The Noblest Delight! Beyond the Golden Temple

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Ah, the Golden Temple. A worthy site indeed. We were the only westerners among thousands of Sikhs, for whom a visit to this place, its 64 shrines, and a bath in the “pool of nectar,” is necessary at least once during their lifetime. My understanding of Sikhism is that it is a relatively open religion, somewhere between Islam and Hinduism, and we were at its holy of holies; quite an honor.

Check your shoes at the counter, tie the proper orange scarf around your head, wash your feet, and enter. The sun was low and the mood was calm as we walked among so many tightly-turbaned spirit seekers and their families. Live music — tabla drumming and singing, at a slow, steady pace — wafted across the water from the central golden shrine, but the line to enter was too long, so we sat and took it all in from afar.

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The next morning, a train carried us across green plains of rice and maize fields, bathing water buffalo and honeycomb-shaped straw huts; then a bus took us into the hills. Streams and rivers began to run clearer, white and blue water crashing over granite boulders, saddled camels appeared on the sides of the road, as well as light-haired, pink-faced monkeys. I remembered a line from Dr. Stewart’s book about traveling in the Hindu Kush: “When I visited it the only caravans I saw ccnsisted of camels laden with deodar sleepers entering Pakistan.”

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In fact, as we traveled north, drawn by our curiosity and need for cooler climes, we were following Dr. Stewart’s movements from over 90 years ago. And even though our contact with people who had actually known the man had dried up, it was a rich and wonderful piece of knowledge, this tangible pursuit of his journeys; I read his recollections to Tay as we bumped along the road, back into the Himalaya:

“I lived in Gordon College, Rawalpindi beginning in August 1911, but the region, which was most attractive to me as a young botanist was Kashmir. From the summer of 1912 to that of 1947 most of my vacations were spent collecting plants in some part of the Maharaja’s territories and I saw far more of them than he did and probably enjoyed them more. In the summers of 1912 and 1913 with small hiking parties my objective was plant collecting in Ladak (Western Tibet). Both summers we started at Rawalpindi and covered the first lap of our journey from Rawalpindi to Srinigar, on our ‘push’ bikes. I carried my vasculum on a strap across my back and would stop to collect the interesting things on the way and put them in a press at night.”

Where the young Ralph Stewart collected plants, we are collecting encounters, photographs, and stories. I would like to think that the spirit our ventures is the same — whether for science or history or simply for experience, this thrill does not wane over four measly generations. In fact, I’d like to think it is one of those things that has remained a constant since the beginning of human kind. Mark Twain seems to have thought so, and I leave you with his exclamations:

“What is it that confers the noblest delight? What is that which swells a man’s breast with pride above that which any other experience can bring to him? Discovery! . . . To do something, say something, see something, before anybody else — these are the things that confer a pleasure compared with which other pleasures are tame and commonplace, other ecstasies cheap and trivial.”

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