Early into our stay in Punjab, Jessy's family decided to take us to Amritsar to provide us with more insight into their culture. We packed our bags shortly after sunrise and then hit the road for a two and a half hour drive north. The traffic was light, which made the trip like a pinball session, zipping back and forth, but fortunately not hitting anything. The horns provided the sounds for the game.
During the ride I was able to discover more about the meaning of our trip. In the Punjabi language “Sikh” means disciple and in a short five hundred years Sikhism has grown to become the world's fifth largest religion and the city of Amritsar joins the likes of Rome, Mecca, Varanasi and Bodh Gaya as a destination for the devoted. Sikh's flock to Hari Mandir (commonly refered to as the Golden Temple) their most sacred shrine, to pray, make offerings and to bathe in the holy waters. Sikhism is a religion of tolerance and acceptance. It preaches a message of devotion and remembrance of God at all times, truthful living and equality of mankind. Unlike Hindu's, Sikh's do not worship idols. Sikhs only represent 2% of India's population, but are a 60% majority in Amritsar.
No city in the Indian Punjab has witnessed more history or is home to more historic sites than Amritsar. Its name combines the Sanskrit words for the sacred nectar of life (amrita) and for lake (sarovar), a reference to the pool within the precincts of the Golden Temple of the Sikhs that is believed to wash away sins and cure diseases. But at first glance, there's nothing celestial about it. The narrow streets are clamorous, dusty, claustrophobic. Home to more than a million people, Amritsar has long since spilled beyond the walls that once defined its borders, and even in the city's oldest sections, most buildings are drab, run-down and recent.
The Golden Temple, however, is a revelation. Sikh men are identifiable by the turbans and beards their faith requires the orthodox to wear, but their distinctive theology and remarkable history remain little known beyond India's borders. Their most sacred shrine embodies both. We joined a stream of chattering pilgrims and, with covered heads and bare feet, stepped through the main gateway—and into another world. The cacophony of the city fell away. The waters of the broad sacred pool mirrored a brilliant sky. The sun gleamed on the white marble cloister that surrounds the pool and burned so brightly on the temple built on the island in its centre that it seemed almost aflame.
The pilgrims around us fell silent. Some shut their eyes and folded their hands. Others fell to their knees and touched their foreheads to the ground. The complex is built at a level lower than the surrounding streets so that poor and high-born worshipers alike are forced to humble themselves by climbing down into it. Gateways on all four sides are meant to welcome people of all castes and creeds.
No one gawks here. No one demands money. Everyone seems content simply to be present in this holiest of places. The pilgrims make their slow, reverent clockwise way around the marble platform that edges the pool, past an old man with a white beard reaching nearly to his waist who gently lifts his infant grandson in and out of the sacred waters; a young mother on her knees patiently teaching her little girl the proper way to prostrate herself; a clean shaven American Sikh, his head covered with a stars-and-stripes handkerchief, praying alongside his brand-new bride, her wrists hidden by bright red bridal bangles.
After circling the sacred tank we joined the line on the bridge leading to the temple. Men,women, children were so close and pushing that it felt like a single body was moving. There was a distinct smell. I was not able to figure out what it was. People were holding plates full of prasad which was clearly greasy. Then I realized the smell was of ghee, but it smelled different. Perhaps ghee mixed with sweat.
There was a group of 8 or 9 guys who pushed people like a bulldozer and jumped the line. No one said anything. The guys looked very arrogant. They didn't care for women, children or elders. Obviously quite ignorant of the teachings in the book they were about to pay their respects to.
Within Hari Mandir, the scene — which is almost constantly being televised for Sikh viewers around India — is fascinating. Beneath a canopy studded with jewels, scriptures from the Holy Book are sung, while a crowd of fervent yet solemn devotees immerse themselves in the moment. A chauri, or whisk, is repeatedly waved dramatically in the air above the Book, while new musicians and singers continually join the ensemble after another participant has paid his respects. Like an organic human machine, lines of Sikhs pay their respects by touching their foreheads to the temple floor and walls, continuing in a clockwise direction at a moderate pace.
I had darshan, where all the faint chatter instantly ceased and an older Sikh priest began reading scriptures from their Holy Book. I ate the delicious prasad following darshan before leaving the temple.
Within the temple complex, there is also a free community kitchen serves an average of 50,000 people daily. Upon entering I was handed a metal bowl and took my place seated on the floor, legs crossed, in a line with others. A man came down the line pouring chai into the bowls and another handed out roti. The langer is a Sikh tradition based on the premise of people, all being equal, coming together.
Every day in almost every Sikh temple, volunteers cook free vegetarian meals for anyone who wants to eat, regardless of their background and insist that those who eat them do so side by side. “There are no foes nor strangers,” says Sikh scripture, “for we are all fellow beings.” Because equality is so important in the Sikh religion, everyone who comes in eats at the same level in the dining hall. You may see a rich businessman eating beside a homeless person. In fact, many street children in India use Sikh temples to keep from starving.
— The Golden Temple attracts more visitors than the Taj Mahal.
— Golden Temple runs the biggest langar or community kitchen in the world. It is the world’s largest free eatery.