The Amritsar Golden Temple is the finest spiritual structure in all of India. It’s colossal, imposing, and beautiful. But it’s also calming, orderly, and serene. That’s not an easy feat anywhere in India, let alone in the middle of maddeningly chaotic Amritsar.
The Amritsar Golden Temple is a phenomenal place of worship for many reasons. Perhaps my favourite is that it serves one of the world’s largest, most generous daily free meals. If it’s not the absolute biggest, it is most certainly hosted in the most fabulous setting.
The temple is the spiritual capital of the world’s Sikhs who call it the Harmandir Sahib (Temple of God). As a group, Sikhs are India’s most striking religious sect. Men and women alike are tall, strong, and handsome. Throughout India, the Sikhs we met were bright, inquisitive, and at times downright regal.
Sikh pilgrim and beggar on the walk to the Amritsar Golden Temple
Sikhism is a relatively modern religion by Indian standards. It was founded in the 16th century in response to the fanaticism and fatalism of—and the endless conflicts between—Hindus and Muslims.
According to the official Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee:
Sikhism is a practical religion. It does not consist in a certain set of beliefs or mere words. Religion does not imply wandering to shrines and tombs…There is no supernaturalism or mythology…. It does not believe in devils or angels or heavenly spirits. …Sikhism is opposed to all ritualism and formalism…Sikhism does not enjoin blind faith…The death of the intellect can not be a condition of the life of the spirit. Faith does not start with surmises or absurdities….Sikhism is a faith of hope and cheer…It does not lead to despair and defeatism…Sikhism is a democratic religion.
The list of practices banned in Sikhism includes some equally refreshing ideas. It forbids “blind spirituality” including idol worship, circumcision, and forcing women to wear a veil. It does away with a priestly class, and living apart from family as a monk or nun. It prohibits creature sacrifice (both animal, and sati (the practice of widows incinerating themselves on their husband’s funeral priors). My personal favourite is the ban on “worthless talk”.
If I had anything close to a spiritually transcending experience in India, it was with the Sikhs at the Golden Temple.
Sikhs believe in equality. The founding gurus were early advocates of abolishing the caste system. There are no untouchables in the eyes of Sikhs. Everyone you meet will shake your hand, look into your eyes, and expect the same treatment in return.
Inclusivity is a major theme of Sikhism, and no doubt part of the what made our visit to the Amritsar Golden Temple so moving.
Unlike most Muslim and several Hindu temples, everyone is welcome everywhere at the Golden Temple. The only stipulation is that all guests, male and female, must both remove their shoes and cover their heads. Sikh men wear turbans at all times—some believe the bigger the holier. Temple visitors can borrow headscarves if needed.
Inside the Amritsar Golden Temple
The temple complex is baller. Its four massive entry gates face the four compass points, signifying openness to everyone. And rather than building atop a marble slab on high ground, the Sikhs dug a hole and built stairs down to their temple, denoting equality.
The Gurdwara–the actual golden temple—is surrounded by a holy “lake”. The first iteration was built in 1574, on a tiny lake near a tiny Sikh township. After visiting, the Mughal Emperor was impressed and gifted several outlying towns to the Guru’s daughter as a wedding present. The Sikhs and the Amritsar Golden Temple expanded.
Today the temple complex is like an academic (or Silicon Valley) campus. There are libraries, the community kitchen and massive mess hall, a pair of watch towers, and seven “dorms” that sleep thousands of pilgrims every night. Like the food, accommodations are gratis.
The Gurdwara got its gold leaf finish—750 kg on the inverted lotus dome alone— in the 1800s
Like many Indian bodies of water, the Golden Temple lake is said to have healing powers
In addition to bling, the Gurdwara houses the Guru Granth Sahib, the holiest and no doubt largest Sikh text. The massive book is on display and read aloud from over the temple PA nonstop. The gurus’ rhythmic chants echo off the sea of water and marble and create the Golden Temple’s mystical atmosphere.
People cue up for a closer look and listen. The main floor and upper galleries are pleasantly packed at every hour of the day. Cameras aren’t allowed in the Gurdwara. It’s the perfect excuse to still your trigger finger and soak up the incredible energy, swaying and maybe even humming alongside new friends.
“May the hot plates remain ever in service”
The Sikh prayer, loh langar tapde rahin translates to “may the hot plates of the langars remain ever in service”. At any other site in India I would have been able to buy a T-shirt emblazoned with that line. The Golden Temple could have been my one-stop-Christmas-present-shop. Alas the Sikhs are nowhere near that crass.
Offering free communal meals was one of the first steps the newly organized Sikhs took in their battle against the caste system. Today the Amritsar Golden Temple hosts three langars a day, seven days a week, serving in the neighbourhood of 100,000 people a day. Everyone eats at floor level, and everyone is expected to pitch in.
From morning to night, an army of volunteers preps hundreds of thousands of veggies, and scrubs tens of thousands of metal plates and drinking cups.
As impressive as the volunteer machine is, nothing could prepare me for the temple’s furnace room of a kitchen. I suppose there isn’t an industrial range in the world that can feed 100,000 mouths. Entire forests burn to keep the eternal flame of the Amritsar Golden Temple kitchens smoldering. Fleets of cooks patrol hot-tubs sized vats I didn’t know existed outside fairytales.
Between the smoke of the fire and the steam of the pots, most visitors stick to dishwashing and don’t venture too deep into the kitchen. But we were moths to the flames.
At first we watched from afar, timid and intimidated. But being the Golden Temple, we were immediately made welcome and brought into the fold by a team boiling sweet rice. We added water with a fireman’s hose, milk by the bucket load, and stirred with a gondolier’s paddle straight off a Venice canal. Forget food, we were making magic potions.
Just when I imagined our visit couldn’t get any more divine, a lightning storm broke out over the lake. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was a sign from the guru.