One for the Com­mu­nity

Op­u­lent as the Golden Tem­ple may be, it is the at­ti­tudes it rep­re­sents and es­pouses that shine brighter than the buid­ing’s elab­o­rately or­na­mented fa­cade.

Asian Geographic - - CONTENTS - Text: Francesco Las­trucci and Rachel Kwek Pho­tos:

Sikhism, one of four re­li­gions that have evolved in In­dia, is cur­rently the fourth-most prac­tised re­li­gion in the coun­try. To Sikhs, the Golden Tem­ple — also known as Har­mandir Sahib — in Am­rit­sar, Pun­jab is the most sa­cred site in the world. Much of the coun­try’s Sikh pop­u­la­tion lives in Pun­jab and reg­u­larly vis­its the tem­ple while other Sikhs in In­dia and around the world en­deav­our to make a pil­grim­age there at some point in their lives. The Golden Tem­ple is only a small part of a huge gur­d­wara com­plex that houses pil­grims’ dor­mi­to­ries and din­ing halls where all per­sons, ir­re­spec­tive of race, re­li­gion, or gen­der are lodged and fed for free. To­day, an av­er­age of about 100,000 peo­ple visit the tem­ple ev­ery day, mak­ing it one of the most vis­ited places in the world.

The main tem­ple com­plex is sur­rounded by a holy pool known as Am­rit Sarovar or “pool of nec­tar”. It was ex­ca­vated in 1577 by Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh guru, and is sur­rounded by a walk­way called parikrama, which devo­tees use to cir­cum­am­bu­late the tem­ple. Con­nect­ing the walk­way with the Golden Tem­ple is a mar­ble cause­way called the Guru’s Bridge, which sym­bol­ises the jour­ney of the soul af­ter death. Fed by an un­der­ground spring, the pool’s waters are be­lieved to have heal­ing pow­ers, and devo­tees im­merse them­selves in it to cleanse their souls rather than their bod­ies. Tem­ple work­ers bot­tle and dis­trib­ute wa­ter from the pool to vis­i­tors, who take it home to pu­rify them­selves and keep them­selves in good health.

Pil­grims from all over the world visit the Golden Tem­ple ev­ery day. The en­trances on all its four sides sym­bol­ise the Sikhs’ re­cep­tive­ness to­wards peo­ple from all re­li­gions and so­cioe­co­nomic back­grounds. All vis­i­tors, whether men or women, have to wash their feet at spec­i­fied ar­eas and cover their heads be­fore en­ter­ing the tem­ple.

Con­struc­tion of the tem­ple be­gan in 1574 on land do­nated by the Mughal em­peror Ak­bar and was over­seen by the Sikh gu­rus. Fi­nally com­pleted in 1601, the tem­ple un­der­went restora­tion and em­bel­lish­ment over the cen­turies but was de­stroyed sev­eral times by raid­ing armies from Afghanista­n and the Mughal Em­pire. It was quickly re­built each time and the mar­ble com­pound sur­round­ing it has grown to in­cor­po­rate other build­ings: of­fices, a mu­seum, a clock tower and, of course, the lan­gar, the com­mu­nal kitchen where free meals are served to vis­i­tors.

The en­trances on all its four sides sym­bol­ise the Sikhs’ re­cep­tive­ness to­wards peo­ple from all re­li­gions and so­cio-eco­nomic back­grounds.

With hand-painted mo­saics and pat­terns, dec­o­rated sur­faces and in­tri­cate carv­ings, the Golden Tem­ple is one of the most sig­nif­i­cant sym­bols of Mughal and In­dian ar­chi­tec­tural ge­nius. In the early 19th cen­tury, 100 kilo­grammes of gold, dec­o­ra­tive mar­ble and pre­cious stones were added to the in­verted lo­tus-shaped dome dur­ing the reign of Ma­haraja Ran­jit Singh, the leg­endary war­rior king and a ma­jor donor for the shrine who is re­mem­bered by the Sikh com­mu­nity. The gold-plated build­ing fea­tures cop­per domes and white mar­ble walls en­crusted with pre­cious stones ar­ranged in dec­o­ra­tive Is­lamic-style flo­ral pat­terns. The in­te­rior and ex­te­rior of the struc­ture are dec­o­rated with verses from the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib.

