Amritsar 2: The Gold
I’m at a little bit of a loss to know where to start describing an Indian temple to someone not familiar with touring religious monuments. It’s certainly not like walking into a Baptist Church back in Missouri, and it’s not quite the same as strolling through a touristy cathedral of Spain. And a mosque is a different vibe altogether.
In India, the spectacle is sometimes in the ridiculous amounts of gold and jewels and semi-precious stones worked into the details. And sometimes the trick lies in the myriad of details piled upon details.
But that’s not quite it, either.
I might say it’s the flowing chants and the strumming sitars wafting in and out of the incense. Or maybe it’s something to do with mix of ethnicities sometimes lost in reverie and sometimes snapping photos, side by side.
Maybe it’s something about the grizzly-bear-level body hair on the turbaned gentlemen taking a dip in the holy nectar—‘Cause there’s definitely a fair amount of that going on. That’s right, just shimmy out of all your clothes except your undies, grab a handy chain (to keep from slipping, maybe?), and go dunk yourself up to your turban. Feel free to engage in some face-splashing of the nectar, or to slurp up a mouthful and spout it back into the reservoir.
I know it’s not polite to stare, and I know I already had some impropriety on the train to make up for, but this was a new one for me—something like the ice-bucket challenge meets a self-baptism meets a back-hair extravaganza. I admit I gawked a bit, but the whole thing is oh-so normal for all the other visitors. Nothing to see here, folks, just a little worship by way of hypothermia going on.
Aside from the quasi-immersions, the Golden Temple also has the fog of incense thing going on—a pungent mix of charcoal and musk and roses, flavored generously with some earthy, gingery tones. I’m no deity, but if I were, I would probably have a more refined sense of smell—and there ask my devotees to worship in smells less resembling that incense and more resembling bacon.
Other background features include the non-stop chanting. I say background, but that’s really something of a stretch—the volume ain’t exactly mosque level, but it ain’t no elevator music, neither. The steady trippings of husky voices spilling across guttural iambs and trochees kind of get roped into your thinking, until the chants that you have to shout over become a fabric of the place that place that you hardly notice after the first dozen hours. I say “you,” but I mean me. Andy never got the hang of it.
I mostly just stopped talking.
She, meanwhile, alternated between heavenly smiles for the Canon and mumbled threats for loudspeakers. “Babe,” I consoled between snapshots, “don’t worry—we’ve had a few decades of hearing. It’ll be good to give deafness a try.”
She stared at me a minute.
“I mean, it’s not like we can do much else, right? Just smile politely and kiss your hearing goodbye.”
The holy nectar—which I suspect is merely murky water—stretches in a rectangle several football fields in area. At one end, jutting out into the pond, on a tiny island connected by a lush causeway to the mainland, looms the Golden Temple of Amritsar.
Think of a giant cube of bling bling—with a few tufts and flags and ornaments fluttering from the roof—balanced atop a flattened rectangle of bathwater, ringed with a wide sidewalk, flanked by a three-story wall and buildings of the surrounding infrastructure. The nectar reflects the golden wonder, drawing all eyes toward this oculus of worship perched solemnly in the limelight.
We had definitely made it. This was it. The Golden Temple was within reach.
Sikhism, the surrounding placards and museums informed me, was invented some six hundred years ago by a certain enterprising monarch looking to smooth out the violent tensions between neighboring Muslims and Hindus along what is now the border between India and Pakistan. I was a bit ruffled at the language here–the thought of a mere mortal “inventing” a religion just to make the villagers more peaceable. It could have at least couched that little nugget of theology in some terms like “prophet” and “revelation” and “scripture” to garner some credibility.
Despite the placards’ claims of the mortal origins of the religion, Sikhs worshiped with uncommon fervor. Followers quickly became zealots, embracing the 5 K’s of Sikh ideology (precepts as divine as never cutting their hair and perpetually wearing symbolic daggers) and the monotheistic mantras—elements decidedly Muslim in flavor. Meanwhile, the worship borrowed heavily from the Hindu side of the divide: think gaunt ascetics chanting over sitars and divans with the aforementioned incense and penchant of heroic details carved into the cornices of the temples.
They merged the fighting spirit of both.
