(Message sent Mon, 30 Oct 2006 08:22:35 -0700)
Hello everyone. India sure is a strange and wonderful place. I oscillate back and forth between being overwhelmed by the poverty and squalor, and being overwhelmed by the extraordinary majesty and beauty of the temples. I can hardly believe the view in front of me as I write this. I am in the compound of the Golden Temple, the holiest place in the Sikh religion.
The temple itself is a three-story building sitting in the middle of a man-made lake, with a wide marble pathway all the way around the lake. The temple is gilt with 750 kg of gold leaf. A causeway allows you to walk out to the temple.
On the ground floor of the temple priests sit singing hymns, their words broadcast around the whole compound.
I liked the second floor the best. It takes the form of a gallery from which you can look down to where the priests are singing. It has a soft red carpet (heaven on your bare feet after the unforgiving marble of the walkway), and the ceiling is low and curved and decorated with more gold leaf. People sit on the carpet, small prayer books in their hands, following along with the priests I assume. A series of windows looks out over the lake, each with inward-opening gilt shutters, and in each of these little alcoves sits a person in turban or Punjabi suit quietly reading their prayer book, the waters of the lake glistening in the open window behind them. I felt like a heathen clod clumping about amid such beauty and devotion, and kept expecting someone to usher me out, but in fact no-one seemed to mind my presence, and lots of people actually welcomed me and shook my hand.
As well as bare feet, you are required to cover your head at all times in the compound. This is of course the opposite of Western traditions. As I approached the entrance I checked with the temple guardians to see if my baseball cap counted as a respectful head covering, and they said yes, as long as I turned it around so that the peak was pointing backwards, in a manner that might be considered doubly disrespectful in the West! Funny old world.
A small museum in the compound contains some of the goriest martyrdom images I ever want to see, including one painting in which a man is being sawn in half, top-to-bottom, by a two-man wood saw.
Sikh temples provide free food for pilgrims, and here at the Golden Temple they serve around 30,000 meals a day. You queue up and are handed a metal plate, then you go into a huge hall with strips of cloth laid on the floor. You sit on the strips of cloth and put your plate on the floor, and people come past and serve you bread (which you have to receive in both hands) and a lentil and bean gruel (which is literally served out of buckets). A nice man sitting next to me spoke no English but showed me the correct ritual and manners. You would think that, with 30,000 meals a day, the gruel would be dire, but in fact it was delicious - not very hot but very flavourful. So I think it was a very fine 40th birthday party for me, even if I was the only one among hundreds who knew that's that what it was! :-)
The air in Amritsar is much better than in Delhi, and so my GPS could get a fix. According to my trusty eTrex, the Golden Temple is about here:
31 37.173 N 074 52.630 E
if you want to check it out on Google Earth.
Tomorrow I'm heading south again. Got me an appointment with the Taj Mahal I have. Love to all, Joff.