The Golden Temple
Harmandir Sahib, popularly known as the Golden Temple, is the most significant place of worship for Sikhs and one of the highlights of India. Open to all, the Golden Temple offers a singular experience of faith, community and culture in the world today.
Sikhism was born in the 15th century in the Punjab region that spans present-day India and Pakistan, and today it is the world’s fifth-largest organized religion. Its founder, Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji, preached devotion to a single God and established a spiritual, social and political model based on the principles of human equality, fraternity, love, honor, virtue and devotion. Ten gurus followed Guru Nanak and their collective teachings are enshrined in the Sikh holy book Sri Guru Granth Sahib, which is housed inside the Golden Temple and treated as a living guru. Each morning the holy book is ceremonially brought into the temple and placed under a gold canopy for devotion, and in the evening the holy book is put to bed.
A blend of Hindu and Islamic architectural styles, the Golden Temple is plated in gilded copper and set in a pool of holy water called Amritsar, meaning The Pool of Immortal Nectar. The Temple’s inner sanctum is a peaceful scene where live music is played and hymns are sung to a room full of people seated on the floor. Photography is prohibited inside, but the room is broadcast live on Indian television. Dotted around the complex are many smaller shrines and places of worship. Throughout the day people come to the temple to take dips in the holy waters, pray, read, eat, socialize and nap on the floors. A modern sound system plays soothing Sikh raga music, and volunteers clean the entire complex from dawn to dusk. It’s a small world unto itself.
A distinct feature of all Sikh temples is the langar, a volunteer-run kitchen that serves free vegetarian meals to all. The Golden Temple Langar is the largest volunteer kitchen in the world, serving an estimated 100,000 people a day and a million or more on holidays. Punjab is known as “the bread basket of India” and most of the food served at the Langar is donated by Sikh farmers from the region. A typical meal consists of chapati (flat bread), vegetable curry, dal (lentils), and kheer (a sweet rice dessert), if you’re lucky. Everybody sits on the floor and eats together, and anyone can pitch in and help around the kitchen and they do. It’s every Sikh’s duty. Surrounding the two-story dining hall are areas where people peel and chop vegetables, make chapatis, cook with enormous cauldrons, wash dishes, etc. The work is endless yet the spirit is positive and potent. Many people are full-time volunteers, including women, Hindus and the physically disabled.
The Golden Temple welcomes all people regard- less of religion, caste, gender or race. Visitors must remove their shoes, wash their feet and cover their heads before entering the temple complex. Most Sikh men (and some women) wear a turban, an important part of the Sikh identity. Baptized (Khalsa) Sikhs follow the famous Five K’s: Kesh (uncut hair), Kanga (a wood comb that doubles as a hair pin under the turban), Kirpan (a strapped, curved sword), Kara (an iron bracelet) and Kaccha (a cotton under garment). Baptized Sikh women follow a modified version of the Five K’s. Nihang is an armed order of Sikhism and its members are highly respected in the community. Nihangs are distinguished by their indigo and saffron colored clothing, tall (often massive) turbans, huge swords and other symbols of the faith.
The Punjabi people are intensely proud of their culture and known throughout India for their strength, bravery, geniality, distinct turban styles and infectious Bhangra music and dancing. My visit coincided with Bandi Chhorh Diwas, a major Sikh holiday celebrated on the same day as Diwali, a major Hindu holiday. Over a million people visited the temple at this time, including thousands of Hindu pilgrims on their return journey (by foot) from the Amarnath Cave in the Himalayas. For about week I slept at the temple’s co-ed dormitory for foreigners — a hot, windowless, crowded, stuffy, cell-like space — and spent my waking hours outside. As the days passed, the crowds swelled until the complex reached a crescendo of barely controlled chaos and virtually exploded with people, colors, candles, fireworks and euphoria. Watching the waves of people around the complex was a phenomenal visual experience of humanity and colors in motion.
The festival spirit was wonderful, and being a solo foreign woman I was the objet of much attention. Giggly girls would call out to me “Hello! I love you!” Countless people wanted to chat with me, to have me photograph them with their families and friends, and to photograph me too. “Hey, can I snap you?” they would ask. “Sure! Why not?” I spent as much time being photographed as photographing myself, and I loved it. Other foreigners were subject to the same playful and curious attention, and some liked it more than others.
After the starkness of Ladakh and the sadness of Srinagar, the Golden Temple was my first genuine ‘off the hook’ India experience in the best way possible and I absolutely loved it.