Amritsar Golden Temple
Heart of the Sikh Religion
From Himachal to Punjab
These are diary exceprts from my trip to Amritsar.
July 20th, 2018
The taxi is punctual and showed up at 5 in the morning. I am impressed! Feral dogs roam outside. Cows.
Bus takes off from the McLoed’s station.
Almost non-stop habitation along the road. Cows, monkeys, garages. Some shrines – who maintains them?
Reminiscent of Yucatan: everything green, low, relatively sparse vegetation, one-story dwellings, bananas, colorful trucks…
Large billboards show photos of men.
Black kid brushes teeth, washes face in one of the many rivers
Am surprised to see that as in Israel, military bases all have eucalyptus trees and all of them are painted white at the bottom. But here the soldiers ride on rickshaws…
Like the Biblical Rebecca, women ride sideways behind the men – then on the donkey, now on the motorcycle or bicycle. Today the donkeys are motorized. Here and there some women ride motorcycles (with their legs facing front, faces often covered).
Rice fields, egrets and herons, farmers bent in fields over crops.
Wow. Toll road
More and more small shrines/temples/gates-to-heaven as we get closer to Amritsar.
Left: rice field, Right: shrine “gate to heaven”. Punjab.
At a gas station, a beautiful girl with gold earrings and lipstick smiles at me from a local bus window. She sits by an old guy, maybe grandpa. I hope not husband… Just the thought is enough to send shivers down my spine…
Finding "My" Tuktuk Driver
Hunting for tourists
Amritsar greeted me with an “attack” by a horde of local guys, who must have been waiting at the station for a while, expecting the fresh tourist “catch” to come off the bus. At least they were kind enough to give me some space until I got my luggage out the back, but I still feel menaced.
The brain has to quickly assess whether a situation is safe or not, which people in this nondescript crowd are trustworthy and reliable, and which could be unsafe for a woman alone.
Stick to your guns
Perhaps it’s my people skills, or my intution, but somehow I managed, successfully, to settle for one who was both decent and helpful – Arjun was his name. Still, I had to be firm and clear: I want to get to the hotel now. I will later think about your other suggestions like:
“What are your plans lady?
I will take you to …..and …..and ……
Do you want to go to….?”
It is really important to stick to one’s guns!
Being clear helped, but also keeping a good vibration, establishing a connection. We exchanged Whatapps. As a minimum, I will have him drive me back to the nondescript bus stop the next day. No way I could find it on my own.
Arjun was a very good pick, as I will recount later. Not only did he take me to the hotel and eventually to the Laxmi bus park, but we spent a wonderful day together Saturday – going to the “Ladies Temple” (Mata Lal Devi Mandir) and a historical museum, driving around, getting friendly.
A holy mess
The tuktuk drive was a marvel in itself. The holy mess of the streets – rickshaws, cars, vans, tuktuks, motorcycles – was beyond belief. The noise – incredible!!! The only way drivers communicate here is using the horns, and they all do it all the time. Perhaps the cars are not even equipped with blinkers, and if they do, nobody will know what to do with them… No traffic lights or signs. Miraculously nobody bangs against nobody else.
In the following picture I am getting Arjun jealous with a little device I brought from Israel, but I gave him a whiff:
Left: fanning myself with a cute Israeli divice, Right: Asha Guest House, Amritsar.
What you get for your ₹350
Upon my request, he dropped me at the Asha Guest House, where I had my booking, and we set up to meet the next morning and go on a site tour of Amritsar, but only after I visited the Golden Temple by myself.
Room is good enough for ₹350. AND – the wonderful Hezi got me accomodation within a very short walking distance from the Golden Temple.[Regarding the illustrious travel agent, see my post: Bamba, Turkish Cofee and the Legendary Hezi” in my series about the Israeli phenomenon in India]
I am glad I brought a sheet and a pillowcase. There is a ceiling fan and a shower. This is a different climate zone from Himachal. Hot. Humid. Shouldn’t have brought the jacket and raincoat. The camera was not needed either. Not the right tool for India. Usage embarasses people, who do not mind cellulars. [Correction: I was eventually glad I brought it, though did not use it much in Amritsar. The quality of the pictures is much higher].
