A trip to India is always one that will plunge you into the extremities of what it is to be human, and one of the most striking is the religious diversity that spreads throughout its vast land. I was fortunate enough to discover the wonderful city of Amritsar in the far North-Eastern corner of India in the state of Punjab, home to the one of the most important symbols in Sikh religion, the Golden Temple.Otherwise known as the Sri Harmandar Sahib, the temple was conceived in the 16th century as a central place of worship for Sikhs, and continues to this day to be one of the most sacred places for holy worship.
My trip to the Golden Temple began with a journey from Ludhiana to Amritsar where I had my first chance to experience the Indian Railway system.Before I boarded the train, I decided to check out the station commotion, which, as with everything else in India, was bursting with activity. An Indian station is never a dull occasion. People would frantically be trying to push their way through the crowds attempting to balance all kinds of baggage, cages, food sacks, boxes, livestock, bits of discarded metal, children, you name it! The trains that pulled up into the station were divided up into a range of classes, from the more comfortable First Class (1A), to the overnight sleeper carriages, right down to the Second Sitting (2S) and mail wagons. The higher class carriages were often free of people as most tended to cramp themselves together in the mail wagons rather uncomfortably, face up in the armpit of the person in front whilst wrapped around the leg of another unsuspecting passenger. The trains weren’t too dissimilar from the wretched battery chicken cages. People were stuffed in tightly with arms and legs hanging out of doors and windows, making sure that every centimetre of space was taken advantage of. One might say, like the London Underground in that respect, just with the added appeal of a 4-hour plus ride ahead of you, taking in the sweet fragrance of your nearest companion.
Luckily, I had a Second Sitting ticket towards the front with my friends Jon, Hannah and Roberto, in a carriage much more comfortable than the coop at the back. The journey was pleasant; it was spent chatting with a family that sat in the seats opposite me, watching the plethora of snack sellers go by and later gazing out the barred window to the flat dry landscapes around.
A couple of hours later, we arrived at Amritsar and were introduced to our first barrage of tuk-tuk drivers – these are the 3-wheel converted motorcycle taxis that whizz around the streets of Asia and Central and South America. It was as if we entered a boxing arena, the crowd surrounding us as soon as we entered the scene, trying to get up and close, vying for our attention chanting and shouting, desperate for our rupees. It was a bit unnerving with the four of us standing there sticking out like sore thumbs yet after a few spats between a couple of the drivers, we finally managed to dart into one of the tuk-tuks and get moving to the centre of town.The atmosphere of the city immediately gobbled us up as we were taken towards the centre square of the Golden Temple and our ludicrously cheap subsidised hotel. The importance of the Golden Temple to the Sikh religion meant that the city would try and remove financial barriers that might otherwise prevent people from visiting, hence why they partly funded the accommodation which basically charged those that rested there for water and electricity.
En route, tuk-tuks, cars, bicycles, pedestrians and cows would all charge around in organised chaos, much like the passengers on the mail wagons of the trains, taking up every bit of available space going, playing dodgems as they went about their business.Once we arrived at the centre, we were greeted by an amazing site. The place was every bit as frenzied as the roads that led up to it, with people frantically trying to get into the Golden Temple grounds. Shoes must be removed, the head covered up and bags left in a cloakroom before entering – probably the only way to try and restore some order to the ensuing desperate crowd. After depositing our bags and shoes, we entered into one of the most beautifully peaceful sanctuaries on the planet. It was in complete contrast to the scenes outside, as if we almost did just enter heaven. Ahead of us sat the striking gold-plated temple at the centre of a calm moat. Around its borders, visitors would leisurely stroll around at peace, oblivious to the outside world. Sikhs sat by the side of the water, completely focused on their meditation, prayers or simply to rest. The atmosphere was breath-taking, the plug pulled on the noisy, dirty streets outside creating a vacuum of tranquility. It was our opportunity to also pause, relax and take it all in as the sun set in the distance, casting a soft shadow over the Golden Temple whilst the birds retreated for the night. At 4am the next morning, we rose to join in with the morning prayers at the temple. We met up with Arvinder, a close family member to one of our friends from London, Harpreet, whom we met at his Anand Karaj (Sikh wedding) a week earlier. Somewhat jaded and blurry eyed from the early morning wake up, we headed over to the main bridge of the Pardakshna which led up to the main shrine of the holy temple.
There were hundreds of people sitting around the temple apparently still there from the night before. At around 5am, the crowd which was once serene and calm, then suddenly bustled into life. Out of the corner of our eyes from the Parliament of the Book, the Guru Granth Sahib, the prayer book of the Sikhs, danced its way down the Pardakshna towards the temple on a huge levered cushion.Everybody it seemed then started to push and shove in desperation to try and get as close as possible to the book, calling and chanting out to it, sometimes crying with joy. To them, this was the only true importance in their lives, nothing else mattered, and they would do anything to get a chance to be by its side. We were pushed and shoved in every direction as people grappled past us. As it passed on by towards what would be its resting place in the parapet of the temple, a queue then formed patiently, the past wails and cries replaced by peaceful solace.
The sun began to rise to an astonishing deafness, only broken by the early morning song of the birds. And after some time, we entered the parapet to see the great book, together with groups of people worshiping in all embracing ecstasy. To them, this was their way to find meaning, euphoria or even paradise. A way of devout living. The power of the prayers made my hairs stand on end, but the unease of the voyeurism we were displaying whilst watching the incredible scenes later led us to sneak out into the morning sunshine, resigned to our own thoughts.
After some extra rest, we then rose to beautiful blue skies and had another chance to take in the atmosphere of the Golden Temple. Hannah and I broke off for the day and headed towards the kitchen area – the Guru Ka Langar – towards the back of the square. This wasn’t just any old kitchen. It was a vast complex flow-production system that successful American fast food chains would be proud of. Except here, the food was completely free to everybody, irrelevant of social background. It is deeply rooted in the beliefs that we are all equal, regardless of skin, colour, religion, age or gender. In the main hall, people would line up to eat together, all sat on the floor as equals.The people serving up would literally run by spilling the Dal, or lentils, into your dish. Once finished, you would get up and take it to the man-powered dishwasher. Later, they would then stack up the dishes ready to pass onto the next mouth to feed. We passed by the great furnaces that cooked the food, huge amounts of people churning out the chapattis and Dal dishes. Not only did the kitchen promote equality to all, but, it was also a way to repay the extreme devotion of those Sikhs who gave up their lives for worship. These worshippers may never leave the sanctuary again. This was in turn compensated by having a place to sleep with basic food and water to survive. Everything they needed was there. And in such a materialistic society that we live in today, it was an overwhelming occasion to understand that outside the modern world full of technology and opportunity, there are still people deeply rooted to religion and ritual and sacrifice themselves to what they believe is the greater cause. They harm no-one; they don’t even really directly spoil the earth around them. They just sit, pray and survive on the basics. They don’t want anything else. Often, they don’t know anything else. All that mattered was the Guru Granth Sahib and God. They will just sit and wait to be greeted by him. But passing through this experience meant that other questions were asked, more answers were needed to decipher what is it that we are here for? All that later through a myriad of other experiences would lead me to my inner turmoil of devil’s advocacy…
Further Reading on the Golden Temple
More Photography :
“The India Collection” by Antematters