At the heart of Amritsar, a long white wall greets you with a clock tower and pretty arched windows but not the slightest hint of the wonders hidden beyond the central gate. Walk through and as you reach the top of the steps, the Golden Temple suddenly revealed, glorious and breathtaking, with domes and parapets mirrored in a glistening lake, cloisters, shrines, sacred trees and pilgrims’ saris fluttering in the light. Time stands still, words are few in this beautiful oasis, spirituality becomes tangible.
Located in Bari Doab, the ‘land of two rivers’ in the Punjab, the site was known in ancient times as a place where wandering sages and holy men meditated by the lake, much smaller then and surrounded by forest Buddha came here, they say, and he was followed some 2,000 years later by Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh faith. Born in 1469, acclaimed as a child prodigy in divine matters, Guru Nanak travelled widely and declared there is no Hindu, there is no Muslim’. Sikhism was born to bring the two religions closer together ‘Sikh’ simply means ‘disciple’. Chatter. There was much to do and all who came were keen to lend a hand. Mean while in a nearby courtyard, men were staging a mock sword fight, much to everyone’s amusement. The sword is seen as an important tool to defend the oppressed and the weak, and the Khalsa disciples dressed in blue and gold carried the symbolic weapon.
We returned to the water’s edge through a side gate festooned in tinsel and lights, and finally made our way towards the Darshani Deorchi, the stunning gate decorated with silver opening onto the causeway, which leads across the water to the inner sanctum. Truly privileged, we joined the long orderly queue waiting to enter this most sacred part of the Harmandir Sahib. Many of the fabulous decorations are due to the generosity of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the 19th century Sikh leader known as the ‘Lion of Punjab’. Among its many gifts were 100 kg of gold to cover the dome and some beautiful marble. We marvelled at the inverted lotus, the pinnacles, columns, oriel window and fluted domes, all gleaming and finely carved, and time just seemed to fly.
The upper floor welcomed us with a glinting hall of mirrors and square atrium which allowed everyone to glance at the bejewelled canopy, protecting the Holy Book on the floor below. The reading echoed like a heavenly whisper and all around were semi-precious stones, coloured glass, embossed copper, holy verses from the religious scriptures, and different kinds of floral and animal patterns embellishing every space, wall, ceiling and archway. They included a few human figures. Some say it’s a blend of Hindu and Mughal designs, while others call it uniquely Sikh. Either way, the astounding mural art is largely the work of unknown artists and a poignant testimony to their faith.
There is little room for movement inside the inner sanctum. So, after a last look at the view from the terrace, we returned to our earthbound world where we received a small helping of Karah Parsad, the sanctified sweet pudding. We reflected upon the simple practice of good deeds and kind words, truth, faith and equality, and the vision of heaven as ‘merging with the Divine Spirit, like a spark in the fire.’ As the sun reached its highest point, the temple lit up the whole scene and reflections shimmered like gold in the lake. Imbued with 500 years of Sikh heritage, the Golden Temple is a living and mystical place to this day.