Sikh and ye shall find...community, piety and fun, in Amritsar's Golden Temple...
A few years back I visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, and wrote the following piece, which appeared in the Sunday Times.
The flat, dusty streets of Amritsar, 250 miles northwest of Delhi, were choking with traffic and hawkers. The temple gates were almost within reach and the postcard-pushers knew it. I’d been polite so far, but now I waved my arms about and shouted, “Shoo!”
I walked into the temple compound, still swatting the air, but suddenly the midge-like hawkers were gone. It was as though an invisible force were stopping them from entering. Glancing back, the most pesky postcard-seller caught my eye and briefly interrupted his Churchill-Churchillian sulk with a smile.
I relaxed immediately.
At a busy row of benches, a greying lady in a rose-red sari mimed that I should take off my shoes and socks. She removed hers, too, then scooped up mine and bustled over to a long counter. Exchanging them for tokens, she hurried back and pressed a metal disc into my palm, closing my fingers around it as though it were precious. My grandparents used to do that when treating me with a five-pound note: I’d not thought of that for a long time.
She gathered in her sari and led me to a sawn-off oil barrel. It was full of head scarves. The few men not already wearing turbans were pausing to grab temporary head cover, a requirement for entry to the temple. My helper was more diligent, though — rejecting several scarves before teasing out the right one, Ali Bongo-style. It perfectly matched my shirt, and a tall Sikh boy with an insurmountable grin stopped to tie it on. My self-appointed chaperone single-clapped in delight.
Next, she led me to the entrance proper, where we paddled through a shallow pool to cleanse our feet. She held my elbow for balance and we climbed the steps together.
At the top, she leant against a column and proudly pushed me forward. There, framed by the white arch, was the 400-year-old Golden Temple of Amritsar. It was familiar to me from pictures in countless Punjabi restaurants, but in real life it was much more impressive. Shimmering in the heat, it loomed lightly, like a mirage. Its giant gilded strongbox glared bullion-brilliant, and paradoxically appeared to float at the centre of a giant olive-green pool.
My companion sighed contentedly, namaste‘d me goodbye, and walked off along the marble poolside path.
Emerging from the inner sanctum, where Sikhs were filing past their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, I walked by a formal grassy area. Having just bathed ceremonially in the pool, men were drying their long, long hair in the sun.
Further on, a crowd milled outside a large brick building, where a toothy man handed me a large metal thali tray, big and round as a hubcap. A young girl in western clothes said hello and asked me where I was from. She explained that this was the langur hall, where free meals are served round the clock.
It was a two-storey building the size of a Victorian school. Catching my bemused look, the girl launched into an explanation. “Fifty thousand people a day eat here, can you imagine? Guru Nanak, our founder, started it so that all Sikhs should eat together and show we are not agreeing with the caste system, like in Hinduism, and that men and women aren’t keeping separated, like in Islam.
“The people cooking and serving are volunteers, too,” she continued. “All sorts of people, you’ll see. We are calling it seva. It is the voluntary work we are doing at a temple.”
A bell rang and the heavy wooden doors opened. We shuffled inside and sat cross-legged on hessian mats, at least 1,000 people, I reckoned. There was a tug on my sleeve: two wily little kids with worn-through clothes and quick movements asked my name, shaking my hand energetically. Opposite, a portly gentleman with a magnificent beard adjusted his sword and bowed his head minutely in welcome.
Sumpreet, the sassy girl from outside, explained that the boys were poor and possibly came to eat every day, while the man was a rich businessmen. A little shyly, she added: “I am studying for a geography degree, and come only when an exam is nearing and I am needing extra luck.”
A line of servers scurried in from behind. They slung chapatis and dished out dhal with hilarious inaccuracy, but they were volunteers, and already the next sitting was agitating at the door. It’s the same in gurdwaras everywhere; rich and poor, young and old, men and women, all eating together. The food may be basic, but the symbolism was fine fusion.
