India’s Golden Temple in Amritsar: an incredible sacred place that never sleeps
The Golden Temple in Amritsar. Incredible place, incredible people, incredible experience. And that’s why we consider it to be the best place to visit in India. We travelled in India 2 months and although we didn’t go everywhere, the impressive Golden Temple in Amritsar was definitely a place that stood out, left us with unforgettable memories and now holds a very special place in our hearts.
Sprawling and hectic Amritsar, Sikhs’ holiest city in the world, is situated in the north west of India in Punjab, close to the border with Pakistan. The city was founded in 1577 by Ram Das, the fourth Sikh guru, by a bathing pool with healing power.
The Golden Temple in Amritsar, an absolutely unique holy place that never sleeps
Amritsar is home to Sikhism’s most important shrine; the glamorous Golden Temple (Darbar Sahib or Harmandir Sahib) stands in the hearth of the old town as a part of a complex that has traditionally been the seat of the Sikh religious authority.
The Golden Temple is a holy place for both the Sikhs and Hindu.
The Golden Temple is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Before we dive into the charming atmosphere of the temple complex, let us tell you some basic facts about the Sikhs. There are 27 million Sikhs in the world; the majority live in the Indian state of Punjab and a few million of the Sikhs live in Asia, the UK, the USA and Canada.
Sikhism is an independent religion, the 5th biggest religion in the world.
The Sikh men wear beards and colourful turbans covering their hair that they never cut. For a Sikh, wearing a turban asserts a public commitment to maintain the values and ethics of the tradition, including service, equality, compassion and honesty. Sikh women wear either a turban or cover their head with a scarf.
The Golden Temple itself is a blend of Hindu and Islamic architectural styles, with an elegant lower level made of marble, adorned with flower and animal motifs.
A second level of gold panels is topped by a dome gilded with 750kg of gold. In the shining inner sanctum, priests and musicians keep up a continuous chant from the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, adding to the already intense atmosphere.
Staying at Amritsar’s Golden Temple in Sri Guru Ramdas Ji Niwas
We were heading to Amritsar from Dharamsala by train. There we met a Sikh man who started talking to us and later advised us to go to a place where we could stay for a donation when he found out that we hadn’t booked our accommodation in the town. (That’s what we never do.) We got off the train, took a rickshaw and went to look for the place.
It was quite late in the night, about 10 pm, late to be out in India. But we felt safe in the Sikhs’ city. The place was very close to the Golden Temple; it was an old big 4 storey palace with a huge courtyard. After we went through the tall gate and a narrow dark alley, we could see that all the incredibly large floor of the courtyard was fully covered by Indian pilgrims!
We were standing there in the dark night, tired, and our only though was that the man in the train made a silly joke of us. But then suddenly a door on the left opened, a smily face under a yellow turban appeared and the Sikh man said only one word: “Room?” And showed us a part of the building where foreign visitors were accommodated.
We saw about 15 foreigners sleeping in a dormitory, and there were also four separate rooms. Some Spanish travellers were just about to leave one of the rooms, heading to the train station to catch the night train to Rishikesh, so we even got a room just for ourselves.
The Sikh guards of the palace didn’t speak English but showed us one bathroom inside and other bathrooms and toilets that we were supposed to share with the Indian pilgrims. The building was old but the bathroom and toilets were in an excellent condition, brand new; the moment we entered there we felt like being at the airport! So big, nice and clean the bathrooms were in comparison to the old building!
The next morning we got up and saw the Indian pilgrims sitting in the courtyard and talking. We went to explore the huge palace and found out that all the rooms on all of the four floors were full of people too! Everybody was so friendly, even willing and happy to pose for photography.
At this place, set just by the Golden Temple, anybody – both the Indians and foreigners – can stay for free or a donation for how long they want.
We heard the music and chanting coming from the Golden Temple and couldn’t wait to see it!
We had to leave our shoes in a special place before entering the complex and cover our heads with scarves. Then we walked towards the holy place, washed our feet in water and finally stepped on the sacred ground.
