We had said we'd be there before first light. We had said we'd beat the crowds. And it was not as though we had far to walk; our hotel room overlooked the Golden Temple complex. As it was, lazy to the core, it was well into the mid-morning before we found ourselves, headscarves dutifully in place, shuffling in a crowd of thousands along the inscribed marble walkway that led to the temple, located in the centre of the pool. For Sikhs, the visit to the temple complex, and to bathe in the beautifully clean waters, is a lifetime's ambition. And no wonder; this remarkable, friendly, spiritual place is a wonder to behold. As we edged forward, the haunting sound of musicians, performing inside the complex, played out across the speakers. The music would build to a crescendo and the crowd would gain a few more yards. Then it would calm. People would pause.
Eventually we squeezed into the ornate valuted interior where the faithful bowed and knelt before the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. [The 10th Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh, declined to name a successor, deciding instead that the religious text should be the final Guru.] The combination of music and prayer and people, walking clockwise, was mesmeric, almost hypnotic. "You are from England?" asked one friendly devotee, as he pushed his way past. "I am living in Hayes. I had a meat shop there but I had to sell it." In a moment, the man was gone, lost in the crowds. Had I imagined this unlikely encounter? No, it had been real. Moments later we were back outside, blinking in the bright Amritsar sunshine and making our way out. And the line of people heading in was just as long.
Wonderful legs of steel
The journey to Amritsar had not started well. My better half had decided to try out a new taxi service "run by women, for women". The taxi showed up late. Worse, the female driver declared she could not let me get in. "No men." Heated words were said. An exception was made. While she had fulfilled every sexist stereotype of being unable to use a map or be on time, the woman drove like a wonder – a mad, deranged, speeding wonder. Somehow, she got us to the station on time. Thirty minutes later, we received a text: "Highly sorry about the delay."
At Amritsar station, there was no sign of the hotel taxi. Instead we climbed aboard a rickety rickshaw, pedalled by a wiry rickshaw-wallah with leg of steel. His English was excellent. "Your country is very good country," he began. "Two years ago, woman from Newcastle is buying me this rickshaw. Yes, good country."