Open doors

The architecture of the Golden Temple is an embodiment of the core beliefs of Sikhism. Guru Nanak (1469 CE — 1539 CE) preached an open religion with the revolutionary doctrine of the absolute equality of all people, and engaged with the common themes within the two religions he knew, namely Hinduism and Islam. The architectural realization of these teachings in Gurudwaras is three fold. First, there are gates from all the principal directions leading in to the temple, signifying that there are many roads to this belief. Second, since these paths are always open, there are elaborate gateways but no doors (see the three images in the slideshow). And finally, the equality of all people is given concrete shape in the langar, a common space that absolutely anyone can come to for food at any time of the day, with everyone sitting together.

These teachings eventually brought about conflict with the emperor in Delhi, Jahangir. The fifth of the ten gurus was executed by the order of the emperor. The sixth guru’s first act was to embrace militarism through a notion which he called Miri-Piri, a combination of spiritualism and temporal authority. The physical embodiment of this philosophy resulted in the building of the Akal Takht, the seat of Sikh religious authority, facing the Golden Temple (shown in the featured photo). The next five Gurus spent their lives fighting the Mughal empire, and turning the Sikhs into a military force. As the Mughal power waned, this force was ready to carve out its own empire, as it did with Ranjit Singh (1780 CE — 1839 CE). Imperial power is on show in the marble and gold of the Golden Temple, and in the elaborate structures of the gateways.

Two views of the Golden Temple

Marble inlay work in Harmandir Sahib

The founding of Amritsar is counted from 1577 CE, the date of the digging of the lake, Amrit Sarovar, at the behest of Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh Guru. A few years later Harmandir Sahib was first constructed in the lake, connected by a single causeway. His successor, Guru Arjun, placed a copy of the Adi Granth in it in the year 1604 CE. During the years when the Sikhs were in conflict with the Mughals the temple was destroyed and rebuilt many times. The current structure comes from 1830 CE, when the Khalsa emperor, Ranjit Singh, had the marble and gilded copper temple built.

I’d expected to spend a long time in the area, trying to figure out the best light and angles. But I was lucky with the light. Sunset, and perhaps sunrise, are the best light for photography, and my first visit happened to be at this hour. I missed one thing, the daily journey of the Granth Sahib from the Akal Takht to the Harmandir Sahib and back. So there is a reason for me to go back.


When we entered the gates of the Golden Temple I immediately spotted the armed Akalis in their distinctive blue and saffron gear. Traditional histories of this armed sect trace them to Baba Fateh Singh, the youngest son of the Guru Govind Singh. In the early 18th century, when the Sikhs battled the Mughal empire, he and his brother, Baba Zorawar Singh, are said to have formed an elite band of fighters. Other histories trace their origin to the Akaal Sena founded by the Guru Hargobind Singh, the sixth Guru, in the 17th century. The ferocity of this militia earned them the epithet of Nihang, a word which means either a crocodile or a sea monster in Persian.

The traditional uniform of the Akali/Nihang soldier was designed so that different parts could be used to stab, slash, or maim. Most of these weapons are still worn by Akalis today as miniature symbolic pieces. I saw a few shops around the temple complex which were selling some of these symbols. There is no longer an unified line of command now. For almost two hundred years now, in the absence of a real enemy, they have fissioned into different deras, each with a different leader. Their lifestyle, and commitment to arms and warfare sets them at odds with a settled society. The sect is somewhat controversial, sometimes in the news for involvement in violence. The deep blue clothes with saffron turban and sashes are part of their traditional clothing. The blue is said to symbolize courage, the saffron, sacrifice. The intention is certainly noble.

Living in 402

Tomorrow the day dawns on a new year: 403 ME. The last day of the year, today is an appropriate time to look back and rid yourself of ghosts. If 401 ME was the year we spent in fear, then this past year, 402 ME, was the year that the world burnt. Uncontrolled forest fires blazed through the hills and forests of Uttarakhand, and a wave of the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 burnt through India. But the year brought its good times too: meetings with family, friends, a slow return to more regular social interactions.

