Some stories too surreal to explain simply. Our time in Amritsar and Jalandhar is one of them.
Our trip to Amritsar from Delhi (where we stayed overnight due to our flight delay) was uneventful following the chaotic delays in Bangkok. We planned ahead for three days in Amritsar before moving on to a wedding in Delhi. As it turns out, visitors can easily see the two main tourist attractions - the Harmandir Sahib and the Wagah border ceremony - in one day. That would have left us with two extra days to kill in Amritsar if things had not taken a turn. We'd never even make it to the border ceremony.
One of the girls we were meeting in Amritsar had met a young man our age on the flight in. He studied and lived in the US, where he had started a successful tech company, but was originally from the neighboring Punjab city of Jalandhar. As it turns out, his family founded and managed the local university there - Lovely Professional University - India's first and largest private university. Though only 11 years old, the university currently graduates 30,000 students a year (India...) and we happened to be in Amritsar the weekend of its 7th Convocation.
Without thinking about it twice, Dan and I joined our friends and drove out from Amritsar to Jalandhar to see an Indian university in-person and witness their commencement ceremony. Now, when I say drove, I would like to say we could take any credit for organizing this part of our trip. In truth, our new friend arranged transportation, food, lodging, activities, tours, and every aspect of our journey for the next 72 hours.
When we got there, we met the Chairman and Chancellor of the university, and then met the commencement speaker, who also happened to be the President of Mauritius, Mme. Ameenah Gurib. I wish I had access to any of the official photos that were taken of the meeting, and will share them if I find them, but I spent most of it silently wishing that I was not wearing my stupid tropical house t-shirt while meeting a head of state.
While not thinking about how unshaven and sleep deprived we were, we got a chance to sit down with Mme. Gurib and have an informal Q&A session. We covered everything from her plans to boost entrepreneurship in Mauritius, to her background as a biodiversity scientist who started her own company, to her thoughts on the AfDB. It is likely no small feat for an Islamic woman to become a head of state, especially one with with a French background in chemistry, of a majority-Hindu African nation. Her answers definitely showcased a tact for public speaking that must have contributed to that accomplishment.
After our impromptu presidential interrogation, we took a tour of the university. It was pretty amazing to see the scale of development of an Indian university - adding 45 new buildings a year to offer 200 majors - built for an international student base of broadly south Asian and African students. The female students live separately from male students, and have a curfew at 7pm each evening to be in their dorms. Students' parents get texts with their test results when they come out, and each student is logged via biometric scanner when they enter a classroom to ensure attendance. The courseload averages 40 hours of class a week, spread over 7 days. I would not have survived there.
Even so, the university had a wealth of novel opportunities available to students that sounded very compelling compared to classroom-first American higher education. Academics were hands-on, in that students majoring in retail business could open their own shops and stands, rent-free for the first few months, in the university's private shopping mall. Some of these businesses would then go on to become national franchises. Students majoring in agriculture grew crops on-site that would then go into local food. And the university had just added a roller rink and bowling alley as social hangouts.
After watching the commencement ceremony, we left with our host, who insisted we travel with him in the presidential motorcade, to tour the candy factory started by his grandfather after serving in the Indian army. In what was probably a more surreal experience for us than anyone else, the motorcade shut down the street and the factory to give us a private tour. There is no impostor syndrome as strong as getting a private all-you-can eat candy factory tour with a head of state that you did nothing to merit.
To end the day, we checked into the student-run and maintained hotel at the university, and joined our host for dinner at a local restaurant run by a friend, which included palm reading, a magician, buttermilk-churning, pottery-making, and live dance and slapstick performances. In keeping with the theme of the surreal.
We expected the next day, our last in Jalandhar, to be tame. At least compared to the prior one. The plan was to watch the university's One World cultural heritage festival, in which students prepared floats and decorations for a parade representing each nationality in attendance at the school, and then head home to Amritsar.
Our host had other plans for us. After an offhand remark that it would be great to perform a Bollywood dance at the wedding in Delhi, he asked the local dance teacher to give us a 2-hour lesson to the Indian hit of the summer, Gallan Goodiyaan. The song was fire. The dance moves were not.
After practicing for a couple hours, we expected to close up shop and return to Amritsar. As usual, we were wrong about the itinerary. Our host had instead arranged for us to perform the dance on-stage in front of the One World gathering. Of the 50,000 high school and college students in attendance, a mercifully small audience of one to two thousand was still present for what I'm sure was a unique butchering of local dance. But no story is complete without videos, so here they are:
It's too early to say how history will judge us.
Finally, we made it back to Amritsar in time to get a night tour (also arranged by our host, of course) of the Harmandir Sahib or Golden Temple. While the Taj Mahal is the most-visited site in India by western tourists, the Golden Temple is the most-visited site for domestic tourists. It is regarded as the holiest temple in the Sikh religion, which claims about 20 million adherents in India (and 76% of all Sikhs globally live in Punjab, the region we were visiting.)
The site was not without its history, including most recently an assault by Indira Gandhi's military against the temple during a hostage situation in 1984, which destroyed some of the temple and led her Sikh bodyguards to assassinate her later that year.
The temple itself is pretty amazingly striking. Situated in a giant walled pool (Amritsar literally means Pool of the Nectar of Immortality), the Golden Temple hosts a multi-story pilgrimage site in the center. Visitors like us could enter but not photograph the rituals and ceremonies taking place inside.
The temple also plays an important role as the world's largest communal kitchen. Over 100,000 visitors come to the temple each day for free meals prepared by the adherents working there, an operation no less impressive in a country frequently facing food scarcity.
With our 72 hours in Amritsar and Jalandhar coming to a close, we got one last night of restful sleep and made our way down to Delhi.
Nik / 11.30.16