Monday, November 13, 2006

The Golden Temple: The Holiest Site for Sikhs

My journey since the Pushkar Camel Fair has taken me to Jaipur, where I rode like royals on the back of an elephant up to their great fort and palace. Then to Agra to see the great contrasts of India with the Taj Mahal with all its regal grandeur, popping up out of a poor, polluted, gritty, industrial city. Then to Delhi, the gigantic sprawling capitol city to celebrate the elections and Rumsfeld's ouster with a large group of Western journalists who were able to give me a better bird's eye view on the news in the region.

Finally I reached my last stop in Northern India, Amritsar in the state of Punjab. As many of you New Yorkers may know Punjab is the Indian state that is the home of Sikhs. It is the region that our regal turbaned Indian neighbors come from and because of that it was on the top of my list of sites to see, even though it is a bit off of the tourist track.

For those that don’t know, here is a short summary of the Sikh religion: The Sikh religion was founded in the 1500s as a reaction to the caste system and Brahmin (Hindu holy men) domination of ritual. Sikh’s worship only one god and reject the worship of idols. Instead they have 10 gurus that have developed the religion over the years that they celebrate through pictures.

The Golden Temple, Amritsar's star attraction, is the most holy site for the Sikh religion. This site is filled with religious pilgrims that come to wash in the holy waters which lie within the complex.

The temple itself lies in the middle of the complex and is surrounded on all sides by a sacred pool of water (or nectar as they say). It is a small building that is gilded with 750 kg of pure gold that glimmers brightly in the light. On the outside edge of the sacred pool lays a walkway where the Sikhs circle the temple and the holy water. Also within the exterior of the complex are over 2000 rooms for pilgrims to stay in and a huge kitchen that feeds over 30,000 meals a day for free.

I'm giving you the basic details of the place as I try to gather words for what it was actually like. I arrived at 4am, the time that one of my Sikh flower market merchants told me to arrive. I know it sounds early, but the place was bustling with pilgrims coming to be part of the morning ceremony.

The Sikh religion is based on a holy book called the Guru Granth Sahib and the original copy of the book is transported to its holy place in the temple each morning and then taken away to safe keeping at night and this procession is a deeply spiritual act.

The pilgrims and I sat around the temple while prayers were read from the book. In fact, prayers are read here 24 hours a day and amplified on a loud speaker to be heard throughout the whole complex. I can't really describe the tone of the place, but it was spiritual, holy, serious and absolutely amazing!

Basically in most of Amritsar a western woman is a bit of a spectacle. As I was ridden around in a bicycle rickshaw around town, everyone, and I mean everyone, took notice of me. Merchants waved from inside their shops, 3 boys on bikes rode beside me and told me all about the cricket game they had just finished and many, many people smiled and welcomed me. During those first two hours of Morning Prayer no one took any special notice of me at all. Instead everyone was taking the spiritual moment with great significance.

By around 6am the mood changed a bit and while the words of the holy book were still being read out loud, the noise of chitter chatter and joy filled the air. Everyone started noticing me and, as I am told often happens, I was adopted by 3 sisters who took it upon themselves to teach me the Sikh traditions and show me the holiest sites. They are proud of their religion and deeply happy to share its traditions with others. They also are happy to meet a westerner and wanted "snaps" (photos) with me. Sikhs make up only 2% of the population of India but because of their unique turbans they stand out in the crowd.

Later as the light began to glow over the horizon, I sat and watched people from the edge of the complex watching people bathe in the holy waters and walk the perimeter. People kept coming up to me to ask where I was from and tell me about some relative that lived in the States. There was a constant request for me to be in photos and for me to take their photos, which they would giggle raucously upon seeing.

The spiritual glow of the place completely overwhelmed me, and watching volunteers make and serve food and then clean up afterwards for all those people brought me to tears. There was a genuine sense of pride, community and respect.

I have been told that many places would touch me here in India. Religion plays a huge role here and one is faced with it all over. While some of the other sites impressed me with their beauty or I was able to see how religion plays an enormously important role here helping the people deal with their poor circumstances, it wasn't till I got to Amritsar that I was really blown away by the power of belief. For a cynic like me that’s a pretty amazing feeling!

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