In May 2014, my friend Harbhinder “Gerry” Singh invited me to come with him to Punjab, India as he wanted to remarry. Gerry lost his former Indian wife while still in India prior to his migration to the Philippines. He has been in the Philippines for so long a time already, the eldest of a brood of THREE (3) other siblings, 2 boys and a girl; doing business and much preoccupied making money to support his siblings and his mother. For which reason, Gerry may have forgotten all about getting married again. Gerry’s late father was once a member of the military in India but was killed during the anti-Sikh riots in late 1984 following the assassination of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards.
My specific mission was to assist Gerry in picking/choosing a deserving bride in Punjab, facilitate the procurement of a Philippine visa at the Philippine Embassy in New Delhi and head back to the Philippines with the Punjabi bride as soon as possible. This supposed mission of mine to pick up quick a Philippine visa was to be facilitated by my UP College of Law classmate’s assist and endorsement, Ambassador Vicky Bataclan, who was then stationed in Sweden; which endorsement I need to personally convey to the Philippine Embassy stationed in New Delhi.
It was a wonderful experience to be in India, a country so rich in culture and customs. And I was expectantly looking forward to see the Taj Mahal, which I eventually visited before flying back to the Philippines, courtesy of Mr. Ashok Kumar, a reliable and trustworthy owner of a tours and travel outfit with a comfy office in New Delhi.
When we arrived in New Delhi, I was amazed to see flocks of birds flying in the sky from time to time, almost all kinds of birds, the little ones and those as large as falcons and crows. I first surmised that they have plenty of birds because of the many trees in the city. But I thereafter learned that it is standard practice to place bird seeds or bird food which looked-like corn kernels in certain parts of the streets as well as in the respective houses of the populace in the city. They also place some kind of a earthenware receptacle for water for the birds. I would believe that this is the result of their Hindu heritage which mandates that all forms of life must be preserved. I snickered and thought out loud and told Gerry: “Kapag sa Maynila, meron nitong mga birds na ito, yari…pupulutanin ng tao.” [English translation: In Manila, if these birds will roam freely in the skies, they will end up as finger food during beer drinking sessions.]
From New Delhi, we traveled a long stretch of about 500 kilometers (i.e. nine hours of driving including stops to eat at street-side dhabas along the highway) to reach Amritsar to pave the way for a visit to the exalted Golden Temple, better known in India as the Harmandir Sahib which translates literally to TEMPLE OF GOD. I thought for a while that this temple was exclusively for Sikhs only, but I later learned that it was constructed and was intended to be a place of worship for men and women from all walks of life and all religions to worship God equally. And Gerry told me that Christians as well as Muslims are allowed to enter the temple as he said according to their Guro Nanac, which is I think is their version of Jesus Christ, religion was just an invention of people and God did not invent religion.
It was some exquisite and extraordinary experience when we reached the temple on May 26, 2014. I was told that everyday about a million people goes to the temple which is situated in some form of a rectangular pool, that looks like a man-made lake. The temple is made of 24 carat gold and that to accommodate all people from all religions and from all walks of life, the temple is open 24 hours everyday.
Upon entering the temple, if you do not wear a turban, you have to buy one and wear an orange-colored turban around your head, and the orange-colored turban is openly sold near the entrance. You have to remove your shoes or slippers and you have to deposit it into some kind of kiosk. Then, you will pass by some kind of pond filled with running water and you have to wash your feet in it. You also have to wash you face and your hands by scooping with your hands water from the pond.
By that time then, we were all set to enter the main temple, myself, Gerry and the Hindi driver of the rent-a-car company from where we picked up the car in New Delhi. The main temple, which is the one made of 24 karat gold is in the middle of a large pool and we have to pass through a walkway to reach it. The problem is that they do not observe a single-file system of queuing as the queue is actually a bunch of about ten people in a row and they regulate the movement of the queue with some kind of a long wooden pole being used as barrier which is toted and poked and perched at chest-level by two (2) persons acting as marshals controlling the crowd, and when movement in the queue is allowed, they would raise the wooden pole and the row of people would inch further into the main temple. As it all the more becomes crowded at the topmost portion of the queue which is nearest to the door into the main temple, and I was actually feeling as though I will be trapped so constricted and contained in a cage-liked environment (actually an external iron-grilled fence before the main temple with narrow doors which served as some kind of anteroom), the continuing inflow of people into it would make it all the more constricted. Thus, I told Gerry that I have to pass, and just allowed him with the help of the car-driver to enter the main temple. I did not feel very much compelled to enter the main temple; but Gerry was really hot as he said he needed the blessing from their God to insure that our mission to find a Punjabi bride would be a success.
I learned too that at the Golden Temple, they also observe what is like the HOLY COMMUNION which is practiced by the Catholics, but the process is different. You have to first buy from some kind of a central depot within the temple’s premises, your food offering which is some kind of glutinous cake placed in a carton container. Then you will have to offer it before entering the main temple and the recipient of the food offering mixes the food offering into a large vat, does some kind of incantation to consecrate it, and after which the offerors will be given a small share of the so-called consecrated food offering on a large native leaf.
But the more far-out experience was when we lined up for the FREE MEALS. Gerry told me that we have to partake too of the FREE MEALS as it is some kind of blessed food also. The queue was rather unruly and rowdy and no one was serving as marshal to control and regulate the crowd. And it was sweltering hot at that time of the year in Amritsar. First in the process is for you to get a food receptacle made of stainless steel, a stainless steel receptacle for water and the stainless steel spoon and fork. And inch by inch, you start to try to reach the fringes of the mess hall door. Eventually, I, Gerry and our driver were able to reach the fringes of a sliding door to what looked like a huge refectory or some kind of a mess hall. I learned thereafter that there was a second level refectory/mess hall and we were then at the ground floor. I could see from some kind of a window pane that the preceding batch of diners were about to finish partaking of the FREE MEALS, and finally, they were guided towards an exit door on the other side of the refectory/mess hall. As far as I can remember the refectory/mess hall seem to be as large as a football field. When the doors opened to allow us entry, my pant’s leather belt which was some kind of a reversible leather strap snapped at the point where the buckle is clasped, as it got entangled unto the edge of the door due to the pushing and yanking as though the weight of the person behind me was pressing so hard on me.
Before the doors opened to allow us entry into the hall, a mechanized cleaning process ensued which cleaned, mopped and swept the floors of the hall. There were no seats and tables; you have to eat the meals while squatting on the floor. Immediately before the doors were opened, a sort of lengthy dining table liner was placed in rows on the floor to delineate where the diners will have to squat on the floor. One line of people squatting across another line of people crouching down with the long dining table liner between them. Afterwards, the mess wards emerged with stainless pails and ladles in tow, and they started rationing the food which consisted of: lentil soup, some kind of vegetable salad, loads of chapati bread and some sweets. Thereafter, the mess wards will distribute drinking water. It was an exceptional experience indeed and after partaking of the meals, we were showed towards the exit door and we passed through rows of volunteers washing the stainless food and drink receptacles plus the spoon and fork amidst the clanging, clinking and banging of the stainless receptacles. Heading out from the temple, I asked Gerry why the FREE MEAL scene was so disorderly. Gerry told me that it was some kind of a SACRIFICE as though one is passing through a gauntlet of difficulties with the free meal as reward.