We were on our way to Ludhiana from Amritsar and stopped to see the gurdwara in Harike, along the Sutlej River. It’s beautiful here. The gurdwara is built above an irrigation dam in Sutlej. It was early morning so some fog still hung in the air above Harike but it was shaping up to be a warm, sunny, beautiful day.
The gurdwara here is called Ishar Sham Nanak Sahib Harike and is an open air gurdwara, which means that it is covered by a roof but there are no walls except along the back of the gurdwara.
When you first approach you notice the beautiful gardens that surround the gurdwara. Then you notice the two men with their little cart selling parshad outside of the entry way.
Let me explain that custom, as many among my friends are unfamiliar with the idea. Parshad is a sweet that is distributed to the sangat (congregation) at a gurdwara as a sort of communion item (it’s slightly different than the Roman Catholic idea of communion). Usually it is made from equal parts durum wheat, water, and ghee. In some places though other items are used like ladoos, sugar puffs, etc. The congregation can donate money to have prashad made or bring homemade or pre-purchased prashad for donation or the slightly more complicated, purchase an amount of prashad, bring that the a sevadar who distributes prashad who will take roughly half of the prashad offering and then distribute some to you as communion as well. Sound complicated? It’s not but I can’t find better words to describe it so … seeing it happen spells it all out simply.
Anyhow, the prashad at Ishar Sham Nanak Sahib was rock candy. Rock candy. Haven’t seen it or had it since I was a little, little kid wandering around Saint John. Given that I’m not really a fan of sugar, I can tell you that I was contemplating skipping taking communion at the gurdwara that day. I bought my little bag of rock candy prashad as an offering and gave it to the sevadar in any event. I only mention it to explain the custom and to express my pleasant surprise at seeing rock candy again, a strong memory from my childhood.
It was a very cool morning, probably only 7 or 8 degrees Celsius or so when we arrived at the gurdwara. We were in our bare feet on damp brick and marble walkways so you can imagine how very cold our feet were becoming. The little sister and I were playing “Avoid the Shadows” all the way to the gurdwara entrance, which I think annoys the host unit at times. It’s not like we were dancing up the walkway being fools though so, you know… whatever preserves your soles from freezing. As cool as it was that morning, once the sun was higher it quickly became about 30 Celsius out, so it all evens out I guess.
The host unit is not a planner. She’s a fly by the seat of her pants kind of girl. Well, not really. It’s more like “Oh wait, I just remembered a 10th gurdwara that is in this area…” or “I just remembered I have a cousin’s brother [ahem… also a cousin] wife’s mother-in-law [now would that be your aunt?] who lives in the next village…” “…so since we’re in the area…”, which throws a wrench in the works when you are trying to plan anything. Apparently planning round here is just generally frowned upon as it interferes with the spontaneity of it all and might cause you to get somewhere on time…
So while we were at this gurdwara, the host unit decided to cite off a long list of other places we could be at while on our way to Ludhiana. I had to keep pointing out that there was only so much time, that we were using the driver only until 8 p.m. each day and that I intended to be off India’s highways before the sun set at around 5 p.m.
She doesn’t really speak much English and Punjabi is still not quite at the right level yet… so you know getting that point across and trying to collaboratively set out what was going to happen that day was a challenge which we failed miserably. BIG fail.
I lost my patience with it all and just decided that at time X there would be no more gurdwaras, no more museums, no more stopping for bathrooms or chai… we would head straight from wherever we were at the time to Ludhiana. Host unit could fill her boots with whatever she wanted between that time and time X. That seemed to work out a little better than trying to collaborate in two distinctly different languages.
Luckily when time X arrived, we were just arriving in Ludhiana. I missed the clock tower, the fort and the old wall but we were in Ludhiana without having caused any harm to one another despite a whole day together in a car and in various gurdwaras. Thankfully she had overestimated how much time everything would take, by at least a few hours.
That was also nice for her since it gave her more time to visit with her brothers and her nephew and his family. All super-nice people, by the way and lots and lots of fun.
Apparently, talking with my second host and brother, Ishar Sham Nanak Sahib Harike is famous as a sight that lakhs and lakhs of birds migrate to during the winter months. Well, it’s winter and we didn’t really see many birds (except for budgies, parakeets and cockatiels in a cage) here. That doesn’t mean much though since climate change is even more drastic in this part of India than it has been most other places. Along with the monsoon rains, the migrations of most animals here are way, way off or not happening at all.
The roads leading away from Amritsar toward Ludhiana remind me of northern roads, with their potholes, heaves and sections of pavement that are just mysteriously gone. This route is really pretty in the morning though, passing along the tree lined ‘highway’ bordered by one rice paddy after another. The trees must have been planted decades ago. Some are trimmed in a way that encourages them to grow into a canopy over the road with the result that most of the road is shaded most of the time. What a relief in summer and I’m sure a relief to the sheep, goats, donkeys, oxen, horses and other large animals that use the road as well as to the human users.
Just after Ishar Sham Nanak Sahib Harike is a great little tea stall that serves breakfast. We stopped there to have some breakfast as we had got up to leave for Ludhiana so early. I had some simple buttered toast with chai. It was surprisingly good. I say surprisingly because it wasn’t so much toast as lightly grilled bread. Very lightly grilled. Almost not grilled. And it was not butter as we know it but actually fresh churned butter from buffalo milk. I at six pieces! Six! I wish I could remember the name of the place but it wouldn’t be hard to find. It’s the only tea stall with a ton of customers around and the only one that is even a little bit clean. It also has a hand washing sink right up front, noticeable from the road. Sorry, that’s the best guiding you’re going to get on this place.
People stared at me the whole time I was enjoying my breakfast. At first I thought “have they seriously never seen a white woman before?”, and “I wonder if the toast is what’s weird for them”. Yeap, enjoyed my breakfast for a good half hour or more while everyone stared at me… and my the big kirpan that has been hanging on my side for a week. I forget I have it. That’s what they were staring at. As soon as I stood up and they could see it, I saw them all nod at one another and murmur, “Sikh”, “Amritdhari”, “Amrit”, etc. I relaxed since it meant I did not have a chunk of white toast clinging to my teeth, and I didn’t have a third eye suddenly appear on my forehead. Just the kirpan, that’s all it was. A white Sikh is a rare sight round here so they can stare all they like, that part just doesn’t bother me.
The River Sutlej is an impressive sight. First, at this particular spot, it is relatively clean despite years of agricultural and industrial dumping into the river. It seems rich with plant life, also a good sign of the health of the river at this spot. It’s an important river to the Pubjab (which means Five Rivers) region and to the Sikhs. The Sutlej has played a role in so many of our stories, so much of our history. It was a little mind blowing to be standing above it, at the top of the dam, trying to imagine some of the things that happened in that place over the years.
India is a mind blowing place generally. I don’t think you get to come here, even for a short time, and not leave a changed person. For me, there has been a lot so far and at times it is a little overwhelming.
Walking on the same ground that saw much of the history of the Sikhs play out, hearing sacred verses being sung from gurdwaras all over the landscape, sitting where our Gurus once sat, where our shaheeds gave their lives, walking where they walked… it makes that history more alive, more real and makes my faith run deeper than it would have had I stayed in Canada.
I’ll be putting much more Sikh history type posts up on the Born A Sikh page and it’s blog, so if you want to learn more, that would be the place to go.
In the meantime all,
Peace and love