A few months ago, I was in India for the first time, visiting the northern city of Amritsar.
Amritsar came from humble beginnings but has since become one of the most important cities in Punjab. It was in this region that Sikhism first originated during the 15th century, which derived from the spiritual teachings of Guru Nanak and the nine Sikh Gurus (spiritual masters) who succeeded him. The 10th Guru eventually appointed the holy Sikh scripture as the eternal Guru and had it placed in the Golden Temple – the most important place of worship for Sikhs.
Before the city was founded, the original site of the Golden Temple was just a small lake surrounded by a peaceful forest. It is said to have been a place of great beauty – perfect for meditation and contemplation.
Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, was said to have meditated next to the lake and, 2,000 years before him, Buddha was also known to have spent time in contemplation there. After Guru Nanak passed away, his followers continued to frequent the lake and the site, over time, became the predominant place of worship for the Sikhs.
It was the fourth Guru, Ram Das, who purchased the land in the forest and further excavated the lake. From there, he constructed the pool, built a guru centre and his home next to it, and then invited people from several parts of India to settle in the new town named “Ramdaspur” – after himself, which eventually expanded into the city of Amritsar.
The small town began to flourish due to donations and volunteer work and then, during the 16th century, the fifth Guru, Arjan, constructed a temple in the middle of the pool. It was from this pool that the city eventually derived its name.
Amritsar means “pool of nectar” – “Amrit” being a nectar or sacred drink used at religious ceremonies, and “sar” that comes from the word “sarovar” which refers to the sacred pools that surround the temples.
As Sikhism became more and more predominant, the Mughal Empire and the Afghan Sultans attacked and destroyed the temple several times. But each time the invading Islamic armies destroyed the temple, it was rebuilt grander than before and, in 1830, it was overlaid with gold leaf which lent the temple its current name – the Golden Temple.
I was staying in a hotel about a 20-minute tuk-tuk ride away from the city centre where the Golden Temple was located. Somehow, we managed to fit six people in the tuk-tuk, which was impressive for us but not a novelty in India. The city centre was packed, filled with stalls and small shops, and although Amritsar may attract a large number of tourists, we seemed to be the only European tourists there. As we stood out, children would follow us around and people would ask for the occasional picture.
Before entering the huge religious square that surrounds the pool and the temple, we had to buy some scarves (for a few cents) in one of the surrounding shops to cover our heads. Inside all of the square, you must cover your head as a sign of respect and also leave your shoes in the cloakroom outside. At the entrance, you must also pass through a small pool to wash your feet.
Once inside, we saw many devotees bathing in the much larger sacred pool before offering prayers inside the temple. According to legends, the holy water of the pool can also cure ailments and disorders.
The Golden Temple itself is a unique blend of Hindu and Islamic architecture and is open to all faiths. Inside the square, there are other Sikh monuments and shrines, a museum and a free kitchen – which every gurdwara (sikh temple) has. It is the largest free kitchen in the world and serves over 50,000 free meals a day to whoever wants them.
All the temple workers, who cook and clean, are just some of the millions of devotees who visit the site every month and volunteer to work for free. As we walked around the square, several visitors were cleaning and sweeping the marble floors with homemade handle-less brooms – made by binding together a bundle of twigs. Watching everyone working together was just as alluring as the temple itself, and vastly enhanced the whole experience.
I look forward to visiting India again in the future as it is home to many cultures and religions, each filled with amazing experiences and monuments – including several Portuguese fortresses and basilicas in Diu and Goa. And, of course, because of the naan bread and Indian dishes overall.
Jay recently graduated from the Faculty of Fine Artes in Lisbon. Jay’s interests are exploring new cultures through photography and the myths, legends and history that define them.