The fame of smaller cities almost always rests on one or two places of historical importance. Think of Agra and your mind at once races to the Taj Mahal. Likewise if someone mentions Amritsar, you invariably recall the Golden Temple.
In 2014 and 2015 when I crossed the border to participate in literary festivals in Kasauli (Himachal Pradesh) and Kumaon (Uttarakhand), I couldn’t stop in Amritsar, a city which is barely 48 km from Lahore.
However, earlier this year, I took a 24-hour trip to Amritsar mainly to feast my eyes on the magnificent structure, and to soak myself in the holy ambience inside what is actually named Harmandir Sahib.
The nickname, Golden Temple, was coined and popularised by the British colonial government. The fast train that connects Mumbai with Amritsar is also called the Golden Temple Mail.
I had read some time ago that you can’t enter any Sikh temple bareheaded, so I tell Pyarelal, my driver-cum-guide, that I need to buy a handkerchief to cover my head.
“Not to worry, sir, you will have plenty to choose from, once we walk towards the gurdwara,” he says, as he succeeds in finding a parking place for his vehicle. (Gurdwara, by the way, is a generic name of worship just as masjid is for Muslims and church for Christians).
Pyarelal takes me to a makeshift stall. Somehow the vendor selling handkerchiefs for men and scarves for women guesses that I am not a local.
“You seem to be from UP or Delhi? Where are you from?” he queries. “From Pakistan, I crossed the border this morning,” I reply as I pick up a lovely orange colour hanky.
“Well, then you can take this with my compliments since you come from the land from where my grandparents migrated. You are one of us,” he says in Punjabi, a language I am not unfamiliar with. The Amritsari dialect, I realise, is the same as the one you hear in Lahore.
I don’t want to rob the poor vendor of Rs15, so I politely turn down the offer. He doesn’t agree; but I try to persuade him. Pyarelal intervenes and pays on my behalf.
A couple of minutes later when we are out of sight of the vendor, he quietly accepts the small amount. We are lost among the large number of pedestrians walking towards our destination.
Pyarelal warns me to be “aware of pickpockets”, and I realise I am not too far from home. “It is the birth anniversary of Guru Ramdas, which is why there is such a huge crowd,” Pyarelal informs me.
The façade of the main entrance to the Golden Temple is impressive. Pyarelal deposits our shoes and gets two tokens.
I enter the premises and am struck by the grandeur of the temple, which is surrounded by a pool of clean and sparkling water. I see three Sikhs standing inside the pool and immersing themselves in the water from time to time while chanting their prayers.
The water, I had read a while ago, comes from River Ravi, but not before it is thoroughly filtered.
While parting with my pair of shoes I have the misgiving that my feet, particularly the soles, would become dirty, but the opposite happens. All those who visit the temple pass through a couple of very shallow (hardly two centimetres deep) streams.
I am absorbed in the beauty of the gold-plated temple, when Pyarelal says, “You wanted to have a cup of tea. Come with me. They serve the best tea in Amritsar and, like the meal, it is free,” he says as he takes me to the building adjacent to the main entrance.
I normally avoid sugar and take only a few drops of milk in my tea, but the beverage I am served is a refreshing change; it’s sweet, milky and has traces of cardamom and cinnamon.
Sikhs don’t take tobacco in any form, nor do they resort to beggary, a friend had told me. Every gurdwara offers free hot food and the facility, called langar, is open to non-Sikhs also. At least that’s what I see in Harmandir Sahib.
The food is vegetarian and is served in compartmentalised trays. I see Pyarelal’s tray has daal and roti. Lying in one portion is firni. I have had a wholesome lunch so I give the food a pass.
I peep inside the kitchen and find as many as 18 rotis being roasted, at the same time, on a huge tawa. Those who cook and serve the food are all volunteers, as are those who wash innumerable trays and spoons.
As I walk out of the huge eatery, I see volunteers, male and female, some of them seemingly affluent, cutting cauliflowers, peeling potatoes and onions, and chopping green chillies. It’s a lesson in humility and equality.
I am told that there is never a dearth of volunteers, nor is there a shortage of funds. Sikhs, both individuals and charities, donate generously. I learn that food is served in the langar 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and that as many as 100,000 people have a meal daily.
As I come out of the dining area, I see men and women touching the marble-tiled ground with their foreheads in much the same way as Muslims perform sajda. “Maatha taiko (touch your forehead),” says a Sikh with a flowing untrimmed beard.
A minor spinal injury, coincidentally sustained when I slipped on the wet floor in the house of a Sikh friend, Pamy Singh in Delhi four years ago, makes me unable to bend.
So just to please the sardar who wants to see that his advice doesn’t go unheeded, I touch a pillar with my forehead. “You are not obliged to do that,” says Pyarelal after my advisor moves out of sight.
“The land of this entire gurdwara complex was given as a gift to Bibi Bhani, the daughter of the third guru by the great Mughal emperor Akbar. The bridegroom Jetha was a pious person, and was later nominated as the fourth Guru.
Also do you know that a Muslim saint, Sufi Mian Mir, was invited to lay the foundation of this holiest place for the Sikhs?” I tell Pyarelal.
“Did you know all this?” Pyarelal simply shakes his head vertically. He doesn’t say anything. I guess as a guide he is paid for speaking and not for listening.
He takes me to the causeway that connects the Golden Temple, which houses the Holy book, the Guru Garanth Sahib, with the rest of the premises. There is a lot of rush and there is no way we can go inside.
I taste the prasad (tabarruk in Urdu), which is offered to all visitors. It’s like our sooji ka halwa, except that it has gur (jaggery) instead of sugar and is cooked in butter instead of ghee or cooking oil.
On the other side of the causeway is the path that leads to the Akal Takht, which is the temporal headquarter of the entire complex. Its dome is plated with gold too.
At midnight, the Guru Garanth Sahib is taken to the Akal Takht, but at 3am it is carried back on a palanquin, by the followers of the world’s youngest religion, and placed respectfully inside the Golden Temple. The garanthis (those who recite from the holy book) then resume reciting the holy verse.
The following week my friend, Mohammadi Bhai, an elderly Bohra businessman from Karachi, visits the Golden Temple.
Luckily for him, the same evening India plays the semi-final against the West Indies in the T20 World Cup. Only the very devout Sikhs visit their holiest place at that hour; I am told that the roads of Amritsar wear a deserted look too.
I have decided that in future I shall time my visit to Amritsar with a limited overs match featuring India.
The writer is a journalist and the author of four books
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine May 1st, 2016