Golden Temple Amritsar - The Shoes, the Pool and the Religious Police
Shoes, scarves and selfies
From the hotel I go for a short visit to the nearby Golden Temple. Entering, I see the smaller-than-expected-but-nonetheless-glorious gold-plated structure right ahead.
People are taking off their shoes, but it is way too far for me to separate from my sandals, so I carry them by hand. A few meters up the pavilion I am stopped by a severe-looking turbanned Sikh: “You can’t take shoes in.” “But I carry them. I can put them in my bag.” “Shoes are not allowed.”
He directs me to a parallel entrance about 200 meters away, where I can deposit my shoes and get a token. Busy guys run back and forth taking and returning shoes to the public.
I pick a scarf at the entrance. Prior to entry one must walk through a water-filled depression to purify. Barefoot, I continue with hundreds others on the pavilion. There’s something neat about that – a feeling of belonging in a large crowd, of losing that “special uniqueness” for a while, merging. I’m sure people feel that way on their Haj to Mecca.
Functionaries roll back canvas mats that are cooler to walk on. The other options are the marbled floor, or the marble banks of the amazingly beautiful pool. It’s reminiscent of what I imagine the Taj Mahal’s pool to look like. Golden fish swim in the water.
I sit at the edge looking at the water. Another turbanned religious cop pops up behind me: “Cross your legs, lady. It is not allowed to point feet at holy water.”
Sacred bowls and holy water
At every coner there are women delivering water in aluminum bowls. I pour some over my face. Others drink. I apparently mess up again by putting the bowl back in place and immediately get reprimanded. The bowl is put away to be washed. At another corner a line of women are washing the bowls in brownish-golden soil and water.
While the women work, the men plunge right in. As everywhere in the “patriarchial belt”, the requirement for chastity bars women from enjoying their lives or reaching prestigious positions within their religions.
Somewhere there was a corner for “ladies only”. Women were standing in line to get mush and dahl over banana leaves. The price was a ₹100, and I decided to pass but look later for the world-famous free kitchen.
At any rate, I was in a rush to get to the border ceremony. Trying to see the holiest of holies under time pressure proved to be a mistake. I was stuck in a slow-moving queue, unable to move forwards, backwards or towards the exit.
The most surreal spectacle on Earth
Golden Temple Amritsar Revisited
Despite the ubelievable noise from the street, I slept like a log, but woke up at 6 and headed right on to the Golden Temple. Now that I knew where things were, I was more relaxed. Depositing my sandals in the correct office, placing yesterday’s scarf on my head and avoiding showing my feet to the holy pool, I was stopped only once. This time it was for walking towards the second entrance. The guy wanted to know where my shoes were. I showed him the token and was free to go.
The holy space is where the sacred book, the Guru Granth Sahib, is enshrined. The book is considered to be the 11th guru in the Sikh chain of teachers, and is itself regarded as the final, sovereign, and eternal living guru.
Three priests were singing in the holy space, and their voices were carried out through megaphones across the entire Temple premises and beyond. The sound was beautiful and inspiring. They gave some kind of bread to a woman sitting at the other side of the little fence that surrounded their enclave, separating them from the crowd. I stood in the back, feeling elevated.
Bloody Hell - The Sikh Museum at Amritsar Golden Temple
Blood, bricks and boiling pots
On the other side of the rectangular court, flanked by the many structures comprising the temple’s grounds, I discovered the Sikh historical museum. The experience was overwhelming, but my plan to take as many pictures as possible and decipher their meaning later, was foiled. The religious policeman sitting at the end of the hall approached me immediatly and forbade it.
What I write here is, therefore, all based in memory. The images come from Internet sources.
