I thought the highlight of Amritsar would be the floating temple covered in 750 kg of gold. But it turns out that the real highlight of Amritsar was spending my 24 hours around the Golden Temple, in the Sri Harmandir Sahib Gurdwara, the massive temple complex which houses Sikhism's holiest shrine. Originally founded in 1577 by the fourth Sikh Guru, Ram Das, the central shrine houses the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, which is read continuously 24 hours a day, projected over the loudspeaker, so that the sound of chanting fills the compound.
The compound has several guest houses where pilgrims (and wandering foreigners) can stay for free. But when you think of a guest house, you tend to think of rooms, however minimal. While there were some rooms (including one reserved specifically for foreigners), many of the foreigners slept in rows on the ground in the courtyard. The 3-story bathroom complex with only Indian toilets was filled at all times of the day with women brushing their teeth and trying to wash up in the sinks. After leaving my bag and my shoes in a locker in a tiny dorm room, I went to the Langar building, the community dining hall.
Over 100,000 pilgrims visit the Golden Temple everyday, and many of them partake in the free meals that are offered in the Langar. But in order for the Gurdwara to feed 100,000 people everyday, the pilgrims all help with the cooking process. So I sat on the floor along with several hundred others, mostly Sikhs from neighbouring Punjabi villages, and we chopped gourds I've never seen and picked the leaves off of piles of mint stems.
In February, when I visited Cochin, some girls came up to me and wanted to take selfies. We took the pictures, but I couldn't say anything to them, I didn't even know enough Hindi to ask where they were from. But now, even though my Hindi is still far from conversational, I was able to make small talk with the people I was chopping with, find out where they were from, how old their children are, why they had come to Amritsar. Even though our conversations were basic, it was so nice to be able to speak with people and gain more of an understating of the people I was with.
After cooking came time for eating. Each person was given a metal plate, and we sat in rows on the floor. Men came around giving us ladlefuls of different items from metal buckets. One was a spicy black dahl, and another was some sort of squash curry. They handed out fresh-baked chapatis, and a sweet milky rice pudding for dessert. As people left, a man ran over the dining hall with a floor waxer, and a new round of people were seated.
Here's another thing - in Mumbai the first thing I do when I get home everyday is wash my feet. Even with my shoes, Mumbai sometimes feels so dirty that I feel like I need to scrub myself down before going into my apartment. At the Golden Temple I walked around all day, through industrial kitchens, dining halls where people eat on the floor, streets where cars drive, and sidewalks where 100,000 pilgrims walk everyday, all totally barefoot, and it felt great! It felt like one big home, where we all went barefoot and shared with each other.
I went around exploring, and ended up in the compound kitchen. There were 3 massive pots, each bigger than a bathtub, filled with the same three items I'd just eaten for lunch. They said the larger pots held 20,000 servings, while the smaller pots only had enough dahl for 10,000. Six men were going back and forth, stirring with canoe paddle-sized spoons. Water was pouring from a hose onto the floor. I asked why, and the man told me that since they work barefoot, they need water to cool the floor down. I walked over to where the water ended, and I could feel the heat under my bare feet from the three huge fires below that heated the food. A man below was repeatedly throwing in large logs to feed the cooking flames.
I went back to the main pool as the sun started to set. As the heat of the day faded to a mere 32 degrees, the compound was lit up with dramatic highlights, showcasing the golden centrepiece and contrasting white marble walls.
One of the main rituals of the Harmandir Sahib is immersing oneself in the pool's waters. Just like Hindus immersing themselves in the River Ganges in Varanasi, Sikhs believe that immersing in the Amrit Sarovar will cleanse all sins. But unlike at the River Ganges, the Amrit Sarovar is cleaned on a (somewhat) regular basis, and has special enclosed bathing chambers for women. So I did it! The attendant (sort of like a mikveh lady) helped me put on a wet pair of communal drawstring pantaloons, and all of the women go in topless. The water was cool, which was great after the days 46 degree heat. She instructed me to go all the way down, holding onto a metal chain for support. I was then supposed to totally duck under the water five times. I asked her why five, and she said she didn't know. Thik hei.
I got dressed, and continued the clockwise circle around the edge of the pool. It was dark now, and the gold shone brightly against the black sky. The loudspeaker chanting had given way to some sort of evening prayer service, and several thousand pilgrims stood around the pool, chanting together. They stood around the edges, facing not East to Mecca or West to Jerusalem, but facing inwards, towards each other.
This morning I left the Gurdwara to catch an early morning train to Chandigarh, and even at 4 am, the temple was full of people, almost like it was during the day. It was like visiting the Western Wall after midnight when all the tourists have faded away, the Russian tour groups with their earpieces and the Birthrighters with their selfie sticks - the only people left are the people who mean it, the ones who are there for transformational experiences.
So that was Amritsar. It was an amazing experience, and I'm excited to pass through again on my way back to Mumbai.