(Phew, after a long, internet-less hiatus I am back! Lots of backlogged posts, happy reading! -A)
September 6, 2011
Welcome to Amritsar! The main feature of the city is the Golden Temple, the pilgirmage location for all Sikhs. On Monday Gurprakesh gave me a full tour of the Golden Temple. The temple has four entrances, which symbolizes that the temple is open to all. Tall orange flags are posted at the front and back of the temple, a signal that anyone can find food, water, shelter, and safety here. Sikhism is about compassion and selfless service, but they are also known as warriors who fiercely protect their beliefs and way of life. The founder, Guru Nanak, had the idea of taking the best of Hinduism and Islam and uniting them into one. Sikhs are vegetarians who abstain from all substances, and practice abstinence until marriage. They also do not cut their hair, believing that they should not alter the way that God created man or woman. They keep their hair wrapped in turbans. Their holy book contains writings from a wide variety of authors, and most importantly the line of ten gurus. Vikas Arora says that Hindus consider Sikhs as part of their own.
The corner screen posts the words of the chants in Punjabi and English
The Temple itself sits on a body of water, called the Pool of Nectar, (Amrit means sacred water of immortality, sar means pond) which is seen as sacred healing water. Like in many other temples in India that have bathing pools, pilgrims at the Golden Temple bathe in the water to be cleansed in both body and soul. Tired and dusty travelers emerge from the water rejuvenated and refreshed to begin the day’s practice. I love this ritual. I cannot help but be reminded of the Christian practice of baptism as purification. I was baptized when I was twelve, old enough to make the decision independently and to understand its significance. It was an important event in my life; my parents and grandparents took me out to dinner afterwards.
Historically, Sikhs have had a tumultuous conflict with Muslim conquerors, refusing efforts of forced conversion. They have also had strife with the Indian government in the last few decades. Sikhs have wanted to create their own state where they would be free to practice in peace. But the region of Punjab produces 70% of India’s wheat, and the government would rather not lose that agricultural capital. The Golden Temple itself has been taken over again and again and then won back by the Sikhs. In 1984, an alleged Sikh terrorist sought asylum in the temple, and the government stormed the sacred Golden Temple to extract him. This angered many Sikhs, inspiring the eventual assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was killed by her Sikh bodyguard. I share this important history, but must state that it does not reflect the general culture of Sikhs, whom are loving, sincere and generous people.
Sikhism is a very disciplined lifestyle, but also very welcoming to non-practitioners. As long as you cover your head and take your shoes off, anyone can observe, participate and attend ceremonies at the temple. Indians are very friendly to foreigners, eager to ask you where you are from and tell you interesting facts about the temple. They are very proud of it, and rightly so. The physical beauty of the temple is matched only by the echo of chanting and drums played over the loudspeaker throughout the temple. The chants are readings from the Sikh holy book. It is very beautiful. They read the book all they way through, unbroken. It takes 2 and a half days. Readers do it in 4-hour shifts. Si belle!