Amritsar : In the embrace of the Golden Community

Amritsar Travel Blog

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"Iz it coz I iz Sikh?" ;P
This entry is a piece of writing by way of an open letter of gratitude to the Sikh community in general, and specifically that of the Harminder Sahib or Golden Temple of Amritsar.  Of all the many tenets of Guru Nanak's youngling religion (barely 600 years old) - its mutual respect for all religions; the abandonment of the divisive and socially iniquitous Hindu caste system (this though mostly ignored by caste-conscious Sikhs at home and abroad) to name but two - it is the adherence to codes of overwhelming hospitality, that as a tourist and a guest one learns to appreciate so profoundly during a stay in residence at The Golden Temple in Amritsar.  The epicentre of the capital of the Sikh homeland of the Punjab.


My three days stop in the travel-renowned Sri Guru Ram Das Niwas ‘foreigners’ dormitory and my observations and little communal interactions within the jewelled bubble of the world of the Golden Temple complex gave me one of the richest experiences of my journey thus far.  A time for warm feelings and friendships new and old.  I arrive in Amritsar on the ’stupid o’clock’ bus ( 3.30am start!) from McLeod Ganj/ Dharamsala in the company of Jantine my Dutch pal and new acquaintances Jade (France), Petra (Germany) and David (Israel).  We meet Lucy for the first time who will soon endure the Vipassana meditation course in Dehradun with Jantine and I as well as becoming my firm friend and travel pal for two weeks in Varanasi.
Bathing for faith in the sacred amrit pool - which must be aaaabsolutely fecking freeezing!
 

Also, stepping into the dorm one evening a lady sits cross-legged upon one of the dorm beds with her back to me talking to two Brit lads.  I recognise the New Zealander accent, though the hair’s darker than it was a year ago.  I spot a heavily kitted bicycle leant up against the dormitory wall and start plotting ’2 + 2 = ?’ in my mind.  Could it really be?!  I sit and listen some more.  ’Kylie?!’  ’Steeeeeeve!! Ohmygod!’  Yep, almost precisely one year to the day since I traveled with her in Petra in Jordan it’s the Kiwi Queen of Adventuring Kylie Phaup-Stephens.  She’s currently in the middle of a London to New Zealand bike journey (!!!), returning home after over half a decade living and working in Britain.
'Prayer'
  She was only planning the trip when we were in each others company a year ago - and now, here she is!  Here we both are!  Cooped up in the Golden Temple by one of those incredible travel coincidence miracles that seem to happen on The Road more often than one would think credible!  I think maybe this place may have more than just a little splash of magic about it!

The ‘free’ dormitory is a bit of a travel legend and often referred to by those who‘ve gone before you as ‘an experience but always in slightly negative tones I‘ve found.  Tones implying great privations; discomforts and ’you might wanna look elsewhere’ kinda vibes.
(L-> R) David, Jade, Petra & Jantine chow down on their 'langar' - the free meals provided at the Golden Temple.
  Maybe I’m misinterpreting.  Either way, speaking now as somebody who’s juuuust about beginning to think he has some small experience in travel qualities and comforts, listen up good : Do not pass this ‘experience’ by!  The Golden Temple dorm and its amenities are a true haven for the budget-conscious and experience hungry traveler.  In the Sri Guru Ram Das Niwas complex free beds, lockers, hot showers, washing machines, mineral water refills in a dorm of approx 20 beds guarded 24/7 and a communal toilet block that’s the cleanest you’ll ever find in India are yours for nothing more than a free-will donation.  And that’s just for starts...

... because what you are reminded of and encouraged to reconsider while staying at the Golden Temple is what it is to have a sense of Community.
This fabulous looking Sikh gentleman is dubbed and known to Jantine and I only as 'The Dude' :D
  It can be a community of faith.  A community of fellow travellers.  A community of nations.  The way all represented communities here commingle and come together as one.  A community of friendship then.  The community of ‘Man’ actually, just for once, seeming to work in perfect accord.  A little spot of harmony - although this has not always been the case within this halloed grounds.  Whichever way you view it, a sense of community and involvement therein is a rare commodity, something you miss when you've moved hobo-like through 30 countries or so in barely a year and a half.

