The Golden Temple of Amritsar is the main holy place for India’s Sikhs, most of whom live here in the Punjab. Guide Param is a Sikh, as I mentioned, and I got a good primer in this religion from him as we drove into central Amritsar. The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, was born in the mid-1500s, and the main new thing I learned was that he proposed monotheism and the equality of humankind, quite a radical proposition for a religion emerging from the caste-based polytheism of Hinduism. Rather like an earlier version of Baha’u’lla (definitely had to google that spelling) who founded Baha’i in the mid 19th century.
My tour of the Golden Temple complex began with the donning of the veil (which did such heavy duty in Iran last year) and the doffing of the shoes and socks. The Punjabis proudly claim that more people visit the Golden Temple every day – 100,000 – than visit the Taj Mahal. The visitors are overwhelmingly locals. I didn’t see many Europeans at all. ‘They think India starts and ends with the Taj Mahal’, said Param sniffily.
All in all I had to wash my feet thrice, but it was pleasant walking through this cool water, the day being very warm but not intolerably so. Then you get to walk on this rough rubber matting or woven coir stuff that give your feet a good massage. I was surprised when I finally put my shoes and socks back on after the hour or so in the temple precinct to feel how pleasantly tingly the soles of my feet were, and how clean.
Men get to bathe in the holy waters anywhere around the pool…
….but women have to queue to take a ‘holy dip’ in this closed-off spot. The cool water looked inviting, but there was a sign warning that it was treated with so many chemicals to keep it hygienic that management would not be responsible for any damage to hair colouring! Plus I didn’t have my togs and I hate crowds and queues.
I sometimes hesitate to photograph people in religious worship, even though no one has ever objected and the guides say the people don’t mind. And you aren’t expected to pay; I’ve only once been asked for money for a pic, by a poor old man in a temple in Nepal.
I’ve come to the point now that, having seen the inside of many a Buddhist or Hindu temple, I tell the guides that I’ll give this next one a miss because I’m familiar by now with what’s inside, and also because it feels a bit disrespectful. I may be an unbelieving infidel but I am sensitive to the cultural and emotional importance of these sites and rituals to others. I remember once being inside one of the great cathedrals of Europe where a Mass was in progress and a Japanese tourist started clicking away on his giant camera. I got all indignant and offended on behalf of the faithful!
This bit was very interesting. Within the Golden Temple precinct is the world’s biggest free kitchen, which dispenses many thousands of free meals a day to pilgrims.
Some of the people working here are paid professionals, such as the blokes working the tandoor oven, above.
But others, like these women, are volunteers doing it for devotional reasons. And to have fun with friends and family, I suspect.
This is the dining-hall, below. One minute it’s empty, with a bloke trailing a mop up and down to keep the floor clean…
Then the doors are opened and within seconds it’s chocka. But it was all very orderly.
Then dozens of volunteers go round dispensing bread and what looks like dahl, which is a perfectly wholesome and adequate meal. I’ve been eating bucketloads of lentil and chickpea stews and my guts feel very healthy, thank you. I’ll say no more on that subject.
After the meal of course comes the washing up. There are no dishwashers apart from the human volunteers. For some reason this job is segregated, although the food preparation and dining are not.
Just had to have a little sit-down on our way out.
Just before we got to this spot, Param pointed out that my veil was slipping. In re-adjusting it over my head I got all tangled in my hair and basically pulled it off to start afresh. A group of women sitting nearby witnessed my bare-headedness and giggled, telling Param (as he later translated for me) that he should let them take a pic of the two of us while I fussed with my veil. But Param’s firm philosophy is: don’t hand your phone to anyone you don’t know! Mind you, these people seem jolly decent. Param told me he overheard one group of women passing along the hot gossip that there was a ‘beautiful’ (got that? Not even ‘beautiful OLD’) white-haired lady walking round the temple. It seems to have been a bit of a coup to have clapped eyes on me.
There were a hundred or so very serious-looking people attending this open-air musical sermon.
Just outside the temple grounds is the Jalianwala Bagh, site of a brutal massacre of thousands of unarmed protestors by the British in April 1919. A long story….I read it up in the museum in the building there, the walls of which are still pocked by bullet-holes. These have been preserved, and a beautiful memorial garden established.
This statue is of the man who dedicated his life to avenging the massacre. The military commander of the operation Reginald Dyer having died of a stroke in 1927, the Sikh revolutionary Udham Singh went after the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab Michael O’Dwyer who endorsed the killings and may even have put Dyer up to them. Singh finally tracked O’Dwyer to London in 1940 and shot him dead at a political meeting at point blank range. He immediately handed himself in to the police and was later hanged, saying it was an honour to die for his country and his people this way. Make a great movie, wouldn’t it?
Now, see this innocent looking cup? If I walked past you at a brisk pace in a hotel dining-room, you might suppose I was taking my breakfast caffe latte up to my room, wouldn’t you?
Of course you would. My stratagem worked! Cunningly concealed beneath the white tissue were two hard-boiled eggs, to be stashed away in the event of need of free lunch. Just yesterday I dined on two eggs, a banana and a mandarin rather than pay the sky high hotel prices. I’ve already mentioned that in India I’m on this breakfast plus one free meal deal, and that’s really got to be evening dinner as there are no eateries or villages or food outlets within cooee of the airport hotel. The day of the flag ceremony they took me to a place in town where I had a very good lamb curry but it cost 750 rupees – a bit over $A15, cheaper than the hotel prices but not exactly cheap.
The thing is, I still haven’t eaten them. To be continued…..