Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Amritsar: Golden City

Arriving in Amritsar, we are greeted by the cheerful and delightful man that is Balvinder Singh – Amritsar city planning chief and old friend of Darrol’s.  He gets us the short distance to the Shiraz Continental hotel (which is pretty nice and has a great open courtyard) and he sits and chats about Sikhism as we all sit around and eat fabulous pakoras and chai. 
            After that, it is presto, a short cycle rick to the golden Temple – the Hari Mandir.  Already there is something in me excited about being in Amritsar and I like the clear air and the feel of the place.  But when I catch my first glimpse of the Golden Temple, something stirs in my heart and I get a little giddy.  It is astonishing.   

Really, it is the kind of beauty that just takes ones breath away.  I keep on thinking, “This has got to be one of the most beautiful things ever made by the hands of man.”  We go and have some dinner at the langar, and there we meet a wonderful man who gives us a very detailed tour of the langar kitchen areas, and after that the rest of the temple grounds.  He seems to know everything about Sikhism and his lecture is delivered in good English and is full of knowledge.  It is a huge blessing, we all agree, that we have come upon this man.  He is just glad to be of service – he lives in Delhi and is a technician but as a devoted Sikh, he comes to Amritsar often, and his seva is to find groups of tourists and give them free tours.  I came with a respect for Sikhism but after this day it is profound and I feel in awe of this place and these people.  
Rob eating at langar

            For starters, the whole place is completely free and totally open to all religious traditions.  When it was built about 400 years ago, the guru in charge at the time said that if a pilgrim has travelled for a long time, when they arrive, what do they want?  First, they want food and drink.  So, this is provided free at the langar.  Then, they will want to wash and be refreshed.  So, the sacred bathing pools of amrit surround the whole temple.  Only then will they want to pray at the temple.  And when they are done, they will want to sleep – and so there are free dormitories that surround the temple.  This was a crazy and wonderful idea a few centuries ago, and it is even more incredible now.  The langar has been feeding hunger people of all races and religions, regardless of class or caste, 24 hours a day, non-stop, for over 400 years.  Yes, this is the world’s largest free kitchen, that has actually been open and running and never closed or stopped for all these centuries.  It is astounding.  What is more, this is a popular place.  At this point, on a regular day it serves over 100,000 meals.  In the busy season, they will serve almost a million meals in a day!  
Stirring a wee pot o' dhal

 It is so, so beautiful, this place.  Completely transparent financially (with a budget that rivals that of it’s state, Punjab)  it is run by a democratically elected group that gives equal opportunity for women.  Incredibly, the langar workers are all volunteers who have no schedule.  It seems strange for a place so perfectly run, but all these meals are cooked, served and cleaned up by people who just show up, walk in, and work. Anyone can do it, and two from our group sat and made chappatis for a few hours.  Yeah, amazing.  I just love this place.

 On our second day in Amritsar I am glad we have all afternoon in the temple grounds.  In the morning we go to Jallianwallah Bagh – the site of the famous massacre that was so fundamental in the Indian path to independence.   After that I had a great cappuccino at this expensive place (it cost about as much as the average meal, but it was the best coffee I’ve had in India), had lunch at the langar, and then made my way to wait in line to actually get into the Golden Temple itself.   Only one other person from the group decided to do this, which is understandable, since it took me an hour and forty minutes of being squeeze-pressed in a queue of Indians to get in.   
The afternoon lineup - temple way in the back!

Me in the the thick of the line - about 1 hour in...

That in itself was quite the experience.  But once in, I was able to take my time there.  I went to the top, found a quiet place and meditated for a while.  I can’t describe it, but this is a very special place.  It was so beautiful and peaceful and holy – not to mention fascinating.  And though we can’t take pictures inside I will try to find some online – but it is the most astonishingly gorgeous place – every inch of every wall and ceiling is designs in precious jewels and gold. Yes, this golden temple is real gold – parts of it solid, but the entire thing is at least gold plated.  
Bather  at the temple

            It is a very sacred and special experience for me and the next few hours, instead of doing the shopping I had planned to do, I just can’t bring myself to leave the temple grounds or lose sight of it.  Walking around the perimeter or sitting in meditation at the waters edge, with the sacred music playing truly good Indian classical music, delicately projected out from the inner temple where it is being played, I feel that with the sun, the sanctity, the wonder – I am surrounded by every good thing.  Only after a stunning sunset do I go for dinner. It is the most beautiful and perfect and heavenly afternoon that I can recall having.  Period. 
View of line from the roof of the Temple!

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