The real fun is to be had in and around the Gura-Ka-Langar dining hall.  It is incumbent upon Sikhs as a keystone of their faith that food and shelter be provided to strangers; to travelers, whether of the faith or not, when visiting a Gurdwara - the name given to any Sikh temple or building that covers a copy of their holy book the Adi Granth or Guru Granth Sahib.
Men in the kitchen - a rare sight for the women as the blokes get down to peel their spuds :)
  I had made a previous pit-stop at a Sikh Gurdwara in Chandigarh, again food and accommodation provided for a 'donation'.  Here at The Golden Temple - the very heart of the Sikh faith - this obligation to hospitality means a major, major operation!  

Between the hours of about 8.00am and 23.00pm meals are served without cease to the thousands upon thousands of people that visit every day.  Kitted out with your metal thali trays and water bowls you ascend the white marble steps and scurry across to grab your spot on the floor of the huge two-storied dining hall where long thin strip lengths of hessian carpet rapidly fill up with the bums of those with hungry tums.  Sat in a grinning line Jantine, Jade, Petra, Dave and I bask in the quizzical gazes of our Sikh co-munchers and watch as the serving boys and men dash along the line with military canteen efficiency slopping and dolling out all kinds of curious looking yumminess.
Stevie in the dining hall
  Dahl and rice (of course!), fresh cut salad, a potato/ vegetable curry, a sweet rice pudding with coconut shreds and raisins perhaps and hands held out together in a gesture almost of prayer to receive the fresh hot backed chapattis.  If you're lucky the warm, sweet dough parsad that is sacrosanct to the Sikhs and used in wedding ceremonies and as offerings to The Guru will be on the menu too.  Refills a-plenty.  The meals, incredibly, vary throughout the day and from day to day.  You can eat as much as you want pre-breakfast bowls of sweet chai, breakfast, lunch and dinner!  I was a regular queuing up for my langar - the name given for this charitable meal.  And I just loved watching the guy in the nifty little floor cleaning electric cart that neatly skims up and down the smooth marble floors washing away a million spillages in a trice, the title 'Man Machine' written across the front of his device :)  

I wish I could give you some stats on the numbers of meals prepared and served at The Golden Temple every day but sadly I can't at this time.
Thali trays (abstract)
  A Canadian guy in the dorm said they have a machine that churns out '8,000 chapattis either per minute or hour', he couldn't recall which.  But hey that's still 120,000 chapattis a day during 'opening hours' even at the outside margin!  In fact the calculator informs me that 8,000 per minute would deluge the Golden Temple with 7.2 million chapattis a day, so it must be per hour... hell, we were hungry, but not that hungry!    

Two obvious realisations that spring from so many thousands upon thousands of meals a day.  That's a lot of food preparation and whole heck of a lot of washing up to do!  And this is where the community spirit kicks into full throttle.
Temple guard
  Because what the community needs, the community must provide.  And the system; this incredible mass conveyor belt of goodwill cannot stop for a second!  

The grounds in the immediate surrounds of the dining hall positively hum and judder with the activity of hundreds of people, all visitors to the Temple, surrendering portions of their day to support the never ending provision of langar.  Men, women and children of all ages sit about on the floor in groups peeling and cutting potatoes, chopping vegetables, sifting dahl, finely chopping onion and garlic bulbs, the latter operation first requiring whole teams of people to painstakingly sit and peel the garlic bulb by bulb by bulb.  One of my favourite visions in Amritsar is that of the superbly, formidably dressed, regally bearded old Sikh men - representatives of this proud warrior community - hunkered down picking and faffing about trying to get their fingers (more used to clutching the handles of their traditional Kirpan swords) under the skin of a solitary garlic bulbs.
A Family Affair - communal domesticity at the Golden Temple
  One after the other and another and another.  'B**ger this for a laugh, my ancestors used to chop off the heads of infidel scum!'  Humbled indeed.  But happily so.  And this is the pure joy of life at the temple.  All pretensions and divisions seemingly set aside for the honesty activities of mass domesticity.  