Soon, a hearty class of warriors was swaggering over the Punjab plains, stamping out rebellious rabble on either side with an efficacy that was as worrisome as it was effective. Before a few centuries had passed, Sikhism had a lineup of mystic gurus, had carved a tough little niche for itself in the politics of the region, had prospered enough to guild a handful of its temples, and had even circulated its own legends and heroes. My favorite of these tales goes something like this:
In the divine year of the blessed holy martyrdom of the fifteend grand-nephew cousin of the renowned Guru Sumteenohrudder, a fierce battle broke out between the unhallowed infidel followers of the wicked Prince Eivalmahn and the zealous upright and utterly handsome followers of the Guru. On the plains of Ahvfahgotten, the two armies joined in fierce battle. The godly Guru, remembering how he and his people had been insulted by the wicked prince, vowed his holy vengeance upon the head of his sworn enemy. The battle raged, and in the midst of his heroic deeds of valor, the guru found himself surrounded by the smelly infidels, who did cut off his holy head, and who therefore left him for dead. The Guru’s trusted friend, seeing the ghastly demise of the blessed Guru, did weep and lament, and did remind the fallen martyr of the holy vow he had made for revenge. Thus being reminded, the Guru did stand back up, did plunk his blessed noggin back upon his shoulders, and did continue into the fray. The constarnation wrought upon the bad guys was considerable, and the Guru did lay a mighty smack-down on the wicked prince and save his people from the cruel grasp of that dude’s insensitive remarks.
With Sunday School lessons like that, no wonder the religion flourished. It was almost enough to make me rethink my Don’t. Trust. Anyone. motto of the day.
All joking aside, though, the Sikhs did carve out quite a reputation for themselves, contributing greatly to the Indian state forming under the British dominion, and to the later sovereign Indian nation. Its arts and crafts likewise saw plenty of good stuff, evidenced chiefly by the construction—and later re-re-construction after its destruction in the infamous Operation Blue Star—of the Golden Temple where we found ourselves gawking endlessly.
The Sikhs seen there today are a motley mix—grandfathers in beards reaching to the belt buckles snap selfies at the temple and message the photo to grandsons working in UK. Turbaned, fierce clerics sit in cushioned glasshouses poring over giant handwritten manuscripts of their scripture. Youths—college-basketball-tall youths nonetheless—patrol the wide sidewalk with spears in hand and politely ask foreign visitors not to set up their tripods for pictures.
Not that I’m bitter about that or anything.
Women in color-blasting get-ups smile demurely and chase numerous children to and fro while the father dips himself in holy nectar.
Over it all, in the midst of it all, sits the Golden Temple—to which we now were headed.
That little task takes a bit of patience.
At least in the tourist-“friendly” season of December it does. Crowds from all over India had gathered to wait in line on the narrow causeway leading out to the temple. If “India,” “narrow,” and “high season for travel” don’t trigger any warning bells, well, all I can say is that you ought to sign up for a little trip to Amritsar in December. I suppose it’s nothing a little golden trimmings and a lot of flat screen TV monitors blasting nonstop chants couldn’t alleviate. On the plus side, though, the pressing crowds—combined with the mounting sun—started to warm us up a little.
What it couldn’t really do, however, was grant us a little more sleep than the previous night’s tossing and turning had allowed. It was only ten, and we were feeling about dead.
This Golden Temple had better have some Guru-reviving powers to get us up and caring. I can always gauge Andy’s level of energy by how many pictures she’s clicking through on the Canon. And at that moment, even standing on the threshold of the Golden Temple, the object of her years-long dream, she was pushing the camera onto me and holding her head in her hands.
Not even the fiftieth re-chanting of the Guru Nanuk’s revelations of the divinity could pick her up; not even the lyrics plastered in three languages across flat-screen TVs was helping. Not even the brisk nudges in the back from our fellow queue-mates could cheer her up.
I wasn’t faring much better. And I, for some stupid reason, had promised myself to be extra polite to make up for my gaffes with those darned gentlemen on the train. What on earth was I thinking?
But we did make it there, eventually. I’ll have to scroll through the pictures, though, to try to remember what that moment was like. What exists in the hard drive of my brain is a smattering montage of gilded everything—and everything that wasn’t golden was embroidered with golden threads or inlaid with shiny crystals. And everything that wasn’t either of those was hundreds of people struggling to get their phones into a decent angle for a snapshot that didn’t include a hundred other strangers.
Andy, with all the impressive pluck of a headless warrior guru, revived and snatched back the Canon and set to work documenting all the details and wonders—the chanting gurus in the breakfast nook, the giant scriptures in the sunlit windows, the views from the roof overlooking the nectar, the archways over the windows… Wait, no she didn’t. Photography not allowed in the temple itself.
