The Sikhs. We’ve all seen them, wearing their turbans going about their daily business. The Golden Temple, as it’s known in English, or Harmandir Sahib in Punjabi, is the holiest temple in the Sikh religion.
Since so little is known about the Sikhs, I’ll give a very short explanation that can be expanded upon here. Sikhism was born out of a rejection to the very class- and caste-based Indian society in the 15th century. It was founded with the utmost respect to all religions and creeds, which the four entryways to the Golden Temple represent.
Founded by Guru Nanak Dev and expanded upon by ten more gurus, Sikhs number some 30 million and represent the fifth largest organized religion in the world. Sikhs follow the five K’s: kes (uncut hair), kangha (small wooden comb), kaṛa (circular steel or iron bracelet), kirpan (sword/dagger), and kacchera (special undergarment) [source: wikipedia].
Sikhs don’t really have priests and open all to their temples, called Gurudwaras, to the public. The Golden Temple on its own welcomes over 100,000 visitors daily. All temples serve free food to the public regardless of religion or creed.
My Experience At The Temple
By no means is the above information all encompassing. It’s not meant to be, but it’s a bit of background information.
Before coming, I read that you could sleep onsite at the temple for free (a donation is expected). I arrived at around 8pm and had no idea what I’d find. I walked in and saw dozens of people sleeping on the floor in a huge uncovered hall. It was the Indian accommodation area.
I asked someone where the accommodations were and he asked where I was from. I told him I’m from the U.S. and he led me through a “No Unauthorized Entry” door to the foreigners section. There were proper beds with thin mattresses all put together and five rooms that could accommodate small groups.
The guy in charge of the room didn’t speak much English and the only people there at the time were Chinese travelers who also didn’t speak English. It was really hard to figure out if beds were occupied or not. All had sheets and covers that are probably rarely washed. Luckily, a Japanese girl who spoke excellent English told came out from one of the rooms and said she was leaving and I could take her room. Minutes after she left a Swedish guy came in looking for a bed and, since there were three in the room, I asked if he wanted to stay with me.
My trick when staying in such relatively unhygienic conditions is to sleep with my clothes on if the temperature allows (which it did), use a sleeping bag insert if it’s warm or if you want, and use a clean or dirty shirt as a pillow case.
There was a bathroom (not toilet, just a bathing room where you could shower using a bucket and scoop with hot water) in the room, though it seemed like very few Westerners used it.
My first night I went out with Linus, the Swedish guy, to see the temple. It really was beautiful. I had to wear something to cover my hair. You can find orange mini-scarves throughout the city for 10 Rupees/$0.18 to cover your head. I used my winter hat instead.
The temple complex is a shoe-free zone. You can deposit your shoes and socks at an office in exchange for a redemption token. I did this the first day, but thereafter it was just easier to leave my shoes in the room since I was staying literally across the street from the temple complex. I guess I don’t mind being barefoot, but Indians probably spit publicly more than any other nationality on the planet. That said, I saw no one spitting at the temple site, which was not the case at the Hindu temple I visited in Kathmandu, Nepal.
If you look like a foreigner you can expect a Sikh person to approach you and talk to you. This may be the only time in India not to brush them off and ignore them. Sikhs know they are misunderstood and realize that every foreigner who comes to the Golden Temple is a potential goodwill ambassador for Sikhs upon returning home.
When I was there a young guy who admittedly wasn’t religious gladly showed me around the temple, explained the rituals and traditions, and uncovered places I wouldn’t have known existed. It was a very pleasant experience, one I’ll always remember.
As I mentioned above, the food is free and available to all at every Sikh temple. An army of volunteers prepares everything and at the Golden Temple, where some 100,000 people visit daily, it’s truly an impressive operation. The food is simple, dal (lentils), raitha (rice pudding), and chapatis (roti/bread).
I had all but two meals at the temple the weekend I was there. They were good, everything seemed hygienic, it was some of the best process management and operation work I’ve seen in India, and it was generally a great environment. It’s all-you-can-eat, but you are not allowed to leave with food on your plate. Kind of rude to take the free food and waste it, no? But yes, you can refuse or stay stop when being served.
I helped wash dishes one day after dinner one night. I was impressed with the process – an initial wash to wash away all the solids, then two more washes in two separate tubs, then rinsing. In a place infamous for its bad hygiene, three washing ensure a proper job is done.
I only washed dishes for 60-90 minutes, but it was while washing the dishes that I realized just how many thousands of people eat there daily. There was a constant stream of plates, bowls, and spoons. Constant. Incredible.
I also wondered if this was the only place in India where you can see men washing the dishes…
I would say I stayed one day longer than necessary. There aren’t many things to see in Amritsar. Besides the temple I went to the site of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, one of bloodiest steps on India’s path to independence.
Still, it was nice to be in such a tranquil place, full of positive energy. I’ll be the first to admit that it can be a little intimidating being somewhere you feel so out of place, but with the Sikhs you need not worry. You are always welcome. Literally.