Guest is God – Exploring Punjab

The following article is a series of memories from my visit through twelve districts of  Punjab, India

My newly found friend, Pragya, and her father were making rounds to see their relatives who were scattered across many villages in rural Punjab and I was invited along for the ride. We turned off of the highway onto dirt single-lane roads and into the breadbasket of India. Punjab means the land of five rivers and it is one of the most fertile areas of the world. While it no longer holds claim to all five rivers since the border division has placed at least two in Pakistan, these rivers have been an essential source of irrigation that has allowed the state’s agricultural sector to thrive. From the car windows all I could see was the greenery of rice paddies, which remained bright in color despite the lack of monsoon rains this season.

The villages were decked out in a series of pastel washes that blended into the dusty roads and bleached blue sky.I spent the most of the time exploring the village where Pragya’s father grew up. Her grandfather built their house himself and his children were the first in the village to receive a formal education.

The villages are extremely tight knit, so everyone knew her father. People began approaching him to greet him as soon as he stepped foot out of the car. He took me with him when he went on his rounds to neighbors, family, and friends alike who gave me the opportunity to try and understand village life in India.

Everyone in the village had their large wooden doors open to welcome any breeze they could find. When I entered through the front door of the houses I was typically walking right into a livestock stall with one or two billowing water buffalo (they really are rather crazy creatures—giant limbs, but with this odd angular boniness to their bodies). Past the livestock would be a small courtyard with one or two rooms open and facing towards the center. The courtyards were the living rooms, the kitchens, and the storage closets. Houses had small traditional ovens adjacent to heaps of dung—the best type of fuel. Beds were made of woven ropes, like thick fiber rugs tied on to a wooden frame a foot above the ground—these seconded as their couches and chairs.

There were no floors. Dirt stretched in from the road to occupy the house. Due to the electricity needed in big farm operations and industries during the summer, these villages were completely cut off from power for long stretches of time (if they did have electronics or fridges with which to use it). As a result of these power outages, families didn’t even have the relief of a fan to combat the humid heat.Everywhere I walked, I gazed in through large open doors to see people lying on these woven mats—motionless and shaded to keep cool however possible.

From my visit to several villages in Punjab, I learned that life below the poverty line doesn’t always match the depictions we see in news and on the TV. The slums I have seen traveling in India bring forth the worst images of poverty. Their overpopulation creates filth, disorganization, theft and a lack of space. It also means while you might see ten or twenty children from the slums who appear adequately healthy, that twenty-first child will be close by, underweight and looking up at you.

These villages are a different place. They are slow to change and well established. They live off the land and that land provides the space to counter those harms of congestion and overcrowding. The trees and the beauty of the landscape provide a serene backdrop. Above all, the villagers seem happy.They grew up under these conditions and it is how they continue to live. And this is how the entire community lives. It isn’t like the slums, where you are living along the borders of wealth and earn your money working at their service. In these villages, you haven’t been uprooted and squeezed in wherever you can fit for you chance at the piece of the big wealthy urban pie. Instead, these villagers seem to accept what they have. It’s difficult for me, as I can see the hard evidence of the ways in which they lack–I could count up their assets or analyze their income–but what I don’t see is sadness in their eyes.

Spirituality is a strong force in these village households.I say spirituality since it is broader than the religious designations that are needed to create a sense of community in a large city environment. The distinctions here between Sikh and Hindu practice blur and I often saw portraits of Sikh gurus along side those of Hindu gods in the villagers’ homes. Pragya’s father brought up a thought about religion on the car ride back to Chandigarh, the same that my mother always advocates to me—religion is about giving yourself up to the divine. Part of this notion is giving to others, it is about selflessness, instead of the race for self-accumulation.

Indians have a phrase derived from Sanskrit verse to describe their treatment of guests—Atithi Devo Bhava—meaning “Guest is God” Even though the relatives of Pragya’s that I visited didn’t have much, each household gave me a monetary gift before saying goodbye. These gifts were purely out of the kindness of their hearts, since they simply didn’t have to award a stranger, furthermore a touring American with any money. So perhaps it is in part this spiritual attitude, this focus on giving rather than receiving, which has allowed the look of happiness to exude off of these villagers’ faces.

Through the generosity and selflessness of these villagers, I traveled to the rural villages of Punjab and came back thirty dollars richer. A few days later I saw a mindset that greatly contrasted with the one I witnessed while exploring rural Punjab. As soon as I stepped out of the car in Amritsar—a city with a population of over one million people—a beggar approached me.

Then, before I knew it there were two and then three in front of me. I paused for a second, remembering I had some coins I could give them, and began to casually searched through my purse. As I rustled through my bag my friend Prakarsh stopped me and explained that if I gave to one, I would be hounded by ten more. He added that they weren’t asking for spare coins, but for 100 rupee bills, equivalent to about two American dollars and no small amount in India.

Though I declined to give to the women, more showed up until there were eight surrounding me as I climbed into the rickshaw. One held a baby who they had disturbingly already been taught to beg. The boy must have been no more than 18 months old, but he looked right at me with his hands clasped as though to pray. The women were persistent. Even as the rickshaw pulled away one grabbed onto the back and ran with us for several feet. I went from seeing the deep generosity of the villagers, who had so little to give, to beggars on the street hounding me for money as soon as they saw the color of my skin.

While I initially felt overwhelmed arriving in a city as brimming and bustling as Amritsar, I left having had a spiritual experience of my own.I visited the Golden temple—the largest Sikh temple in the world. After waiting in line for some time, I was able to enter the main gold temple in the center of the complex. I gave a small offering and made a personal prayer for my family.

A large pool of water, that is claimed to be holy, surrounds the temple. Many people come and bathe in the pool and there are myths of how it has cured disease and physical defections. At the main temple there was a basin where you can take a sip from the holy water and touch the water to your face and body. Since I was nervous about the cleanliness, I didn’t take a drink but I placed the water across my forehead and the bridge of my nose. Then I put my finger, still wet with water, in my mouth.

We walked upstairs to the second floor of the small temple, which was filled by the sound of prayers that emanated upwards. As I walked across, repeating my personal prayer as I went, I felt myself bubble to the brim with emotion. I found myself walking the floors of a holy temple on the brink of tears. Who knows exactly what I was reacting to, but it’s a nice notion to think that it was the holy water that opened my mind and body up to the spirit of prayer.

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