Sikhism, the fifth largest religion in the world, with a last count of 24 million followers globally, with the majority in Northern India. In my quest for knowledge on all things religion Sikhism was a topic on which I was completely green. I knew about the turban and perhaps there was something about a beard? Other than that, my ignorance embarrassed me a little in the lead up to my arrival in Amritsar. It is the holy city for Sikhs located in the heart of Punjab, India. I landed from sunny Brisbane and was smacked in the face with the very fresh air of maybe three degrees. I can’t remember the last time I was that cold, having lived in Bali for a year. Maybe it was on a trip to NZ in 2015? I am quickly reminded that I am a tropics kind of girl.
I am on a trip of a lifetime to learn, grow and research the top six religions and the best way in my mind to do that is with the locals. I was right and my first guru was waiting for me. Courtesy of AirBnB, Amrit and his lovely wife Harpreet would be my hosts for the week in Amritsar. If I prayed for perfect hosts, then my prayer was answered. I arrived tired and freezing to a warm house, two smiling faces and a waft of something delicious coming from the kitchen. Lunch! Yes! Traditional Punjabi food, cooked with years of practice and love poured on top. Parathas (potato and chilli stuffed chapattis), curries cooked to perfection, hand-made fresh roti, pickle, every meal a different dish so that I can try them all. What a privilege.
Amrit is a typical Indian dad, authoritative in such a gentle yet persuasive way that you can’t but help just do what you’re told. My suggested itinerary for that night and the following day was laid out, complete with a hand written map of which sections of the Golden Temple to see and in what order. I did manage to decline the evening itinerary, given I was exhausted after 20 hours on the road.
The Golden Temple was as incredible as I had pictured it in my mind. A glistening structure amid a massive pond. Amritsar translates to Amrit, Holy Water and Sar, Pond – Holy Pond. Men and women come and take a ceremonious dip to cleanse their sins and souls. The temple is beautiful in the day, but at night it takes your breath away. There is so much to see and I’ve already been three times. There is a museum in the complex that is rich in history and it also has artefacts of leaders, key followers and The Gurus . The first and most respected of the five Holy Takhts are housed here: The Akal Takht – A takht – seat of authority in the Sikh religion. I wandered barefoot (as is custom) around the expansive grounds for hours and hours, to the point where I could no longer feel my feet as they trod along the marble floors but it didn’t matter.
Only three days into my exploration and an observation I have is that the Sikhs are a very peaceful bunch, which is surprising given their beginnings as warriors of all religions emerging to protect the Hindus from Muslim oppressors. Or so the story goes, in fact this religion is quite mysterious to me. The 5 Ks, Kesh (uncut hair), Kangha (wooden brush for the hair), Kara (metal bracelet), Kachera (a type of undergarment) and Kirpan (a dagger). The symbolism associated with these items of warriors and the holy teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib either perfectly complement each other or directly contradict. I haven’t yet decided. Rather than a list of commands from God or parables of times forgotten the Guru Granth Sahib to me seems like a guidebook to kindness. Instructions like, remembering God through meditation, earn a living through honest endeavours and selflessly serve others to name a few . Sounds good to me.
My hosts have been feeding my tummy and mind and I’m intrigued to see where this week leads. I’ll open my mind some more before I continue to share, as my 25 questions a day that Amrit insists on before dinner each night (for my own learning), is still ongoing. This week they taught me about Seva – one of the fundamentals in the Sikh tradition. Seva is the act of selfless service , this may occur in a multitude of ways, one of which is the Langar Hall. Now this is an amazing concept, it appeals to the giver in me, the humanitarian I want to be and the broke back-packer too. The Langar Hall is a community kitchen – a staple in all Sikh temples around the world. This is a place where anyone, rich or poor, black or white, young or old, faithful or lost can come and be fed. They feed people around the clock; all on donations and volunteer service. In the Golden Temple they feed 100,000 people daily. An incredible feat and to see it in action was unbelievable, delicious as well. Modest portions, modest ingredients but cooked with love and servitude. Tasty and fresh. I know because my hosts and I participated. The women of the house, including me, spent this morning chopping, dicing, slicing, rolling and cooking up a storm. There was potato and pea curry to feed 100 people, a lentil daal to go with hundreds of chapattis and even coconut rice for dessert. We tuk tuk’d our way down to the temple, we served the people waiting, we ate with them and then we cleaned hundreds of dishes in the wash bay and laughed and chatted the time away. The warm feeling of the service is worth the time, effort and prune fingers. It’s a day of your time, spent with thankful and appreciative strangers, some of which have no other means for food. It’s not just the food they are grateful for; it’s the smile, the kindness the glint in their eye when you sit beside them as one. We are all equal.
Yours in Faith,
The Unlikely Pilgrim