« When We Went to Wagah | Main | the power of place »

at the golden temple

Washing dishes at the Golden Temple, Amritsar

we left shiva's city early on saturday morning. my mother pushed a tiffin box of breakfast into my hands as i hurried to pack my things, and with it, a beautiful woolen shawl i had seen her wearing in the evenings. to keep you warm-- on the train. she would not hear of my refusing it, any more than she would let me leave the house in the mornings without having taken my chai. she kissed me on both cheeks. tuni and shalu walked with me to meet the rest of the group, and the rickshaws that would take us to the train station.

one day and one night, and we were in the punjab-- the golden temple in amritsar, holiest of holies for the sikhs. arriving and leaving our things in the dharamshala there (dharamshala meaning "refuge", the pilgrims' resthouse, where we would sleep), we went to eat our lunch in the public kitchen. on either side of the staircase people stood with stacks of spoons, bowls, and metal plates, hands flying as they distributed them among the pilgrims. we passed through their lines and through the doors, into an enormous hall filled from edge to edge with scarf-wrapped women and turbaned men. people sat cross-legged on the floor in long rows, facing each other, an aisle between-- more helpers moved down these at incredible speeds, ladling dhal and aduki and rice and kheer onto the empty plates. men with large flat baskets of chappati swung from one side to the other, dropping the hot bread into waiting palms (two hands for receiving, right laid over left).

a marble path led into the temple from the dharamshala and the langar (the kitchen), crossed at one point by a channel of water for the pilgrims to cleanse their feet. passing under an arch i came out into the large, square main court. a broad path circled around the outside (part sheltered and pillared like a cloister, part open to the air), the stone tiles set over the ground in spectacular geometrical patterns. a huge pool of still, clear water spread over the center of the space with the golden temple in the middle, a narrow walk connecting it to the path on the far side. a few people bathed in the waters, but its primary purpose lay in giving the temple's reflection back to the sky. i stayed and watched until the sun set behind thickening clouds.

that night after dinner we gave our service in return for our food, as all of the pilgrims do. four long troughs stood to the side of the langar-- scraping, soaping, first rinse, final rinse-- and for the next hours i washed. there is a tremendous camaraderie that comes in shared work, and with four or five words of common language i made wonderful friends under the overwhelming smash and clatter of metal dishes. time passed without indication or notice in the rhythms of scrubbing and shy, earnest laughter until eventually the little boy working next to me pulled on my arm-- please didi, take tea, take tea. realizing suddenly that in legs and back and body and mind i was completely exhausted, i followed him gratefully over to the stone benches at the side. an elderly sikh man with a long white beard and blue-green kashmiri eyes poured me a bowl of chai, and my trough companions and i collapsed together, smiling happily in the comfort of warm drink.

the next morning i woke at five, planning to watch the sunrise from the temple's roof. already the dharamshala's courtyard (toilets, public shower, makeshift beds) was bustling like midday under cold blue electric light. the line into the golden temple was tremendous, even so early-- i waited for three hours in a claustrophobic, surging crush of bodies (the sun rose without ceremony behind a bank of clouds). but at last i was inside, seated in front of the book holding the teachings of the entire lineage of the sikh prophets. a small group of musicians sat behind and sang to tabla and guitar, their music broadcast over speakers all through the temple complex. an endless stream of people moved in and out, recieving whatever virtue this most precious of encounters had to offer.

jallianwalla bagh also lies in amritsar, a short walk only down the street from the golden temple-- this, the site of the 1919 massacre in which over a thousand (innocent civillians? peaceful protesters? fierce agitators verging on riot? this, it seems, depends on who you ask) were killed by british troops. now there is a park, and a memorial; some of the old walls remain, the bullet holes apparent in the brick. there is a well you can look down--large, and deep, and black-- in which more than 120 bodies were found. people trying to escape the gunfire. it was a sunny day when i visited, and the traffic on the streets running nearby was noisy. well-dressed families were there to picnic, and educate their children in history.

before dawn on tuesday we set out from the punjab-- now, by rail and bus to the mountains, and dharamshala.