Monday, August 18, 2008

The Sikhs

We're back at West Point, me teaching, the guys marching and learning. But before I wrap up the India experience, I need to express a few things. Namely my love of the Sikhs.

In the summer of 1996, I worked a summer in Africa, splitting time between teaching computer skills at a resort hotel in Mombasa and learning how to write at an opposition newspaper in Kenya. That trip, as a twenty year old, was part of my reason for creating this trip for other twenty year olds. Simply, I grew.

I also fell in love with the Sikhs. Stranded in the vast savanna that is SE Kenya, with darkness approaching, a series of misfortunes and misjudgments ended with me knocking on the door of the Makindu Sikh temple. A traveler told me that if I was in trouble, find sanctuary in the closest Sikh temple. So as the bearded, turbaned, Sikhs answered their rattling gate, there were no questions (why on foot?), no judgment (with darkness approaching?), just free food, free shelter, all at the expense of a relatively modern religion, that focuses on service in this lifetime. Who were these people, the ones that carried daggers and wooden combs as part of their belief? How could they give food to everyone that asked? I met my high water mark for random hospitality twelve years ago, and now, back in India, I didn't have to wait long for another show of Sikh hospitality.

Upon arrival in Delhi, the Cross Cultural staff pulled me aside and asked if we wouldn't mind driving up to Dharamsala. The flight from Delhi to Dharamsala had been overbooked and they needed eight program volunteers to give up their seats; as our group was nine, lean and mean, this made the most sense.

Two of our drivers were Sikhs, easily distinguished by their colorful turbans.
After taking over an hour to get past the outskirts of Delhi, we headed north on highway one. This part of India is distinguished by its indistinguishably. Tabletop flat plains stretched to both sides, providing a glimpse of the rural environment where still 80% of the one billion Indians live. Rice paddies dominated, interspersed between conical stacks of hay and large silos indicating rudimentary brick factories. Every few hours we would see billboards advertising new, massive housing communities. Then, off to the sides of the highway, we would see these half constructed complexes, without exception, sitting idle. I wondered if there had been a housing bust here as well.

About three hours into the trip, we stopped at a collection of shops that served as an upscale restaurant. The new guys got their first taste of Indian food at a Punjab restaurant. By far India's richest state and home to the Sikhs, they benefited from both an industrious culture and the large renumeration sent back from a global expat community. Many if not most of the Indian restaurants abroad are actually Punjabi restaurants.

Eight hours into the trip, the landscape, and roads, began to change. As we came to the border of Punjab and Himchal Pradesh, I caught my first glimpse of the snow capped Himalayas, off in the hazy horizon. We turned off the main highway, and began weaving through foothills seemingly made from solid mud. Water and roads cut paths through the hills, leaving large gashes that didn't betray a hint of rock.

Our driver used broken English to say that this area was his home, and asked if we would like to stop for tea--of course. A few more turns, each narrowing the road, and we found ourselves in a small housing complex that immediately reminded me of rural Iraq. Part house, part barn, we walked through a stable of cows and buffalo. One of the drivers jumped down to milk a cow; he asked if we wanted to and AJ jumped into to give it a squeeze. The guys pounced when he had trouble producing any milk.
Past the stable, the obvious host and patriarch stood straight with a long flowing gray beard. He motioned for us to sit in a semi-circle of white plastic chairs. An old lady sat behind us twirling an odd fan. The nine of us sat down in the open air next to the patriarch, and became quiet. I stumbled through Hindi. He smiled. The driver came back and asked us if we would like tea, or chai.

I've found it amazing how a simple and seemingly immutable provision like tea can change and adapt throughout the eastern hemisphere. From the creamy, super sweet concoction in Kenya that you couldn't let sit for a minute without a gravyesque skin of fat congealing on the surface, to the apple flavored deliciousness of Istanbul that goes exceptionally well with a hook-ah, to the tinking of tiny spoons whipping up the half inch of sugar that sits in the bottom of the hourglass shaped Iraqi version, tea simply happens. The Indian version, at least what we had in that Sikh courtyard, may have topped them all. Fresh, whole milk based, no skin, with delicious hints of spice, served hot in straight small glasses you grasp at the very top, the guys needed little prodding to take the offered second round.

As we sat there stumbling through pleasantries, in an environment so similar to where I did a bulk of my business in the Middle East, I felt I was keeping a promise. In pitching this trip, first to the faculty and then to the cadets, I tried to explain how these experiences do more to prepare you to be an officer than learning to jump out of an airplane. With tea, and Iraq reminiscence, came a bit of vindication.

When we said our thanks, used their squat toilet, and headed out to mount our three cars, a group of women and kids peered cautiously through an adjacent door. My smile and "Namaste" was quickly reciprocated. As Sean gave the old man a frisbee (we should have done better with the West Point gifts), I gave the kids some gum and pens. The guys were thrilled and talking about how great this unexpected stop was.

But that wouldn't be the last of our Sikh experience, with the center of Sikhdom a doable weekend trip away from Dharamsala.

Located close to the Pakistani border, Amritsar with its Golden Temple is the mecca for Sikhs. As you walk through the gates, I was immediately struck by two things mostly absent from India: order and cleanliness.

There is simplicity to the Golden Temple that, even after a long day of travel, we could understand. Take off your shoes and trade them for a token at an organized office. Walk through little pools of water to wash your feet. Cover your head (we bought 10 cent orange bandannas emblazoned with Sikh prints). Touch the ground before walking inside the compound.