Without Question, the Golden Temple has all the grace and beauty of the Taj Mahal. It’s not as big or as grand, but it is certainly as stunning. And while the Taj is a mausoleum, moribund except for the swarms of tourists and touts, the Golden Temple pulses with the energy of a thriving living community — the spiritual and temporal centre of the Sikh faith.
It is hardly visited by non-Indian or non-Sikh tourists, but there is an information office. After a cup of tea, information officer Sundeep Dalbir Singh (Retired) led me on a free tour of the temple.
Mr Singh was an old man with a forthright chest and bow legs. He had served in the Indian army before independence and referred to the Raj constantly, usually while staring into space, as though he were remembering a long-dead pet.
I followed him up the narrow steps to the museum, where walls were crammed with paintings. They were of the Sikh gurus and their followers, teaching, fighting and suffering, but mainly suffering.
In front of one particularly gruesome canvas, my guide scrunched up his face excitedly, like a schoolboy recounting an infamous scrap, saying that these three martyrs were tortured “very extensively, very extensively indeed”. Each “very” was projected loudly, like when a giant first appears in a bedtime story.
Another picture showed a Sikh being sliced in two with an axe — lengthways; and another panel brimmed with black-and-white photographs of Sikh youths who had been shot by the Indian army. They were like school portraits, but madly macabre, and “very extensively” began echoing all around.
So much for blood and guts, bricks and mortar — I had a killer theological question that I wanted to air. So I asked: “What’s the main difference between the Sikh salvation and the Christian heaven?” He thoughtfully twizzled his thinning grey beard and fell silent for a long time. A very long time. Then, with eureka certainty, he said: “The Christian heaven has better facilities.”
It was mid-afternoon when the heat finally won out and, overcoming my shyness, I “went local” and joined some other pilgrims snoozing in the dependable shade of a loggia.
Lying on the marble was refreshingly cool, like face-pressing a fridge door in a heat wave; and wafting over the water on a jasmine-scented breeze came hypnotic chanting amplified from the temple roof. I fell asleep.
Suddenly, a young boy in a white dhoti was frantically prodding me awake, shouting: “The water is coming; the water is coming — look!” Advancing at a slow walk were at least 100 people. Sikhs were scoop-filling buckets from the edge of the tank, then passing them on to the next person in the chain. The pails swung across the crest of the crowd, water spilling and pails clattering. When they reached the last person in the row, the water was hurled over the marble. It was like watching a Sikh Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Then the crowd engulfed me, too. It was like a childhood summer — foot-stampingly happy days spent spraying friends with garden hoses. By the time a teenager tapped me on the shoulder and offered me a heavy pail, I was laughing aloud. “What on earth is going on?” I asked with a happy shrug.
“We are cleaning the pathway. Here,” he said, handing me a full bucket. I took the weight, then hesitated and looked around. This couldn’t really be allowed, could it — in what is the Sikh equivalent of Canterbury Cathedral? I lunged forward like a first-timer in a bowling alley and the water arched through the air, splattering onto the white stone. The youth beamed, grabbed back the bucket, then rushed off to the pool.
This was a long way from my village church in Derbyshire. All I remembered from there was frustrated fidgeting and drowsy daydreaming. What a shame that they never let us help wash the aisles.
I travelled as a guest of CTS Horizons.
Geting there: Amritsar's Sri Guru Ram Dass Jee Intenrational Airport has flights with Air India to Birmingham and Delhi, with Air India Express to Dubai, Indigo to Delhi, Mumbai, and Jammu (beginning May 2017), Jet Airways to Delhi, Malindo Air to Kuala Lumpur, Qatar Airways to Doha, Scoot to Singapore, Spicejet to Delhi, Dubai, Mumbai and Srinigar, Turkmenistan Airlines to Asgabat, Uzbekistan Airways to Tashkent, and Vistara to Delhi and Mumbai.