October 8, 2016 6:51 am
Although my dreams of Punjab specialities such as Butter Chicken and Tandoori Chicken were thwarted somewhat by the dreaded illness I attained on our first night, the time we spent in Amritsar still proved rich and enjoyable, culturally at least.
The main point of interest in Amritsar is the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine in Sikhism. The aura of the magnificent structure seems to permeate much farther than the temple’s walls, with the old town, although classically manic road and dog-wise, having a sense of a previous majestic and serene quality. The area is majorly Sikh, and at every turn there is a Punjabi Sikh man with a particularly strong beard calmly watching the hectic world go by, and always ready to offer you a slow yet friendly smile or gesture of hello. The area seems to ride on positive Sikh vibes, which are definitely infectious.
Our first visit to the Golden Temple was at night, when you can watch the Sikh holy book be carried by decorated throne from the temple itself to the Timeless Throne in a separate building in an elaborate ceremony of song and ritual. We watched the book be returned to its throne at the 9.30pm ceremony, but there is another at 4.30am when it is taken to the temple, allowing you to watch sunrise from the temple as well. I normally prefer daytime viewings of sites so I can take in the full details of the structure, but here I felt that it was particularly powerful at night. The gold glimmered in the light, reflections shone on the water and pilgrims and visitors alike lay on the cool marble alleyways to cool down and rest. Combined with the ceremony, which was quite magnificent to hear and watch, the temple really seemed to come to life, or perhaps a second life (it’s open 24 hours daily), at night.
Aside from admitting the pilgrims, local Sikhs and tourists who visit the temple and watch it’s ceremonies daily, the site has its work cut out accommodating and feeding visitors. The temple has an industrial sized kitchen which serves up meals for 100,000 visitors daily, all on a donation basis at the hands of volunteers. Costs are covered half by the government and half by donation, with this service costing around 1,000,000 rupees each day. A large number of volunteers cover everything from vast scale chapati buttering (new machines allow up to 4000 chapatis to be produced per hour), cooking daal in massive vats, serving the hall-full of visitors sat cross-legged and expectant at all times and, of course, washing up ready to go again and again. The food itself is surprisingly good given the scale and demand, and the fact that everyone involved is volunteering, and it is evident that this system offers an invaluable source of food for a huge number of people in need. The ‘open house’ system that the temple operates also offers a space to lay for the thousands of visitors it receives daily, and also for local homeless and desperate people.
We visited the temple again the next morning, to take it in in the light of day. With the sun coming up it still looked stunning, although without the nighttime glow. In the daytime we got to enter the Golden Temple itself, and see the daytime rituals inside. A group of Sikh priests sing and play instruments throughout the day, which gives the elaborate interior an even more ethereal sense. Both times we left feeling so high on life, Sikhism as a religion and Sikhs as people both have the most generous, friendly and caring auras to them, and were always so welcoming to us as both non-Sikhs and foreigners. This sense of acceptance and community, aside from the opportunity to witness Sikhism’s most holy place of worship and gain some understanding of their religion, should place the Golden Temple and Amritsar on every traveller’s route.