It all started with a bang. Difficult to know where it came from, maybe a car exhaust? It woke me up, I was meandering through heavy traffic on the back of a rickety cycle rickshaw. Wheels all over the place. The guy was doing his best, but progress was tough. A wall of cars separated me from my goal, the Golden Temple (the temple of God). I was in Amritsar, Punjab.
Arriving at the Golden Temple, my first impression was, this is big. I hadn’t slept for a while, my thoughts were limited. Inspiration would only come after many Nescafe’s from the kindly local vending machine man. Then I was prepared to find a bed for the evening. Which was easy. ‘Where do the gringos sleep?’ I inquired. The man guided me to a small blue door, on entering I was confronted by piles of over-priced/ under-utilised climbing boots and bags. I had found my spot.
A gentle chap, maybe a little to gentle for my liking, watched me dump my things onto the nearest free bed. Then continued to watch, and watch a bit more, and in the end I politely asked him to hit the road. Too much watching makes me slightly uneasy. He was also holding a spear.
I was off, like a rabid tourist, finger on the trigger of my camera, immersed in the pious energy, the positive vibrations, the need for some half decent photos (bar a wobbly video of me sitting beside the pool of nectar, I failed miserably in this mission). I hadn’t been a tourist in a long time, I’ve mainly been hanging around places too long. A quasi foreign resident with no fixed anything. You cannot pigeon hole me Mr Man.
The air was alive with love and reverence, I didn’t really know what for. I knew some basics, but in my denial of all things organised or guidebook related, I was totally unprepared and uninformed. I needed a guide, a warm soul, fortunately, there was a whole temple full of them. I was approached almost instantly by a chap named Harabsingh. 20ish and living in the Golden Temple until his English Grammar exam results returned. He’d made a few mistakes and was praying to God that he’d change them. His life mission was Canada and presumably good living (I’m a huge fan of all things Canadian). I said that if his prayers worked, I would become a Sikh immediately. I am not a non believer, I just want a little proof first is all. He proceeded to give me the full tour, gold, gore and all.
If you’ve read my Dalai Lama post, you will understand my aversion to flashy religious spending. ITS YOUR PEOPLES MONEY. But I liked the Golden Temple. The Sikhs are collectively warm, strong and very proud. I would say nothing else, as they are also hard as nails.
The Golden Temple was a functional, yet elaborate monument. A place where people not only came on long pilgrimages, but also used daily and in Harabsingh’s case, lived in for a while. Open to all for musical prayer, food and lodging originally planned by Guru Nanak in all its glory and completed by the fourth Sikh guru,Guru Ram Dass. A place of peace and beauty. Sikhs believe all may worship here, no boundaries of religion, race, sex or caste. A central belief that distinguishes Sikhism from many religions. One of my favourite areas in the Guru Ka Langar,the place of food. Its a huge operation, feeding thousands per day. Massive cauldrons of daal and chapatti making machine,operate 24 hours, long lines of volunteers peel onions and wash dishes. All Sikhs contribute to the community, especially when visiting the Golden Temple. I approached the onion peeling queue, but was politely told it wasnt necessary. Although my peeling skills are refined, they seemed to have enough help anyway.
Visiting the museum left me with one main feeling, Sikhs have had it tough! Martyrdom seemingly a mainstay of Sikh history and tradition. Some of the paintings (please turn away now if you are of a weak disposition) of martyrs being boiled alive, sawn in half or even having their babies fed to them tested my resolve. Inscriptions in the walls throughout the monument commemorate the Sikhs who died during the first and second wars. The Sikhs have always stood firm and true to their faith, tortured by the many rulers throughout Indian history and eventually leading India towards liberation and religious equality. Patience and bravery has served them well, Manmohar Singh is president and the Sikh community is vibrant and respected in all aspects of society, all over the world.
The teachings of Guru Nanak and the 10 other Sikh Gurus are kept in the Guru Grath Sahib, a huge holybook, that is recited throughout the day from the Golden Temple itself, seemingly floating in the man-made lake, the pool of nectar. I witnessed the evening ceremony of wrapping and blessing the book before it is transported to another building for the evening, the Sri Akal Takhat Sahib. The temple is spotlessly clean and the Golden Temple is cleaned with endless buckets of milk every morning, from the temples own herd. It is by far the most immaculate religious monument I have visited, ornation, upon ornation.
The Golden Temple, Sikhism, has played a central role in the history of India since the 16th century. regularly persecuted and attacked, the last battles around the temple took place as recently as 1984. A suspected terrorist, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and some of his followers took refuge within the temple. The Indian Government, under instruction from Indira Gandhi, carried out an assault on the Golden Temple, causing much structural damage and up to 2000 civilian deaths. Sikhs responded with wide scale protests and ‘Operation Blue Star’ eventually led to the death of Indira Gandhi. Beheaded by her two Sikh personal bodyguards.
I stayed in the Golden Temple for two nights, spending most days walking around the pool of nectar, chatting and learning. I enjoyed sitting and listening to the prayers accompanied by tabla and a variety of instruments, there were screens dotted about the place were the prayers are translated into English and a number of other languages. On my last afternoon I headed to the border with Pakistan for the Wagah lowering of the flag ceremony. Best to check out these images http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZ0ue-XGl9c
There was a carnival atmosphere, Indian pride bubbling up into full on patriotic frenzy. Dancing in the streets, wide scale chanting, fists were pumped and the theme tune to ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ played at full volume. By contrast the Pakistan side, recently ravaged by wide scale flooding, was mainly empty. The pomp and ceremony was fantastic and orchestrated with admirable precision and fierce pride.
I returned from the border ceremony feeling jaded and dusty. I must bathe! The bathrooms in the Golden Temple are excellent, I would liken them to a 4 star hotel. Walking back through the vast hostel, people were strooned everywhere, sleeping on the floor. I felt very lucky to have a bed/ plank to lay my head.
On returning to the gringo dorm, two random english blokes were lying on my bed. Over-priced/ under utilised climbing gear scattered liberally around my cell. I explained that there must be a mistake, but the man with the spear had given them by plank. On consultation with said spear wielding guardsman, a comprise was reached, we were to ‘adapt’. Which meant ‘squeeze’. 4 men and 1 lady in two large planks. Fortunately, I have adaptability in spades. I morphed into bed that evening and slept rather well.