The first view of the majestic temple sitting on the clear water left us speechless. Hundreds of pilgrims were walking around the pond or sitting in the shadow of a colonnade, meditating and praying. Some of the men were just having a holy dip in the sacred lake.
We were walking slowly around the holy lake and enjoyed the peace and quiet melody of live chanting coming from the Golden Temple.
When we stepped into the Golden Temple, we found the shining interior with priests chanting very spiritual, charming and truly exceptional. We could have stayed in the temple for hours, listening to the songs and watching the priests singing and reading texts from the holy book.
Witnessing the elections at the Golden Temple
One afternoon we witnessed the elections of a new head of the Golden Temple. That day it was the day when everybody in India was celebrating Diwali, a famous Indian (Hindu) festival of lights. There was going to be a Diwali celebration held at the Golden temple too, but it was cancelled at the last moment, which nobody had told us about.
That afternoon we arrived to the Golden temple expecting to see hundreds of lit candles set around the holy lake, and fireworks. Instead of all of this, we saw tens of Sikhs gathered by one of the palaces of the temple complex under a balcony. When we got there, an apparently important speech had been going on for a while.
About 15 minutes later, all the Sikhs suddenly stood up and started shouting. It all looked quite dramatic and we thought it was a kind of small revolution. We had no idea what was happening. We stayed there in the middle of the crowd for a while, until one Sikh told us that it would be better for us to leave.
We walked the stairs up to the third floor from where we watched the chaos which looked never-ending. Just a while later, we returned to the opposite part of the temple complex where everything was peaceful as usual.
It was extremely hard to find a local who spoke English good enough to explain us the situation and it took us two days to find out what was going on under the balcony at the Golden Temple that day of Diwali. We were told that what was actually happening there were elections of the new head of the Golden Temple and those protesting Sikhs were the opposition that had just lost.
The Diwali celebrations were cancelled because an unknown person destroyed the Sikhs’ holy book some time before the date of Diwali. As Diwali is mainly a Hindu festival, the Sikhs decided not to hold the celebrations in the temple this year.
People at the Golden Temple
As you already know, the Sikhs wear beards and colourful turbans. Traditionally, turbans are worn by both men and women, but at the Golden temple we saw only two women wearing turbans. Other women wore Indian clothes and beautiful transparent veils over their heads.
We had never seen the clothes that some of the men were wearing, mainly the unusual “hats”. The Sikhs who wear those big hats are called “baba” and they are considered to be very wise spiritual teachers.
Another group of the Sikhs were those who wore blue clothes, and held a spear and a sword (or an ax); they are called spiritual soldiers. Most of them live at the complex of the Golden Temple and devote their lives to the Sikh religion.
The biggest kitchen in the world where anybody can eat anytime for free
Feeding the hungry is a tradition among people of many faiths all over the world. The kitchen set in the Golden Temple complex serves 80 000 simple vegetarian meals every single day of the year, the number doubles at the weekends.
The kitchen is open 24 hours a day 356 days a year!
Anybody can come and eat there, thanks to its sponsors and volunteers. The volunteers cook, serve meals and wash the dishes. People who eat here also volunteer for some hours to “pay” for the food and help the permanent volunteers. The Sikhs who live in Canada and other countries often come and stay at the temple for some months to help in the kitchen.
People from different backgrounds eat and then volunteer here: everybody is considered to be equal. And that’s what we felt strongly when we came to experience the exceptional atmosphere of the largest free kitchen in the world.
People were extremely friendly, and were eager to talk to us, as they don’t see foreigners often eating there. Those who spoke English, approached us and had curious questions and often wanted to take a picture with us. The simple food was very tasty and we enjoyed sitting on the ground, in a row, one by one and felt being a part of a community whose members we just met…
We stayed at the complex of the Golden Temple four days and enjoyed every minute. It was very hard to leave such a peaceful, extraordinary and stunning place. If we ever return to India, Amritsar will be one of the reasons. There are not so many places in the world that offer such peace, the sense of belonging and beauty.