I woke on the cement floor next to ten other foreign backpackers. The girl beside me was asleep, clutching her SLR camera under her chin. The sound of running water echoed around the square walls of the Niwas and out through the open-air ceiling. I rolled up my mattress and sleeping bag, careful not to disturb the little pod of white people stretched out on the floor. The square building was two stories high, a large courtyard in the middle with no ceiling, like a prison. I grabbed my day-pack, sporting its small Canadian-flag patch, and emerged from behind the wall that separated us from the rest of the complex.
Men and women, pilgrims, both Hindu and Sikh, circled around the sanitation facility, a small brick house, open on all sides, with rickety taps and heads spouting clear water. In their colourful saris, the women worked on their kneesover their family’s clothing, slapping and scrubbing out the dirt on the tiled floor amidst a puddle of suds. Mothers rinsed naked children with their bare hands while men and women washed themselves through their clothing, exposing their skin conservatively bit by bit until they were clean all over.
The rising sun was blocked by the building’s eastern wall and was only just making its way down the western side to the floor of the courtyard. The washer-women stretched out the bright red and yellow cloth on the cement floor, wet and dark, waiting for the shadow to recede. The heat of the day was already beating, forcing the guests out of their rooms along the perpendicular wings of the building and down into the open air. Despite the throng of people, the building was quiet and serene, respectful of all the travelers and pilgrims who had come to take advantage of the free accommodation offered in the Niwas.
I had taken the night bus to Amritsar and arrived late the previous evening. Throughout the entire trip along the narrow northern highways, cargo trucks loaded with Indian soldiers passed our bus on the road. Tensions between India and Pakistan were flaring and a strong military presence was being setup along the border in the Kashmir. Indian television and newspapers had been making loud, familiar claims against Pakistan since I had arrived and everyone was worried about the nuclear technologies that were brewing under the surface.
Sri Guru Ramdas Niwas was just one of the large free accommodation compounds set up around the north-Indian city of Amritsar, the holy-land for Sikhs all over the world. It was a pillar of the Sikh faith that all people be welcomed to their religious places and encouraged to learn about their gurus and the teachings of unity and peace. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Hari Mandir, the Golden Temple, the crown of the Gurdwaras, the Sikh temples that have been built all over the world. But after learning about the free accommodation in the Niwas and the free meals provided in the Guru Ka Langer, I was looking forward to witnessing these acts of good-will as a contrast to the aggressive international acts that were threatening to boil over all around us.
Through the always-open gate-way of the Niwas, the streets of Amritsar buzzed and honked with tuk-tuks and expensive cars. I made my way down the street to the entrance of the Harmandir Sahib, the precincts of the Golden Temple. The area around the entrance was swollen with a crowd of people awaiting the opening of the gates of the Langer for the free morning meal. I joined the mob and waited shoulder-to-shoulder for the gates to be opened.
Just when I started feeling too hot and suffocated by smell of sweaty human bodies, two men came out of the large red-stone building and opened the front gates. Caught up in the current, I stormed through with the others. At the doors to the building, everyone kicked off their shoes and tried to put them in a distinct place to find them again after the meal. Those with disposable flip flops flicked them from their feet into a pile to be sorted through at the end. I placed my cheap blue flip flops beside the pile, hopeful that I would be able to retrieve them again, but not worried if I wound up with another pair a size too big or small. Before I entered, a man stopped me and handed me a blue, triangle piece of cloth made of cheap cotton and imprinted with the crossed-sword emblem of the Sikhs.
“You,” he said, pointing to his head.
It was only then that I realized I was the only one in the crowd with an uncovered head. I tied the bandana on, Rambo-style, and tucked the top flap under the knot in the back to keep my entire head covered.
Inside, the marble floor was lined with rows of burlap, two meters apart. Large marble pillars supported the old ceiling. The smell of curry filled the room like the yellow stain it leaves on clothes, the warm smell of baking bread just under the surface. We all sat down one by one along the mats. Families and friends separated and sat across or down from each other to keep things moving quickly. I took a seat between a man in a blue business shirt and a young boy with his front teeth missing. The young boy stared at me and did not look away when I looked back at him. It took many minutes for the giant room to fill up and when the last available area of burlap was taken, the entrance doors were closed to those still outside waiting to get in, to those men and women holding their hands together in prayer, pleading to be let in to eat.
The room was silent except for clearing throats or sneezes. Everyone hung their head in prayer and brought their hands together in front of their foreheads. I followed. A prayer was spoken loudly by a man in the room I could not see. When it was over, everyone lifted their heads, but did not say a word. Teenage boys came up the aisles carrying tin serving trays with pitted areas for separating food. They laid a tray in front of every person. Just behind them, slightly older boys struggled with heavy buckets, ladling a large dollop of dahl onto each tray, and behind them, men with large bowls filled with chapatti bread. When the food had been doled out, some said a further individual prayer while others simply started eating. I tucked my left hand under my crossed legs and began tearing the chapatti apart with my right. The boy beside me ate, but watched me closely from the corner of his eye.