I of course happily do my bit.  A three hour stint in the metal-clattering, pot and pan battering madness and mayhem of the washing up troughs.  A large covered annex of the dining hall area filled with row after row of industrial sized metal washing troughs.  Time to roll up your sleeves, grab a scrap of cloth-knotted soap and get scrubbing!  The never ending river of diners exit the hall and hand their dirties to a group of guys that hurl them, leftovers a-flying, into huge two-man-handle metal tubs that are then hauled over to the washing troughs, lifted and cascaded, smashing and splashing down into the ever murkier wash waters where like fish fighting for scraps of thrown bread all of us volunteers scrabble around to grab utensils to enthusiastically wash and smash onto the drying racks so as to feel we're doing our bit for the process of community.
The phenomenal beauty of the Golden Temple, heart of the Sikh faith.
  Our Temple Community.  Great fun, but definitely a sensory overload after three hours of noise and mess and damp and barefoot washing.  I get absolutely drenched, as being a little shorter than the average, it seems logical that ten thousand dripping plates etc be passed over my head to get to and from the trough.  'Darn it!'  I love the experience though.  An unspoken, natural segregation; the women and girls down one side, the men facing them on the other, but everyone in it together, and I'm thinkin' I bet the women are thinkin' 'Better make the most of this, it's the only flippin' time I'll ever get him to do any washing or cooking!' :)

Activity in all its forms - the washing, cutting, chopping, cooking and eating; the laughter and prayer; the expressions of faith; the music that is played and broadcast live almost without break from the heart of the Temple; the clicks of a thousand cameras; the chatter of a thousand tongues; the kids and their running and screaming and fun; people living and sleeping and dreaming and weeping in awe at the beauty of the Temple- the activity never stops, all around the clock at The Golden Temple.
Gold shines in the night.
  Yes, the Temple.  The perfect beauty of the temple!  I haven't even mentioned that yet have I.  Just friendship and community and garlic bulbs.  What an odd travel waffler I can be!  I shall seek to make amends shortly.  But for now it's gotten late, and cold, and I must carefully step my way through the carpet of humanity that lies and slumbers huddled together under blankets for warmth upon the floor and in the passages of the Guru Ram Daw Niwas to go brush m'teeth and have a final pee.  All these pilgrims and strangers and friends stretched out under the stars, a community happening of a scale I've never before seen.
James1985 says:
i know, im sure they looked after it, but kind of crap for him. My ipod was my baby when i was away, music and films for those overnight buses and trains, and there were alot of them!!
Posted on: Jan 09, 2011
Stevie_Wes says:
What a curious tale of inconsiderate over-considerateness! :) Still, I'm sure they took great care of his iPod ... forever!
Posted on: Jan 09, 2011
James1985 says:
When i was there we found this note from some german travellers to a guy who left his ipod on charge. They took it thinking they were doing him a favour coz it would be nicked and left their email so they could send it to him. Because they had actually taken it as they were leaving Amritsar to fly home.

If i was him id of been furious, what if that was the beginning of your trip and they couldnt send it to you. I never saw him receive the bit of paper but personally id of flipped.
Posted on: Jan 07, 2011
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Iz it coz I iz Sikh? ;P
"Iz it coz I iz Sikh?" ;P
Bathing for faith in the sacred am…
Bathing for faith in the sacred a…
Prayer
'Prayer'
(L-> R) David, Jade, Petra & Janti…
(L-> R) David, Jade, Petra & Jant…
This fabulous looking Sikh gentlem…
This fabulous looking Sikh gentle…
Men in the kitchen - a rare sight …
Men in the kitchen - a rare sight…
Stevie in the dining hall
Stevie in the dining hall
Thali trays (abstract)
Thali trays (abstract)
Temple guard
Temple guard
A Family Affair - communal domesti…
A Family Affair - communal domest…
The phenomenal beauty of the Golde…
The phenomenal beauty of the Gold…
Gold shines in the night.
Gold shines in the night.
One of the intricate marble floor …
One of the intricate marble floor…
Thali trays for langar meals at …
Thali trays for 'langar' meals at…
The Harminder Sahib or Golden Temp…
The Harminder Sahib or Golden Tem…
Contemplating the Temple
Contemplating the Temple
zzzzzzz...
zzzzzzz...
Communal peeling - women peeling a…
Communal peeling - women peeling …
Macho Man - Fierce Warrior reduc…
'Macho Man' - Fierce Warrior redu…
Part of the wonderful communal spa…
Part of the wonderful communal sp…
Dirty Dishes
'Dirty Dishes'
Women at Work - lined up at the …
'Women at Work' - lined up at the…
The huge area given over to the in…
The huge area given over to the i…
Scrub-a-dub-dub :)
'Scrub-a-dub-dub' :)
Amritsar
photo by: frankcanfly