THE GOLDEN TEMPLE IN AMRITSAR, INDIA
The Harmandir Sahib (“The House of God”) aka the Golden Temple in Amritsar was one of the highlights of our second trip to India. Located in the northwest state of Punjab near the border of Pakistan, it’s an impressive sight and the perfect place to learn more about Sikhism.
There are many Sikh temples in India (known as gurdwaras), but this is the most significant of them all. We really enjoyed soaking in the atmosphere. It’s fascinating to watch people milling around, praying, and bathing in the lake. It is probably the cleanest place we’ve seen in India too. Aside from the alluring details of this special temple, it’s what this place stands for that really blew us away.
The holy city of Amritsar was founded by the 4th Sikh Guru Ram Das in 1574. Amritsar, meaning “pool of the nectar of immortality” was the name given to the body of water that surrounds the Golden Temple. The city consequently expanded out from around this very pool. Sikhs believe bathing in this water is purifying. It’s a breathtaking complex containing buildings that form the epicenter of Sikhism.
The temple itself wasn’t completed until 1589, under the supervision of Guru Arjan, yet it has been destroyed (notably by the Mughal Empire) and rebuilt several times.
Taken from Wikipedia:
Langar is the term used in Sikhism for the community kitchen in a Gurdwara where a free meal is served to all visitors, without distinction of religion, caste, gender, economic status or ethnicity.
This temple feeds an estimated 50,000 – 100,000 hot meals every day, no questions asked. The meals are simple vegetarian fare and typically consist of chapati (flat wheat bread), basmati rice, dal (lentils), subji (veggie dish), and kheer (rice pudding).
Since there are so many people, the kitchen has two dining halls, which have a combined capacity of 5,000. Visitors sit on the floor, are quickly served, and about ten or fifteen minutes later they’re ushered out politely to make room for the cleaning crew. The floors are mopped clean and it’s onto the next round of diners, it works like a well-oiled machine.
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Through the help of many devotees and volunteers, it’s functional, fluid, and efficient. There’s a group of people in the back making bread and a separate room where they butter it. People are serving the food, filling the baskets, handing out plates, and directing foot traffic. Others help by washing dishes. We’ve never seen a better example of the phrase, “teamwork makes the dream work” than at the Golden Temple.
If you feel like volunteering, it’s a great place to do it. You’re sure to get some smiles as a foreigner and make a few new friends. We just walked into the kitchen and asked – how can we help?
We were given a basket full of bread and told to pass it out. Super simple. We did it for an hour or two and then sat down cross-legged to eat with everyone. We had worked up an appetite by then and the food was pretty damn good.
If you have any questions the other volunteers are helpful and friendly. It’s one of the few places we’ve come across in our travels that allows you to just show up and contribute so easily. No paperwork, no commitment.
Additionally, they offer clean drinking water, showers, a place to sleep, and bathrooms to a community in India where these things are not always readily available. It’s a wonderful resource!
Diwali (Festival of Lights) at the Golden Temple
We’re big fans of cultural festivities, so we made our way down from Himachal Pradesh in early October intending to arrive at the temple for Diwali. This special holiday of light is celebrated by Sikhs, Hindus, Jains, and Newar Buddhists, each for their own reasons.
It’s the biggest and brightest festival in India and essentially signifies the victory of good over evil and wisdom over ignorance. Nevertheless, it’s also the busiest time for shopping in India because it’s seen as an auspicious occasion.
Festivities include a fireworks show and the lighting of diyas (candles or lamps) throughout the evening. Families commonly participate in puja (prayers), the exchanging of gifts, and eating sweets.
Understandably it goes on late into the night, with local teens running through the streets, sparks flying everywhere, as they gleefully laugh between loud bangs.
In a similar fashion, kids continue to light firecrackers for a week or more afterward! While it’s all in good fun, the only downside is that the air quality is already bad in Amritsar, so during this week, it gets extra smoky.
Going Inside the Golden Temple
The Golden Temple is in the center of the complex. Entering it is a MUST if you ever visit, but it’s certainly not for the faint of heart. The line is VERY LONG! We waited for over three hours to enter the temple. With a hundred thousand visitors per day, there’s always a big crowd.
Moreover, this can be agonizing if you’re not mentally prepared. Sindhya almost passed out from standing in the heat! If you can survive the wait, you’ll step foot into what has to be one of the most unique interiors in the world. It’s like walking into a painting. The patterns and details inside are so ornate and surreal!
The main attractions are the Guru Granth Sahib (the holy scripture and final eternal authority of Sikhism) and the musical performers who recite the spiritual hymns known as Shabad Kirtan.
These musical compositions have a sort of trance-inducing quality about them. After hours of waiting, feeling tired and hungry, wandering around the temple starts to feel like a psychedelic experience. A strange mix of opulence and sweaty bodies.
Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside, so you’ll just have to go and see it for yourself. Once you get in you can finally relax a little bit, nobody is rushing you to leave when you get upstairs.
We went to the temple complex three times during our visit to Punjab. We’re not religious people, but the Golden Temple is an institution that practices what it preaches. It shows the world what religion can offer if used charitably.
We left feeling inspired and uplifted by the whole experience. In summary, we highly recommend going if you ever find yourself in northern India or would like to restore your faith in humanity a little bit!
Things to Keep in Mind
- First, you must remove your shoes and socks, wash your feet, and cover your head before entering (headscarves are provided).
- Dress conservatively, for the most part wearing light cotton clothes is best.
- It is free to enter and open 24 hours.
- The complex is an excellent place for photography. If you want to photograph someone, please ask.
- No photos are allowed while inside the Golden Temple.
- Stay hydrated and eat something before you wait in line to enter.
- There are no chances to go to the bathroom while you’re waiting.
- There are private areas where women can bathe.
- Festive times to visit are Vaisakhi around April 13th and Diwali in October or November.
How to Get There
As with most places in India, you can come to Amritsar by bus or train. You can reach Amritsar coming from the north, south, or east. Trips tend to vary so it’s best to ask at the bus/train station or at your hotel for departure times. We came from Dharamshala (McLeod Ganj) by bus early in the morning. Otherwise, if you prefer to fly, there is an international airport outside the city (ATQ).
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