“I am a stranger to no one & no one is a stranger to me. Indeed I am a friend to all. Guru Granth Sahib, Sikh saying
Two weeks into our sojourn, we took a trip to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, with our Tibetan doctor friend and her daughter. It was now or never, we felt, as we had skipped the long drive to Amritsar on previous trips. We’d waited so long, in fact, that the road system had improved, and the timing of the trip was just five hours.
It goes without saying that it was not a particularly relaxing five hours, driving in India is unsettling at the best of times. The driving style is very different from what we’re accustomed to. The volume of traffic, congestion, plus mountain roads on the first leg of the trip mean that drivers weave in and out, tailgating and passing where we westerners would never consider doing so.
On clear, flat stretches, fairly uncommon, drivers speed to gain time. The drivers are competent and I no longer become anxious on the road, relaxing into the process, trusting that we will arrive safely.
Our drive to Amritsar was uneventful and we arrived at Mrs. Bhandari’s Guesthouse in the early afternoon. Amritsar, a small Indian city of just over one million people, is only 50 kilometres from Lahore, Pakistan, also in the state of the Punjab. Amritsar is a busy, dusty commercial centre, where drivers deliberately drive through red lights at all times, unless there is a police presence in evidence. This is exceptional even for India!
Because of the congestion, our driver advised us to have a meal and rest, then visit the temple once only, at dusk, the best time of day to see it. We would not enjoy an early morning visit, he told us, as it’s chilly and foggy at that time of day .
Our first sighting of Mrs. Bhandari’s gave the impression of a dusty, out of date, dreary place. Why had our McLeod Ganj hotel sent us here, I wondered. The guesthouse, built in 1954, was situated in a former army cantonment, a military district where army units may be encamped for long periods of time. Originally the rooms were rented out to teachers, army captains and officers. Mrs. Bhandari died in 2006 at the age of 101 and one of her daughters now runs the place.
The rooms, in a row on the inner side of the property, beside a garden, were old fashioned and musty, but smelled fine after a good airing. We were treated to a fine meal of Indian food in a cozy private dining room in the main building, a large colonial style home. That was when we began to realize that Mrs. Bhandari’s was a hidden gem. The beautifully appointed, British style dining room was a throwback to another time, due to the British influence in India during the last century.
After our meal we wandered around the grounds, enjoying the flowers that had been painstakingly nurtured in the dry ground and the well cared for green grass, a challenge in the dry climate of India. Our young friend played on the swings and teeter totter with my partner. There was even a swimming pool on the grounds.
We had a tour of the main house, decorated in period style, and the two kitchens, one for breakfast, where the yogurt and cheese was made, and one for other meals. The next morning we enjoyed a delicious breakfast before departing.
Later our driver let us out at a large commercial plaza, about a ten minute walk from the temple. Along our walk we saw hotels and many stores and street vendors, selling mostly souvenirs of the Golden Temple.
Guards at the temple entrance instructed us to cover our heads with small orange triangles unless we had a hat or head scarf with us, and to leave our footwear at the complementary shoe storage. We then walked through a symbolic foot bath and onto the grounds of the temple proper. Our Tibetan friend noted that no one was searched before entering the grounds of the temple complex, quite different from the Dalai Lama’s temple.
The Harmandir Sahib or Hari Mandir, officially renamed in 2005, is commonly known as The Golden Temple, and is the holiest shrine in Sikhism, a major pilgrimage destination for Sikhs from all over the world and a tourist attraction. Construction began in 1574 on land donated by the Mughal emperor Akbar.
The temple is gold-plated, with copper cupolas and white marble walls encrusted with precious stones in floral patterns. Verses from the Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book) decorate the inside and outside. In the early 19th century, 100 kilograms of gold were applied to the lotus-shaped dome and the decorative marble was added. It was a majestic sight to behold.
The Golden Temple itself is open to everyone, as are all Sikh temples. No pictures can be taken inside it. It is said to be the most spiritual place in India. It was almost twilight when we entered the complex, the ideal time to be there, with the lights coming on and a bit of fog in the air. It was both magical and spiritual, deeply peaceful yet also powerful.
The entire complex had an impact, the scene felt quite other worldly to me, but the Golden Temple itself enthralled us. The temple lies in the centre of a sacred pond, the Amrit Sarovar, or Pool of Nectar, surrounded by the other temples and the wide marble walkways. It is reached by crossing the Guru`s Bridge, symbolizing the journey of the soul after death.
We were clearly meant to visit the inside the temple, as, along with a couple hundred other folks, we inched along the Guru’s Bridge for only twenty minutes before reaching the doorway.
The male chanters sat beneath a jewel studded canopy in the centre of the temple, along with a handful of other people, including women. Sikh visitors pay their respects by touching their foreheads to the temple floor and walls. I stood with my hands together and instantly dropped down into a deep meditative state, lifted up by the spiritual energy.
We were aware that chanters sang the scriptures from the Holy Book from four a.m. until ten p.m. in the Golden Temple, and the audio could be heard all round the complex, but we did not realize until later that the activities inside were televised throughout India for Sikh viewers.
Afterwards we moved inside one of the buildings, each took a divided thali tray, then sat on the floor of a large dining hall, or langar. The kitchen serves two halls, with a total capacity of 5,000 people. About 50,000 people are served on an average day; on religious holidays up to 100,000 eat in the halls. Dal is cooked in enormous vats, each holding up to 700 kilograms.
Male volunteers walked around the room offering everyone curd, (yogurt), dal, (split peas or lentils), chick peas in sauce and roti, (bread). We did not receive vegetables or dessert, as is often the case, I read, but we were very happy with what was offered. There was no fee for the food, although donations are accepted.
It was a privilege to spend time at the Golden Temple complex. We felt very welcome and there was no pressured to buy anything, adding to the tranquility. The temple staff, serving us food and gently correcting us when we put our feet in the sacred lake, truly lived up to Guru Granth Sahib’s motto of friendship with all. We spent only a couple of hours there but the time stretched. Kyros, or sacred time was at play.
Copryright Ellen Besso 2018
Ellen Besso is a former Life Coach & Counsellor & a Reiki Practitioner. She is the author of An Indian Sojourn: One woman’s spiritual experience of travel & volunteering, and Surviving Eldercare: Where their needs end & yours begin, both available through Amazon.
Next Time: Audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama