Being a place of Sikh pilgrimage, Amritsar is a busy place. Add to this the general tourist crowd, it looks really busy on any ordinary day. I don’t see any obvious places to stay for the night. I walk around a lot. I find a couple of dingy and expensive places. I am not impressed. By now I am hungry. I settle down at a popular restaurant. Lots of locals, visitors and foreign tourists are gorging on parathas and downing glassloads of lassi. I order the local speciality – Amritsari Kulcha.
I am disappointed. The bread is only half-cooked and too thick for my palate. Almost immediately I feel uneasy in the stomach department. The channa is tasty and well-cooked but that was the only thing good in this flashy restaurant. I don’t find fault with the famous Amritsari Kulcha. It’s just that I have been unfortunate to try it at the wrong place.
I head straight to the Golden Temple. I enquire about rooms.
‘Rooms are booked months in advance,’ the man at the counter informs. ‘You can try the halls next door.’
Apparently visitors can sleep in large halls. Lockers can be rented for the safe deposit of belongings. I find that all lockers are taken up. The halls are already overcrowded. They are not allowing any more. Getting accommodation at Amritsar is turning out to be a hassle but I think I can manage for a night. There are lots of cloak rooms at various entrances. I leave my backpack at one of them. I think I’ll visit the temple in the evening. So I walk to the Jallianwala Bagh which is just a few buildings down an approach road to the temple.
The entrance forecourt is small and lined with tall brick buildings with old windows. A narrow passageway, the same used by General Dyer’s troops in 1919, leads to the inner open space. Today a peaceful garden is maintained in memory of the non-violent martyrs who gave their lives. Peonies bloom in flower pots. Decorative ferns line broad walkways. A flame burns constantly, symbolic of that sacrifice, of non-violence and the value of freedom. They call it Amar Jyoti. Old brick walls can still be seen standing at the edges, buttressed in places. Broken bricks and holes on these walls are marked out to indicate bullet marks. The well into which people jumped to their deaths to escape the barrage of bullets is also seen.
There are lots of families out here this evening. A new water fountain and pool is nearing completion. I amble in the museum learning about the history of the place. I always wondered whatever happened to General Dyer. Apparently in March 1940 he was assassinated by Udham Singh in London to avenge the massacre of Jallianwalla Bagh. Udham Singh had been meaning to kill him for many years.
It is the time of sunset. I head back to the Golden Temple. I wash my feet at the entrance where little pipes stream out water to bathe my feet as I step in. In my pocket are three cloak room tokens – one for the backpack, one for the day pack and one for my shoes – obtained from three different counters. I have to be careful with these tokens.
Entering the Golden Temple complex is like entering a new world. There is immediate peace and quietness, not in the sense of being empty or silent but in a deeper way. Pilgrims are busy everywhere. Every part of the complex has some history of its own and association with the great Sikh gurus. Volunteers are constantly doing their part – washing dishes in the kitchens, rolling parathas in groups, serving food for all who come, sweeping the long corridors that are always immaculately clean and serving prasad for pilgrims returning from the main temple. Most of music, divine music fills the ears and reaches to the soul.
The main temple is quite a sight. It is gilded in gold for most part. It is ornate in design with chhatris, jarokhas and domes. It stands splendidly within the holy lake and can be accessed by a long walkway. Members of the Khalsa stand guard at entrances and along the banks of the lake, spear in hand and kirpan hanging by the waist. Others members of Khalsa often come and go, carrying their own kirpans, daggers, swords and spears. It takes a lot of discipline to carry these weapons and use them only for the right reasons and for the high purposes they serve.
When the sun sets, the sky darkens. The lights come on. Against a dark blue sky, the temple glitters through the night. Its reflection dances in the lake’s waters. I buy prasad for Rs. 20 but I am not sure what to do with it. I see people carrying their own prasads into the temple. Prasad is a preparation of wheat flour, sugar and ghee. I join a long queue of pilgrims. The queue moves slowly but I am in no hurry. A few paces from the temple’s entrance my prasad is accepted by a sardar who cuts it with his kirpan and adds half of it to the community offering. He returns me the other half.
Inside, a few holy men with long white beards are reading from huge books. There is singing. There is wonderful music playing and sounding the spaces of the entire temple complex. The wealth of decorations inside the temple is rich. Stone inlays remind me of similar creations in Shah Jahan’s Agra. Paintings decorate some of the spaces on the walls. Pilgrims come in constant never-ending streams. I have only a few moments inside. My visit at Tarn Taran had been in greater leisure.
Outside, I join another queue to collect prasad. This is offered free to all. Apparently, this is prasad after it has been sanctified by necessary symbolic ceremony. I head out for dinner. I take my plate and bowl. I wait in the outer corridor for the current sitting to finish their dinner. When they are done, they rush out at once. Volunteers manage the crowds and usher us in a little later. I take my seat in a long row of pilgrims. Women and men sit together as friends or family. Men wear turbans or otherwise cover their heads with cloth. Women cover their heads with dupattas. Food is served promptly – roti, daal makani, kheer and mater pulao. It is a wholesome and filling meal.
I return to the temple complex and linger around till half past ten. A procession of some sort is underway. I think it is the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib being taken out of the temple to its night bed. Amidst music and holy reading the book is taken to a building to be put to bed. It will come back into the temple in the early hours of the morning.
I am tired. It’s been a long day. I lie down in one of the open halls inside the temple. I am not alone. Lots of pilgrims are sleeping in this hall. I take it as a privilege to spend a night in the temple, the sound of the kirtans and bhajans putting me into sleep. Currently, one of Meera Bai’s bhajans is being sung. Indeed, Sikh ideology is based on a collection of texts taken from other religions.
At 3 am I am woken up. It is time to clean the hall. Everyone must leave. The hall is clean as it is but this is a daily chore that must be done no matter what. I wander around and sleep in one of the corridors. A little later I am asked by Khalsa guards to get up. The corridor has to be cleaned as well. I walk to another corridor and pick another spot. In this manner I snatch shot naps till the sun rises. By now, the gurudwara is completely clean and ready for another day of pilgrims.
I have breakfast outside the temple – puri and channa. It is quite good. I spend many minutes watching the temple waking up to another day. Later in the day I visit Deorhi Ram Bagh and Ranjit Singh Summar Palace but the palace is closed for repair. I see workers digging away in the garden. I return to the Golden Temple, visit its museum and learn something of Sikh history. I have lunch at the same langar, relishing yet another wholesome meal. I pick up my stuff from the cloak rooms. As I leave Amritsar, I realize that coming to the Golden Temple has been really special.