The state of Punjab in Northwest of India is the vibrant homeland of the Sikh religion. In the city of Amritsar stand’s the Golden Temple, the beating heart of the Sikh people. It is not only their most sacred site but also one of the world’s great centers of religious tolerance – a rare and wonderful combination. Sadly, the city also contains gruesome history of massacres, conquest, and imperialism.
On April 13th, 1919 ten thousand Indians were gathered in the Jallainwala Bagh Square to peacefully protest the British imprisonment of two Indian national congressmen. General Reginald Dyer marched his men into the square, blocked its only exit, and opened fire without warning. Unarmed men, women and children fled for cover, but there was nowhere to hide and no way to escape. Dyer ordered volley after volley of gunfire. In the end at least a thousand people were killed and many more were gravely injured. Many believe that the extreme injustice of this event unified the Indian people against the British and brought about the end of British rule in India.
Ninety four years later the bullet scars still mark the walls, but the Golden Temple is the center of attention. Commissioned by the fifth Guru of Sikhism in the 16th century it is the center of the Sikh world. The same Guru compiled the Sikh scriptures into the single volume that is used today. In the 1830´s the central structure was plated with gold giving the temple it´s English name. It is an elegant and impressive architectural marvel, on par with the world´s greatest monuments.
All people, regardless of caste, religion, race, gender, age or background, are welcome in the temple at any time. Sikhs pride themselves on their acceptance of all people and for them this is a place that belongs everyone.
As we slowly walked around many Sikhs took the time to explain fine details to us. Every few minutes we were being taught history. We were led into secret chambers, introduced to famous artisans, and even allowed to hold golden swords, still undergoing incredibly detailed hand carving, worth tens of thousands of dollars. At no point were we asked for anything in return. The Sikhs were elated and proud simply to help others experience their Holy place.
After spending all day at the temple a Sikh named Harvinder, who lives in America, insisted that he take us to dinner. Wonderful food and our abundant questions led to an amazing impromptu lecture on the central tenants of Sikhism and its role in the modern world.
On average the Golden Temple feeds 40,000 people per day. On holidays it can soar to over 100,000. The healthy vegetarian food is always free and everyone is welcome. A short line led us into one of the communal dining halls. We took our places on the floor in lines of hundreds of people. Volunteers ladled out delicious portions of dahl, rice, chickpeas, dessert treats, and chapatis. It was delicious, surprisingly sanitary, and the Indians belly laughed watching us eat. When we wandered into the cooking area volunteers came running, thrilled to show us the process of making the food. The cooking pots are enormous, as big as jacuzzis. Watching them stir, perhaps row is more accurate, and mime the process of preparing the ingredient and making the food kept us happy for hours.
The Golden Temple filled our senses. The incense, the cold marble underfoot, the beautiful music of the scriptures, and the smiling and devoutly concentrated faces, and the lovingly prepared food nourished us on a deep level. The sincere atmosphere of acceptance and giving that pervades the Golden Temple is unrivaled among all of the great religious monuments our travels have led us too. It remains the only place of worship that has ever profoundly struck me with the that, ¨God is great,¨ but strangely that is not what has left the most lasting impression. What has stayed is the example of how well we can treat each other if we decide, and believe, we have a reason too.
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