I have to confess that I’ve never really known a lot about Sikhs. I hadn’t really taken the time to understand what made a Sikh different from other Indians. I knew that their men wore turbans to keep up the hair they never cut; I knew they had wanted an independent state; I knew that separatists took over the Golden Temple and were killed in a violent military campaign in the 1980s. In response, two Sikh bodyguards had killed Indira Ghandi for revenge and then subsequently thousands upon thousands of Sikhs were murdered in Delhi and across India.
But with all this I didn’t know anything about the religion. So before we went to the Golden Temple, the most holy Sikh shrine, and the site of that terrible siege, I decided to read up. Sikhism is actually a combination of Hinduism and Islam that began in the 15th century as a rejection of caste and idolatry. Sikhs believe in reincarnation and karma, like Hindus, but they worship only one god, like Muslims. I liked the concept already.
But by going to the Golden Temple I really felt like I got a sense of what Sikhism was about, and I have to say it impressed me.
Obviously the most inspiring and attention-grabbing element of going to the Golden Temple is the structure itself – inside a large rectangular wall-like building sits a lake, and in the lake is a temple made of marble and gold (750kg of gold in total). We went both at night and during sunrise and at both times the temple itself shone like the sun. Especially at sunrise, when the rising sun hit it directly, you almost couldn’t even look straight at it. It was incredible. As you go closer you notice the detail – the marble base and interiors were inlaid with stones set in beautiful and intricate patterns. A door leading into the temple is made entirely of silver. Painted frescos cover every inch inside. The mastery of skill that it must have taken to build the structure is staggering.
But once beyond the physical structure, I noticed that there were many elements that were different in visiting a Sikh temple than other temples or mosques across India. First, we were completely welcome everywhere. We paid nothing to get in, we were not barred from any place and we could go and do as we pleased. Most historical and religious sites have fees to enter and require that foreigners not pass through certain areas. The Sikhs didn’t seem to mind if we went in as far as we wanted – we could even watch as men prayed from their holy book. It was an incredibly spiritual place, alive with singing over loudspeakers and hundreds of worshipers praying day in and day out; and we were invited to take it all in.
Secondly, this kindness and acceptance of strangers extended to their own people – every Sikh temple is encouraged to serve food to the poor, and the communal kitchen at the Golden Temple is a sight unto itself. Huge vats full of dal and chai are stirred over large fires. Large buckets full of utensils sit next to steel boxes loaded with plates or bowls. And inside a large hall dozens of people sat eating meals at any given time of day. Even we were encouraged heartily to eat or drink chai if we desired. There was a donation box but no one asked us for money or indicated we were required to give a contribution. It was not something you see everyday.
I still wouldn’t claim to know much about Sikhism – but having seen the beauty of their holiest site and the acceptance of others within its walls I’m certainly glad I came to know a bit more.