Thursday, May 5, 2011

the Golden Temple

One of our many stops on the all-India trip was the city of Amritsar, home to the Golden Temple. Our shortest stop on the trip, we were in Amritsar for a grand total of about eleven hours.

I didn't really know what to expect with regard to Amritsar. I had heard that the Golden Temple is quite possibly the best sight in North India, a claim that I found hard to believe given the infamy of the (at that point) still unseen Taj Mahal.

In hindsight, I can tell you that the Taj Mahal is perhaps India's most...impressive sight. In the sense that if I saw a picture of the Taj Mahal next to a picture of the Golden Temple, I might find the Taj Mahal more (insert adjective here. Striking? Stunning? Aesthetically pleasing?).

But the Golden Temple is more than a sight. It's an experience, and definitely one of my favorites from the trip, at that. From the moment one walks through the shallow water (to wash your feet) into the inner compound, one can tell that there is something holy about the place. It's an incredibly moving experience to see the devoutness and solemnity with which the Sikhs bow down and pray. Surprisingly quiet given the hundreds of people inside the compound at any given time, the Golden Temple is a place, unlike the Taj Mahal, that one doesn't simply feel in awe to look at--one feels in awe to be there.

I guess I should give you a little background info and tell you that the Golden Temple is a holy place of the followers of Sikhism, most easily recognized by the turbans they wear. The fifth-largest organized religion in the world, Sikhism is monotheistic and emphasizes values of faith and justice. The Golden Temple  is "considered holy by Sikhs because the eternal guru of Sikhism, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, is always present inside it and its construction was mainly intended to build a place of worship for men and women from all walks of life and all religions to come and worship God equally" (yes, I took that from Wikipedia :)).

We arrived at the perfect time of day; it was about 5:30PM. As we stayed for over two hours, we were able to see the Golden Temple by daylight, sunset, and night, beautiful in a different way at each time.

First, we took our time walking around the perimeter of the inner complex. We then noticed that there was a huge line of people waiting to get into the temple itself. Travel-weary and not relishing the idea of standing in an interminable line, we briefly debated skipping out on seeing the inside of the temple. But the I'm-only-here-once attitude prevailed, and we waited in the line. We creeped along with the masses until finally, we were able to enter the temple.

If it had been quiet outside, it was silent inside. Everything about the interior was lavishly decorated (not surprising for a building whose exterior is pure gold, right?). A Sikh holy man (not sure what the appropriate term actually is) was in the center of the room, reading aloud sacred scriptures from a giant, ancient book, unhurriedly and with unbroken concentration. People milled about with prayer books; people sat reading prayers; there were people everywhere. It was opulent--otherworldly--awe-inspiring.

And that was just the first floor. The second floor held similar wonders, and the third was an open rooftop. Photography wasn't allowed anywhere inside the temple, and for once it was a rule that I actually felt like respecting (come on, you know you've been places where photography 'isn't allowed' but snapped a few pictures, anyway).

There was also some type of ritual in which everyone offers a food offering as they enter the temple (it's all the same--some kind of sweet). The sweet is deposited into a common vessel. As you leave the temple, each person is given a small handful of the sweet from the communal offering. There's probably some really cool symbolism/meaning to this (beyond the obvious idea of sharing) but we weren't able to find out what it was.

After seeing the temple, we went to have langar. This was the part I was most incredulous about. Supposedly, any one, at any time, can come to the Golden Temple and have langar, a free meal. How could they possibly feed all those people? What stops the whole city from coming and eating three meals a day at the Golden Temple? Don't they ever run out of food? ...just a few of the questions that were on my mind.

One enters the hall where the food is served under a Sikh scripture that says: "The lord himself is the farm, himself he grows and grinds. Himself he cooks, himself he places it on a platter and himself he eats, too. Himself he is the water, himself the toothpick, himself he offers a handful of water. Himself he calls the men to eat, himself he bids them off. Yea he to whom the lord is merciful, he makes them walk in his will."

Under that arch with the scripture are volunteers handing out plates. After those who come to eat are ushered into the hall and seated on the floor in rows, volunteers come down the lines of people ladling out food. When we were there, the meal was chapatti and dal (lentils), and a rice-based dessert. Volunteers come around multiple times with seconds and thirds; there is enough for anyone to have their fill. After finishing, we handed our plates to the volunteers in charge of washing them by the hundreds. On our way out, we passed by the volunteers who were chopping carrots for the next meal. Total, there were a few hundred volunteers working to make that meal and the next meal possible. Anyone can volunteer, at any time, just as anyone can come and eat at any time. Our only regret about being in Amritsar for such a short period of time was not being able to volunteer.

It's hard to do justice to the Golden Temple in writing; it was an incredible experience of community, of giving and taking, together. Perhaps photos make the aforementioned descriptions more relevant. One of last year's volunteers, Sarah, did some really good writing about the Golden Temple experience, especially from a theological perspective. There's a lot that could be said in that regard but frankly my little brain is too tired right now to do any higher-level analysis :) To read Sarah's account, click here.

"Anyone can count the seeds in an apple, but only God can count the number of apples in a seed." -Robert H. Schuller

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