Visiting Amritsar

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by Carol

My friend Gauri and I took a road trip during the month of April. Gauri has traveled India for many years. I was grateful to tag along to learn the ropes.

First, we went by train to Delhi. Then we went to Rishikesh and Haridwar. From there we visited Chandigarh and then Amritsar. Finally, we went towards the Himalayas, visiting Dharamsala and McCleodganj, where the Tibetan Government in Exile is located.

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This blog is an account of our experiences in Amritsar.

From Chandigarh, we took a “luxury” bus to Amristar, a 5 hour ride. At the bus stand we were met by numerous rickshaw drivers. All of their vehicles were bicycles, since autorickshaws aren’t allowed near the Golden Temple.

Gauri knew that we could stay in the guest rooms that are part of the Golden Temple, because one of the tenets of Sikhism is to provide housing for all, regardless of religion, caste, or gender. The rickshaw dropped us off at sort of the back gate, where there were actually luggage carts to use for free. Just inside the compound we found the reception area, where our guest room was also located. It was a clean, good-sized room for Rs. 300.

Inside The Golden Temple Complex

It was after 10 at night, but Gauri wanted me to see the Golden Temple itself before we retired. We made sure our heads were covered with the dupattas of our salwar suits. Before we could enter the enclosure containing the Golden Temple compound, we walked through a trench of foot-cleansing water.

I observed that, upon their first glimpse of the Golden Temple, almost everyone knelt down to pranam. Oh, my word! What a sight!

Another side of the Golden Temple complex, at night:

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The general name for a Sikh place of worship is gurdwara. There are gurdwaras all over the world now. I had my first taste of Sikh worship in Delhi, when Gauri took me to the gurdwara in Old Delhi, near the Red Fort. The Golden Temple gurdwara, also called the Harmandir Sahib, is the heart of Sikhism.

The history of Sikhism begins with its founder, Guru Nanak, born in 1469. He was succeeded by nine other gurus. Guru Nanak’s teachings, as well as sayings and prayers from the following gurus, were collected in a written scripture. The last guru, Gobind Singh, declared that there would be no more living successors. Instead, this Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, would be considered the final word and the final guru. A complete account of this history can be found on the Internet. Good articles include Nick Kembel’s blog as well as sikhiwiki.org.

A daytime tour of the Golden Temple premises was again awesome. There are these colorful banners at the back entrance.

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The Temple sits in an artificial lake, the Amrit Sarovar (Pool of Nectar), an auspicious bathing place for Sikhs, just as the Ganga is for Hindus. In the photo below, men are dressing after taking a dip in the pool.  

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Everyone, men and women, must cover their head here. If a man is not wearing a turban, he can buy an oversize kerchief that can be tied over his head. All the women cover their heads with the pallu of their saree or with their shawl or dupatta.

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I found the Sikh turbans, in a wide array of colors, to be really handsome and dignified. The man below is handing out the plates for the non-stop meal service. Behind him you can see the stream of people ascending the stairs to one of the dining halls. (More on the food service below.)

Some of the turbans went from the sublime…

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To the… uh… more sublime.

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Entrance to the actual Golden Temple is gained by crossing a causeway over the water, from the left in the photo below.

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The photo below shows the other end of the walkway, as well as the golden “onion dome” of the Akal Takht, the seat of the Sikh parliament (built 1609). 

From an article on Holiday IQ:

The Akal Takht has, in the political and temporal life of Sikhs, the same significance, as Sri Harimandar Sahib has in their religious life….In recent times, on June 4, 1984, the Indian Army, under orders from the Indira Gandhi-led Congress Government, carried out a controversial military operation known as Operation Bluestar, [to remove Sikh separatists who had occupied parts of the Golden Temple, who were amassing arms there, and calling for a separate Sikh state.] This resulted in hundreds, or perhaps even thousands of deaths, and heavy damage to the outer facade of the Akal Takht building.

(According to wikipedia, Operation Blue Star was included in the Top 10 Political Disgraces by India Today magazine.)

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I was told that the small golden structure seen in the photo below is the site where the Guru Granth Sahib is put to bed at night. There’s a good description of this daily ritual here.

