Thursday, June 14, 2012. Amritsar, Punjab, India.
Distance driven: 467 KM/292 miles.
The Golden Temple in Amritsar is the holiest places for Sikhs, yet another Indian minority religion. The place was founded in 1577 by the fourth guru Ram Das. Sikhs are known as fierce warriors, and during the first World War represented about 60% of the Indian who served on the allied side.
Visiting the Temple is a process. First off, you have to cover your head, but are not allowed to wear a hat (!), so you have to get a handkerchief like piece of fabric to put on your head.
Next you have to remove your shoes and socks. There are cloakroom like places that take of this, run by volunteers, which means your shoes are safe and can be found again easily. However, it also means you are now barefoot. If you are a germ-a-phobe, you won’t like that you have to walk about 100 yards over the street, although most of it is covered with matting, which in the heat of the day they dampen to keep it cooler. As you enter the temple you wash your feet and it is strictly forbidden to take any tobacco, narcotics, or alcohol into the temple.
Because we got in so late last night, we got going a little late this morning, so it was about 11am and already very hot by the time we got here. Walking on any pavement or marble exposed to the sun burned our feet, so we did our best to stay on the matting or under any awnings. Still, we found ourselves “walking on coals” from time to time where there was no other option but to hot foot it.
Before entering the Temple proper we went into the Sikh museum that is part of the complex. There were a few artifacts such as weapons, holy books, and so on, but mostly it consisted of annotated paintings showing important people in the Sikh faith and often the grisly way that they were martyred. For example one picture showed how the Murghals sawed one of their gurus in half from the head downwards.
The Temple is really stunning – the Golden dome shines brightly amid all the white marble. Thousands of worshippers and visitors spread out throughout the temple – some bathing in the waters, some meditating, others praying, and still more resting in the shade. One circumambulates the temple clockwise and eventually you reach the causeway which takes you to the central temple. Along the outer walls are numerous stops that represent Hindu sacred places. One of the Gurus declared that it was sufficient for Sikhs to visit these stops (kind of reminds me of the stations of the cross in Jerusalem) rather than the original Hindu sacred spots.
Sikhs read their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib from before dawn to after dusk. At the Golden Temple, this is done under the Golden roofed Harmandir Sahib (the Golden part of the Temple), topped with 100Kg/220Lbs of gold.
The pilgrims walking across the causeway carry food and money placed in bowls or plates made from leaves as offerings. On their way back they are given a dollop of sweet nectar.
The Temple is actually a city within a city. It has its own gates, feeding halls where 10,000 people are fed a free simple daily meal, assembly halls, shrines, hostels, etc. The Harmandir Sahib is surrounded by a pool where Sikhs are “baptized” and the structure is reached by the 60M long causeway. Kelly decided to sit the visit to the Harnandir Sahib out, so the boys and I stood in line for about an hour until we reached the entrance. Although it is under canopies and fans are blowing, you can’t bring water to this spot, so after being packed like a human sardine for over an hour in 40+C/108F heat, I fainted just as we got to the front of the line. Luckily the guards there have water and I was able to rehydrate and have a lie down. Unfortunately it also meant that I didn’t have the energy to go upstairs where the main areas of interest are – the Guru Granth Sahib in the Durbar Sahib (Court of the Lord) or the Sheesh Mahal Court of Mirrors, but at least the boys got to go.
Once we found Kelly, I drank a whole lot more water, threw up and felt a bit better. We headed back to the hotel so I could rest and continue to rehydrate. I felt well enough to go on our afternoon expedition to the border at Wagah, but that’s another post.
The next day I got up before 5am and made a return trip to the temple on my own. What a different experience. For one thing, I now knew what to expect and brought only what I needed. Once I checked my shoes I walked into the temple and although the temperature was still on the warm side, the flooring was cool on my feet. Also there were far fewer people here today (I later found out that yesterday was the first of the Sikh month and so an especially busy time). The light was great, and the experience was much more serene.
I even decided to see if I could make it to the Harmandir Sahib and got in line, which was about half the length of yesterday. Remembering something that I had read on the Ventimiglias blog about how there always seems to be a VIP option in India, and recalling yesterday that one of the lines was basically an express lane, I got out of line and sought out a guard, who found another official that spoke English. I explained how I had waited in line yesterday, but fainted when I got to the entrance and asked if there was any way to go quicker. After he found out that I would be leaving Amritsar in just a few hours, he took me to the VIP entrance and let me in, so I was able to walk right up to the main sanctuary and got to climb the stairs and see the 2nd and 3rd stories which were richly decorated and populated by men reading their holy book.
Being there at sunrise also afforded me dim, but better quality light, so I was able to get some nice photos, like this one of a member of the “crocodile” sect who carry daggers and swords. What do you do with your dagger when you bathe? Look at the photo for the answer.
Now I’ll just need to snooze on our long drive to Bikaner in Rajasthan later.