Travel piece: Golden Temple

There was a travel piece I wrote about the Golden Temple in Amritsar in last week’s The Mag. Here it is, complete with some more pictures I took while I was there. As pilgrimage sites go, the Golden Temple is right up there for sheer beauty and the incredible sense of peace it offers the visitor, faithful or faithless.

The Gold Standard of Serenity

When he stood up straight, the water reached halfway up his chest. Most of the time, he crouched and moved slowly, like a hunter watching his prey. Except there was no prey and in his hands was a bamboo pole. It must have been at least six feet long. He held it at right angle to himself, one end nuzzling his right armpit. When he moved, the pole swept across the surface of Sarovar — the sacred tank of water at the heart of Amritsar’s Harmandir Sahib complex — like a massive, single windshield wiper. Once the pole had completed its arc, the man raised it as though he was preparing to salute a visiting dignitary, and let it slide down and out until man and pole were back to first position. Then the whole process started again.

The man was obviously nuts.

Would a sane mind choose to stand in the middle of a pool of freezing water, in winter, wearing only a cotton kurta-pyjama, and wave a bamboo pole around? As it turns out, yes, if the aforementioned mind belonged to someone who had opted to clean the Sarovar as part of their voluntary service to Harmandir Sahib.

Popularly known as the Golden Temple, the Harmandir Sahib complex in Amritsar is the most important place of worship for Sikhs. It’s also a cliche-buster. The standard complaints about Indians is that we can’t keep public spaces clean. Usually we’re all about personal gain rather than philanthropy. We’re obsessed with hierarchy, whether it’s on the basis of caste or wealth. It’s all true until we take off our shoes and cover our heads to enter Harmandir Sahib. The complex is spotlessly clean and maintained to a great extent by Sikh volunteers who come from varied backgrounds and don’t blink an eyelid at having to do menial chores like scrubbing floors, washing dishes, putting away visitors’ shoes and looking ridiculous while cleaning the Sarovar with a bamboo pole.

(All the pictures are taken by me. They’re low-res so I doubt you can print them — ha! — and if you nick them to put up online, please do add a line of credit.)

These aren’t the only cliches that Harmandir Sahib busts. Here, religion isn’t about rules and divisiveness. Everyone, regardless of faith, gender and background, is welcome. Punjabis in general and Sikhs in particular are supposed to be loud and boisterous (bhangra, anyone?), but everything about Harmandir Sahib is serene and dignified. Walk down the steps and tranquility wraps itself around you like the comfiest blanket. Infants don’t wail. Children don’t scamper. Women don’t yell and men don’t ogle. Even a gold-plated dome doesn’t look gaudy somehow. In short, the Harmandir Sahib complex is a place of miracles. There’s something about Harmandir Sahib that soothes the most ruffled of feathers, whether or not you’re among the faithful. You wouldn’t expect the place that suffered the brutality of Operation Bluestar to feel calm. It isn’t as though anyone’s forgotten how tanks and soldiers entered the gurudwara’s grounds in 1984, crushing marble and human beings along the way. Walk around and many squares on the beautiful marble walkway have inscriptions with the names of those who were killed and those who paid what they could to rebuild the complex afterwards. The Indian army beseiged the Golden Temple to arrest Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who had opposed Indira Gandhi. Three days later, more than 400 civilians had been killed, including Bhindranwale. The place where Bhindranwale was killed is almost a shrine today. Parents bring their children and bow reverently before the rough, pockmarked wall that is encased in glass.

What is perhaps truly miraculous about the Golden Temple is that despite all the violence it has witnessed and the scars it bears with pride, the Harmandir Sahib is characterised by its serenity and beauty. People spend the entire day sitting near the Sarovar, watching the light catch the white buildings that encircle the Harmandir Sahib and the rippling reflections on the Sarovar. This isn’t just religiosity. The Harmandir Sahib is one of the most beautiful sights you’ll ever see. With each passing hour, the light changes and so does the scene made up of the white buildings and golden domes, like a painting whose colour palette is masterfully transformed by an invisible paintbrush. As gorgeous as Harmandir Sahib is by day, wait until night falls. And when the brilliant gleam of the gurudwara all lit up bursts through the darkness, give thanks to whoever is responsible for the beauty of the Golden Temple.


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