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The main purpose of all Sikh gurdwaras is to house a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib. In the early morning, the scripture is lovingly carried from its place of nighttime rest on a palki into the Temple, where it is adored, read, and fanned with a chauri (whisk) to keep it “comfortable.” 

We joined the throngs of visitors crossing the walkway to enter the Golden Temple. Unfortunately, it was forbidden to take pictures inside the building.

People approaching the Guru Granth Sahib will bow before it and often throw money in front of it. All throughout the day, groups of musicians will sing and chant kirtans in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib. The music is broadcast throughout the Temple grounds, creating a sacred background soundspace in which to meditate and contemplate. Alternating with the chants, senior devotees (I think) would read from the scripture. Several Internet writers have offered good descriptions of the interior scene inside the Golden Temple. An “official” description appears here.

A Meditative Space 

Throughout the Temple grounds, I saw many, many people hanging around, separately and in groups. Even late at night, large numbers of people peacefully sat or lay on the marble flooring. Despite the throng of people, the enclosure defined by the white marble created a peaceful respite.

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Another aspect of the Golden Temple complex was the beautiful stone work all around. This work of inlaid stone design that covers the floors is called pietra dura, and highly refined examples are found also at the Taj Mahal. I didn’t take any really good photos of this decorative approach, but below are a couple of examples in the walkways. 

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One night, at the entrance to the walkway, we saw people processing what looked like orange dinner napkins, folding and stacking them.

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I couldn’t find a reference to these apparently important cloths anywhere on the Internet. We saw them being handed out to be used by people (men only?) in parts of the Temple rituals. Here’s a cartload of the orange cloths during the day.

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For me, there was so much to learn about the Sikh religion. The following is a summary of Sikh beliefs that I found on the website www.sikhiwiki.org:

The Sikhs believe that God is formless but realizable; He is fearless, without enemies, self-created, without birth or otherwise subjected to time, etc. The Sikh holy scripture, given the full name of Sri Guru Granth Sahib explains the various facets of God in substantial detail. This principle of one God leads to the next primary concept for the Sikhs: The concept of equality of all the human races, sects, gender, social classes, etc. The adherents of Sikhism believe that all peoples of the world are equal in the eyes of God; man is equal to woman; a rich person is equal to a poor man; a black person enjoys the same rights in God’s domain as a white person and so on.

From this follows the next recognized belief in Sikhi that people of all faiths can reunite with God provided they follow the true path of their own religion. So the Sikh does not believe that they have a monopoly on God or are the ‘chosen’ people of the Lord. Anyone can get favors from God depending only on his or her actions and thoughts. God does not see ones color or gender or social status when passing judgement!

Further, the Sikhs believe in the evolution of the Soul and the principle of reincarnation. The soul is believed to be a tiny spark of God’s light detached from the Almighty. This spark is separated from God and wants to become pure so that it can reunite with God. For this to happen, the Soul has to evolve and purify itself so that this reunification with the Supreme Soul can take place.

The law of Karma is another concept central to this faith. Ones actions in this life will have a direct influence on the type of life in your next existence! So to adhere to these principles, the dedicated follower must lead a disciplined personal life and must uphold the moral and ethnical rights of all the peoples of the world. So it is a must to lead a spiritually correct life at all times and to be ready to be subjected to personal sacrifices if the liberty of any weak person(s) is at stake.

Another central tenet of Sikhism is the concept of ‘Chardi kala’ – Positive attitude to life at all times. Graciously and with humility to accept the will of God at all times. Always to lead ones life unattached and untangled with the material world. Not to come under the influence of Maya – the illusionary and transient world around us. To remain detached from this world but to recognize ones duties to God and his creation.

Langar 

A central tenet in Sikhism is the duty to feed the hungry. There is a 24-hour food service, called langar, as part of the Temple compound. People eat in one of two huge dining halls, sitting in rows on the floor as at Ramanashramam. The food is basic: chipattis, veg curry, lentils, and a sweet. As the last people get up from eating, the floors are instantly and methodically cleaned to accommodate the next group. The alternate dining hall is filled while the first is being cleaned. This meal service goes on continuously all day and night.

