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Published: March 5th 2012
I have been to numerous religious pilgrimage sites in my life; I have stood in awe under the frescoed domes of St Peter’s Basilica together with seeing the supposed places of Jesus’ birth and death. I’ve placed my hands upon the ‘Wailing Wall’ in Jerusalem and gazed upon the golden ‘Dome of the Rock’ within, sacred places to both Jews and Muslims. Lumbini, birth place of the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama in Nepal is next on the list! However, in each of these places, I cannot recall a friendlier, warmer welcome than that which we received at Amritsar’s Golden Temple.
India has quite the tumultuous history, in particular as it relates to its north western territories. Years of bloodshed, suppression and prejudice led of course to the creation of Pakistan, a land formed by the Indian states of Punjab, Kashmir and a portion of Afghanistan. Uneasy to say the least has been the relationship between these neighbouring countries and political and religious battles still wage in Kashmir, a disputed land between numerous claimants. Troubled also is the relationship between portions of India’s Sikh and Hindu populations (despite the fact the Indian PM is a Sikh himself), perhaps in no
small part due to the assassination of the daughter of Mahatma Gandhi by a fanatical Sikh, since which time there have been numerous instances of persecution and retaliation between Sikhs and India’s other religious factions. For these reasons we were uncertain what we would experience in the town of Amritsar, a place directly south of Kashmir and a mere 20 minutes from the Pakistan border and more importantly, the holiest place for Sikh’s anywhere in the world.
Perhaps we should have felt a degree of angst with regards to the decidedly unsavoury legacy left by the former ruling British government in this area, more specifically the military massacre of up to 1,500 protesters in April 1919. Coming on the heels of the Rowlatt Act (1919), legislation which empowered the British to imprison without trial any Indians suspected of sedition, violent back-and-forth action by locals and the military culminated in this terrible slaughter, which included many women and children. The warmth of our welcome and the atmosphere into which we would/would not be greeted into each remained a mystery. However, like Banda Aceh and other such areas we have visited, areas with reputations for hostility and political or religious unrest,
we again found any apprehension completely misplaced.
We checked into our hotel in the late afternoon, a dingy looking place from the outside located beneath an elevated highway! However, we were showed to our surprisingly clean and large rooms, whose ceilings were high enough to warrant concerns about nocturnal bats! I began chatting with the manager of the hotel, who delighted in telling me he had been to England many times before, most recently to York which he appeared to enjoy! However, his favourite place, and this is something we have in common, is the Lake District, which he told me in a matter of fact fashion, has eleven lakes and proudly, he had visited eight of them! Whilst the conversation became a little awkward, he was well intentioned with his compliments of our home and a gracious host.
Away from the hotel, we spent much of our time in Amritsar at the Golden Temple, lazily sitting next to its shimmering waters of the Holy Pool (known as the Amrit Sarovar, or Pool of Nectar) which surrounds the Hari Mandir Sahib (Golden Temple) on all sides (the Temple is accessible via a narrow bridge know as
the Guru’s Bridge). The atmosphere at this place is quite amazing to experience – thousands of people visit the temple every single day, there is constant prayer and song emanating from a PA system similar to that heard at prayer time in Muslim mosques and you have to constantly duck and dive between the crowds when walking around the complex. However, once we found a nice spot by the water, in the afternoon sunshine, remarkably the Golden Temple reveals itself as a place of peacefulness and tranquillity – despite the hustle and bustle, we immediately began to relax.
It was sitting next to these waters, taking in the peaceful atmosphere that our introduction to Sikhism and the peoples of India’s north western states began! It initially took some time to happen; perhaps the locals were a little nervous as to how friendly we would actually be, perhaps we would simply dismiss their advances of friendship. However, once one local had mustered the spirit to initiate conversation with us, it came at us in waves! One by one, family by family, we were approached, given a very thorough questioning as to where we were from, where we’ve been in India,
what did we know about Sikhism and how did we feel, privileged as we were, to be at this holiest of venues!
Once the questions had ceased, we were then asked to pose for countless photographs with different members of each family before we were appropriately sent on our way with the well wishes of these wonderful people. Some of course, took their introductions a step further; one man, upon discovering we were English, rather awkwardly called his son, who happened to work in London and put him on the phone to Amy, to talk about what I’m not sure! Another elder gentleman wanted desperately to provide us with his telephone number and address in Kashmir so that, if we visit his state in the future, we would have a home and warm bed! Such unprompted displays of kindness and hospitality never fail to astound me – I’m not sure even after experiencing this myself that I could return home and exhibit the same benevolence towards a complete stranger! Regardless, as it stood, we left the Golden Temple that day with more than one offer of a home-stay in Kashmir, whose people have to be some of the friendliest
we have met so far on our travels.
Perhaps that’s what makes the Golden Temple so unique; there is a palpable sense of acceptance within the grounds of this monument, where Christians, Muslims, Jews, Atheists and all manner of other faiths and doctrines are each welcomed with open arms, provided with free accommodation if they so chose and also free meals in the vast dining hall, where volunteers continuously prepare enough food to literally feed the five thousand!
During the times we were not swarmed by Indian locals, we were able to sit and behold the serenity of Sikhism’s holiest place. Whilst not as beautiful as the Taj Mahal (what building is?), which we had visited a few days earlier, there is, as I indicated earlier, more of a sense of stillness about the Golden Temple, a place where the constant snap of a lens shutter is put aside for private thought and quiet conversation, though admittedly, we did take our fair share of pictures!
Our preferred viewing location, with both optimal views of the temple itself and for people watching, was on the eastern edges of the Holy Pool, in the shadows of the complex’s ancient
Jujube Tree. From here, we had the sun shining down on us most of the day and in the evening, were ideally placed for sunset. The added benefit of our location was its proximity to the main entrance to the temple, where waves of pilgrims, colourful as ever in their choice of attire, entered the complex after washing their feet, followed by the quiet offering of prayers in the direction of the temple and the Holy Book, before finally dropping to their knees in supplication and gently kissing the white marbled floors of this beautiful venue. This wonderfully interesting gesture was surpassed only by the aforementioned choices of attire; saris of the most luminescent colours reflecting brilliantly on the marble floors, not to be outdone by bright, carefully wrapped dastaars sported by beard-clad males; a dizzying display of colour prominently set against the backdrop of beautifully crafted white marbled surroundings.
As ‘people watchers,’ India has proven to be quite the place for taking in the actions, eccentricities and at times, just plain odd appearances of others. Varanasi of course was a collection of some of the most varied and interesting people we had ever come across, an aesthetic shock
to the system where the eyes are constantly challenged just to focus on one thing for more than a few seconds. Amritsar however, was less the intense sensory bludgeoning we had received a week or so earlier, but rather a peaceful mix of people from all walks of life, where colour and activity gently swirl around Amritsar’s golden centre. For people watching connoisseurs, Amritsar should be near the top of their list...
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