I don’t really know why, I love the bustle of big cities. I mean I like the bustle, mind you. Not the noise or the traffic.
In my younger days I loved Bombay (yes, it was Bombay then). Bombay had that buzz, the bustle. I fell in love with the pulsating energy of New York the minute I stepped into that city. And then there’s London. I loved the very first time I visited it, its combination of quaintness and modernity. (The very same reasons why I love it still.)
What I am getting to, is that there are a lot of cities that have won my heart. That make me want to go back there. Stay there. Leave, knowing I’ll come back. Revisit. Reminisce. All of that. So when I made the plan to visit Amritsar it was just that. One more pin on the map. One more flag on the ground. But no, that did not happen with Amritsar. Amritsar did not win my heart.
Amritsar won my soul!
Our hotel was supposed to be very close to the Golden Temple and we had decided we’d go there as soon as we had checked in. Which we did. A quick bath and change and we were on our way. It was well past 10 pm when we entered the temple precincts.
When we took off our footwear, washed our hands, covered our heads with our shawls and stoles and gingerly stepped into the little step well of water before descending down to the entrance of the temple we did not know what awaited us.
There amidst the gleaming waters of the Amrit Sagar stood the holy shrine! Harmandir Sahib. Resplendent in gold. Glistening in the night lights. Gleaming with the mystique it has emanated over the centuries.
If I said the aura was magic, I’d be misleading you. The air was electric. It was the time that the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book , the designated last Guru of the Sikhs was being taken to its resting place for the night. The crowd was huge. Right from the courtyard, way into the long corridor that led to the inner sanctum of the Golden Temple, the entire passage was crowded with people, waiting eagerly for a glimpse of the Guru. But more impressive was the silence. The utter silence. Devout respectful silence. And we watched the proceedings in that awe-inspiring silence we grew new respect for the place and its people.
I am not a Sikh, do not know much about Sikhism, and I am not religious. But I have great respect for the religion and for its people.
Let me quote a bit from Wikipedia – Sikhs are expected to embody the qualities of a “Sant-Sipāhī”—a saint-soldier. Which means to love God, meditate on God, keep God in the heart, feel God’s nearness and also be strong, courageous and ready to fight to protect weak people from cruel injustice attackers.
True. Most religions rely on some basic principles that are preached from high pulpits to the common people. Rules that make for a better society. Do’s and Don’ts. The good and the bad. The blessings and the recriminations. But here is one place where the religion is lived. Practised. Manifest in its essence.
Take the entrance where volunteers take your footwear for safekeeping before you enter the temple. Here’s humility in practice as they physically take your shoes, sometimes even bow to them. (Note again, these are volunteers, who have come there with a spirit of service.) Inside, the respect you get as an individual is that of what should be due to all as a rule. And all are welcomed here – it does not matter what religion you follow.
Take the Langar, the community kitchen. Hundreds of volunteers feed thousands and thousands of devotees every day, every meal. The large eating hall itself is a lesson in service and humility. I cannot describe how the simplicity of the food beats the finest Masterchef winner in the spirit with which it is served.
The museum portrays saints, soldiers and seers with an equal respect. Sant-Sipahi again. Tales of unbeatable valour and courage intertwined with tales of devotion and service. And all around you have the opportunity to serve, to serve the temple, the devotees or the people in general.
Or you can simply sit by the Amrit Sagar and listen to the hymns that ring over in the electric air – songs of praise for the Lord which have not stopped ever since the temple was first consecrated.
The Golden Temple cast a spell over us. And over two days we went there three times. Just a pull that drew us there willingly and gave us a sense of peace.
In stark contrast, a visit to the nearby Jalianwala Bagh created a deep sense of disturbance. Bullet holes in the wall told a heart-rending story. So did the Well in which hundreds jumped to their death to avoid a fate worse than death. It is said that General Dyer who ordered the massacre of the innocents didn’t ever get a good night’s sleep after that. Troubling as the reality is, no one would. One can only come out of that experience wounded, bleeding, silent.
The Wagah border, another facet of Amritsar spoke the language of patriotism. This is where country meets country in a large, pompous, noisy ceremony. Enough YouTube videos can show you the ceremony but none can compare to the air of patriotic unison that the cheering crowds bring to the place when you are there.
Amritsar got me thinking. Here was the one of the most religious of places, rubbing shoulders with one of the most tragic and violent historical sites in India touching the threat of a livewire border of the neighboring state.
And my respect for its people knows no bounds. I am sure every resident inherits its DNA, a chromosomal combination of religion that intertwined tragic history with unparalled valour, courage with humility and a fun loving nature inextricably combined with humility and sense of service. The Golden Temple embodies all of Amritsar in its resplendence. The gold that shines outside only brings out the essence within.