It was the end of an interlude between two waves of the pandemic. We’d spent the early part of the year travelling. I have great memories of two walks during that time. One was the steep trail in Mahabaleshwar which leads from the plateau down to a lovely view of Arthur’s Seat (I don’t know who this Arthur was). The other was the a few kilometers along a historic trade route which once crossed the Himalayas and connected Bengal to Sichuan province in China, through Bhutan and Tibet. The mule you see above is one of the broken line which once facilitated this trickle of trade.

Himalayan Cutia (Cutia nipalensis)

Our long-planned series of trips through the Himalayas, watching birds and following in the footsteps of the 19th century botanists was brought to an abrupt halt. Soon after we were vaccinated, the great wave of delta started. Travel was restricted again, and the trip we had planned to watch the blooming of rhododendrons in Sikkim, and the subsequent push to cross the 5000 meter mark of altitude had to be cancelled.

The end of spring and the following hottest months of year could have been the most depressing months of our lives. The sudden pruning of our circle of friends and acquaintances was drastic. It seemed like a diminished world when we could finally venture out to the Western Ghats in the monsoon. We had missed the flowers of spring in the Himalayas, but we were in time to see the great blooming of the Ghats.

Then, before you could say Sharad Ritu, it seemed that the monsoon was over and the season of migratory birds was on us. Mumbai is at the very edge of a migratory highway, and every season there is great excitement about vagrants having stopped in the city. This year we joined a group of other birders to travel into the center of the passageway, a few hundred kilometers to our northwest, to watch passage migrants crossing India. It was interesting to see exhausted European roller bird (Coracias garrulus) take a halt in their three day long flight from north west Asia to Africa. The chestnut colour on their backs and the blue in front in a complete reversal of the coat of the Indian roller bird (Coracias benghalensis).

The end of the year was a good season for travel. We were fully vaccinated, the pandemic was at a low ebb, and the weather was good. Perfect for a series of visits to nature parks (a special mention of a fantastic sighting of a clan of dholes, Cuon alpinus, the Indian wild dogs) and historic towns we had always wanted to see but never made time for. Now, as the omicron spreads, we are wondering about the best way to ride out the next year.

The Golden Temple

We stood in a queue to visit the Harmandir Sahib. In spite of the cramped space inside with most pilgrims filing past rapidly, the singing of the rehras, evening hymns, from the Adi Granth imparted a serenity to the atmosphere. We stood for a short while in a corner, and then yielded space to newcomers. Afterwards I found a spot near the lake from which I could take a panoramic shot of all the major buildings in the complex.

In the featured photo the most recent avatar of the Akal Takht is barely visible at the extreme left. In front of it is the ber tree known as the Dukhbhanjini tree, the remover of sadness. Next, you come to the dome of the 19th century Ghanta Ghar, the clock tower. Then is the Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple itself. To the right of it are the 18th century watch towers called the Ramgarhia Bunga. To their right you can see the arches which lead to the langar, kitchen and dining hall. Far on the right you see the dome atop the Sikh Library.

This complex is now the center of the Sikh religion. In the 15th century, the first of the gurus, Guru Nanak, preached the end of caste and ritual, pacifism and an end to distinctions between religions. The reformist ideals continued into the 16th century, when the fourth guru, Guru Ramdas, built the lake and founded the temple. The foundation stone was laid by the Sufi Mian Mir. The militarization of the followers began after the execution of the fifth guru, Guru Arjun, in the early years of the 17th century by the Mughal emperor Jahangir. The sixth guru, Guru Har Gobind, founded an army, began carrying two swords to symbolize military power, and founded the Akal Takht, a seat of temporal power. Since then Sikhism has not recognized boundaries between religion, culture, and politics, a philosophy which Guru Har Gobind called Miri-Piri.

