Archive for the ‘Sikhism’ Category

Sikhism and local conversation.

Friday, October 9th, 2009

I know I’ve spent the last two posts bigging up Buddhism, but I now feel the need to give a shout out to my other crew, the righteous Sikh massive. I defy you to name another religion that encourages its followers to change their names to Lion, will feed anyone and everyone for free, and blasts musical prayer from its temples for fourteen hours a day. Please wash your feet and slip on an orange bandana before entering.

I left Mcleod Ganj, finally, the other day. I’d spent almost a month there, which is a long time considering I’ve been in India for two months all in. Granted, the month includes my ten days at the meditation centre, but still it was a long time to spend in a single town even if the Dalai Lama is a host who boasts a mean (mostly vegetarian) roast.

I headed south and east, down into the plains of north central India. The heat rose as I descended, and soon I was back in a state of perma-sweat. It’s like when Homer shaves on The Simpson’s: as soon as he walks out of the bathroom his five o’clock shadow pops back onto his face. In India, you can shower all you like, but as soon as you’ve dried off you’re instantly covered in a sheen of grease that will last until the next bath. Indian air is saturated with dust and dirt and soot, and the perma-sweat is like fly paper. You don’t really notice how dirty you’re getting until you see the colour of the water when you take that next shower. Ewww.

At any rate, I had a long road ahead of me. As my bike’s engine had recently been repaired (new piston, new valves, new carb, new head, etc etc) I had some breaking in to do. I could only run her at around 40 or 50 km/h, and would need to take breaks every couple of hours to let her cool. So I planned on three days to Rishikesh, instead of the standard two. I just needed to figure out where to stop for my two nights.

After consulting maps and the Lonely Planet, I decided on Anandpur Sahib, a Sikh holy town. It’s the second holiest place for Sikhs in India, so it’s well on the domestic tourist map. But, like many domestic tourism hotspots, it’s an unknown for foreign tourists (unless they’re Sikh). I’m pretty sure I was the only foreigner in the whole town. I didn’t mind.

I rolled in and headed straight for the massive, gleaming white gurdwara (Sikh temple) that dominated the town. The sound of tabla, some sort of organ and Punjabi singing emanated from huge loudspeakers mounted on the walls of the complex. Old men with huge turbans and ancient beards strode about, and hundreds of Dalit beggars (the lowest caste, the untouchables) and their kids milled about aimlessly.

You see, Sikhs are incredibly inclusive and generous. Even if you are not Sikh, there are pilgrim’s rooms and free meals available at nearly every gurdwara. They had non-a/c rooms for 50 rupees (a buck) and a/c rooms for 200 (four bucks). I considered going cheap, but it was hot and I figured most real pilgrims will probably appreciate the cheaper rooms being available, so I took a beautiful room with vaulted ceilings and an air conditioner. In a temple. For four dollars.

I went across the courtyard to a huge building devoted entirely to the feeding of anyone who wishes to eat. Beggars, holy men, even politicians and businessmen sit cross legged on mats and get a simple meal of dhal and chapati. As the building is holy, you have to remove your shoes and don one of the communal orange head scarves. I ate in silence. I got a lot of looks as I walked in, grabbed a metal tray and spoon, and sat down. I told myself they weren’t looking because I shouldn’t be there, but because they never see foreigners. The looks stopped, however, when I started eating Indian style. Tearing the chapati into smaller chunks, I folded it over into a cone and pinched one end to stop the soupy dhal from spilling out the back. Then I scooped it into my mouth. Once they saw me eating this way, I belonged.

After dinner, I washed the dhal from my hands (I’m still learning) and went up and into the gurdwara. Before entering, you step down into a pool with water running through it to wash your feet. Again, on went an orange head scarf. I followed some older men up and into the central chamber, where the musicians were playing and praying. The music never stops all day, beginning around 8 am and running until 10 pm. At the very heart of the temple was a table with some of Sikhism’s holiest objects placed upon it. I watched the men prostrate themselves before the items. I peered over their shoulders for a glance at the relics. Weapons. All weapons.

Central to Sikhism is the idea of Khalsa, a belief in a race of soldier saints who abide by certain moral codes. While they believe in equality for all beings (hence the free meals for everyone) like Buddhists, they do not so strongly believe in non-violence. Just as the uncut hair and beard are important symbols for a devout Sikh man, holy swords or sabres are also essential. The name Singh, taken by many Sikhs, translates literally to “Lion.” The weapons in the temple were indeed holy, as they were used by one or more of the gurus who founded Sikhism and defended its existence from Islam and Hinduism in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The next morning I continued on. After a great day on mostly smooth roads I stopped in a mountain town called Nahan. Here I was again out of place, as this town is infrequently visited by your average backpacker. I was mobbed by cricket playing kids in a park, kicked a soccer ball around with some youngsters near an artificial pond, and generally attracted lots of looks and smiles no matter where I went.

The conversation, when a local worked up the guts to approach me, generally went something like this:

“Hello sir.”

“Hello, brother, how are you?”

“Yes, fine. How do you do?”

I love the bookish, British English that most of the older men here use. The proper, old school vocabulary mixed with the poor grammar and syntax make for some excellent menus, signage and general conversation.

“I’m great, thanks.”

“Which country is your origin?” This is a standard question, sometimes the only one I’m asked. It comes in many forms. Sometimes simply “Where are you from?” or “Which country?” but many men like tossing in words such as “origin” or “nationality” or “citizen.” Younger guys tend to use more American, Hollywood-ized language, but it’s no less entertaining.

“I’m from Canada.”

“Ah, yes. Which region?”

“Toronto.”

“Indeed. Many Indian people living in Toronto, isn’t it?”

Ahh, the infamous Indian “isn’t it?” It’s used much in the same way we Canadians use “eh.” Essentially, it turns a statement into a question. It’s quite genius. In fact, I’m a big defender of the use of “eh” by Canadians, because it’s way easier to say “Cold out eh?” than something like “Don’t you think it’s cold out?”

“Yes, many Indians.”

“And you are enjoying your stay in India?” This is the next most popular question.

“Of course, brother, India is beautiful.”

“Excellent. I hope you enjoy your holiday.”

“Thank you, my friend, good luck to you.”

“And to you.”

I always end my conversations with that line: “good luck to you.” I’m not sure why, but there it is.

At any rate, part of the genius of the bike is stopping in these smaller towns where foreigners are a rarity. I end up meeting tons of people who have absolutely no interest in my money, but lots and lots of interest in me. They like to briefly practice their English and learn a few things about the kinds of people who visit India. Questions about my marriage status, schooling, and job back home are not taboo. It’s also perfectly acceptable to ask after how much I made at my job, how much I paid for my motorbike, and other things that one would approach gingerly in the West.

But now I am in another tourist stalwart in Rishikesh. This is where the Beatles came and got high and wrote the White Album. It’s on the banks of the Ganges in the lower foothills of the Himalaya, so the river is reasonably clean (for India). I’m looking into some eight dollar white water rafting trips and I’ll probably spend a day just lying on some riverside beaches and swimming in the holy river. Any blessings will be purely accidental.