Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A Sikh Lesson

Savannah is right, I loved the Golden temple in Amritsar. Not only because it's free (though I do like the fact that I spent 50 cents a day there), but for how I felt and what I learned through the experience. The Golden temple is the holiest place for Sikhs and I guess you don't know much about them so I'll give you a quick lesson.
The Sikh religion was founded in the late 15th century by a guy who is now known as Guru Nanak Dev, the 1st Sikh Guru. It developed largely as a reaction against Islam and Hinduism at a time when the Hindu population (by far the majority) was ruled by a muslim emperor. Everything was very segregated, with a priveledged Muslim class and a very strictly adhered to Hindu caste system. Sikhism tried to fuse the best of the 2 religions and break down the barriers between the different groups. Sikhs believe (among other things) in one God (though he created all the other ones, which are not supposed to be worshipped), reincarnation, they are not allowed to worship any idols, pictures, statues, etc. and they have a free kitchen system (langar) in which all people are welcome to eat together, treated as equals. This was their way of breaking down the barriers between the groups. To this day, any person can go to any Sikh temple and eat at the langar. Try it sometime.
What followed was a rapid regional conversion and an attempt by the various ruling groups, Muslims and later the British (in a way the Sikhs were really the leaders in the independence movement), to destroy them. Consequently they became quite militant, with a long history of bloody battles and long list of martyrs. There were 10 Gurus (one of the later ones introduced the 5 symbols Sikhs are known by namely the uncut hair, ceremonial dagger, bangle, comb and loose underwear) with the last Guru declaring that there would be no more Gurus but their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, is considered to be the current and last Guru with everything needed to know inside. It is a collection of writings from the 10 Gurus as well as a bunch of others at the time. The Sikhs as a whole are "ruled" by a "parliament" located at the Golden temple now too.
The Golden temple is a large complex and must be the cleanest spot in India. The central "holy" area (around it are pilgrim resthouses and stuff) is a group of white buildings outlining a large inner square. To get to this area everyone must have their heads covered, be barefoot, and walk through water pools to wash their feet. The inner square is a ~40 ft wide marble walkway that surrounds an inner pool of water. In the center of the water stands the 3 level Golden temple, with a bridge from one side leading to it. During the day the Guru Granth Sahib is housed in the Golden temple and is constantly being read from. The writings are actually "hymns" and there are musicians that continuously sing the hymns for all to hear over the loudspeakers around the complex. Of course it is in a different language but the sound of it I found very soothing. Also, despite the thousands of people that come there every day (50,000 free meals of chapati and dal are served in the free kitchen daily) it does not feel crowded or rushed, and I never felt out of place, a sharp change from everyday India. People leave you alone to do as you like so long as you are respectful. Oddly enough, of all the holy places, temples, churches, etc. that I've been to, I felt this one to be the most peaceful, relaxing and holy. So much for the Dalai Lama and Buddhists in India that everyone else goes to see, haha.
The Sikhs traditional areas were in Punjab and at the partition into Pakistan and India, the Sikh area was split right down the middle, despite calls for the creation of their own free state. Over the years there have been a number of more militant fundamentalists that have wanted their own land (Khalistan) and have been more violent in trying to arrange it, thus giving them a bad name. The 80s we particularly bad (think of the Air India bombing back home).
Who says we aren't learning out here?


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