Internet sources: Guru Sahib laid his life, but refused to convert to Islam under pressure, thus saving not only Punjab, but the little remnants of Kashmiri Hindu culture that was left after the horrible atrocities of Sikander Butshikan.
First there were pictures of battles and of men with swords slashing each other’s heads. Then there were the Sikh martyrs: a person cut in half at the symmetry line, the sword waving above his head; another man is placed in a boiling pot over a burning fire; a man is processed through an oil press; and the most outrageous: two brothers back to back “bricked in”, that is – a brick structure being built around them while in a standing position. I’m not sure what’s more tortorous – Jesus on the cross or this, but at least they had each other…
The picture below from Internet sources is not the picture I’ve seen at the museum, but you get the idea. As far as I remember, in the original picture they were tied to each other standing back to back.
In 1705 A.D Innocent children of Guru Gobind Singh Ji Were buried alive in wall by Mughal army commander Wazir Khan for refusing to convert to Islam. Source: https://www.trendsmap.com/twitter/tweet/1033632000379428866
From there I entered a room with two rows of paintings all around the walls at eye’s level. Those were all bloodied heads of old martyrs, or at least they seemed old. Maybe there was a woman or two thrown in as well. Ah, now I found out – the brothers were bricked for smuggling milk to a woman prisoner…
Above these two rows were several more rows of various shahids and saints.
Moving on from room to room, I finally got to the 20th century represented by multiple pictures of turbanned men.
Holiness is more than white clothes
The guy who forbade me to take pictures was annoyed when I queried him about the exhibits: “Why do you not know anything about Sikh history?” Not exactly the right reaction to somebody trying to learn about your culture, but…
Well, all I knew about Sikhism prior to this visit was that it combined elements from Hinduism, like yoga and meditation, with Islamic monotheism. I knew that they are reputed to be good at martial arts, that they always walk with swords, and are often hired as guards in both America and India. Many are well-to-do and good at business.
Sikhism in New Mexico
In New Mexico, where I lived for more than a decade, there is a Sikh community and an ashram . I personally knew several Jews-turned-Sikh who were not living in the community at that time.
One day, I had a bizarre incident when I slightly hit somebody’s car, causing a very minor scratch. The car owner, a Sikh, all dressed holy in pure clean white and wearing a large tall turban, had a knee-jerk reaction. He reacted very aggressively, yelling at me like any lowlife in the market. I was shocked.
Interestingly, a Santa Fe Journal article describes why former Sikhs left the New Mexico religious community. The article, criticizing events at the New Mexico ashram, might explain the guy’s bizarre and entitled behavior.
It is possible that in New Mexico, and this is my conjecture, the community behaved more like a cult, while in the Punjab, it is a proper religion.
Down to Earth - Eating at Amritsar Golden Temple
I dared to ask where the food was. As a tourist, it felt a bit uncomfortable asking for the free kitchen, but I wanted the experience. It was worth it. If walking barefoot and having to be cajoled and reprimanded by the religious “cops” was not enough for humbling, here was the ultimate. Hundreds of people receive a divided tray, then are moved on in a queue to receive a bowl, then a spoon.
Eating at the Langar at the Amritsar Golden Temple compound
We were all herded to one side, then another, to eventually sit on long mats and wait for the volunteers to ladle us dahl from big buckets, then rice and two chapatis. They also filled the bowl with water, which, of course, I did not drink.
The Langar, as it is called, is a major operation, that takes place in all Sikh temples around the world. The one in Amritsar is notorious for the quality of the food and the sheer number of diners – about 50,000 a day!
After my sojourn at the Golden Temple, I re-met with Arjun, who took me to the amazing “Ladies Temple” (Mata Lal Devi Mandir) as he called it, and then to a historical museum.
Appendix - A Taste of History
- There are about 20 million Sikhs worldwide, out of which 75% live in India. 95% of the Indian Sikhs live in the Punjab, where they comprise 75% of the state population.
- There are ten revered gurus, and then the book, Guru Granth Sahib, considered to be the 11th guru and the living word of God.