This col­lec­tion of de­vo­tional po­ems, prayers, and hymns that form the sa­cred scrip­tures of the Sikhs was com­posed by the 10 Sikh gu­rus and var­i­ous Mus­lim and Hindu saints. From early morn­ing till night, hymns are chanted to the ex­quis­ite ac­com­pa­ni­ment of flutes, drums, and stringed in­stru­ments. A chauri (whisk) is con­tin­u­ally waved above the book as lines of Sikhs pay their re­spects by touch­ing the tem­ple floor and walls with their fore­heads while walk­ing in a clock­wise di­rec­tion. Ev­ery evening, the book is rested on a pil­low in the Akal Takhat tem­ple, the tem­po­ral seat of the Khalsa broth­er­hood. In the morn­ing, the holy book is re­turned to the shrine and opened at a ran­dom page, whose con­tents will then serve as the prayer theme for that whole day.

Among key Sikh be­liefs are equal­ity of all mankind and the im­por­tance of com­mu­nity ser­vice. How­ever, the tra­di­tional caste sys­tem in In­dia for­bade peo­ple from dif­fer­ent castes to eat to­gether. Thus, to up­hold these be­liefs, the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak, es­tab­lished the lan­gar, a place where, all peo­ple, re­gard­less of gen­der, re­li­gion, so­cial sta­tus and race, sit to­gether on the floor to eat. It was a revo­lu­tion­ary con­cept in 16th-cen­tury In­dia when Sikhism be­gan. Ev­ery gur­d­wara of­fers lan­gar — which also refers to a com­mu­nal meal pro­vided by lan­gars. The veg­e­tar­ian meal con­sists of roti, rice, daal, veg­eta­bles and dessert.

The Golden Tem­ple lan­gar serves ap­prox­i­mately 50,000 meals each day and up to 100,000 on hol­i­days. Through­out the day, helpers in­clud­ing some 300 per­ma­nent staff work tire­lessly to not only cook and serve lan­gars but also wash used dishes and uten­sils five times be­fore their next use. Many Sikhs live out their be­lief in com­mu­nity ser­vice and roughly 90 per­cent of the helpers are vol­un­teers.

FRANCESCO is a free­lance doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­pher who fo­cuses on long-term doc­u­men­tary projects that high­light the cul­ture and his­tory of peo­ple. Be­sides work­ing on such projects on Colom­bia, In­dia and the Mediter­ranean, he con­trib­utes to pub­li­ca­tions around the world from his base in Italy.

lefT Pil­grims cir­cum­am­bu­late the sa­cred pool sur­round­ing the gold-cov­ered Hari Mandir at twi­light. Con­nect­ing the tem­ple and the path­way sur­round­ing it is a mar­ble cause­way called the Guru’s Bridge, which sym­bol­ises the jour­ney of the soul af­ter death. Op­po­siTe paGe The colon­nade in­side the Golden Tem­ple is sur­rounded by many other build­ings cov­ered with white mar­ble. The tem­ple com­bines both Hindu and Is­lamic ar­chi­tec­tural styles.

riGhT The lan­gar in the Golden Tem­ple serves an av­er­age of 50,000 free meals daily. All the food is do­nated and most of the helpers are vol­un­teers who come to­gether re­gard­less of gen­der or class. op­po­siTe paGe The body of wa­ter that sur­rounds it is a sa­cred pool that the Golden Tem­ple be­lieved to have heal­ing prop­er­ties and bring ma­te­rial and spir­i­tual ben­e­fits to devo­tees who bathe in it.

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