Golden Temple of Amritsar
Across the Pakistan border and into India lies the city of Amritsar with it’s Golden Temple. The site is the focus place of the Sikhs. The Sikhs are an interesting religious group that contains elements of both Hinduism and Islam, and the Golden Temple is like the Taj Mahal for the Sikhs. That’s actually a bad metaphor because the Mughal rulers who built the Taj were bitter enemies of these Punjabi people who built the Golden Temple in 1585.
I previously knew of the Sikhs through their distinctive look of long beards and long hair wrapped up in a bright turban. They are fierce warriors with warrior bodies and I once saw a photo of a Sikh contingent in the UN Security Forces with all the men wearing light blue turbans.
In Lahore I visited a Sikh temple and ate for free, a feature of their faith that goes with the values that all are welcome to visit their temples regardless of faith. In fact the Golden Temple is also a free hotel, albeit a hotel that doubles as the center of worship for a religion with 25 million adherents.
A separate room for foreigners, guarded at all hours of the day, contains four basic rooms with blankets and beds (Indian pilgrims throw down some blankets any place they can find). Its like a Sikh communal living space, connected to all other operations going on in the complex. The actual Golden Temple itself is about 200 meters outside the door to the sleeping space.
I took meals in the kitchen area. Several floors of large open rooms served as eating places as hundreds of people sit in lines on long carpets. The chowpati man then the dhal man, the creamed rice dude, and the veg man take turns scopping up the grub. You eat and talk loudly with your neighbors.
On the way out the dishes are dumped off right before the chai area. This is right by the entrance to the Golden Temple and the large pool of water it sits in. You slurp down some hot chai before wandering around the main temple.
The Sikhs have a very interesting history. There were 10 gurus and the first, Guru Nanak, traveled the lands singing hymns he composed, all the time preaching his “one-ness” philosophy.
They were involved in terrible battles with their Muslim and Hindu neighbors. Starting with the 5th Guru, a series of Sikh martyrdoms started that had Mughal leaders offering 60 Rupees per turbaned head. A museum in the Golden Temple contains many paintings of these martyrs being sawed in half down the skull, boiling alive, being scalped, and other horrendous visions. Even the British got in the act by opening fire in a park in the 1800’s.
One of my favorite recurring images is that of Baba Deep Singh, a warrior noted for carring his head in one hand and sword in the other as he slays Afghans while being martyred.
The last and 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, proclaimed he was the final living guru, don’t worship men and turn your attention on to the last guru, Guru Granth Sahib, which is actually a book.; the book of hymns and religious songs that the first Guru Nanak composed has he traveled the lands.
The 10th guru crated the Khalsa, a body of saint-soldiers all of whom are baptized Sikhs. Guru Gobind Sing died in 1708 and the book Guru Granth Sahib became the permanent Guru.
Every night in the Golden Temple this book is “put to sleep.” All day in the Temple holy men read the chants and sing the songs from the book accompanied by instruments such as a small accordion like one. About 9:30 the book is wrapped up in cloth and moved to a plaquin to be carried out of the Temple, across the bridge leading to it, and into a room for the night.
I witnessed this nightly ritual from the front row as it happened- again all are welcome to view this. Outside revelers take turns hauling the very have book and palaquin down the bridge, an honor indeed for practicing Sikhs.
This only scratches the surface of this complex religion, which seems unique when viewed from the outside with little knowledge of the practice. I stayed five nights at the temple, reading in the day by the water (Pool of Immortal Nectar as its known), while bathers take a holy dip.
I picked up a book to learn more, Western Perspective of the Sikh Religion, and continued on my way north back to the mountains.