Tag: Amritsar

There IS Such a Thing as a Free Lunch!

Sikh pilgrims from across the globe converge on the Golden Temple at a rate of thousands per day. For many, this is the trip of a lifetime. For others, it’s an annual visit. For all, it is a welcoming experience of unparalleled hospitality.

Every visitor to the Golden Temple, Sikh or not, is invited to free meals, served throughout the day, to up to 40,000 people daily. At first I was hesitant to accept – after all, I’m not a believer of their religion, and the complimentary food program was not designed for free-loading backpackers. But after being encouraged by a number of Indians to join in, I left a donation and gave it a go.

What an experience. The Golden Temple meal program might just be the most efficient restaurant on the planet. Hundreds of people are led into a large room and sat in rows on the floor. As others continue to file in, the first row is handed a plate, bowl, and cup, followed quickly by men with large ladles and buckets full of curries, dal, and rice. The chipati lady is close behind, followed by a little girl pouring water into everyone’s cup. The eating commences immediately, and Indians eat fast. No need for silverware, it’s all scoop and push with your fingers. Within minutes, the servers are back around for 2nd servings, though its hardly necessary after the heaping portions given on the first round. Within 15 minutes of walking in the door, over 250 people have been fed, and the room is nearly empty, save the cleanup crew, who come in with large mops to clean up the mess that accumulated on the ground (particularly around my plate – eating rice and curry with your fingers is rather messy for the inexperienced).

Serving hundreds - bucket-style

One of the most orderly endeavors we witnessed in all of India

The food, prepared in the biggest pots I’ve ever seen in my life, is surprisingly tasty, and most certainly filling. The people around stare at me as they eat, but with big warm smiles, and my neighbors practice their English and invite me to their home. While seemingly out of place as the only white guy in this huge room of Sikh pilgrims, I feel completely welcome at the meal, happy to have enjoyed what will surely be one of the most unique eating experiences of my life.

The kitchen - wood in the center for cooking, huge pots boiling curries in the back, and a chapati lady on the left

Lots of meals means lots of dishes, and lots of people to wash them

The World’s Most Popular Product

Coca Cola is the world’s most popular and widely distributed product (based on my own very scientific research of traveling and drinking a lot of it). From super rural villages in Ecuador, to Nepalese hill stations accessible only by foot, to remote Indonesian islands, there isn’t a place on the planet that you cannot buy a bottle of Coke. While the recipe varies slightly from place to place, you can always count on the familiar jolt of sugar and carbonation no matter how far from home you are. Coke’s ubiquity is a modern marvel of mass production, distribution, and marketing, and I really can’t think of any product that even comes close to it’s universal recognition. Can you?

Coke delivered via carts

Coke delivered via bike

In Amritsar, we encountered what I believe to be the cheapest Coke on earth – 5 Indian Rupees per bottle. That’s about 11 cents! I think the Sikhs are subsidizing the cost slightly – the 5 Rupee Coke Stand was just outside the free food building at the Golden Temple. No matter how cheap you find it internationally, you almost never find soda fountain machine Coke anywhere but home (with the exception of McDonalds restaurants anywhere). And those fountain machines provide one thing I miss dearly when traveling abroad – free refills!

5 rupee coke, and the pilgrams enjoying it


Ted and I were casually B-List celebrities in Amritsar. Though Indians in big cities and tourist towns are used to seeing foreigners, Amritsar (being a pilgrimage point) attracts Indians from all over the country – some from tiny villages in remote places that never see travelers. For that reason, we white folks were kind of a big deal. Walking around the temple and out in town, we were constantly being stared at, talked about and pointed at. Some folks would indiscreetly rush by and snap a photo on their cell phone without saying anything and some people would come up and have us pose in a picture with their whole family. Though initially uncomfortable, I quickly got on board and was holding babies, hugging grandmas and standing awkwardly next to teenage boys. Being white had never been so exciting!

P.S. Women had to cover their heads when visiting the Golden Temple, hence the awkward scarf on my head in the photos.

Posing with the locals

Smile for the camera phones

The Mecca of the Sikh Religion

From Rajasthan we headed way north to the Indian state of Punjab, known for its rich delicious curries, its bearded turbaned men, and for the Sikh religion, which is centered in the city of Amritsar.

Amritsar is a fascinating and very special place for a number of reasons. It is home to the Golden Temple – one of the most impressive structures in all of India. The temple itself is a beautiful building that glows in the sun, surrounded by a massive bathing pool and then further enclosed within a series of impressive white buildings. As Muslims hope to make a to pilgrimage to Mecca in their lifetime, Sikhs from around the country (and around the world) make pilgrimages to the Golden Temple. At any point in time, there are hundreds to thousands of Sikhs within, bathing, praying, walking the perimeter, or waiting in line to give offerings within the glowing temple.

Golden Temple glowing at sunset

Pilgrams walking the perimeter of the temple grounds

A Sikh man prays and baths

Sikhs are unique in their very open and inviting approach – anyone and everyone is not only welcome, but welcome with a bed and all the food you can eat. On the grounds of the temple, free meals are served throughout the day to believers of any religion (more on the very interesting experience of family-style eating with 1000 of your best friends in an upcoming post). In addition, nearby accommodation is provided free of charge and once again is available to all (we did not take advantage of the free accommodation though we met many travelers that had). It’s an amazing hospitality that I’ve never seen before – sometimes feeding over 40,000 pilgrims a day! This generosity is incredibly important and impressive – it allows Sikhs from around Punjab, from around India, and from around the world to make this important pilgrimage financially possible for their families. If you can round-up the money for a train or bus ticket, you’ll be taken care of once you get there. How cool is that?

Because of its religious importance, most of the visitors to Amritsar are not just foreign tourists, but rather Indians who are visiting for spiritual reasons. As a result, many of these visitors are from small towns around India, and they are sincerely excited to see white people. The more outgoing ones asked us to be in pictures with them and their children (seriously, we’ve posed for well over a dozen shots with kids, parents, wives, brothers, etc). We are part of the attraction when rural people come to Amritsar. Before we figured this out, we were wondering why so many people were staring at us so hard – afterall, this is a pretty well-visited place. It all came together once we understood that almost everyone there was a tourist too.

A long line forms to enter the Golden Temple

Many impressive buildings create the perimeter of the temple complex

So, with a super open and accepting religion, an extremely holy (and impressive) monument that draws millions of Sikhs from across the country (and beyond), a pilgrimage center that provides free accommodation and food, and a bunch of people who are not used to foreign tourists, Amritsar became one of the most fascinating and welcoming places on our trip. Every conversation we’ve had with people (save rickshaw and taxi drivers) has been the polar opposite of our experiences in Rajasthan. We met a teacher outside the gates on our first visit, who told us about his class, and even invited us to the school for a visit. At the communal lunch, I met a kid who wanted us to stay until next Sunday when his family was having a party. Others wanted to practice their English or just be in photos. And the big one – I met a guy named Digpol, an Indian man who spent much of his life in Switzerland, who asked me to sit with him while he told me a bit about the history of the temple. For 20 minutes, he told me about Sikhism, the history of the pool around the temple, and answered a few of my questions. Afterward, he was insistent that we come stay with him when we came back through Delhi, where he would feed us, help us get around, and we could stay for at least a few days in his house. And it was heartfelt. From the way he approached me, to the teaching nature of his conversation, to the way he offered a visit, I could finally feel the Indian hospitality, sincerely.

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