Northwest India: Amritsar and the Golden Temple

We booked the 6:45AM flight from Kolkata to Delhi for what we thought was a quick transfer to a one-hour Air India hop to Amritsar in the state of Punjab, the holy city of the Sikh religion and location of the fabled Golden Temple. President Obama was also arriving in the early afternoon to celebrate Republic Day (India’s Independence Day) and announce significant trade and defense agreements. Thus, hundreds of flights out of Delhi were delayed or cancelled because of security, and ours was one of them. Seven hours later we boarded a flight to Amritsar, but not before witnessing a near riot at the boarding gate. Dozens of Sikh men and their families, many who had been stranded in the airport for 15 hours, were traveling to their homeland from England, Canada, and the U.S. The Air India agent had no information about when the flight would leave, so after screaming at him for over an hour, they started a short-lived march in the airport shouting “Down with Air India!” Exciting to witness, during an otherwise maddening and exhausting day.

Sikhism, a monotheistic religion, is the fifth largest in the world, emphasizing the principle of equality of all humans, rejecting discrimination based on caste, creed, and gender. The Golden Temple – Harmandir Sahib – is its holiest place of worship. This magnificent structure is set in the middle of a tank of water – the “pool of holy nectar” – all enclosed inside a massive three-story marble complex of intricate Mughal design, studded with minaret-like towers.

Our guide Preet instructed us to remove our shoes and socks on the marble plaza outside the complex, walk through a shallow pool of water to cleanse our feet, and mount the dozen steps to the landing that led inside. That’s when the jaw-dropping moment occurred, as the temple shimmered before us hovering over the water, reflecting the sun’s rays off its gold-plated upper stories. The tank was surrounded by a wide marble apron, where thousands of worshippers and visitors circumambulated the water on their way to the entrance of the Temple. Several men were submerging themselves in the cold water as an act of devotion. Preet made turbans for us out of our scarves, as heads need to be covered inside the complex.

As stunning as the Muslim-influenced architecture, there is an impressive human endeavor that feeds about 100,000 people daily. The extensive operation is run by a core group of staff and hundreds of volunteers. They prepare and serve the food; distribute, collect, and wash utensils, cups, and metal trays; and pour water and tea. Six huge caldrons of dal (lentils) are cooking at once, and men stir the soup with long paddles as steam rises around them. People peel piles of garlic by hand, knead dough, make chapatis (a flat bread). Dozens of people stand at long sinks in the kitchen washing dishes, as hundreds of hungry worshippers at a time eat sitting cross-legged on the floor.

After a visit to the Jallianwala Bagh garden, where in 1919 over 1000 peacefully demonstrating Indian men, women, and children were ambushed and gunned down by British troops (there are ivy-covered topiaries in the form of soldiers with rifles), we took off to the India/Pakistani border to witness the ceremonial pageantry of its daily closing. Being Republic Day, we experienced a holiday spectacle along with an estimated 10,000 Indian celebrants. What an extravaganza of blustering military bravado and national pride! Several acts of performers – adults and children, dressed in regional ethnic garb, as well as soldiers, entertained the cheering crowd, the loudspeaker booming “Long Live Hindustan!” (another name for India). Soldiers wearing fancy red headdresses goose-stepped to the open border gate, where we could see Pakistani soldiers in identical all-black outfits and a much smaller crowd, to complete the gate-closing and flag-lowering ceremony. It’s all choreographed on both sides, so I can imagine soldiers from the two opponent nations sitting down over tea and samosas and planning this crowd-pleasing display.

Another special experience awaited us as we returned to the Golden Temple at night, and the building’s true glittering magnificence was revealed under lights. This time Preet took us inside the temple to witness colorful rituals and prayers, climbing the narrow, winding staircase to the roof for stunning views. At 10PM each night, the huge Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, from which prayers are read, is put on a palanquin decorated with garlands of marigolds and carried on the shoulders of several men out of the temple to a peripheral building and put to ‘bed’ every night, accompanied by much bell-clanging and chanting. Yet another feast for the senses to cap our visit to Amritsar.