It takes less than six hours by train to travel the 450 kilometers northwest from Delhi to Amritsar in the state of Punjab. Gazing out the window at the passing landscape, it’s easy to see why this region has long been considered the “breadbasket” of India, tempting waves of invaders through the ages. Nature has blessed Punjab with fertile soil and abundant water from the five rivers that cross its plains. With just a little stretch of the imagination, I could picture myself in California’s agricultural Central Valley.
Punjab: the home of the Sikhs
When India was partitioned in 1947, the Punjab province was split into East and West Punjab. East Punjab became part of India while West Punjab became part of Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of Punjabis fled from the Pakistan side and resettled in Delhi.
I’ve found Punjabis to be good natured and generous, and their food delicious. Physically, they can be robust, and because they have been called upon through the ages to defend India against invaders from the West, they have a martial spirit. When you combine all of these qualities with personal self-discipline, honesty and religious commitment, you have the Sikhs.
The Sikh religion (Sikh means “disciple”) was founded by Guru Nanak Dev in the last half of the fifteenth century in that part of the Punjab now controlled by Pakistan. In those days, much of northern India was governed by Muslim rulers while the majority of the population was Hindu. From an early age, Guru Nanak displayed an inclination toward mysticism and he is said to have achieved enlightenment at the age of thirty after a deep samadhi of many days. Upon coming back to normal consciousness, his first words were, “There is neither Hindu nor Muslim, so whose path shall I follow? I shall follow God’s path.”
Thus the Sikh religion was born. Guru Nanak proceeded to expound his revelation and traveled widely, drawing followers to his non-sectarian teachings of ceaseless devotion to God, honesty and service.
Sikhism in its present form is based upon the teachings of the first ten gurus of the faith, beginning with Guru Nanak and ending with Guru Gobind Singh in the early 18th century. Before his death, Gobind Singh proclaimed the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the holy writings of the first ten Gurus, to be the eleventh and final Guru of the Sikh religion. That scripture is worshipped and brought out in procession each day at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, a place of pilgrimage for all devout Sikhs.
An uplifting place of pilgrimage
I traveled to Amritsar with a small group of pilgrims in early October. Amritsar is a major city not far from the Pakistani border. In the middle of town stands the Golden Temple complex encircling a wonderful pool of water, in the middle of which sits the Golden Temple itself, a beautiful marble structure sheathed in gold.
Pilgrims come by the thousands to circumambulate the pool and take darshan of the Guru Granth Sahib housed in the temple. There, Sikh elders read from the scripture throughout the day, interspersing their recitation with prayers and bhajans, all broadcast non-stop through loudspeakers. I found it both mesmerizing and uplifting.
When visiting the temple, you leave your shoes outside at special stalls and cover your head with a scarf or bandana before entering. These head coverings are freely available if you don’t have your own. Once inside the grounds, you see the Golden Temple sitting serenely on the water, as if floating.
I joined the steady procession of pilgrims circumambulating the pool and eventually made my way to a queue of devotees waiting on the causeway that leads across the water to the temple. All was orderly and steady. Inside the temple, reading from the scriptures and recitation of prayers proceeded while the ushers tried their best to keep the pilgrims flowing through. Upon exiting the inner sanctum, I found a niche by a side door where I sat with other pilgrims while listening to the sounds wash over me.
Food is served throughout the day at no cost and I found a pavilion where one can nap if tired. Taking a dip in the pool is permitted and I saw a number of people meditating and reciting prayers. I sat for meditation next to a fellow doing a regimen of pranayam.
The grounds are never closed
Stationed along the pool at regular intervals are khalsa guards. Their dress is a wonderful deep blue, knee length tunic with a bright yellow sash and turban. All sport thick black beards and carry a dignified, authoritative bearing that says, “Behave yourself!”
Thousands of pilgrims come to the Golden Temple each and every day with palpable devotion. The grounds are never closed and even in the wee hours of the morning, you will find a crowd.
At one point I noticed a group of teenagers following me, all the while exchanging conspiratorial whispers with one to another. Gathering their courage, they surrounded me and breathlessly asked, “Where are you from? Why are you here? Do you like it?” They were a group of schoolboys wanting to practice their English and curious about this stranger who so appreciated their traditions. They were very sweet and upon parting, we shook hands all around.