We’d circumambulated the lake and visited the main shrine in the time between late afternoon and dusk. Now, as the lights came on in the buildings, more and more people began to arrive. We later learnt that the Sikh farmers had begun to return from their long sit-in on the outskirts of Delhi and the next few days would be crowded and heated. We walked on to the langar. The tradition that everyone who wants to can eat a free meal in a Gurudwara comes down from Guru Nanak, and is an embodiment of the central pacifist and egalitarian teachings of the guru.

People of Amritsar

As soon as you enter the doors surrounding the Golden Temple of Amritsar you see the devout. We entered from the east, with the setting sun in front of us. All around the lake people were facing the temple with a beatific look on their faces. The lake water was clean, perhaps kept clean not only by the filters around it, but also by fish which attracted the cormorants and kingfishers that I saw.

We’d been thinking of a trip to Amritsar for several years, and mid-December seemed to be a good time for it finally. I’d imagined spending a long time around the lake, scoping out good views, waiting for the right light. I was down in the dumps when I read that photography is not allowed in the temple. Even though I was ready to travel without equipment, The Family convinced me not only to take it with me to Amritsar, but also to carry it when we went to the temple. Amar, the chatty Sikh who drove us to the temple told me that I was allowed to take photos anywhere in the temple except inside the Harmandir Sahib. The coir mat and cold marble on which I was supposed to walk felt like billowy clouds under my feet when I understood that.

Two conventions are strictly enforced when you enter. You have to be barefoot, no shoes no socks, inside the temple. And your head has to be covered, not with a cap but by a piece of cloth, either a simple piece tied as you see in the photos here, or in the form of a turban. There is an advise to be dressed simply. This threw me, but we interpreted it to mean that we should avoid conspicuous red clothes. We were also familiar with a dress code that many places of religion enforce, which is to wear clothes which cover your arms and legs. In any case, it was cold enough that I had to wear jeans and a sweater. The Family decided to wear a salwar and kurta, with a dupatta to cover her head, and a warm shawl against the cold. We were dressed like the thousands of others that we saw. Masks were another point of concern. We could keep our masks on except when we stood in front of the Adi Granth.

One of the pleasures of people watchers like me is to take ambush photos. These are photos of photographers and their subjects. There was ample opportunity for that. I was glad to find couples looking for the best angles for selfies. They are so absorbed in their quest that they never notice, or even mind, a photographer using them for local colour.

I was not so certain about what the guards armed with pikes would think about being photographed. But once one of them smiled at me and told me that I should stop taking a photo as close to the Harmandir Sahib as I happened to be, I realized that they were as polite as any other guards. A few steps away I managed to take the ambush photo of a guard watching a group of young men taking photos of each other against the temple.

That blue uniform of the guards looked wonderful with the Golden Temple in the background, but the light was hard to manage. In this photo I was happy to catch the trio in an unguarded moment, just being the young men that they are. The colours turned to be an added visual interest.

That light is just what I’d been imagining I would spend days trying to get. I was so fortunate that our first visit to the Golden Temple was in that golden hour of the day when every image seems to be magic. Walking around the Golden Temple I realized that I’d been missing street photography for half a year. This was a great place to re-enter that immersion in images of crowds.

Where to eat in Amritsar

Amritsar is a city for food. You cannot walk two paces without seeing some street food which looks incredibly good. And if you stop to taste, your palate will confirm the impression of your eyes. It might seem that it would be hard to choose where to eat in Amritsar. But there was no question in our minds. Our first stop for food would be the langar in the Golden Temple. This is reputed to serve food to 50000 people on a normal day, twice that number on some days. The numbers have decreased during the pandemic. Volunteers not only cook, but also clean, and there has been no instance reported of contamination.

Langar is one the central concepts of Sikhism. Charitable donations of food may be common across India, under every known political system, but the langar is different. Guru Nanak developed the idea of continuously running kitchens, where food is donated by the community, the work is done entirely by volunteers, and which is open to absolutely anyone. This last idea was innovative, and expressed the central value of the religion. Such a kitchen, the langar, can be found in every gurudwara, and it has run continuously in the Golden Temple, since the founding of the Harmandir Sahib. The ingredients are donated or bought with donated money. The building and its maintenace also depends on donations. The cooking, cleaning, serving, run mainly through the work of volunteers. What automation there is (sieving machines for flour, a chapati making machine which is used on specially crowded days) has been donated.

