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.

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.

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.

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