To fill the need for the thousands of chapattis offered each day, they invented a chapatti-making machine. We were taken into the kitchen to see it. The raw dough is shown below.

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I missed the mechanism where the dough turns into rounds. But somehow it does. Then it is fed into the cooking mechanism. 

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And hot, puffy chapattis come out the other end.

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A couple of the kitchen workers

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All in all, visiting the Golden Temple complex was an awesome experience, and I wish we had had more time to explore it. Gauri told me that there is a wonderful museum there, definitely worth a visit the next time.

Outside the Golden Temple

It would have been easy to spend all our time within the confines of the Golden Temple complex. But we did venture out a little bit for food, tea, and the required window shopping. Amritsar in many ways is an Indian city like many others I’ve visited: Busy, noisy, colorful, diverse. I was told that the city is known for its cotton fabrics, so of course we had to investigate the various cloth shops. After all, where better to buy fabric for a Punjabi suit than in the Punjab, right? 

Dark History: Patriots’ Park

The first “tourist attraction” I visited in Amristar left me with disturbing images that will always haunt me. This important historic site is the Jallianwala Bagh park, site of a horrendous massacre of peaceful protesters by the British in 1919. 

From Amritsar.com:

It started a few months after the end of the first world war when an Englishwoman, a missionary, reported that she had been molested on a street in the Punjab city of Amritsar. The Raj’s local commander, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, issued an order requiring all Indians using that street to crawl its length on their hands and knees. He also authorized the indiscriminate, public whipping of natives who came within lathi length of British policemen.

On April 13, 1919, a multitude of Punjabis  gathered in Amritsar’s Jallian wala Bagh as part of the Sikh Festival “Baisakhi fair” and to protest at these extraordinary measures.

“The Indians were ‘packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies’; the people ‘ran madly this way and the other. When fire was directed upon the centre, they ran to the sides. The fire was then directed to the sides. Many threw themselves down on the ground, and the fire was then directed on the ground. This was continued for eight or ten minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition had reached the point of exhaustion”…..Winston Churchill

Walking straight ahead from the main entrance of the Golden Temple, I encountered the entrance to Jallianwala Bagh in about 100 meters.

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This is the well that many people drowned in in an attempt to escape the shooting.

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A mural depicts the horrible scene.

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Rather shaken up by what I saw at Jalliawan Bagh, I went back to the embrace of the warm white marble island that is the Golden Temple complex. I contemplate the insane contradiction of a society that can support such a charitable, kind, and inclusive institution as the Golden Temple, when right down the street we view evidence of the most cruel and brutal acts of inhumanity to man.

Morning Chai

Luckily, there is much love and beauty in Amritsar to compensate for the sights of Jallianwan Bagh. In the mornings, we headed to a tea stall to get our fix of chai energy. The man who ran the chai stand was a little saintly. I wish I had photographed the sweet moment when his grandson came up to him, and he offered the most tender look and rested his gentle, gnarled hand on the boy’s shoulder. Here he is, after his grandson has left and I finally got my camera out.  

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Fine Dining

After chai, we looked for a dhaba where we could get tandoori parothas, also called kulche (singular is kulcha, I think). This dhaba seemed authentic. Below is the dough worker.

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The kulche here come in six flavors: plain, gobi, aloo, “herb,” paneer, and mixed. The breakfast plate also has chickpea chole and potato curry. Perfected by the generous pat of butter on top. Julia Child would be pleased.

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The kulche, hot out of the barrel-shaped tandoor, were heavenly. The first taste reminded me of the very best pizza crust from a wood-fired oven.

Looking out to the street

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More of Amritsar to come….

Before we left Amritsar, I had another amazing, multi-dimensional experience going to the border-crossing ceremony at Wagah, near Pakistan. I will write about this in a separate blog.

Our visit to this fascinating city was too short. I cherish all I saw and learned about this center of Sikhism. I’ll surely return.

 

You can find the first of my posts in this series, “A Day at the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar,” here.

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