Can you visit the same place twice? I would have answered without batting an eyelid had you asked me this question 5 months ago. But my friend managed to put this doubt in my mind that a small place like Amritsar does not deserve a repeat visit. More than ever now, I wanted to visit the city again – to refresh my memories from 10 years ago and to see if I truly can find something new a second time around.
Our entry to the city would seem ominous to anyone – what with a hailstorm and freezing weather greeting us at the airport. And yet, wrapped in my enough-only-for-Bombay jacket, I was there, running around a clean and delightfully white airport. After a quick pit stop at the hotel (mainly to dig into some Alu Parantha and tangy lime pickle) we hailed our cab and drove to the Golden temple.
I remember my visit to the temple a decade ago. I was in school and religion to me was as obscure as it is now. Coming from a school which encouraged us to not worship any idol, I often wondered if I really belonged to any religion after all. Our train had been the Delhi-Amritsar Shatabdi where Baba quickly struck up conversations with co-passengers. The couple sitting in front had flown down from New York (in my mind the place where cafeterias had lunch queues and Dinosaurs attacked when it rained) to visit the Golden Temple. The man must have been in his early 30’s – or he looked like that to me, because when you are young everyone after a 10 year age gap looks the same – while his wife was slightly younger. They were dressed in smart casuals, something I had not seen any of my married cousins wear. Mostly Baba spoke to them about business and about travelling in different cities, while Ma smiled dutifully sitting next to him, interjecting his sentences only with agreement.
We said our goodbyes the next morning (or was it the same day?) and went on our own pre-planned path. After a bath, some rest and meeting some friends, the whole bunch travelled to the Golden Temple together. Covered heads bowed, naked feet washed, we walked along the marble slabs to enter the courtyard to what would soon become my favourite place of worship. The temple lay in the middle of the lake, but the way around it – hardly a 200 meter walk, was sparkling clean. And cleaning that street were people of all ages – from young kids throwing buckets of water to old men in orange Pagdis, sweeping. A little way ahead I saw our New York visitors cleaning as well. She had changed into a bright salwar suit and he was in a kurta pajama, smart casuals packed away somewhere else. I must have been too amazed to notice whatever my parents were saying as way of greeting. In my mind it was not a temple any more. It couldn’t be. I had grown up visiting temples which are dirty or muddy, where you could utter names in hushed voices and get invited into VIP lines, where rules were passed down and no one could explain why we were uttering the mantras on that particular day. I remember walking to the temple, turning back to check if the same people were still there, to make sure it wasn’t a joke someone decided to play. And the last thing I remember was drinking the water from that lake because it said it was pure. In my mind, any religion which had stopped caring about the rich and poor divide had to be pure.
It has been 10 years since that. I must have been naïve to be so blown away by concepts such as equality. This time when I entered, there were no foreign-returned bhaiya-bhabis cleaning the street, nor any kurta clad uncle handing out sharbat to the thirsty. And yet, they were all the same. People – from all walks of life came to the same temple and prayed. Not looking at anything in particular, not asking for their wishes to be granted in exchange for a coconut or some fruits. But they prayed – people who followed Islam, who were devout Christians. People who were born in Hindu households or those who carried the Kripaan. Everyone became the same. And seeing the person next to him humbly offering the Kada Prasad, even the staunchest person started to loosen up, started to feel the spiritual essence of a place as serene as the Golden Temple.
The Golden temple is more than just a place of worship for most. And it is certainly not just a tourist attraction. If you look around, and notice the walls – it is also a tribute to brave Sikhs who died in battle. This includes one Baba Deep Singh who was beheaded but (legend has it) continued to fight and make his way towards the temple. He finally died inside the temple premises and now that spot is marked by a tribute where thousands bow their heads every day.
It is not a myth that Sikhs are a brave lot. The temple walls prove that to every visitor. But what stands out each time, is that they are also an egalitarian bunch. One who believes in hard work, in dignity, in honesty. And the Golden Temple stands as witness to their principles, as a reminder for every new and repeat visitor.
This travelogue was first published by CURIOSITEA .