One can never forget the simple grandeur of the holiest Sikh shrine, the silent valour of Jallianwala Bagh and Wagah’s patriotic fervour
Written by: NAVEENA ISRANI
Photos by: SATYAN ISRANI
What do you get when you combine a Great Indian Sikh Wedding with a visit to the holiest of Sikh shrines? You get a Punjabi tadka with a spiritual touch… and that’s exactly what we experienced when we went to Chandigarh one weekend in October 2008 to attend a friend’s wedding, followed by a whirlwind trip to Amritsar. We reached Amritsar at around noon after a five-hour road journey from Chandigarh. Since we just had half a day to cover the entire city, we immediately proceeded to the Golden Temple, which was just a stone’s throw away from our hotel, CJ International.
Amritsaris the epicentre of the Sikh faith, but it is not only Sikhs who come here. Despite its sacred status, the Golden Temple draws people from all faiths and countries. And we got ample proof of this when we saw hordes of Indian and foreign tourists as well as devotees making their way to what can be termed the most tangibly spiritual place in the country.
We were amazed to see such huge crowds on a weekday. On enquiry, we found that unknowingly, we had landed up at the Golden Temple on the 300th anniversary of the Guru Granth Sahib. So, we were actually very privileged to be visiting the temple on such an auspicious day! Feeling blessed already, we joined the hundreds of people at the temple entrance and waded barefoot through a shallow pool of water before tiptoeing up the cool, marble causeway towards one of the most magnificent shrines in the world.
It stood there in simple majesty, the gilded splendour of its panelling, dome and minarets glistening in the afternoon sun; its golden reflection shimmering gloriously in the sarovar. We couldn’t help but feel mesmerised by the sight of the burnished gold structure beckoning us across the ripple-free, serene lake, like a queen regally summoning her courtiers.
The Golden Temple, or Harmandir Sahib, as it is traditionally known, actually means the temple of Hari or the Supreme God. Built by Guru Arjan Dev, it presents itself as a spiritual as well as architectural specimen. It is an eclectic monument that has grown as much of people’s devotion as from the guild craftsmen’s skills. The temple’s exterior is gold-plated and the structure stands in the middle of a square tank. There is a causeway across the Amrit Sarovar to reach the temple. The amazing thing about Harmandir Sahib is that it has doorways on all four sides, meant to be open to people of all four castes.
Notwithstanding the scorching afternoon heat, hundreds of devotees had queued up along the marble causeway, patiently waiting for their turn to reach the sanctum sanctorum. I panicked on seeing the long line, but thankfully, we managed to get a VIP entry since we were part of a large wedding group. Talk about a divine intervention!
The interior of the temple is as impressive as its exterior. Its milky marble walls are adorned with jewels, elaborate ivory hand-carvings, silver work and gold leaf designs.
As we descended into the temple (unlike most temples, here one actually descends as the structure is built below the level of the surrounding area), we were confronted by the stunningly beautiful sanctum sanctorum glimmering in the water of the holy tank that is flanked on all four sides by spotlessly clean marble walkways.
In the interior, on the ground, the Guru Granth Sahib is placed under a jewel-studded canopy. As I knelt down on the ground to pay my respects to the Guru, I seemed to forget the jostling crowd – I was at peace with myself and the world. But not for long; my husband nudged me to move ahead and make way for the others… and the connection was broken.
We then proceeded to the first floor pavilion, called the Shish Mahal. Its lavishly gilded interior, ornamented with pieces of mirrors inlaid in the ceiling and walls, adds to the enthralling experience. Finally, we went to the topmost deck where we got a close-up view of the gold-plated dome in all its majestic splendour.
We also got a 360-degree view of the surrounding landscape and several images flashed before my eyes all at once –hordes of devotees lined up along the Guru’s Bridge (which connects the Harmandir Sahib to the Akal Takht, where the holy book is kept at night); people praying and kneeling on all four sides of the temple; people taking a dip in the sarovar and drinking the holy water; devotees participating in non-stop kirtan; hundreds of people sitting together and eating Guru ka Langar…
And amidst all these images, the one image that stood out was of utmost devotion and love. Everyone is welcome at the Golden Temple, irrespective of religion, caste, creed, wealth or status. Hundreds of hungry and homeless people are provided food and shelter here daily. There’s no dearth of volunteers at the Golden Temple, be it young or old, rich or poor. Whether the ‘seva’ involves cooking food, washing dishes, handing out plates or mopping the floor, people are eager to offer their services in whatever way they can.
But what really touched my heart when we visited the Langar hall was a small Sikh boy, four or five years old, running to take people’s used plates and hand them over to another lad standing mid-way, who in turn handed them over to a third man who was rinsing the plates. The small boy kept running back and forth from the hall to the washing area, fetching plates one by one, while his proud mother looked on and encouraged him to do more ‘seva’.
We got more proof of people’s devotion when we saw children happily mopping the marble steps as people left or entered the hall. Then there were volunteers who were continuously cleaning candle wax from the marble pavement, even as new visitors kept lighting more candles. It is evident that people who visit the Golden Temple consider it a privilege to serve the Guru. And this ‘seva bhaav’ moved me no end.
After our enlightening visit to the Golden Temple, we walked towards Jallianwala Bagh, located a quarter of a mile away.
