Tuesday, August 2, 2011

It's all golden

Tonight I visited Sikhism's holiest site, the Golden Temple at Amritsar. This is the place made famous recently for all the wrong reasons when the Obamas came to town and the presidential handlers gnashed their teeth over how he could fulfill the covered-head requirement without looking like a "Muslim." Oh for goodness' sake, people, grow up! The Sikhs themselves, we should be embarrassed to learn, are far more open-minded: people of all faiths (or none) are welcome, and pilgrims and families alike greeted me with warmth and tolerance even when I stuck my camera in their faces and inner shrines. Enormously gallant guards in indigo tunics, flowing beards, saffron sashes, and gilded spears made clear the level of devotion that's possible, yet my tying my dirty bandanna over my head was not considered impious.

The "golden" part of the temple is an artificial peninsula in the middle of a vast pool inside a white outer square. It glitters aplenty, and impressive numbers abound re the weight of actual gold used in its construction. But the real magic of the shrine is on the outer edges of the pool, where visitors of every stripe mingle and meditate. Whether it's the humility engendered by covered heads, or the sense of equality stoked by bare feet, or the tranquility of the calm waters and sparkling clean temple, the place is ineffably calm, peaceful, invigorating. Most holy sites I've visited convey at least some element of hostility: Thou Shalt Be Impressed, Peon! The Golden Temple, somehow, at least at night, is much more welcoming.

The neighborhood around the temple is frenzied even by Indian standards. It's a bit of a shock to exit the shrine, where tranquility has washed over you, and return to the world of noisy commerce and grimy traffic. And you wonder how it is that a country of such chaos and filth can engender such variety and intensity of faith, groom such otherworldly shrines. And then you realize that you've answered your own question: in a world of crowds and dirt and sweat, a glimpse of all that's pure and protected is just what's needed.

If this were an American site, the pool would be chlorinated until it smelled like overdone laundry. Instead it's left alive; there must be some expression in Sikhism along the lines of "Suffer the little fishes to come unto me..."


  1. You leave me speechless with your picturesque and profound rhetoric. I can feel the energy of the place with every phrase I read. Thank you for sharing your insights :)

  2. Not that anyone who'd make fun of other people's headgear is likely to be well-informed about it, but how would covering his head to enter a Sikh temple have made President Obama look like a Muslim? The Muslims in my neighborhood wear skullcaps to go to the mosque, not turbans. If you were able to cover your head with a handkerchief, couldn't he have worn some kind of Western hat? Or would that not be allowed?

  3. I like the point that seems to be your central one: the greater the turmoil of daily life outside, the greater the need for peace and purity in a sacred place. I wonder how many cultures have found that to be true and have found ways to bring it about.