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'Sikh'ing the Golden Temple - Amritsar, India

Greetings once again!

When we last left off we were dismal in Delhi and heading off for Amritsar in the Punjab to visit the Golden Temple, the holiest site of the Sikh faith. Sikhs, if you aren't familiar, think the character in the movie, The English Patient or maybe you remember the kid in Johnny Quest, the one with the turban. Well, the Sikh faith is a combination of Islam and Hinduism and characterized by its long distinguished military history. Actually, since they are a minority in India, they have lost most of the battles they have ever fought to overwhelming forces, producing numerous martyrs. The city of Amritsar is located in the far northwestern Indian province of the Punjab, and is only 15 miles from the Pakistani border. 

The Golden Temple is the center of the Sikh faith and a repository of their holiest book. The Sikhs are most popularly known for their turbans which all males wear from their youth. But lesser known is the fact that they all carry daggers and the truly faithful wear special short pants as symbolic of their preparedness for battle at any time. In fact, even in this 'enlightened' age, the Golden Temple itself was the site of recent bloodshed in 1984 when extremist Sikhs holed themselves up in the Temple and the Indian army attacked and destroyed much of the complex. It has since been totally restored but the violent history lingers on. This incident led directly to the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards for having ordered the very unpopular attack. All good Sikhs must make the pilgrimage there once in their lifetime and so we went to see what it was all about.

What we found was truly unique and inviting. The Sikhs have a policy of unparalleled hospitality to any and all pilgrims. They offer free food and lodging 24 hours a day to those both in need and not, of course donations are always welcome, but absolutely not required. While we didn't take them up on the free lodging, we did join them for a communal meal in their dining room. They open the doors every half hour and those waiting outside filtered into a large room, just quickly cleaned from the previous group. On the floor are long canvas mats that run the length of the room. We situated ourselves on the mats and within five minutes the volunteers had thrown us a tin plate and were beginning to ladle out scoops of dhal and a handfuls of chapatis. To get more, one merely held out their hand and more chapatis were placed in it. We all sat together, the hungry, the needy, and the merely curious to share in this wonderful hospitality. Outside the dining area, huge boiling vats of dhal (lentil gravy) were being stirred with paddles and volunteers were flipping chapatis with extraordinary speed. And this ritual is done all day long!

The gold facade shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight

The Golden Temple itself is an incredible edifice in the midst of an artificial lake, actually they call it a tank. To enter the confines, everyone must remove their shoes and wear a head covering. Before every entrance, a shallow pool of water runs across the pathway which you step through as a symbolic cleansing of the feet, the lowliest part of the body. Inside the complex, pilgrims wander through the many marble pathways surrounding the tank and the floating Temple. Many pilgrims were lounging in the shade of holy trees or bathing in the holy waters of the tank. Everyone was so friendly and on numerous occasions welcomed us and explained that as honored guests, we were allowed to partake in the rituals of the faith. It is actually quite different from many other faiths which bar non-believers from participating.

Case in point: Every morning and evening, they have an elaborate ceremony in which they parade their holy book to and from the temple where it resides during the day. Throughout the day, piped through many speakers, singers within the Golden Temple sing aloud from the holy book. That evening, we gathered in the top floor of the Golden Temple and witnessed the beautiful ceremony. First, after some final prayers, they elaborately wrap the book in one hundred sheets, taking care to fold and crease the fabric just so. Then the book is placed in a golden palaquin and carried on the shoulders of the faithful from the Temple to a separate building where it is housed in the evening. It was quite an experience and we were carried along in the enthusiasm and even carried the book on our shoulders for one brief moment.

And lastly, we visited their shrine to the fallen martyrs and learned about the five hundred new ways to be killed, maimed and dismembered. It was actually quite gruesome and Ann had to run out early before she lost her free lunch. It was quite a change from Delhi and we immensely enjoyed our time there. It feels different from much of India. As a oasis in the desert, we found respite from the relentlessness that is India. From the beggers and con artists at every corner, tugging your sleeve. Amritsar, with its large population of Sikhs who tends to be successful in business is richer than most places in India. Also, the Sikh practice of offering food and shelter to the poor, keeps much of the city much more well off than most. And at the center, a golden shrine to call them home.

From there, we arranged a jeep to Dharamsala in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh to visit the Tibetan Government in Exile which is the subject of our next email.

For now, over and out

ann and doug

 

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