If I were to tell you a tale of a modern day warriors with massive turbans carrying swords who pray at a temple made of gold, you may think that I’ve been overindulging on the pot pakoras. But clearly you’ve never been to Amritsar, home of the Sikh religion and their gorgeous Golden Temple, an architectural success that according to people in the know, rivals the Taj Mahal.
Religious sites as a tourist destination can be a little tricky. Of course you’re not entirely familiar with the rites and rituals so it’s easy to make a mistake, (ie: accepting the offering with your left hand at the Mahalakshmi Temple in Bombay. Or accidentally joining the men on their side of the temple at Wu Wei Si. Or letting the shawl drop from your bare shoulders during lunch at Vipassana.) Most of the time people ignore you, sometimes people correct you and occasionally people clearly do not want you there.
The Golden Temple may be the most inviting religious destination in the world. Sikh’s are huge believers in equality and everyone – EVERYONE – is invited to visit their temple, listen to the continuous chanting and -best of all- sit down and enjoy a meal as a community. At the langar (canteen) Sikh’s demonstrate their belief in equality, sharing and community by feeding everyone at the free kitchen.
Over 35,000 people every day eat at the Golden Temple!
It must be said: The Golden Temple is stunning, it’s magnificent, it’s a masterpiece. But the thing that I loved most about my visit to Amritsar was the inclusive, inviting atmosphere in the langar.
Hundreds of people stream in and out of the entrance. As you walk in a man in huge turban hands you a metal plate and points you down the line where someone is waiting with a bowl and another person with your silverware. All around you sit groups of volunteers. They’re chopping onions and mincing garlic. The smell hits your eyes and you can do nothing but follow the crowd, blinded by the immediate tears. You ears tingle from the continuous din of metal trays being washed, dried and thrown into a pile.
People surround you, jostling, pushing you into the canteen as soon as the doors are opened. Everyone runs for a spot on the freshly washed floor and even before the entire crowd enters, servers are tossing chapatti and ladling spicy dal onto waiting trays. The food is served until everyone is full – but this happens quickly. Another group of hungry people are already pushing at the door and men with buckets and brooms are heading your way to wash the floor you’re sitting on.
Many religions preach about tolerance and charity, about feeding the poor or helping the needy but Sikh’s put their money where their mouth is. It’s amazing to walk into a temple and be welcomed not just with hymns and icons but with a smile and a steaming cup of tea.