A visit to Harmandir Sahib, commonly known as the Golden Temple, is an experience which is bound to linger even in the memory of someone not much inclined towards religion.
The holiest site of Sikhism, the Golden Temple combines sanctity with splendour (call it grandeur, if you like). The façade of the main entrance hits you but what appeals to you much more is the almost entirely gold-plated Temple, which houses the Guru Garanth Sahib.
The holy book is constantly recited by the garanthis, except for three hours – between midnight and 3 am in the morning when it is shifted to the temporal headquarters of the complex, called the Akali Takht, the dome of which is gold-plated too.
Centrally located in the Indian border town of Amritsar, the land for the Temple was gifted by the great Mughal Emperor, Akbar, to Bibi Bhani, the daughter of the third Guru, on her marriage to Jetha, who was a pious person. The bridegroom was later made the fourth Guru.
He was the one who invited the Sufi saint Mian Mir to lay the foundation of Harmandir Sahib. By the way, the saint’s shrine in Lahore is not too far away from the Golden Temple. About 50 miles.
As in mosques, you can only enter all gurdwaras, Harmandir Sahib included, barefooted. You deposit the pair in a section near the main gate and get a token. The complex is dotted with very shallow streams of running water, which remove the dirt on your feet. But unlike in the mosques, men and women in all gurdwaras pray together. They also eat together.
As many as a hundred thousand men, women and children are served food in the langar every day. The meals are strictly vegetarian. My guide, a Christian, though his name Pyarelal gives the impression of being a Hindu, settles down on the floor of a huge hall and has a hearty lunch.
I am nursing an upset stomach so all I do is sample some firni, a dessert made of rice and milk. It’s fine but what is truly outstanding is the tea which is served outside the hall. Though I normally avoid sugar, I love the sweetened milky drink, which has a sprinkling of cardamom and cinnamon.
The food is prepared and served by kar sevaks (volunteers), who also wash the huge cauldrons, and of course the trays and spoons. In one section are volunteers, men and women, some of whom seem quite affluent, who peel potatoes and onions.
There are others who cut cauliflowers (the vegetable of the day) and green chillies. A point worth emphasising is that there is never a dearth of volunteers, nor is there a shortage of donation – both in cash and kind.
Taking a dip in the pool of clean and sparkling water around the Golden Temple are three Sikhs. Every time they take their heads out of the water they chant the holy verses. There are men and women performing, what is like sajda, in the case of Muslims. Their heads are in the direction of the Golden Temple.
The holy site is connected with the rest of the premises by a causeway. I sample the prasad (like the tabarruk of Muslims), which is made of suji and jaggery, distributed to visitors by a couple of volunteers. The causeway is too crowded, so I can’t see the interior of the Temple.
Every visitor has to cover his (or her) head. I buy a handkerchief before entering the premises of Harmandir Sahib. The hawker would not reduce the price but when he learns that I have travelled from Lahore, the city from where his ancestors migrated in 1947, he refuses to accept the money.
We enter into an argument. Pyarelal intervenes. He pays for the hanky and accepts the money – a paltry sum of Rs 15, when I reimburse it as we melt into the crowd heading for the Temple.
After spending an hour or two and clicking photos, I leave, hoping to pay another visit sooner than later. My next destination is now going to be Nankana Sahib on our side of the border. Until then Sat Sri Akal to my Sikh readers, turbaned or otherwise.
All photographs have been taken by the author.