“Skip the Taj Mahal,” I tell them, “and head straight to the Golden Temple of Amritsar!” They look utterly baffled as I share my honest response to their request for itinerary advice. Yes, I do think the Taj Mahal makes for the quintessential “I just went to India” photo, with the remarkable history-rich mausoleum and mosque as a striking backdrop. And don’t get me wrong, it can indeed be quite fun to meet busloads of tourists from around the globe, displaying an impressive array of selfie sticks.
When I first approached my train to Amritsar, I sensed I was up for a new type of adventure on my YOU WANDER WE PAY trip, all of a sudden seeing countless men with daggers and swords traveling in the same direction as me. Little did I know then that this was kirpan (an iron dagger or full length curved sword), one of the “5 Ks,” or kakar, five items ritually worn by Sikhs, and I needn’t fear for a violence-ridden train ride.
As I dipped my first toe in the entrance’s waterway (all feet must be cleansed before entering,) I was approached by a tall man dressed in his chola, Sikh warrior attire. My eyes drawn to his sword and distinctive (or so I thought then) curled moustache, I finally understood he was concerned I had put my shoes inside my small backpack, an absolute no-no for this sacred site.
From early in the morning until late in the evening, troves of colorfully dressed people magically add to the serenity of the Golden Temple, where women and men from all walks of life and religions are welcomed to worship equally, the temple’s four entrances representing this openness. It is definitely worth checking out at all different times and shades of light. I’ve even spent the night! The soothing hymns and gentle musical accompaniment continue with some pause throughout the clock’s hours, echoing across the sparkling lake where pilgrims gracefully remove their Sikh attire to ritually immerse themselves in the “pool of nectar,” almost always emerging with an impressive afterglow, reminding us of the waters holiness.
One of the sounds I love most is the clanking of metal cups near the courtyard’s corners, where contented volunteers use water and sand to ensure an unending supply of clean stainless steel drinking bowls for visitors to stay hydrated. Amazing how quickly the time passed when on one of my visits,I seated myself on an empty stool, joining in the sand-washing routine with the rows of colorfully adorned women with whom I shared a language of smiles and head wobbling (I wasn’t yet at my current Hindi level, able to chat and sing a song or two!)
While the opulence and sheer brilliance of the two-floored temple’ s ornate and intricately carved interior, golden leafed canopy, exquisite flowers, reverberating music and enthralling (giant) Holy Book ceremonies stand out most in many visitors’ memories (no photography allowed inside), I find the incredible langar, communal dining hall to perhaps be as much of a crowing glory. I am indeed thoroughly mesmerized by the unforgettable devotion which could practically be felt in the air of the astounding temple, its colors and sounds nearly hypnotizing, but when I stepped inside the volunteer-run all-vegetarian communal dining hall which serves 60-80,000 people a day, and caught my first glimpse of the thousands of stainless steel plates, I felt the most moved spiritually.
Like a kid in a candy store, I gazed all around, taking in the sounds of clanking stainless steel dishes, the flow of beautiful people, the smell of freshly stewed dhal (lentils) and the incomparable, powerful positive energy, when I was suddenly handed a plate and embraced the incredible momentum which carried me through the dining hall experience. A sea of colorfully clothed humans, we ambled up a flight of stairs, rounding the corner slowly enough to catch a peak at the action down below, and then entered an enormous hall where like dominoes, we seated ourselves one by one, in countless long rows, back to back and face to face with the adjacent lines of happy hungry beautiful souls. Volunteers came around with giant pots and ladled us each healthy portions of dhal, stewed vegetables and a thick rice pudding called kheer. Into our open hands, yet another volunteer dropped fresh roti and another rolled a metal cart of water from which we could fill our stainless steel bowls while still seated.
A similarly beautiful and delicious meal can be found at any Sikh temple, the simple idea being that everyone, regardless of social status or religion can sit on the ground together and partake in the same meal at the same time. And what a delightful flavor of equality, especially in a country, incredible as it may be, which is laden with hierarchies and disparity. The Golden Temple langar is open 24 hours, the food is delicious, never runs out, no one is ever turned away and almost everyone gets their hands dirty helping out.
Clank. Bang. Clink. Smash. Clank. I don’t quite know what words could do justice to the clatter and ruckus to be heard upon exiting the large hall, each of us turning in our plate, which then makes its way down an assembly line of volunteers, ending with a toss towards an elder Sikh man who uses two trays as shields, bouncing the trays into a bin which quickly overflows. I stared in awe at the action, distracted only by the throng of volunteers lined up at rows of sinks, washing dishes, women and men in separate areas. On my second visit, I jumped in, locking eyes and giant smiles with the radiant Indian women, while my hands wrinkled from over an hour in the soapy water.
Fascinated by this amazing operation that happens daily, I can feel devotion in the air. “It takes tens of millions of dollars to run the langar” I’m told by Mr. Singh, the Sikh gentleman who joined me as I gazed in awe at the ground down below, my eyes tearing from the masses of onions being chopped by yet another beautiful team of volunteers. He explained that many people chant “Wahe Guru” while volunteering, which literally means “wonderful teacher” in Punjabi, and refers to God, the creator of all. Anonymous donors and scores of volunteers happily give of their time and money here, as part of their religious practice, expressing some of Sikhisms most important ethics, Singh explained, “sharing, community, inclusiveness and oneness of all humans.”
A world of it’s own, I finally pull myself away from this communal heaven and rinse my feet to exit the langar, returning to the blissful courtyard where I continue to circle the ‘pool of nectar’. I take time to people watch and rest my feet in various spots along the way, always trying to replicate the seating positions of my Sikh counterparts so as not to point my feet at anything holy. During each visit, I am nevertheless approached by decked out men with swords, asking me to change my position, the encounter always somewhat mystifying yet magical.
That first afternoon, I eventually pulled myself away from the incredible marble and gold oasis, knowing I wanted to attend the famed Indian/Pakistan border crossing ceremony and taste the legendary lassies and ghee-rich parantha thali of the century-old vegetarian dive Kesar Da Dhaba. Both are pretty awesome experiences which I highly recommend for your Amritsar visit, a dream city for serious foodies (we’ll save the grub for another post!)
Little did I know then that I would have been so wooed by the Temple that I would plan multiple more visits, two of which were more than 10 hours and one of which was overnight, where the scene of volunteers removing every ceiling fan and cleaning each blade, with glowing smiles on their faces was captivating.
The transitions of light, slowing of the crowds, rolling up of carpets, continuous chanting, rituals for reading the holy book and endless display of volunteer work mesmerize me each time. I linger at the Temple, as if I can somehow store up the incredible, palpable, positive energy and somehow transmit it to those who regularly come to my mind – crime victims/survivors and colleagues I’ve worked with, family members, friends and others I’ve been simply moved by along my journey.