The food servers continued to pace up and down the rows, filling any empty divot on the trays until they were waved away silently by the eater. I stuffed myself full with the simple, but tasty food. I waved away the servers and waited until everyone had had their fill.
When the eating was finished, a parallel door to the entrance was opened and we all picked up our dirty trays and filed out of the building. Outside, there was a large metal rack where everyone placed their dirty trays standing upright. A boy with a hose and sponge walked along and cleaned each one quickly. The horde returned to the entranceway and sorted through the piles of shoes. I found a pair that resembled the ones I had left. We made our way through the exit gate as the entrance gate was opened again and a new round of hungry people filed in.
To the right of the exit, the white walls surrounding the Harmandir Sahib gleamed in the sun. A steady stream of people coming and going filled the small, secondary entrance. I entered, removed my sandals again and washed my dirty feet in a small pool of water provided by an old man who also offered to watch over my shoes while I walked the grounds.
The walls enclosed the square perimeter of the temple complex, roughly the size of a football field. I stepped onto the five-meter-wide marble walkway, the Parkarma, that followed the walls around. In front, above the heads of the crowd surrounding me, the golden domes of the Hari Mandir shone brightly. Over the loudspeakers mounted on every corner of the perimeter walls, the voices of men praying or reading scripture sprayed out and fell like a heavy mist. The crowd from the bottleneck of the entranceway dispersed along the path as I walked forward in awe of the place.
The white Parkarma contained a huge pool of water, the Sarovar, that made up the entire centre of the complex. I followed some people to the left and walked to the water’s edge. There were schools of large goldfish swimming in the head-deep water. To my right, in front of the entranceway, a large staircase descended into the water and levelled out under the surface. Some young Sikh men, wearing only their traditional white cotton underwear, were moving up or down the stairs, or bathing at the bottom. Some had removed their hair from the tight buns atop their heads and were letting it flow in the water as they poured handfuls over their faces and bodies.
I continued to the left along the walkway and rounded the first corner of the square pool. From there, I could see a shielded area with an ornate covering so those bathing could not be seen. Women crowded around the covering, talking and preparing themselves to enter the water.
The long walk down the left side of the pool offered views of the Hari Mandir, the Golden Temple itself, sitting like an island out in the very middle of the pool of water. A long bridge, two pedestrian lanes wide, led from the Parkarma out to the temple. People crossed like ants, going in and coming out, adorned with garlands and dressed in their finest clothes. I could hear the sounds of tabla and other organ-like instruments coming from inside the temple, seemingly in time with the voices being broadcast over the air.
Along the walkway, small pods of Sikh and Hindu pilgrims sat, talking quietly, while groups of women walked the circuit with flowers or garlands in their hands. Families held babies and had their pictures taken with the Golden Temple in the background, young children walked calmly and respectfully holding their fathers’ hands, teenagers chatted together and laughed quietly, old men with long white beards and twirled moustaches adjusted their tightly woven turbans or prayed. During my travels, the Hindu temples were most often off-limits to foreigners and so this truly felt like my first real encounter with the deeply religious side of India. The feeling of reverence, holiness, was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
As I rounded the second corner and came upon the Akal Takht, the turreted parliament building for the Sikh nation, I found the winding cue for the long walk down the Guru’s Bridge to the temple. A small stall was selling entrance tickets, flowers, garlands and incense, as well as small prayer books and pictures of Sikh saints. I decided to make one full pass of the grounds before going in to the temple proper.
When I passed the elaborate balconies and turrets of the parliament buildings, I noticed, for the first time, the clock tower and museum on the other side. The tower marked the main entranceway and was busy with people. A ledge ran along the side of the pool, drawing more bathers into the water.
I heard no familiar voices, saw no familiar faces. People watched me walking, my grey shorts and surf-logoed t-shirt, the free blue bandana for those who don’t come prepared with their own head-covering, the hiking pack on my back with the Canadian-flag patch, filled with my flip flops, a bottle of purified water and a camera to document the odd things I would tell my family and friends about upon my return home. I had been traveling across south-east Asia and the Indian sub-continent for almost six months and had never felt so far removed from the world as I knew it.
After one complete pass of the grounds, I found a solitary place and watched the people, some who had been waiting their whole lives to visit this place. Some cried or shuddered with emotion. Everywhere there were men and women, young and old, stopped in prayer or the hallowed feeling of the place.