Razy Shah | September 03, 2016
Wedding season is coming up and I have to attend a wedding in New Delhi, India. With a little bit of planning, I gave myself a couple of extra days to visit Amritsar – the commercial and cultural hub of Punjab. I am here to visit the Amritsar temple, Harmandir Sahib, more commonly known as the “Golden Temple”. The temple gives the city its name. Amrit means nectar and Sar means lake.
It’s a slightly chilly winter morning as I walk from my hotel to Harmandir Sahib. Rickshaw wallahs cycle by slowly, tinkling their bells to tempt me to hop on. I know I am getting closer to the temple as more and more street peddlers come up, trying to entice me with bright orange headscarves (Sikh tradition dictates that heads must be covered before entering any temple). But I’m prepared. I whip out my blue headscarf (thank you, Silat Road Sikh Temple!) and tie the ends together to cover my head.
The entrance to the temple has a sunken marble basin for devotees to clean their feet. As I step into the water bath to wash my feet, I look up and finally see the Golden Temple. Framed by a marble archway, the mere sight of the temple brings a feeling of peace within. I knew that this was going to be a journey unlike any other. I get to the marble walkway that encircles the main sanctum by descending a flight of stairs. The temple is intentionally built on lower elevation, which requires devotees to climb down a flight of stairs as a symbol of humility and respect to God.
The Golden Temple is the spiritual center of Sikhism. Sikhs from around the world aspire to visit this temple at least once in their lifetime. While it was built by one of the Sikh religious leaders, Guru Arjan Dev Ji, it was Maharaja Ranjit Singh who covered it in gold that adds to its awe-inspiring beauty, giving it its iconic name, “The Golden Temple”.
The marble flooring that surrounds the Sarovar (sacred lake) feels cool on my bare feet. Melodious singing resonates throughout the complex which is encircled by a white, low rise structure. This leads me to the marble walkway that encircles the lake. The Golden Temple rises out of this lake connected to the marble walkway by a covered causeway. While innocous, this causeway is the main draw for everyone who visits as it links to the temple.
I start walking towards the causeway when a gentle tap on my shoulder stops me in my tracks. I turn around and am greeted by two middle-aged women. “Are you from Singapore?” they ask (my blue headscarf stood out from the sea of orange headscarves). “I’ve been to Silat Road. Very nice Gurdwara. Have you been to the Golden Temple before? Oh, it’s your first time? Let us show you around.” And I am now blessed with two guides.
The first thing they do is take me to a tree that bows majestically over the lake. I am told that this is the Dukh Bhanjani Beri tree – one of three ancient trees in the complex. At over 400 years old, this tree holds great significance.
There is a story of a daughter married off to a leper by an upset father. She upset him by proclaiming that the ‘Creator’, and not him, was her benefactor. Ending up in Amritsar, she was helped by devotees of the Sikh religious leader of that time, Guru Ram Das Ji and found herself assigned to cook meals in the Langar. Every day she would leave her husband in the shade of the tree and go to work. One day, her leper husband held the branch of the tree and took a dip in the lake. Immediately he transformed into a healthy man. When his wife returned, she was unable to recognize him. She kept asking for her husband until he showed her the hand that was not dipped into the water. Having held the branch for support, it remained a leper’s hand. This tree has been here since.
Devotees from around the world come to take a dip in the water near this tree as it is believed to heal. Hearing this story from my guides made me appreciate the lake in a whole new way.
Bare-bodied Sikh men can be seen dipping in the lake. The water of the lake represents the nectar of immortality. A dip in this nectar is a symbolic surrender to the pursuit of spirituality. The water is said to be able to wash away our sins.
My guides leave me at the causeway that connects to the Golden Temple. People from all corners of India are there waiting their turn to enter the sanctum. The gold detailing on the temple glistens in the afternoon sun. Stepping through a narrow doorway, I am awestruck by what I see. Intricate gold carvings adorn the walls. Stunning archways provide a vantage point to the lake surrounding the sanctum. Perfectly placed mirror inlays reflect the lake. It is akin to stepping into a 17th century royal abode. That is the special status (a royal status) accorded to the eternal Guru – the Guru Granth Sahib.
The Guru Granth Sahib is the central religious scripture of Sikhism and is the eternal Guru. It occupies the centre of the sanctum. The melodious songs, Kirtans, that permeate the Harmandir Sahib are being sung by the Granthi, the person responsible for reciting the sacred text. These Kirtans are intended to indulge both the soul and the senses.
I soak in the calming atmosphere of the space.
I then make my way to the Langar. Langar or the common kitchen is where food is served in a Gurdwara. The Langar at the Golden Temple is the largest community kitchen in the world – over 80,000 people drop in each day and the number can double during festivals. The free kitchen concept was started by Guru Nanak Dev with the objective of dismantling social barriers. This was achieved by insisting that everyone cook, serve food and eat together irrespective of caste, language or religion.
I receive a Thali (metal plate) with a single spoon outside the eating hall. The eating hall is a cavernous space where everyone sits on the floor and eats the same simple food. A turbaned man drops two chapattis on my thali. Next come dhal, rice and phirni for dessert. We eat silently, humbled by the setting.
The plate washing area is a massive operation. Each utensil is washed thrice to ensure proper hygiene. It is here that I witness the Sikh tradition of Seva or selfless service in action. Volunteers engaging in Seva are an essential part of keeping the Langar going.
I return to the marble walkway and sit by the water’s edge. I soak in the temple’s power and its sublime beauty. I observe people taking dips in the sacred lake, with beautiful fish swimming freely within, and many more sitting on the edge of the walkway looking contemplative, with the mesmerizing music of the Kirtans filling the air, as the sky changes colour and dusk approaches. This has been a journey unlike any I have experienced before. A journey where I experienced the tranquility and beauty of both the ordinary and the sacred.
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