Sikhing Some Peace and Quiet

Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of India  ,
Thursday, January 24, 2008

India could do with worse models than the dining hall of the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar. All are welcome at the dining hall (indeed in the entire temple complex). Outside of the dining hall (it's Sikh name is Guru-Ka-Langar), you are handed a steel plate, spoon and cup. When you enter the hall, you see strips of carpet making long row on the floor of the cavernous room. Everyone sits side by side on the floor, regardless of caste, religion, gender, economic status, or anything else. Temple devotees come along with buckets of dhal, and baskets of chapattis, and pitchers of water. This simple meal is free to all who enter, and the devotees gladly offer seconds and more to those who are still hungry. Teams of volunteers work in the kitchens, slapping out chapattis and filling dhal buckets. When you finish your meal, you exit through the side door, when dozens of other volunteers wait to clean all the utensils and plates for the next diners. In this way, and through volunteers and free of charge, over 40,000 people a day are fed.

I had arrived in Amritsar on the train from Delhi. Walking out into the parking lot of the train station, a bus pulled up; a free shuttle to the Golden Temple (or Hari Mandir, the "Temple of God). The passengers seemed a bit amused to see me and my backpack, but all squeezed in even tighter, and I was helped onto the bus with smiles from everyone.

Arriving at the temple, I lugged my backpack inside the compound to the massive buildings that served as shelter for thousands of pilgrims. The temple has a small section with three bed rooms, and a larger dorm for foreigners to stay. There is no cost to stay in the temple complex, but donations are encouraged. I stayed in one of the three bed rooms. The mattresses were thin and hard on wooden planks, and it was hard to tell the last time the sheets had been washed, but no matter. When you excited the dorm, to the left was a large courtyard with facilities for ablutions in the middle of the space. Communal squat toilets were to the back, kept clean by the constant vigilance of volunteers. Every night, hundreds of people bedded down on the stone floor of the courtyard, given blankets and thin roll up mattresses by the temple. Bodies lie everywhere at night, the night song of hundreds made up from snores, flatulence, and wheezing breaths of tightly packed pilgrims.

The inclusiveness of the kitchen is indicative of the entire temple. Everyone is welcome at the temple. You are requested not to smoke, use drugs, eat meat or drink alcohol within the temple compound. Out of respect, your head must be covered (free bandanas are provided if you don't have your own), shoes must be left outside, and your feet must be washed in the pools placed at all entrances to the temple. Fierce looking guards with spears and swords are scattered about the temple, their fearsome bearded faces quickly splitting into grins if you approach to make small talk or ask questions.

When you walk into the temple your first sight is the massive pool in which the temple itself juts out into. The pool's water is supposed to have healing powers, and there are designated places around the edges where the faithful can bath. A blazingly white marble walk way surrounds the pool, with pilgrims and visitors circling clockwise around the temple. At the end of a walkway jutting out in the centre of the pool lies Hari Mandir. Even photos can not do justice the beauty and serenity of this sight. It's turrets, roof, and walls are covered in hundreds of kilograms of beaten gold.

Trickling out of speakers all around the temple is the singing of the Guru Granth Sahib Ji, the 11th and last guru of the Sikh religion, by priests from inside the Golden Temple. The Guru is the most sacred book of the Sikh religion. Anywhere in the world where the book goes is considered pure and sacred by Sikhs. The singing has a peaceful beauty that adds greatly to the feeling of sacredness and serenity around the pool. The book is brought out in a procession at around 4 am by the priests and "put to bed" each night in a ceremony where it is carried back to its resting place inside the main temple complex building.

Despite the wonderful peacefulness of it's setting, the Golden Temple has seen its share of blood and conflict. It was razed to the ground a few times by marauding Muslim armies in the 18th and 19th centuries. Each time it was rebuilt even more elaborate and beautiful, as the Sikhs became more strong and able to repel attacks. Sikhs earned a reputation as strong warriors throughout their history. The museum at the temple is like walking through a gallery of medieval horrors as paintings graphically depict the martyrdom and killings of thousands of Sikhs and their leaders over the years. The last major conflict came in 1984. Operation Blue Star was set in motion by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in reaction to a growing separatist movement in Punjab, and the presence of some wanted resistance agitators. The temple was extensively shelled and damaged, and hundreds of militants were killed as well as an official count of 492 civilians, although some estimate this number as high as 2000. This caused outrage amongst Punjabi people, and especially the Sikhs. A few months later, Indira Ghandi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards, leading to the 1984 Anti-Sikh riots and massacres. Peace seems to have returned to the area, and the temple since those horrific times.

Walking around the compound, it is difficult to believe and imagine the acts of just over 20 years ago. Thankfully, the only conflict I saw while there was the fighting for my attention of some Sikh teenaged boys to be photographed by my camera. It really was one of the most peaceful and moving of any of the "sacred" sites I have been to in the entire world.
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caringmomma on

The golden temple is awesome
wow what a wonderful site and the feeding of so many really says alot there.. Keep moving son as lots to see I am sure

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