Immersed in the spirituality of the Sikh's Golden Temple in Amritsar, Joel Carillet finds that boundaries of holiness and sinfulness aren't easy to pin down.
It began with a search for pizza and ended with a nude Pamela Anderson dancing next to my omelet.
I had left Delhi the night before, packed into an overnight train car with several dozen Indian high school girls whose energy—heightened by the excitement of a field trip—was not meant for the confines of a steel box. For twelve hours our giggle–filled train rattled its way down the tracks, taking us deep into India's Punjab State. Our destination was Amritsar, eighteen miles from India's border with Pakistan.
In Punjabi, Amritsar means "Pool of the Nector of Immortality." Stepping off the train at 9 a.m. I saw nothing reminiscent of immortality, nector, or a pool. The late summer sun was scorching the city, and my parched lips yearned for nothing but a cold drink.
A bus outside the station was headed to Amritsar's most important shrine, the Golden Temple. I hopped aboard the crowded contraption and was ushered to the front seat. Soon grinding gears signaled we were on our way, and as the bus merged into a stream of rickshaws and cars I took my first look at a city so central to one of the world's great religions: Sikhism.
Most of the world's 23 million Sikhs live here in Punjab. Founded in the sixteenth century and incorporating elements from both Hinduism and Islam, Sikhism emphasizes human equality and brotherhood. Sikhs believe there is one God and every person has value because God's spirit is within them. Unlike Hinduism, Sikhism rejects the caste system.
I checked into a boarding house located within the Golden Temple complex. The lodging was offered at no cost and was, like the bus service, one way Sikhs embodied the principles of their religion. A large sign—a monument, really—located in the middle of a traffic circle concisely stated this element of Sikh faith: SERVICE TO HUMANITY IS TRUE SERVICE TO GOD.
Throwing my bag onto a hard bed in the cramped room reserved for foreigners—my 11 roommates were from Europe and Israel—I couldn't help but smile. This was not your ordinary guesthouse; this was pure culture. Several thousands Indian pilgrims would also be bedding down for the night in the complex, many of them sleeping in the open courtyard.
The entrance to the foreigners' room was guarded by several Coca–Cola loving Sikhs, whose role was not only to secure our belongings but also to protect the sanctity of the temple compound from freedom–loving foreigners. Smoking, drinking, and physical relations were not allowed.
Into the Golden Temple, Barefoot
I proceeded to the north gate of the Golden Temple after enjoying a meal of all–you–could–eat dal and chapati in the Guru–ka–Langar, a community kitchen that feeds an average of 35,000 people a day for free. Since bare feet and a covered head are required for entrance, I left my sandals at a depository, put on my Orlando Magic cap, and then, after wading through a shallow trough of water, stepped into the temple itself.
After adjusting my eyes to the bright glare bouncing off the white walls, I was struck by the interior's serenity. This was not because the temple was void of people—it was no less crowded than the city—but because of the 500 x 490–foot pool at its center. The visual tranquility was complemented by an enchanting sound from the loudspeakers. It was the combined voices of priests reading from the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book.
I walked halfway around the pool—it is surrounded by a 12–meter–wide marble promenade—and sat in the shade of a column to look around. The faces of visitors reflected the temple's calm. Families and friends strolled in every direction, stopping here and there to take a picture, to lounge, and occasionally to take a nap. Except for a small number bathing at the pool's edge, few visitors seemed to be performing any religious rituals.
Given the serenity, only with difficulty could I imagine the tremendous violence that had rocked the temple as recently as the 1980—a decade when a Sikh separatist movement violently sought independence from India. In 1984, when some of these extremists took up residence in the Golden Temple, the Indian army stormed the grounds and brought the standoff to a bloody end. The temple was left heavily damaged.
Sikhs are ferociously devoted to their temple, and it is no surprise that many were enraged that an army—under the orders of a Hindu prime minister—would violently thrust itself into their holy site. Several months later, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikh members of her security detail.
Though familiar with the violence of the 1980s, I had never heard of Baba Deep Singh until I came upon his shrine on the temple's south side. In 1761, when the temple was being desecrated by the Mughal rulers of India, Baba Deep Singh rushed to its defense. While en route an enemy sword managed to slice so deeply into his neck that his head leaned to one side. Undeterred, Baba Deep Singh supported the leaning head with his left hand while continuing to charge forward with his sword in his right.
With this mix of violent history and sacredness in mind, I continued my circuit around the temple. Families requested my presence in their photographs, young men asked me about America, and I stopped often to sip from my water bottle.
