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.
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.