For thousands of Punjabis, the only hope of getting on an international airplane is to offer a toy one at the Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh Gurdwara, a 150-year-old Sikh temple in Talhan, India. According to Sikh custom, pilgrims can cast wishes by saying a silent prayer to Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book, and leaving behind a symbolic offering. In other temples people offer dolls or toy houses to wish for children or apartments, but in Talhan the most common offering is a little plastic Boeing 747, bought from one of the temple shops and left in exchange for divine help with a visa.
“I know a person from Ludhiana who had applied for a visa three times through sponsorship but could not get an interview call. He came to me and asked for the biggest airplane,” says Harpreet Singh, a local store owner who sells 15-50 airplanes a day. “Within a week he got his visa. He was so happy that he came again and bought one more airplane from me.” The most requested destinations at the temple are London, New York and Toronto, while a popular migration plan is to arrive on a tourist visa and simply not leave. It is surprisingly effective: nearly half the illegal immigrants in both the European Union and the USA first arrived on a legal non-immigrant visa which they then overstayed.
At least 100,000 Punjabis are currently in prisons around the world for illegal immigration, and undocumented flight out of Punjab is so common that the state’s Minister of Information and Public Relations declared that he had “no figures whatsoever” on the number of Punjabis living abroad. But in Talhan, where every family is believed to have at least one member overseas, illegal immigration is not looked down upon. In fact, the families of migrants honor them with even more airplanes: local roofs are often decorated with two-meter-long airplane-shaped water tanks – each custom sculpted for upwards of Rs15,000 (US$240) and bearing the logo of an airline from the country where relatives live. The most prominent is a cement model of a British Airways airplane on the town’s main gate, under which pass between 200 and 5,000 hopeful pilgrims every day.
Temple officials aren’t entirely pleased with their growing renown as a visa-expedition service and are trying to dampen the hysteria by giving away each week’s collection of toy airplanes to children every Sunday. “We wish we didn’t have to display airplanes,” says temple manager Balbir Singh. “We put flower vases and fruit trees in the offering area hoping that it will inspire people to only bring flowers as offerings. But that point does not seem to get across.”