- Guru Nanak (1469-1539), the founder and the first guru, wanted to harmonize the Hindu faiths with Islam. He had a godly revelation experience at the age of 30, and emphasized devotion and meditation rather than rituals. Hundreds of hymns he authored are handwritten in the Guru Granth. He has also established the tradition of the common kitchen, or Langar, where people of all castes can eat the same food.
Sikhs, Hinuds and Moghals:
- Ram Das (1534-1581) was the forth Sikh guru. He founded the city of Armistar, which was built on land given by the Mogul emperor Akbar. The fifth guru, Ram Das’s son, assembled the Guru Granth, built the original Golden Temple and was tortured and killed in Lahore by the Moghul Emperor.
- In a reaction to the execution, the next guru, Hargobind (d. 1644), militarized and politicized the Sikhs. He fought three battles with the Mughals. Guru Hargobind was the sixth guru, and is credited with founding the Sikh military tradition. He made fighting injustice a sacred duty.
- The ninth guru, Tegh Bahadur (1621-75) was beheaded because he refused to convert to Islam. His son Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) is regarded as the second most important guru after Guru Nanak. Four of his sons died fighting for Sikh rights. One of them was bricked alive in a wall for refusing to renounce his faith.
The five Ks
- Guru Nanak was a pacifist, but Guru Gobind Singh responded to Mogul oppression by militarizing the Sikhs. He glorified martyrdom, and instituted an initiation baptism ceremony for a militarized brotherhood, called the Khalsa. In the ceremony a sword is immersed in sugar water. The Khalsa merge “religious, military and social duties”, and is reputed for protecting Punjab and helping stop the Afghani invasion into India.
- Members are distinguished by the “Five Ks”—uncut hair (kesh), a long knife (kirpan), a comb (kangha), a steel bangle (kara), and a special kind of breeches (kachha ).
- The Sikh monarchy lasted from Nanak’s death until after the death of the Tenth Guru, Gobind Singh. In the 18th century, the Sikh kingdom dissolved into several feudal states.
- By the mid 18th century, Sikh guerillas contributed to the collapse of Moghul rule in the Punjab. They also helped keep Afghan invaders out (1747 – 1769). When Baba Deep Singh tried to save the Golden Temple from desecration, he reportedly had his head cut off but kept right on fighting with a sword in one hand and his head in the other.
Sikhs, Brits and the Indian Government:
- The British viewed the Sikhs as a warrior race and recruited them for their armed forces in India and around the empire. That instigated a Sikh emigration to Britain and to British colonies.
- After India’s independence Sikhs became a majority in the Punjab, as many Muslims moved to Pakistan. Since the 1970s there was a strong movement to secede from India and establish a “pure” state, Khalistan, but that effort failed.
- A very gory chain of events led to a confrontation inside the Golden Temple in 1984, where 500-2000 civilians, Sikh militants and Indian soldiers were killed. Many of the Sikh’s holiest scriptures, some handwritten by the ten Gurus themselves, were burnt.
- A sequence of raids by Sikh separatists on trains and school buses followed.
- Prime minister Indira Gandhi who ordered the attack on the Golden Temple was murdred by her own Sikh bodyguards.
- The Indian government cracked down hard on the separatist movement, that eventually dissolved as much from pressure within the Sikh community as outside of it.
Did the Sikhs save India?
Searching to find out whether the Sikhs can indeed be credited with saving India from the Mughals, I found mixed opinions on a Quora query.
One Sikh wrote: When Aurangzeb came to power he wanted to convert us in Islam. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan were Buddhist nations but not today. Indian cultural and religious diversity saved because of the sacrifices made by Sikhs.
Hindus wrote that the Sikhs mostly saved Punjab itself, and did not reach into southern India where the Hindus fought for themselves.
Without getting into the discussion, I will point out that, to an extent, we Israelis, also see ourselves as the last stronghold barring Islam from taking over the Euroasian expanse on the other side of our continent. We also became strong militarily out of necessity.