Author & Photographer Jonathan Fuhrmann
Finding equality and equanimity at The Golden Temple in Amritsar.
Instead of the scarlet-robed Tibetan exile monks of Dharamsala, burly, bearded Punjabis now thronged the streets I walked down. I had arrived in the city of Amritsar, in the heartland of Punjab. India is big, really big. It’s difficult to believe just how vastly, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, we think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to India. The size of the country is well reflected in its diversity. There are few places on the planet where a relatively short journey can transport you between two such ethnically and culturally different worlds. And so just a few hours on a bumpy bus took me from the lofty Himalayan foothills of Himachal Pradesh to the dusty plains of Punjab. After an all-too-brief month in India three years ago, I had returned wanting to learn more about the north where the great plains are overshadowed by the world’s greatest mountain ranges.
The border between India and Pakistan rather messily bisects this historical region in the way that arbitrary lines drawn by colonial overlords tend to. Amritsar is connected to Lahore in Pakistan, just 35 miles away, by the Grand Trunk Road. This aptly named road used to connect Chittagong in Bangladesh with Kabul. These days one of the main attractions in Lahore and Amritsar is the daily border closing ceremony at the road.
Soldiers march on the wrought-iron gates from both sides in exaggerated gaits that would not look out of place in the Ministry of Silly Walks. Officers wearing crested turbans stare each other down and flex their muscles at each other. Announcers whip the crowds up into frenzied chants of “Hindustan” or “Pakistan”, and then try to out-yell each other: the aim is to simply shout for longer than your counterpart across the border. The crowds lap up the action on both sides, but there is an unexpected and welcome undertone of humour here. The ceremony seems to highlight the absurdity of the border while drawing attention to the enmity, co-operation and fierce rivalry between India and Pakistan. During Diwali, the guards even exchange sweets.
Following years of misery and violence, the border now separates a Muslim-majority Pakistan and a Hindu-majority India. But a third group – the Sikhs – remain on both sides of the border, across the historical region of Punjab. Fortunately for me, Sri Harmandir Sahib – the famous Golden Temple, the holiest Gurdwara (temple) of the Sikh religion – is on the Indian side, in Amritsar.
I’m not a particularly spiritual person, and comparable sites such as the Western Wall in Jerusalem impressed me mostly with the weight of history, conflict and cultural change that permeated them. What I found in Amritsar, however, left a far deeper impression than any religious site I have ever been to.
The Golden Temple is built such that visitors do not climb stairs to enter it. Instead, the stairs lead down into the complex to symbolise that everyone comes together at a common level, whatever their position in life outside the Temple; a particularly welcome break from India’s strict caste system. There is an entrance on each side of the temple to symbolise openness towards people from all directions. To further emphasise this point, Guru Arjan, the leader of the Sikhs when the temple was founded, invited a Muslim Sufi to lay the foundation stone. As a blatant outsider, I felt warmly welcomed by countless smiles and numerous offers to show me around the Temple. My inner cynic, operating under the assumption that everything has its price in India, was quickly silenced here.
Anyone who visits a gurdwara receives a free meal, or Langar. There is no seat of honour – all diners sit together on the floor of a huge hall. The Golden Temple serves the world’s largest free meals, sometimes feeding well over 100,000 people a day – and it does so every single day.
Initially I felt guilty accepting free food. Even travelling on a minimal budget as I was, I was far richer than the majority of people around me, but I was quickly educated. The idea behind Langar is to reinforce concepts of equality, sharing, community and inclusivity. And so I tucked into a delicious thali with two different curries and chapattis, distributed and readily refilled by young men carrying buckets of food.
Later, I explored the bowels of the complex to see how this enormous operation functions. There are no conveyor belts here, no dishwashing machines and no industrial ovens. For three enormous community meals, every day, small armies of volunteers chop vegetables, wash up, make chapattis and cook lentils and potatoes in truly gargantuan vats. Everything runs incredibly smoothly – I wanted to help out, but everywhere I looked every move looked so perfectly practised that I would undoubtedly have slowed things down and done more harm than good.
An elderly gentleman told me at dinner that there is one single paid employee in this operation feeding tens of thousands of people every day. If that’s not efficiency, I don’t know what is.
No evening in a temple is complete without a religious ceremony. Yet again, I was caught completely off guard by the proceedings at Harmandir Sahib.
The evening ritual at the Golden Temple revolves around the Sikh holy scriptures. More specifically, the book is…put to bed.
To explain: The current head of the Sikh faith is Guru Granth Sahib, and he has occupied this position since 1708. This would be a remarkable feat for a human, and indeed the 11th Guru is no human: Guru Granth Sahib is the holy scripture of Sikhism, which is revered instead of an individual. Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and last living guru of Sikhism, enshrined the scripture as the “eternal guru”.
And to this day, a copy of the book is ceremonially laid to rest for the night on a pillow in an adorned golden litter, which is then carried from the temple to the adjoining palace amidst chanting crowds. The next morning, the eternal guru is carried back into the temple for another day of spiritual leadership.
Besides deciding that his successor should be the holy text, the 10th guru also played an important role in guiding Sikhism to become a religion of warriors. This is unsurprising given the history of Sikh persecution at the hands of Muslims. Indeed, Guru Gobind Singh became the leader of the Sikh faith at age nine after his father was beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam. Later, all four of his sons died in battle against the Mughals.
Since then, any true Sikh has to be ready to fight attackers at all times. To do this, they require five essential items that any Sikh has to have on him: a metal bracelet that can deflect blows to the hand, a dagger for self-defence, and a practical long undergarment that is worn even at night. Finally, Sikhs never cut their hair and keep it in a turban; they also carry a wooden comb to tame their manes and beards.
Despite this martial outlook, there is no history of Sikh terrorism in the western world. In fact, at the London 2012 Olympic Games, security staff at Heathrow Airport were specifically instructed to allow Sikhs through security with their dagger if they also had the other four essential items with them.
Sikh history – like that of any group – is not unblemished. Most famously, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984, in retaliation for a military operation against a militant Sikh leader in Amritsar.
Nevertheless, my visit to Sri Harmandir Sahib introduced me to an atmosphere of effortless equality, equanimity and welcoming. I was so moved that I spent much of my four days in Amritsar at the temple, resting amongst its arches or wandering along the edge of the sacred water that surrounds the innermost building.
I have since visited a gurdwara in London and received the same warm welcome there as I did in Amritsar. If you live near one yourself, I wholeheartedly recommend visiting and learning about an oft-overlooked faith over a delicious meal.
Discover more from Jonathan Fuhrmann here.