I led him away from the direction of the woman, explaining myself.
Everything I had seen and heard in the temple emphasized equality, service, humility, and giving to others. The fabric had never been mine. Instead of treating it casually, I had felt it was too precious for me to have. And I try to give away what I think is beautiful, because in the giving it becomes much more than an object. It was an honor to have it for a moment, but the greatest honor was in having something worth giving.
And, since he had suggested that he somehow join me in Rishikesh, I did not feel guilty leaving a negative mark on his memory of me.
A long bumpy jeep journey from McLeodganj left me sitting on the steps down to the sacred pool of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, attempting to recover from the pressing crowds of pilgrims and my own awe at the sleek white marble buildings encasing the water-wrapped gold-encrusted sacred structure. This is a Sikh temple, and everyone, regardless of gender identity, covers their heads – and I couldn’t keep the silky fabric on mine. I had paused to rest on the steps, and discovered that my already troublesome scarf was wrapped around the strap of my purse. Holding one end of the fabric on top of my head, I furiously tried to undo the entanglement.
A man gently interrupted my process to inform me that my legs were inappropriately positioned in the direction of the sacred temple.
I apologized fervently and managed to get my scarf sorted out enough to stand up. Perhaps my eagerness and self-deprecation caught this man’s attention, because he paused and introduced himself. Soon he was giving me a tour of the temple complex: its free kitchen that produces enough food to feed 50,000 people a day, the various rooms holding replicas of the sacred books where men can be hired to read the entire thousand-odd pages over three days. I had heard about the kindness and generosity of the Sikhs, especially at this most sacred of temples. My gracious guide and the work of the many volunteers at this enormous temple confirmed this.
The temple is never quiet. Day and night, prayers and holy songs are broadcast by loudspeaker. Some attempt to sleep in the main temple complex, but they will be woken at 3 a.m. by volunteers washing the floors – chains of people passing buckets of water that are sloshed across the pristine white marble. People lounge under the shade or walk from sacred point to sacred point along the outer ring of buildings. Pilgrims, mostly men, douse themselves in the holy waters of the pool, and scattered children splash along the steps.
We slept on the floor in the foreigners’ dorm in one of the guest houses connected to the temple. Despite all the beds being pushed together in a single row so as to fit more people, the official mattresses were at capacity. We were not allowed to join the hundred or so Indians sleeping in the courtyard. The dorm guards chased us back inside with little explanation when we tried. Perhaps to protect us, perhaps because they are responsible — but sometimes the cushioning and assumptions feel unnecessarily limiting. We dragged our blankets inside and joined the slumber party effect of the young people’s room.
In the free kitchen, bathtub-sized pots boil lentils and beans while women churn out chapattis by hand (on a quiet day) or with the large machine that makes 3,000 an hour. At the entrance, you receive a metal thali plate and a spoon, and follow hundreds of others into one of the dining halls. Volunteers usher you to fill in the space as everyone sits on the floor in long rows. Bucket-bearing servers dish out delicious dahl, curries, and rice pudding. The chapatti man waits until you hold up both hands before he tosses some to you. Perhaps in the past some have been wasted by poor catchers.
Anyone can volunteer. I slipped into the back and sat down amongst the ladies rolling out chapattis. Women sit on a low bench fashioned from a board, legs resting cross-legged on the ground, toes tucked under the canvas that held the flour and dough. After receiving a wheel, rolling pin, and instructions, I proceeded to turn the dough into many not-round shapes. The women communicated that it was okay, that I was new to it, but I felt apologetic despite them. My pentagons and squares stood out amongst their perfectly circular chapattis. Despite at least half of my work being rejected by the portly woman sitting near the grill, I managed to produce some that were acceptably cylindrical by the end of it.
Flour dusting my pants up to my knees, I accepted a bowl of rice pudding and, despite my protests, the only stool when we took a break. I wonder how unusual I was, volunteering when so many tourists accept the meals there. Perhaps it is more comfortable for us to deposit cash in the donation boxes.