Toward the end of the afternoon, I turned to the causeway leading to the Hari Mandir, the holiest part of the temple, which is built out into the pool. Here, under a roof of gold leaf, I joined hundreds of others filing past the Guru Granth Sahib. Those around me showered it with flowers and notes of Indian currency.
Search for an Unholy Pizza
For dinner that night, I was hankering for a meat pizza. Starting from the north side of the Golden Temple, I checked upwards of 10 restaurants but found no pizza. Three blocks up, however, I came upon an establishment called "Pizza Restaurant."
Inside, a courteous teenage boy handed me a glossy menu full of pizza pictures. But none contained meat.
"Do you have meat pizza?" I asked. His furrowed face signaled confusion. He disappeared into a back room and a moment later emerged with another employee, who looked to be in his late twenties.
"How may I help you?" this older gentlemen asked in fluent English.
"I'm looking for meat pizza," I replied.
The man's eyes widened as if startled, and I could tell strong words were about to follow. He had the look of a preacher about to drive home a most important message.
"We do not sell meat pizza because we are too close to the Golden Temple," he explained. "You can look everywhere around these streets, but you will never find meat pizza. Here is a holy place! You must take a rickshaw to near the bus station if you want meat."
The bus station was not at all nearby, and I had also read that the area was home to Amritsar's red light district. An unholy place on several counts, it seemed.
My impractical craving for meat pizza gave way to the practical acceptance of veggie pizza. I thanked the man for his help and then took my glossy picture menu deep into the air–conditioned room and ordered. The pizza wasn't bad, and as I paid my bill the man invited me to return tomorrow for breakfast. I said I would.
Back at the room, I said goodnight to the Sikh guards and plopped onto my rock–hard bed. To the twirl of a ceiling fan and the murmuring of a thousand neighbors, I fell soundly asleep.
Wanted: Nude Actor with Turban
The Sikh religion has been described as a fusion of Hinduism and Islam. This is a key reason Amritsar is unlike any other Indian city. But when I returned to the pizza restaurant for breakfast the next morning, another fusion—a more universal fusion—would soon come to mind: tradition and globalization.
I ordered a cheese omelet and a sweet lassi—this set me back 85 cents—and was pleased to see that the same gentleman I had met the night before was here again this morning.
"Hello, sir. May I ask how is your breakfast?"
"Very good," I replied.
He pulled up a chair beside me, and for several minutes we talked about the blistering weather, cricket, and India–Pakistan relations.
Then he asked if I would like to see his new cell phone. "I can watch any movie I wish on this mobile," he said proudly, flipping the thing open. "I have American and Indian films. Would you like to see?"
What followed was a lesson in human complexity, for this fellow who the night before had preached about holiness now pressed a couple buttons on his cell phone and brought a nude woman to our table. That woman was Pamela Anderson. She pranced all over the cell phone screen and several waiters came over to inspect her.
Pressing some more buttons, a new film appeared, which showed a nude couple falling into bed together and then—well, you know.
"This one is a local video," my new friend explained with the air of a tour guide.
I couldn't help but notice that the only bodily covering on either of the two people was a turban wrapped around the man's head.
"This man is Sikh?" I asked.
"Oh yes, a Sikh always has his head covered!" And then he said, "They're trying to be like Westerners, but they're not very good."
When a vacationing Sikh family entered the restaurant, my tour of an Amritsar cell phone's innards abruptly ended. The phone was put away and I was again alone at my table, slurping the dregs of my lassi and processing what twenty–four hours in Amritsar had taught me.
I had learned that Sikhs are among the most hospitable people in India. The sense of uprightness, courtesy, and respect one feels in talking to a Sikh is often stunning, and their corporate demeanor, which permeates the atmosphere at the Golden Temple, is a key reason this holy site so impresses its foreign visitors.
But Amritsar, because it is also a holy city where one has a better chance of finding Pamela Anderson nude than pepperonis on pizza, reminded me of this as well: So long as there are local traditions mingling with twenty–first century technology, the golden age of exploration, which some say concluded a century ago, will never really end.
Joel Carillet is the author of 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia. His writing and photography have appeared in venues such as the Christian Science Monitor, Best Travel Writing 2008, Everywhere, World Hum, and Encounters with the Middle East. He writes a biweekly travel column for Gather.com called "Reflections on the Road" and is currently shopping around a manuscript entitled Sixty-One Weeks: A Journey Across Asia. You can find him at JoelCarillet.com
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