For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
The first time I laid my eyes on the Golden Temple I was a young pilgrim and India was kicking my ass. My sleepover in the temple was transcendental. The second time, several years later, I had just arrived in the country, having completed an overland journey from Europe to India. And for my third visit, I was in love.
--- It is before dawn and the train pulls into Amritsar terminal. I rub the crust out of my eyes as I emerge into the parking lot and I am accosted by a small army of Sikh bicycle rickshaw drivers, every color of the rainbow represented by their tightly wrapped turbans. The air is crisp and hazy. Street dwellers yawn as they emerge from their tents and men arrange glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice into neat rows on street-side tables. We ascend an overpass and the driver hops off his bike to push. I hesitate for a moment and then jump down to help.
Amritsar is not a city with a temple. It is a temple with a
city. The temple is “Harmandir Sahib
”, literally God’s Temple. ‘Amritsar
’ means Pool of Nectar after the sacred pool of water at its core, and its sanctity can be traced back to prehistoric times. According to the epic Ramayana
Lord Rama, incarnation of Vishnu was wounded nearby in battle. His sons and devoted wife Sita brought him some amrit (nectar) from the sacred reservoir and he was instantly healed. Later it is said that the Buddha also visited the site and proclaimed it ideal for meditation. My arrival to the temple is surreal. I am dropped off beside one of the designated peeing walls that are common in large Indian cities. With my packs strapped on to back and front, I partake awkwardly, with all eyes on me.
Across the street there are stalls upon stalls selling snacks, fruit, trinkets, bright orange marigold garlands and other items for puja (worship). Beyond the stalls I get my first glimpse of it. Not the Golden Temple itself, but some outer wall of the complex. What I see looks more like a palace than a temple; a solid white structure dominated by a huge clock tower topped with an onion
shaped dome and golden spire. At the bottom of the structure there is a large passageway, which leads into the temple complex. A flagpole demarcates the entrance with the signature Sikh flag, the Nishan Sahib, which is triangular and made of saffron colored cloth. At the center of the flag there is a double-edged khanda (spear) representing divine knowledge, crossed two kirpans (swords) and surrounded by a kara (metal bracelet), all symbols of Sikhism and common personal adornments.
To both sides of the white palace there are rows of shops built into the complex walls, which seem to go as far as the eye can see in either direction. Out on the street below the tower there are two massive covered booths for shoe and sandal check-in. I cannot believe the sheer volume of footwear I see on racks inside when I pass mine over, nor the rapidity with which the attendants grab people’s shoes and store them in the little compartments.
Now I am ready to enter. Just as I approach the passageway, there is a stream of fresh running water in a shallow marble depression, which crosses the path and forces all entrants to
walk through it. I inhale deeply and then step in. I observe a cloud of brown water flowing downstream from my foot as it meets the water. I exhale, and step in with the other foot. I had no idea how dirty my feet were! I wipe them together to get rid of all the brown spots. The water feels so refreshing, so pure. Not only does it cleanse my soiled links to the earth, but also some of the negative energy being stored in my body, so that when I step forth onto the green carpet on the other side I feel rejuvenated, alive.
I note the many others around me; some walk quickly, others stop to wash their hands and even faces in the stream. Many of them put their palms together at their foreheads and then hearts as they step out of the water, and so I do the same. As my palms touch I feel their warmth, I feel energy passing between them in a circular motion, starting in my chest, then through my arms and back again. Against my forehead and the energy is directed into my cranium, silencing my mind into a
state of devotional meditation. Against my heart and the ritual feels complete.
In modern times, there lived an important guru
(teacher) in the Punjab region. Named Nanak, he was born into a Hindu family on April 5, 1469 in the city of Talwandi (later renamed Nankana Sahib in his honor, and located in modern day Pakistan).
Punjab was the ancient gateway into India, and as a result it was subject to a history of conquest. Occupation began with the original Aryan settlers, then later the Persians, Greeks and finally Muslim invaders who established a massive South Asian empire under the Mughals for over 300 years. At the time of Nanak’s birth there was a great deal of fighting between local Hindus and Mughal Muslims taking place throughout India.