And there is was, gleaming in the night. The Golden Temple, covered in gold leaf, glows from a manmade island set in the middle of a square, manmade lake. I've always loved religions that allowed more than hushed whispers and silent reverence in their holy places. Walking clockwise around, you'll see people prostrate, sitting, and conversing on the broad marble walkway and bathing, swimming and soaking in the sacred pool. Above it all comes the singing of priests, piped through the PA system, chanting and reciting passages from their Holy Book. This occurs from 02:30 AM until 10:30 PM, just a few minutes away.

Sikhs don't need an invitation to come up and speak with you. Many youth hang around the temple to practice their English. As I was meandering, one walked up, introduced himself and told me I was welcome to come into the inner sanctum to see the closing of their Holy Book. We walked the single gangway/dock, leading from the side to the temple, mostly covered in gold leaf, with the interior in beautiful inlaid marble much like I saw at the Taj.

The interior was packed. About a hundred worshipers were pressed together in half of the room. Across a small handrail a central Sikh figure, his head wrapped in a deep purple turban sat cross legged, reading from a thick 6" book, about 18" x 18" in dimension. Three attendants sat in this inner sanctum, each with a prescribed task. One swept coins and bills tossed into the center. Two others stood posed on both sides of the book. Four musicians sat to the left, one singing, one patting on a tabla, and two others played an accordion like device, all providing an exotic musical backdrop to the chanting of the central Sikh, who suddenly stopped.

As hundred watched and perspired, the central Sikh closed the book. Then in a slow, deliberate manner that reminded me of an honor guard folding the flag, the two attendants to the side began pulling up and folding sheets to cover the book. As the music continued to play, the book was folded up with dozens of sheets. When done, the wrapped book was huge; the central Sikh put it up on his head, said a few words and the crowd prostrated. My guide directed me out of the sanctum, showed me around the rest of the temple (more priests) and then we joined the masses carrying the book in a golden arc, out of the temple. At the end of the gangway, a Sikh scooped out a clump of sweet dough and plopped it in our hands.

I ran into one of the cadets munching on dough. He said the rest of the guys were already racked out, and they wanted to do as the locals, by sleeping within the temple. I found them curled up together, orange bandannas still atop heads, somehow sleeping on the hard marble. Some of them wore the steel bracelets common to the Sikhs--something past the flowing beards, turbans and daggers to distinguish themselves. As I curled up next to the lake, I feel asleep, proud of the guys.

I woke to water being thrown in my face. It was 2:30 and time for the temple to be cleaned. We got together and wandered over to a large dormitory for pilgrims. Another Sikh volunteer directed us into a room with large platform beds, in which the guys collapsed. Free lodging and health care for anyone is part of the Sikh belief.

The sound of the book being read awoke me a few hours later. As the sun was up, I walked back to the temple and saw life continuing as before. Some Indian tourists mobbed me to ask where I was from. They loved hearing I was from America, although they weren't sure about the increasingly close relationship fostered in a contentious nuclear pact.

A man joined others, and bathed with his son in the lake. While I needed a bath, what I needed more was some food.

Here the Sikhs, yet again, don't disappoint. Providing food for everyone is part of any Sikh temple, no different here than in the remote plains of Kenya. I walked into the central dining facility and again was impressed with the military-like order and efficiency. I was directed to sit in a long line, as volunteers came by, dishing out dahl (a lentil soup), a sweet white rice pudding with raisins and slapping chapattis onto my plate. As the entire line watched my every move with curious smiles, I cleaned the plate.

Turns out they feed 10,000 a day at the Golden Temple. Again, staffed all by pilgrim-volunteers, I wandered first up the stairs to get a birds eye glimpse of the complex. A volunteer stood guard on a room covered with chappatis. I talked with a Brit Foreign Service officer, on vacation from Islamabad, about the odd feeling of walking on bread.
We walked into the kitchen to watch cauldrons of dahl being prepared next to thousands of chappatis being patted and roasted. My digital camera came out and the bakers really started to perform, addresses being swapped, pictures being promised.

I was meeting up with the guys to head back to Dharamsala, so I said my thank yous, dropped some money in the donation bin and headed to our link up spot. They seemed happy, laden with Sikh souvenirs of daggers, steel bracelets and lots of knick knack inspired by the new #1 film in India, "Singh is King" featuring the story of a bumbling, good natured Sikh all set to a soundtrack that features Snoop Dogg. As we listened to rap-Bollywood fusion on the way back to the mountains, the guys were buzzing about how cool the Sikhs were. I can't imagine what it must be like to be a Sikh today, to wear their turbans proudly, despite their own history rife with torture and persecution, by Muslims and Hindus, in the post-9/11 world and to do so without hesitation.

On the first day of class, I always mention the one word that more than anything else will help the cadets be successful--passion. Passion for the subject, passion for the reading, passion in finding out whatever interests you and finding the American Politics angle on it, will help turn the material and subject alive.

I think that is why I love the Sikhs--their passion for doing good now, in this world, for providing food, for their openness, for their pride, for their martial order, for their commitment to service and volunteering. In passion, Singh truly is king.

1 comment:

rwc said...

24 years later I remember a similar encounter in Fiji. Opening the minds of others through travel is inspired.