We walked barefoot into the langar, heads covered, and were handed a metal plate and bowl by a volunteer. We were directed to an upstairs hall, to which we were admitted after a very short wait. We filed in with pilgrims, sat at the first empty place that we found. There is some concession to the pandemic, with groups keeping some space from others. My knees creaked as we sat down on the mats on the ground, and I knew it would be difficult to get up at the end of the meal. We were served two rotis immediately. You are meant to receive things with both hands. If you forget, you are reminded about it with a smile. Dal and a curry of paneer and peas were ladled on to the plate. I held up the bowl for the rice kheer and it was filled without comment, but I saw that around me people took the kheer on the plate, and filled the bowl with water.

The food surprised me, while remaining true to everything I’d heard. There were no spices, but the food was as exquisitely tasty as it is reputed to be. The dal, especially, was something special; the half day long cook brings out the flavours of the lentils so that you don’t mind the absence of onions or spices. The kheer was also remarkable: mildly sweet but with the slow boiled milk infused with the aroma of rice. This was Punjabi khana rendered down to its essentials: fresh ingredients, slow cooking.

The Golden Temple

We visited the Golden Temple of Amritsar, Harmandir Sahib, in the evening, just as the sun was dipping below its gilded dome. The temple is considered to be among the holiest sites of Sikhism. It is a religion founded in the ferment during the early modern era that goes by the name of Sufism, and whose expression in India was called the Bhakti movement. Guru Nanak’s preaching and thoughts gained followers who later became known as the Sikhs. The lake you see in the photo above was completed in 1577 CE during the time of the fourth Guru, Ram Das. His successor, Guru Arjun Singh, placed a copy of the holy book, the Adi Granth, in the temple which he caused to be built. This Gurudwara, Harmandir Sahib, was destroyed and rebuilt many times. The present marble and copper structure was built in 1809 on the orders of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. He had the temple gilded in 1830, and it has since been called the Golden Temple.

The next long weekend

Three weeks from now we have a four-day weekend starting on Independence Day. Just the right time to start thinking about where to go. I thought maybe Madurai, deep in the heart of Tamil Nadu. The Family suggests Amritsar, culturally the other end of India. We might compromise with Lucknow, with its faded memory of culture and extreme politeness.

Some reading is clearly in order. Lucknow brings to mind the Bara Imambara, chikankari work, dussheri mangoes, and galawati kabab. There’s more. Lucknow also brings to mind stories of the Sultan Wajid Ali Shah, lost in songs and courtly manners, arrested by the East India Company, the subsequent failed siege during the war of 1857, the creation of the dance form Kathak and the story of the courtesan Umrao Jaan Ada, steeped in the formality and melancholy of a city which flowered in the 18th and 19th centuries. I look for books on Lucknow. There are many, but they are not available as e-books.

Amritsar is different. It has the golden temple, and the brilliant rustic food of Punjab. One remembers also the turbulent recent history, the siege of the golden temple, and the subsequent separatist terror. But before that there was the symbol of imperial oppression, the massacre of unarmed civilians in the Jalianwala Bagh. Between these events was the partition, symbolized by the Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan just outside Amritsar. It seems that the long and dazzling history of the Punjab has been completely erased in our minds by the bloody history of the 20th century.

And Madurai? What does it have apart from the Meenakshi temple? One knows of the colleges and a medical school, an underground neutrino observatory being built nearby, but precious little else. Taking quick look at blogs, I find photos of an impressive palace of the Nayaks, forts outside town, and a zany drink called, quite unbelievably, jigarthanda. There are other large temples, some mosques, and multiple palaces. It is also possible to take a long day’s trip to Kanyakumari. Part of the reason I find it hard to locate books about Madurai is because most of the literature is in Tamil. It is, after all, the real heart of Tamil culture.