At roughly the same time that in Europe Martin Luther was confronting Roman Catholic corruption under the Protestant Reformation and John Calvin was developing a Reformed Theology, Nanak was also questioning Hindu and Muslim heritage and customs. As a child he is said to have refused participation in Hindu rites of passage such as the Sacred Thread Ceremony, in which a string is looped from
young boys’ left shoulder to right hip and left there for life in order to symbolize formal entrance into this new life in the cycle of reincarnation. Instead of reciting the Brahmin’s prayer, Nanak is said to have composed his own hymn on the spot, condemning superstitious ritual and proclaiming compassion, contentment and modesty as the true binding threads of life. Similarly, it is said that Nanak prayed facing the wrong way inside of mosques, and when others became offended he questioned their beliefs and asked them to show him a direction in which God was not present.
At the age of 30 Nanak descended into the River Bain and for three days and three nights he is believed to have ‘bathed in mystical union with God’. When he returned he gave away all of his possessions except for a loincloth, and proclaimed that, “There is no Hindu, no Muslim”. He was henceforth known as ‘Guru Nanak’. In the accompaniment of a musician friend named Mardana (who was, coincidentally, a Muslim), Guru Nanak traveled throughout India and Ceylon, and to Mecca, Baghdad and Tibet, singing hymns of praise to God, and professing a new faith of equality, compassion,
and service. A proud Sikh Khalsa stands guard at the entrance, sporting the five mandatory forms of personal adornment for the guardians of the faith: kesh, the non-cutting of the beard and hair, which is wrapped into a turban, the kanga, or small comb representing cleanliness, the kara, a metal bracelet, the kirpan, a ceremonial dagger, and, I assume, katcha, traditional men’s underwear. The Khalsa can be men or women, and are devout, vegetarian, fierce, and take up arms to defend the faith when necessary.
The Khalsa guard before me notes that I am looking at him, and he stares back at me with intense eyes. Barefoot, he wears a saffron robe tightened at the waist with a large black sash, loose white pants, and purple colored turban wrapped tightly around his head and ears. His eyebrows are thick, stern, his face a maroony-brown complexion, and his wild beard falls off his face like a torrential black and grey waterfall. He leans on the wooden spear at his side, metal point rising a foot above his head. I smile and nod at him and he returns the gesture.
I follow the brown hemp carpet
through the passageway and a grand vista opens before me. There is no other sight in the world like this; no other place, no other feeling can compare to the one I feel, now, surveying this sacred panorama before me.
I am looking down upon a massive square pool, 150 meters long and just as wide. From the right side of the pool a long white causeway leads out to the Golden Temple itself, floating majestically in the middle of the pool. The temple is three stories tall, and the upper half literally glows with gold. I see men, women, and children peering out from a variety of windows, looking out like grand Kings and Queens surveying their mighty lands. Pilgrims walk clockwise around a wide marble walkway known as the Pakirama
, which encircles the pool. From where I stand you actually have to descend stairs down unto the sacred space. Supposedly many of the original inhabitants of Amritsar wanted the Golden Temple to rise up and dominate the city’s skyline, but the builder decided to construct the temple at a level lower than the city streets as a sign of humility. The contrast between the streets I
just came from and the scene before me is like comparing day and night, or heaven and hell.
Many women sit at the top of the stairs and on adjacent ledges, some alone, some in groups, all of them silently contemplating the scene before them. I hop gracefully down the stairs, my right hand gliding along a brass rail, not for any needed support, only to touch and be a part of as much of it as I can. The Pakirama floor is already warming under the morning rays of sun, but it is cooled by buckets of nectar-water fetched from the pool and thrown about by Sikh attendants, and then brushed into the drains that line the walkway and presumably return back to their source that is the Pool of Nectar.
During his preaching and travels, Guru Nakak amassed a community of devoted Sikhs
(disciples) and they settled in the Punjab. His growing village came to be known as Kartapur, and the Sikhs began housing and feeding the people of many faiths who came to visit. This practice developed into the langar
, a communal meal where all people are welcomed to sit and eat
free, vegetarian food. The langar has become a trademark of Sikhism and is found in all Sikh gurdwaras
(Houses of Worship).
It is possible that Guru Nanak’s ideas were influenced by the Sufi mystics and adherents of bhakti
(mystical devotion) found in the Punjab at the time, all of whom practiced direct communion with one God and appealed to the lower classes. Nanak’s ideas defied traditional Hindu concepts of polytheism (many gods), caste (hierarchical social discrimination), and the necessity of priesthood, as well as Muslim practices such as the non-inclusion of women in religious ceremony and the belief that only people from one’s own faith can achieve salvation. At the same time, Nanak incorporated Hindu concepts of karma, reincarnation and maya
(illusion, in reference to the material world) and Muslim concepts of One God, charity, and the condemnation of idolatry. I begin to walk, clockwise like the rest. I continue along to the end of the pool, sliding my feet along the smooth marble, occasionally cowering onto the thin brown carpet, which runs like a path down the middle of the walkway, providing protection to burning feet in the heat of the day. At the end
of the pool I turn right; the pool always stays to your right. I come to a point, which seems to be the designated bathing staircase. Boys, men of all ages strip down to their loose cotton underwear and immerse themselves to the waist, to the shoulders, hands always in prayer before them, eyes closed, purification, baptism. Women dip their hands in and rub the sweet water on their arms and faces.
