The Golden Temple Part 1: Into the Temple

Our final excursion with Tori during her time with us in India was to Amritsar, located in India's northwest corner in the Punjab province. Amritsar is the holiest city in Sikhism and home to one of India's most famous religious sites, the Golden Temple Complex. We braved the cold weather, a dreary hotel room, and a six hour train ride (after several overnighters on the train already) to make it to this fascinating pilgrimage site.

Harmandir Sahib, the "Golden Temple"

The Golden Temple is the holiest gurdwara, or place of worship for Sihks, in Sikhism. It is housed in a rectangular large temple complex made out of white marble that was built in 1604. The tank of water surrounding the temple itself is called Amritsar, or the “pool of the nectar of immortality”, and is where the city got its name. Religious pilgrims come to the Golden Temple complex to bathe in the tank and worship at the temple.

Around the complex there are many shrines and monuments to past Sikh Gurus, saints, and martyrs, as well as commemorative inscriptions to all Sikhs who died in WWI and WWII. Like all religions, the shrines were almost all for men.

We saw several men like this in the water from time to time who would use the pole to skim off any dirt or grime that was floating on the water

“Guru” is a Sanskrit word for a teacher or mentor used widely across Indian religions, including Hinduism. Sikhs follow the teachings of ten specific gurus who lived between 1469 and 1708. In almost every Amritsar gift shop, you can see light up pictures in cheap frames of the ten gurus floating above the Golden Temple. 

Photo courtesy of Dolls of India

Sikhism 101

Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that was founded in the Punjab region of India in the 15th century. It has approximately 30 million followers worldwide. Like, well, most mainstream monotheistic religions, Sikhism emphasizes the oneness and omnipresence of God and a process of salvation that is based on getting closer to divine grace through prayer, avoiding behavioral ills (ego, anger, greed, lust, and attachment, known as the “Five Thieves”) and pursuing behavioral goods (truth, compassion, discipline, contentment, and contemplation, known as the “Five Virtues”). Sikh teachings also stand against most religious rituals, as well as religious ceremonies and idol worship, though there are specific practices around prayer and reading religious texts. There are no clergy or special religious holidays.

Sikhs also believe strongly in human equality and social justice. Their religious pamphlets which we read during our visit emphasized ideas that were probably pretty radical back in the day (or today…) such as equality across castes and between men and women. According to Sikh tradition, in addition to avoiding drugs and alcohol, ritual sacrifice, and superstition, Sikhs should never cut their hair. Sikh men also wear head turbans, a symbol of their commitment to the religion widely recognized around the world today.

One of many turban shops in Amritsar

Men can bathe wherever they want in the sacred pool, but women have a special privacy tent for bathing

The Temple

The temple in the middle of the pool of water is the most obvious and alluring feature of the Golden Temple complex. The line on the bridge took about 20 minutes, and we stood quietly while looking out at the sparkling pool and shuffling along as the line moved as we triple checked that our hair covers hadn’t slipped too far back. The day was a bright, cloudless blue, which cast beautiful reflections of all the architecture on the pool and made the gold on the temple sparkle. To complement the gentle lapping of the pool, sounds of gentle chanting (sample here) played languidly over the loudspeakers.

Another tenets of Sikhism is to welcome all persons to their temple, not just Sikhs. Even though we were one of very few non-Sikhs we saw in the complex, we didn't feel odd at all being there or standing in line to view their most holy site.

At the threshold of the door, religious visitors knelt down to touch the bottom of the door frame with their foreheads before entering. Once inside (sorry, no photos allowed), we saw that we had entered a small, glittering room where a cluster of about 20-30 religious pilgrims sat quietly praying and chanting on the floor. The walls and ceiling had carved wooden panels and elaborate inlay work in silver and gold. There was no structured ceremony going on; it looked more like a space for chanting and meditation. It felt quite a bit like being in a religious space of most any religion - you sort of stay quiet while looking at the decorations and trying to not-too-overtly people watch. The room actually reminded me of being in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in that everything was so ornately decorated in gold and there were many internal archways. Most people in line like us shuffled around the group of people seated and exited out the back of the room. We did our best to soak in the calm ambiance and melodic chanting as the line snaking around this center circle pushed us along and out toward the back door, where there were stairs to the two upper levels. 

The Eleventh Guru

The second and third floors were less crowded than the first. Each of these floors had more ornate wall and ceiling decoration. The most noticeable attribute, however, was that both floors had a special sectioned off alcove where granthis (a sort of ceremonial reader, Sikhs don’t believe in religious intermediaries like priests or rabbis) sat cross legged on the floor reading from copies the Sikh sacred holy book. The book is called the Guru Granth Sahib and it contains teachings of various famous gurus and Sikh saints and is believed to be the revealed word of God. In this way it is the “final” guru of Sikhism, even though it’s a book and not a person. The copies of the Guru Granth Sahib were each about the size of a small coffee table and all written by hand in various languages, all without any spaces or page breaks between words. The granthis carried what looked like gigantic yak hair whisks called chauris, in the tradition of keeping dignitaries cool but instead it’s for a book. There weren’t exactly audiences for the readings, rather, some religious visitors sat relaxing along the walls and the rest of us walked around softly.

Each night in Amritsar the granthis actually go through a process of “putting the book to sleep.” Five granthis carry it to its special bed and literally tuck it in with soft pillows and blankets to make it comfortable, all while reciting prayers. The practice is upheld because Sihks believe that the book is the eleventh and final guru, and therefore should be treated with the same respect as a holy person. Why this means putting the book to sleep rather than trying to feed it (like Hindus do with images of their gods) I don’t know, but it’s a fun and quirky practice. Unfortunately we didn’t see this ritual as it took place late at night after we left, but we found a segment on YouTube you can watch. Sikhs also never turn their backs to it and there are special procedures for how it’s touched and carried - so much so that most Sikhs don’t own a copy so that they don’t treat it disrespectfully.

Sacred Pudding

As we exited the temple and walked back down the bridge we approached a small table without handouts for all of the visitors. When we got closer, we saw that it was an old man with one cloudy blue eye and a super scraggly beard scraping out balls of brown goo and putting them in people’s hands. Turns out the stuff is called karah parshad, or “sacred pudding.” This is not a joke - another really nice Sikh worshiper came up to explain it to us.  Sacred pudding is a mixture of equal parts whole wheat flour, butter, and sugar that’s been blessed by a guru - apparently the proportions are symbolic of the equality between men and women.

Andrew was eager to try it, but Tori and I passed. Wikipedia now tells me this was rude and a bit sacrilege because offering someone karah parshad is a sign of Sikh hospitality, but I suppose it’s too late for that now. The sacred pudding was greasy, and tasted just about like you’d expect, neither gross nor appetizing, dense, and mushy. The cloudy-eyed scooper man gave Andrew a portion about the size of a golf ball, and I annoyed him by not doing much to help him finish it, even though I said I would when he first took it. 

To me, all this ritual and pageantry seems contradictory to the Sikh belief against, well, ritual and pageantry, but on the positive side it made seeing the Golden Temple a fascinating and quirky visit! More on Sikh history and  one of the world's largest soup kitchens which is located in the complex in the next two posts.