This is a memorial monument dedicated to India’s freedom fighters. It reminds us of April 13, 1919, when thousands of unarmed Indians who had assembled to protest against the Rowlatt Act, were killed in sudden firing under the leadership of General Dyer.
These bullet marks can be seen even today on the boundary walls of the garden, a stark reminder of one of the most horrific events in colonial Indian history.
The well into which many people jumped and drowned, in an attempt to save themselves from the hail of bullets, is also a protected monument inside the park. As I peered deep into the recesses of this Martyrs’ Well, I got goose bumps just thinking about the agony and helplessness of those innocent people.
Our mood was sombre as we left the hallowed precinct and drove towards our final destination – the Wagah Border, the international border between India and Pakistan, less than 30 km from Amritsar. The border check post at Attari, guarded by the Border Security Force (BSF), is famous for its Beating Retreat and Change of Guard ceremony, which takes place daily at sunset. During this half-an-hour ceremony, armed soldiers from both countries, fully decked in their uniforms, enact a particularly hostile parade marked by lowering of their respective flags and closing the border gates.
We had heard that the Wagah Border is a hotbed of nationalistic passions and drama. But the pomp and fervour of the ceremony has to be seen to be believed. We parked our car around 1.5 km from the actual border and joined the throngs of people who were proceeding on foot towards the gates. The excitement in the air was palpable even at that distance. When we finally reached the border, we were overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and vibrancy of the crowd. The patriotically charged and frenzied atmosphere was akin to an Indo-Pak cricket match!
Hundreds of people were assembled on both sides of the border, shouting patriotic slogans and waving their respective national flags. However, there was a marked difference between the two sides. The Indian side had almost three times the number of people than the Pakistani side, and seemed more enthusiastic. Moreover, the Indians were dressed in bright colours of all possible hues, representing the diversity of our country, as opposed to the Pakistani side, which appeared to be a mass of white or pastel shades. The Indian crowd was screaming one slogan after another, even as youngsters danced to the beat of patriotic film songs (with ‘Chak De! India’ being the crowd favourite), but our neighbours were more restrained and chose to chant just one slogan at regular intervals.
Finally, the actual ceremony began as the soldiers on either side started marching in perfect drill to the loud commands of their superior.
Each side tried to outdo the other in histrionics and showmanship by puffing out their chests and stomping their boots. When a Pakistani soldier stamped his feet, the Indian soldier stamped even harder, cheered on by the crowd which went wild with excitement at this mock display of rage. After a lot of pomp and show, the gates on both sides opened and a soldier from either country stepped into the no-mans area. They shook hands, saluted each other and lowered the flags of their respective countries with due honour, against the backdrop of the setting sun. The crowds from both countries clapped loudly and screamed in exhilaration. Soon after, the gates were closed, the soldiers marched back to their headquarters, and the crowd started dispersing.
Before heading back, we walked up the paved path for a close-up view of the gates, where the soldiers were happily mingling with the crowd and posing for photo-ops.
My husband also eagerly lined up to get his picture clicked. When his turn came finally, he was awed by the tall, long-limbed soldier towering above his head. “I guess 6.2 feet is not that big a deal for you now,” I joked with my hubby, who has always prided himself on his own height!
All this excitement and adrenalin-pumping atmosphere had aroused our appetite and we craved to feast on authentic Punjabi cuisine. So we headed back to the heart of the Amritsar, where some of the best dhabas are located. It is rumoured that more desi ghee is consumed here than anywhere else in the world. And we got ample proof of this at ‘Pra da Dhaba’, which has been renamed as ‘The Brothers’ for the benefit of foreign tourists! We were left licking our fingers – not only because the food was delicious, but also because it seemed almost criminal to waste the dollops of butter stuck to our hands after eating. No wonder, food is an obsession for the locals!
After our heavy dinner, we decided to walk back to the Golden Temple to shed those extra kilos we had gained. When we neared the temple complex, the brilliantly-lit up structure shimmering in the night sky took our breath away. We were told this special decoration was in honour of the Guru’s 300th birthday, and the temple is not ordinarily lit up with so many lights.
As we approached the Guru’s Bridge, we were just in time to see the holy book, kept in a jewel-encrusted palki, being ferried in a procession to the Akal Takht, where it is ‘put to sleep’ at night.
Even at that hour, the place was teeming with devotees and tourists. After completing our parikrama around the temple, we sat down on the cool marble pathway to soak in the ambience. My husband was busy adjusting his tripod and camera to capture the spectacular view of the temple in night-vision mode.
Suddenly two small Sikh boys came running excitedly and tapped him on the shoulder, “Paaji, tussi picture bana rahe ho?” Amused by this innocent question, my husband shook his head, at which the children looked crest-fallen.
They were referring to a movie shooting, but in my mind’s eye, another ‘picture’ was gloriously unfolding.
The glittering reflection of the Harmandir Sahib silhouetted softly in the water and etched across the city-scape, the sound of kirtans being sung in the background, the tranquillity in the air despite the presence of so many people… All these images are etched in my mind forever. No matter where I am, I just have to close my eyes to get lost in the magical beauty of the Golden Temple and feel at peace with myself and the world.
(Note: This is an original article. A modified and much shortened version of my article was published in the ET Travel section of The Economic Times on 25 December, 2008)