Just past the bathing ghat there is a plank next to the water with trees, and more women sit serenely in the shade of the branches. It is here, directly opposite the Golden Temple and its causeway, where I veer left and away from the pool. I walk past a beautiful garden; massive bungas (palaces of Sikh warriors from times past) loom in the background. I need to find the foreign pilgrims’ quarters, where I will bunk for free for the night (a small donation is expected); for now I just need to get rid of this huge pack on my back before I get too sweaty.
A Sikh attendant checks me into a dormitory and I set out in search of food. Repeating
the foot washing ritual, I now find myself before the langar building. Streams of pilgrims filter through, and volunteers hand sets of metal plates, bowls, cups and spoons to the queue with great speed and efficiency. I hold my palms out and collect my utensils. The line of people flows into a room the size of a gymnasium and people sit cross-legged in sets of two long rows, facing one-another. Almost immediately, volunteers walk down the line dropping warm flat pressed chapattis into our open palms. Next come scoops of dhal, curried vegetables, sweet rice pudding, and drinking water. Thousands of people dine together in complete silence. I look around. I see rich Sikh men in suits, presumably visitors from North America, Europe, the world, eating side by side with street dwellers in loose rags. After as many servings as my stomach can handle, I stand and move on like the others to make room for the constant flow of new people into the massive room.
I carry my dishes outside, pressed on all sides by others doing the same. We hand them off to a row of attendants, who fling the metal utensils in a mad frenzy,
Free communal veggie feast
The Golden Temple feeds up to 30 000 people a day!
plates passed down a line and flung into and enormous vat, spoons tossed this way and cups that. Some tosses miss and crash to the floor while another attendant runs about picking them up. To the side is an enormous covered dish pit, with hundreds of volunteers washing away with equal haste. Out front I pass a large open area where men and women sit huddled around small mountains of garlic, onions and carrots chopping away peacefully.
Before Guru Nanak died, he chose a successor Guru, who was followed by eight more and together the ten Gurus and their writings form the basis of Sikh doctrine. None of them are regarded as divine, but rather as awakened human beings, and their images are never displayed inside of gurdwaras. The second Guru is known for having developed the Gurmukhi
script, a written form of Punjabi. The third institutionalized the langar as an integral part of the gurdwara.
In 1577, during the time of the fourth Guru Ram Das, a piece of land on which the Amrit Serovar
(Pool of Nectar) is found was given to the Sikhs by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who was impressed after visiting
a Sikh langar and seeing the various classes sitting in rows and eating together. Shortly thereafter Amritsar was founded. It was the fifth Guru Arjan Dev who then constructed the Harmandir Sahib
, a grand temple in the middle of the sacred pool accessed by a causeway across the water. Arjan Dev also compiled the Granth Sahib
, the sacred text of Sikhism, formed entirely of the direct writings of the first five Gurus. The proceeding five Gurus would become increasingly militant in the face of worsening Mughal oppression against Hindus and all minorities. Gobind Singh, the last of the ten Gurus, created the Khalsa, an armed force of defenders of the Sikh faith.
Before Gobind Singh died he named the Granth Sahib, the sacred book, as his successor, so that to this day the 1430 page book remains as the final Guru of Sikhism and one copy is located inside of all gurdwaras. After a period of intensive warfare, a prominent Sikh named Ranjit Singh established a Sikh empire in the Punjab. He put walls around the city of Amritsar, as well as a marble walkway around the periphery of the Pool of Nectar. Finally, he attached gilded copper
plates clad with gold leaf on to the upper half of the Harmandir Sahib, giving it its present title as the Swarn Mandir
(Golden Temple), holiest shrine and spiritual center of the Sikh religion. Throughout my subcontinental journeys I have been practicing the Tibetan/Hindu/Buddhist act of circumambulation, which is the ritual practice of walking around sacred objects, buildings, or places. It is a form of meditation in motion, and is highly focused on breathing. At the Golden Temple I circumnavigate the periphery of the pool of nectar over, and over, and over again. My practice is interspersed with stops for sitting contemplation, photography, rehydrating at the complimentary drinking water stations, and chatting with the people. Repeatedly, the guards verbally welcome me. They ask where I come from and they tell me to feel at home. Pilgrims from throughout the world want to talk to me, and pose in pictures with me. Local people from Amritsar and surrounding villages in the Punjab want to meet me and explain their customs to me. Sikhs are, in my opinion, some of the most trustworthy and hospitable people in all of India.
