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Welcome to the Golden Temple

March 7, 2007

A bit ago, I mentioned that I was taking the weekend off to visit Amritsar… and several of you have asked about it since. I was holding off on posting, because my camera died partway through the weekend, and several of my favorite pictures are trapped on someone else’s (incompatible) camera, waiting for a way to share.

But in the interest of catch-up, I’ll say it was a wonderful, exhausting weekend. Crammed in aindia-147.jpg tiny hatchback meant for three with our 6’2 driver, Jasvinder, four volunteers and all of our luggage for a 10+ hour (each way!) drive was something to remember. On the outskirts of Delhi on Friday after work, we were still straining not to press too much against one another or intrude on personal space. By the trip back on Sunday, we were eating off each other’s plates and sleeping in the back seat wrapped around each other in the Pompeii mummies’ eternal embrace.

The Golden Temple is the primary reason to visit this pollution-choked city in the Punjab and india-155.jpgit doesn’t disappoint. It is the be-all, end-all for Sikhs and really, for just about anyone who walks through the giant gates. From Wikipedia: “The temple is surrounded by a pool of water, known as the Sarovar which consists of Amrit (Holy Water). There are four entrances to the temple, signifying the importance of acceptance and openness; ostensibly, this concept is reminiscent of the tent of Abraham in the Old Testament — his tent was open on all four sides in order to be able to welcome travelers from all directions. Anyone whoindia-164.jpg wants to enter the Harimandir may do so, irrespective of religion, colour, creed or sex. The only restrictions are that the person must not drink alcohol, eat meat or smoke cigarettes or other drugs while in the shrine. All Sikh temples in the world follow this traditional rule that everyone is welcome to enter. There are four doors to get into the Harimandir Sahib, meaning that Harimandir sahib is open to anyone. Everyone must cover their heads as a sign of respect and wash their feet in the small pool of water as they enter the Harimandir Sahib premises.”

india-159.jpgThere’s something about visiting the holy places of this part of the world that makes me subconsciously feel a bit uncomfortable and humbled. I find myself assuming that I need to almost apologize for where I’m from, or that the very fact of me is offensive, much less my presence in these sacred spots. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The warm welcome from pilgrims and priests alike, and the genuine enthusiasm/delight that we’ve chosen to visit these places of worship, take the time and interest to learn more about them, and react with reverence is such a happy surprise. Western faces are rare in mosques and temples and Amritsar is no different. I was stopped by a serious looking woman in a veil who spoke to me rapidly in Punjabi and held my head forcefully with one hand while pulling on my ring finger with another. I smiled and tried some friendly, nervous greetings in Hindi while pulling away and anxiously looking for Jasvinder’s tall turban above the crowd. She insisted that I stop and pay attention.

india-154.jpgWhen I did, I realized she had slid a small golden ring onto my right hand. I tried to refuse it — take it off and return it with thanks, convinced that she wanted my diamond band in return, or that she would soon demand money for the “gift.” Her face scrunched up with concentration, and this English emerged: “Golden Temple history. All welcome. Thank you. Pretty girl, America. Take. Namaste.” And with a sweep of her humble saree, she was gone. There are countless more stories like this from the day.

The temple serves more than 70,000 free meals to pilgrims a day, and we took part. Hundreds at a time file into a hall the size of a football stadium, sitting on one of fifty endless jute runners, tin plate and cup in hand. Volunteers race by with grace, quickly serving dal, kir, roti and chai from giant buckets with large ladles to every cross-legged soul. We eat, drink, arise, and take our plates and cups to wash, so they may start again. Worries of food safety are overridden by the powerful experience of taking this mass communion in this holy place with the faithful.

india-165.jpg(If you’re unfamiliar with Sikhism, it’s worth having a read to learn more. After 9/11, so many of us have developed a general unease about religions in this part of the word, regardless of our level of understanding about them. Sometimes, that’s by choice, but for others of us, it’s subconscious and unwelcome. I’ve learned so much about Sikhs, Hindus, Sufis, Muslims, Jains and Buddists while in India and am embarrassed at the ignorance with which I came.)

Towards the end of our visit, I stopped Jasvinder to ask more about the sacred waters in which his people bathe and pray for blessing and healing. My heartindia-160.jpg fluttered a bit when he invited me to join him in the massive pool. I called the others, we rolled up our pants and reverently stepped in beside him, feeling the pull of shared baptism with millions before us over thousands of years. Jasvinder bent forward solemnly, cupping his hands into the water, and we did the same, earnestly awaiting mystical lessons of healing. He splashed us raucously in the face and shouted “Welcome to the Golden Temple,” throwing his head back, laughing loudly at his own joke. Welcome to the Golden Temple, indeed.

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5 comments

  1. What a wonderful experience, Kara – a memory to treasure for the rest of your life.


  2. And all done with such immaculately manicured toenails! 😉 Sorry, I am often distracted by the irrelevant.


  3. What an amazing, unimaginable experience. Beautiful.


  4. Dear,

    You are write while mentioning that there are four entrances to the temple, signifying the ortance of acceptance and openness; etc. but you might overlooked the fact that there is only one entry for the main Place depicting the fact that any body is welcomed but have to follow a common path irrespectively of thier Colour, faith, religion, cas and race.

    Also the level of the main Place is down fron the Entrance depicting that Sikhisim is humble like water, who moves towards the lowest level when free flow.

    Regards

    HArpreet Singh


  5. Thank you, Harpreet-ji. You’re right, I over-simplified things in my enthusiasm and incomplete knowledge. Thank you for clarifying and doing so with such lovely language.

    Peace,
    Kara



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