Day 134 (1): The Golden Temple
Amritsar Travel Blog› entry 180 of 260 › view all entries
I arrived at my hotel in Amritsar just before midnight. The door was locked and when I had finally woken up the night receptionist, I was told the hotel was full. “Wow, wait, I have a reservation”
“yes, but you are too late. We don't keep rooms because too often people don't show up”
I pleaded with the guy, explaining my train had been delayed, but that in my reservation I had stated which train I was taking, so they could easily have checked the status of my train when I didn't arrive at the confirmed time.
This seemed to do the trick. His stern face changed into a smile and he woke up one of his colleagues to show me to my room (what happened to the hotel being full?).
The hotel restaurant was closed and I was starving, all I'd had since lunch was a bag of crisps. There wasn't anything open in the vicinity of the hotel though, Amritsar is an early-to-bed town.
The night manager went out with me and brought me to a small local place where I could buy some dhal and a couple of chapatis, which I ate in my room, before retiring to bed. I had done little else but sitting on a train platform and on the train, but I was exhausted nonetheless.
Amritsar is the centre of the interesting Sikh religion. This is the main reason to visit the city. Sikhism was founded in the 15th century as a reaction of the caste system that dominates Hindu India. It incorporates many aspects of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, which makes it a bit of a 'best of both worlds' religion.
The religion's holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, welcomes all religions. This is something you see in many other temples in India as well and I love that. Whether you are Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jew, Atheist or Scientologist, all are welcome pray and worship in their own way, or simply marvel at the stunning architecture.
The Golden Temple is, as the name suggests, a temple gilded with pure gold. It is set in the middle of a pond (filled with sacred water, in which pilgrims bathe to cleanse themselves of sin and impurity), surrounded by several white marble buildings. Like the religion itself, the complex is a blend of Hindu and Islamic architecture, the temple itself represents an inverted lotus flower, while the layout of the complex is of a traditional open air mosque, complete with minarets and a clock tower.
Entrance is only allowed with bare feet (which must be washed before entering the complex) and head covered (scarves can be bought at the entrance). Tourists and Hindu visitors are decked with these orange scarves, but the Sikh don themselves with colourful turbans instead. According to Sikh tradition men must never cut their hair and their hair must be covered at all times.
As part of the welcome to all mentality of the temple, free meals are handed out to anyone who wants them. On busy days the kitchens here can serve up to 40,000 meals!
I joined the pilgrims, locals and other stray tourists for a nice meal of dhal, rice and chapati, whilst sitting on the ground in one of the massive dining halls. It was impressive to see just how efficiently all this is done.
You are required to bring your (metal) plates and cups down the stairs to the large washing up area where volunteers are washing the dishes.
Apparently this stream of cooking, serving, eating and cleaning continues 24/7. Free of charge!
Those who can afford it are expected to leave a donation though, so I did. And I washed a few dishes as well to contribute my share.
You can also spend the night here. Once again, for free in the pilgrim dorms, or for a very small fee in a private room. I had wanted to stay here, as it seems a nice experience, but due to my poor train schedule (arriving late at night yesterday, leaving very early tomorrow morning) I had opted for a hotel across the road from the train station instead.
And then it started raining. As if I needed another reminder that this was the monsoon season... Now it would have been nice if I'd had an umbrella. Well, I did have one, or didn't I? When I left home, I had one, but up until now I had only needed it on a few occasions. Well, that changed when I arrived in India, but due to my own stupidity I ad it stolen on my very first day in Delhi. I figured it would be a good idea to stick it in the side pocket of my day-pack as I walked around. That way I could easily reach it in case I needed it. Well, me and the rest of Delhi, because I had walked less than thirty minutes and already noticed it missing.
So I punished myself by walking around the Golden Temple in the rain.
Actually, the rains gave the temple complex a certain mystique. I liked it!
There weren't all that many Western tourists around, but it surprised me just how many Indian tourists there were. These people were no Sikhs, they were Hindus visiting the temple as tourists, like me. And all these people seemed to have never seen a Westerner before in their lives, as they all came up to me to shake my hand and take my picture. It amazed me how few of these spoke English. I was under the impression that everybody in India had at least some basic knowledge of English, considering English is an official language in this country and is the main language that the government bodies communicate in (there are over 1000 officially recognised languages in India and English is considered to be the one language that unites the people - well, not quite so, as I found out).
I made my way to the main temple itself, the Hari Mandir Sahib. It lies in the middle of the pond, accessible by a small causeway. There was a massive queue on the causeway - obviously this is the culmination for many a pilgrim. Despite all being welcome here at the temple, I did feel like an intruder. Some people here had been looking forward to this visit all their lives and were quite emotional when they finally made the approach. I was merely here to take some snaps.
Inside the Hari Mandir Sahib four priests are chanting texts from the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, which is broadcast all throughout the complex. They are chanting non-stop during daylight hours every day.
It is hard to describe the experience of visiting the Golden Temple.
The Sikh museum, which is located above the entrance, was a bit of an anti-climax. The displays seem to stress mainly two things. One, how the Sikh are fierce warriors and two, all the wrongs they have suffered through the centuries, most recently former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's ordering of the forcible removal of Sikh separatists who had occupied the Golden Temple (which in turn resulted in her murder by two of her Sikh bodyguards).
The museum didn't make any sense to me. The first room showed all kinds of pictures and explanations about the Sikh being such fearsome warriors, but the rest of the museum was room after room filled with bloody pictures of murdered Sikh. In the entire museum there wasn't a single example of a Sikh warrior actually winning a battle, which struck me as a bit weird. All it seemed now was a attempt to stir up a sense of pity with its visitors, which I found hard to rhyme with the “we such fierce warriors” message.