I meet an adolescent boy from a small village
in the Punjab. He is meditating and reading from a small book on the steps down to the Pool of Nectar. He comes over to speak with me and we end up spending the entire day together. We cross the causeway to the Golden Temple itself, amongst a dense mob of pilgrims. The causeway leads directly into the heart of the Golden Temple, where hundreds of people stand in devotion, others sit and recite from books, and musicians play tabla and other traditional instruments before an enormous, open copy of the Granth Sahib. A man reads, or rather sings from the book, and his devotional hymns are broadcast through a loudspeaker, forming the constant musical backdrop to your entire Golden Temple experience. Within the temple itself you can ascend to a second floor which looks down upon the main room, and finally to a rooftop overlooking the entire complex. People huddle throughout the interior of the temple, reading from books, meditating.
The boy takes me to a variety of other rooms and buildings throughout the Golden Temple complex, including a visit to the kitchen area where I see enormous cauldrons of dhal. At the entrance to every room,
Hindu version of the Golden Temple, Sri Durgiana
The Hindus got jealous so they made their own Golden Temple
like all the others, he touches his hand to the entrance way and then to his forehead and heart. We visit sacred trees wrapped into saffron cloths, musicians performing, Prasad (sacred snack offering) counters, and various men and women reading from the book inside of little glass cube-shaped rooms. For the first time all day we leave the temple and venture into the city. We visit the nearby site of the 1919 massacre of hundreds of Sikhs by the British Army. Then we go on to the Sri Durgiana Temple, a sort Hindu version of the Golden Temple, with similar plan, moat, causeway, and gold plated structure.
Finally, he takes me through a network of local alleys and lanes to what the locals claim is the best lassi (yogurt drink) stall in all of Punjab, and since Punjabis are believed to make the best lassis in India, I could very well be trying the best lassi that money can buy. The drinks come in enormous, chilled metal glasses and are topped with a heaping glob of butter. It is so creamy and thick that I can barely take it down. It is amazing. The men in the shop
pump them out for the crowds, and there is nowhere to sit so we lean against a dirty wall. We finish quickly so they can give the glass a quick rinse and use it for someone else’s drink. The boy insists on paying for mine.
In June 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered a military attack on the Golden Temple, where Sikh separatists were amassing weapons. The Sikh guards held the fort for two days before the Indian army took control. Hundreds of pilgrims: innocent men, women and children were killed during the assault. The massacre led to an uproar in Sikh communities throughout the world, and it is considered one of the most embarrassing moments in Indian history. On October 31st of the same year, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. Years later on my second visit to the Golden Temple, it is winter - tourist season. I cross the border from Pakistani Punjab. I haven’t had a legal beer in months. I get drunk on Indian Kingfisher beer at a food stall literally 10 meters past the border, though I later regret it when I remember that the
Sikhs ask you to not drink alcohol before visiting their temple, but I sober up with some chai. I check my e-mail in the temple, enjoy the free food, visit the temple travel agent for departure information, run into some friends met along the way in Pakistan and Iran.
The foreigner’s accommodation room is overflowing with travelers this time. The Sikh guard clears a small space on the floor and puts down a thin blanket on the hard tiles, which will be my bed for the night. I accept it gratefully. Rooms in the city outside the temple are only a few dollars, but I would prefer this. I bed for the night, but I cannot sleep with the constant bumps of people nearly stepping on me as they come and go in the dark.
I get up several hours before sunrise. Northern India is freezing in the wintertime. Pilgrims and travelers wear thick blankets to keep warm. My feet go numb after I wade through the foot-cleansing stream. Throughout the night the langar serves huge bowls of hot chai. I walk around and around and around the Pool of Nectar. Thousands of Indian families and
pilgrims sleep on every available piece of floor space. Volunteers hand out warm blankets to the needy. The sparkling walls of the Swarn Mandir reflect in the calm waters. Steam rises from my every awe-struck breath. The only thing in the world more beautiful than the Golden Temple is the Golden Temple at night.
A few months later and I find myself here again, with a companion. This time the beauty of my experience is shared. We walk together, around, around, and around. For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
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