After the boisterous India-Pakistan border-crossing ceremony described in the previous post (Border-Crossing), I could finally experience some peace and quiet in nearby Amritsar, a city in the state of Punjab, Northern India. Amritsar, which literally means “Pool of Holy Nectar”, is the home of Harmandir Sahib, commonly known as the Golden Temple and the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion. Despite the large number of visitors, the Golden Temple is an extraordinary peaceful and serene place to visit. The most sacred part of the temple is a gleaming golden pavilion where the holy book of Sikhism is kept. A pool of turquoise water (which symbolizes the holy nectar) surrounds the pavilion and pilgrims wishing to worship can reach it thru a long golden pathway.
Guru Nanak founded Sikhism in the 15th century apparently because he believed in equality and was unimpressed with both Muslim and Hindu religious practices. Sikhs, who now number about 25 millions in the world (most of whom live in the Punjab province), believe in one God. The principal tenet of the religion is that human beings are considered equal regardless of their religion, sex or race. Men who are practicing Sikhs have a quite distinctive appearance as they typically wear turbans. (It is quite impressive to see how expertly and quickly the Sikhs make a turban out of a long piece of cloth every morning.) Men decide at what point they want to become official members of the adult religious community (similar to a confirmation or bar mitzvah). When they do, they are required to adopt five practices at all times (which are referred to as the 5 Ks since the name of each practice begins with the letter K in the Punjabi language). They never cut their hair or trim their beards (thus the turban to protect it); they use a comb to keep their hair and beard neat; they carry a dagger (or a sword) symbolizing power and dignity; they wear a silver bracelet as a symbol of fearlessness and use special cotton undergarments conveying modesty. One often can see all the components of the ritual aside from the comb (hidden in the turban) when Sikh’s pilgrims worship at the Golden Temple and bathe in the pool of holy nectar with their dagger attached to their turbans so that they won’t get wet. (Some Sikh women adopt similar practices, but they are not required.)
These Sikh rituals are the most visible features of their religion, but much more importantly Sikhism stresses taking good actions. They believe that the way to a good life is “to keep God in heart and mind at all times, live honestly and work hard, treat everyone equally and be generous to the less fortunate.” As such, in each one of their gudwaras (the Punjabi word meaning House of God), there is an immense kitchen that serves free meals. Of course, the Golden Temple is no exception. In its humongous kitchen, an army of volunteers cuts vegetables, makes chapattis in a gigantic machine, cooks, serves the free meals and cleans the dishes. Anyone can volunteer to help, and it is estimated that 40,000 meals a day are served there. My economist husband should worry, as this is a violation of the rule that there is no such thing as a free lunch!
And as a Sikh greeting you would say,
Sat Sri Akal,