Even if it felt a bit more like Black Friday than Easter Sunday, the Golden Temple was fun. It certainly was something new—and something very shiny. Indiana Jones-ish for seclusion and mystery it wasn’t. But even so, for an exotic backdrop peopled by rainbow colors and buccaneering faces, it was good. Better than good.
We actually smiled and high-fived. We were glad we came.
That golden moment lasted about twenty seconds.
Back on the mainland, we breathed a sigh of relief, and continued perusing the outlying museums to the tune of the street musicians rifling through some local treats in the marble piazzas. But our energy was failing. We were running on fumes. We needed eats fast.
Fortunately for us, if there’s one thing more impressive in Punjab than the Golden Temple, it was the Golden soup kitchen.
Part of the Sikh temple tradition is giving, and part of that giving involves a free meal for all visitors, no matter how many thousands that might be. Walking out through the gate across the nectar from the temple itself, Andy and I found a smooth, free-flowing crowd graciously being ushered in to a large hall. No stop-starting here, and no TV chants along the way. This was a rolling stream of hungry humanity, curiously sniffing the spice-laden air wafting from within the enclosure.
We followed along, lured as much by the scent of roasted cumin and frying ghee as by the human sheep of the crowd. Before I knew what was happening, I found myself sitting cross-legged — “Indian-style” I realize now we used to say when I was a kid — on the floor in a line of visitors a hundred wide, with a long, narrow tarp spread before us for a tablemat—or floormat, more accurately. No sooner had the tarp landed than a half-dozen volunteers scurried past, each one passing me a tin plate or ladling some dahl or scooping some chutney or pouring some water, or tossing me a chapatti.
Andy hardly had time for her ritual food photo.
Before we had a chance to thank the Lord for the meal, the hundred other visitors in our line were rising and filing out a separate exit, dropping the plates to a waiting queue of bear-bearded grandpas smiling innocuously to each and every one.
Less than fifteen minutes after entering, we had sat down, eaten our fill, been ushered out, and deposited the dishes in their bins. And still the strange brook of humans filed in one door and out the other, arriving famished, and departing quicker than you can say “would you like fries with that?” out the other.
This, ladies and gentlemen, was the legendary soup kitchen of the Amritsar Golden Temple.
Only Google and God above could say how many meals get served up daily, or how many volunteers it takes to make the thing run. Andy and I ducked back inside to get some snapshots, and we got invited for a tour of the works by a kindly patriarch who must’ve thought we were shooting a documentary. He must’ve mistaken me for a Sikh warrior or something, because he never slowed down to try out his English on me. No sir, it was all a brisk walk and a wave to this warehouse full of onion or that storeroom full of garlic or the other stockpile of potatoes. If it wasn’t that, there were the huddled masses of volunteers stripping and washing the veggies, pounding out the dough, slopping out the trash. Or if it wasn’t that, how about the iron vats large enough to deep-fry a bison, or enough oil being poured in to make OPEC rethink its production numbers.
Having struggled with Andy to try to feed a dozen or two college students in our apartment, I couldn’t fathom the process of feeding never-ceasing lines of pilgrims and tourists, keeping them flowing through without a hitch, without a wait, without a second thought.
I tried to imagine the man in charge of it all—who was the puppet master pulling the strings for this sort of operation, and how did he ever get it started?
Perhaps the monstrous kitchen extravaganza began with a simple cup of tea and toast for an unsuspecting stranger. Perhaps the whole thing started centuries ago, generations of selfless volunteers shucking their produce from their fields and hauling them in wholesale to donate to the temple food pantry. Perhaps the roles of the sweeper and servers and industrial-quantity chefs are merely taught by one man from a hyper-organized mind, but perhaps the whole thing has sprouted, grown, and evolved through generations of worshipers donating hour after hour after hour, till each one functions as flawlessly as a tiny cell in the tissue of the feeding organism.
It’s kind of a humbling prospect to think that there may not be one single mind at the back of it all, but rather a collective sort of consciousness that has grown and learned and perfected the organic machinery necessary for keeping so many other organic machines going. To try to start up such a shin-dig from scratch would be an exercise in humility and frustration, but this thing feels much more natural than a one-man show. This is the combined effort of a conglomeration of loyal families spanning generations, slowly growing the scale of the alms they offer to the aid of hangry pilgrims.
It’s not like it was a restful sort of meal, but it was refreshing nonetheless—and well worth the donation we dropped in the booth outside.
I know we’d just left the gilded temple behind, but as we strolled away from the food hall, I couldn’t help but think that this, this cafeteria on steroids, this fast-food of the masses, housed the true gold of Amritsar.
But then again, I had yet to visit Jallianwala Bagh.