From the Golden Temple

ImageFrom the steps that overlook the pool of water in whose centre the Golden Temple floats, at 10 pm, I'm afflicted by a fatigue that is just waiting for me to rest my head on the pillow to strike me unawares. My head is wrapped in a kerchief as the ritual of the holy place prescribes. I am steeped in a humid heat in spite of the night, and am listening in ecstasy to the sweet melody of readers and musicians that throughout the day never interrupt their performance.

The flow of people patiently standing on the bridge in wait for their turn to pay homage to the temple is still greater than when I went across it this afternoon. It took me half an hour to finally get intoxicated in the tremendous sacred aura of the shrine, highlighted by the chanting of rare melodies, saturated with perfumes of incense, amplified by the participation of the crowd. The procession endlessly moves along the bridge covered with cloths casting their shade to protect worshippers edging forward in small advances and long stops. They also have fans installed to move the air. Batches of around 50 people are admitted in order not to originate overcrowding. Many take an offering, the holy communion of bread and ghee that is deposited at the threshold of the Golden Temple, shining in the sun and glimmering even by night. Many more leave an offering in money on the carpet in front of the book readers. From upstairs the worshippers follow the readings sitting on the floor with booklets in the Punjabi language.

ImageAlthough I had anticipated this as one of the poignant moments, I couldn't have thought how far I would be touched.

But equally touching is all that rotates around the pivot of the temple. The sight of the dining rooms where thousands of pilgrims like me are fed every day, crouching on the ground with steel trays, is evidence to the greatness of the place. Volunteer workers walk to and fro to ladle out the soup, while others give out bread and others more pour water out of metal watering-cans.

You need to live these moments personally to grasp what the Golden Temple means. In fact, once I got to Amritsar I didn't look for a hotel, but went there where all the pilgrims, worshippers and visitors are received.
It impresses you for its perfect organisation, so grand and shared. Outside the dining hall, scores of people peel vegetables, cut and cook them; knead the bread, roll it out and bake it to obtain thousands of chapatis for distribution.

The din of cutlery being washed, all made of metal, is deafening. Under the shed tens of people more pass on the trays to the next one in the line as if on human conveyor belts, then hand them to those who wash them, dry and give them out again to visitors who continually come to have a meal, at every hour, just as I came.

All are put up in the pilgrims' rooms. I was given a bed in the foreigner ward, in a room with two more people, a fan and no window, but open on a corridor with a row of more beds, all taken. Everyone has a niche in the wall with wooden doors that can be locked with a personal padlock. But tonight I was once more impressed by the number of people lying on the floor in the open air to spend the night: everywhere, in the yards, along the marble-paved alleys that lead up to the temple, on the wide edges of the sacred pool.

At 10.30 pm every night a ceremony takes place to carry the original copy of the book, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, from the Golden Temple to another building in the white compound. It is accompanied by the occasional sound of a strange trumpet in the shape of a huge swan neck that cries like a choked water-hen, and people press in to watch the solemn rite. The golden palanquin bears the book, then returns empty borne by the arms of people who strive to serve in this task.

This scene is also favourable to encounters. Among the foreigners, I have met plenty of nice people, but also many Indians that are curious of everything. The youth often show an eagerness to emigrate to a greater and more widespread welfare. We foreigners, on the contrary, come here attracted by this exceptional country, that hands out plentiful strong emotions. Coming and taking part in the life of Amritsar, I think, is among the great experiences I have lived and now, after several hours spent around the Golden Temple, I still haven't exhausted the charge of such intense thrilling moments.

29 July - I have made up for lost sleep by slumbering until 10.30. The bed was barely a thin mattress spread over a hard wooden plank, but for all this it was an excellent night and I was revived by a delightful as well as necessary sleep. I had arranged to meet Gagan at 9.30, but of course I missed him. I find him patiently waiting at the temple exit. He is a tall slender young boy with the black Sikh turban who accosted me yesterday while I was strolling and was keen to talk to me. He's intelligent and speaks English, passing on interesting information.

We have coffee together, then he takes me to see the temple where the Sacred Book is kept during the night, then the huge bread machine that spawns out chapati for the thousands of the pilgrims' mouths.

I can't say I have grown used to the splendour of this place and I find myself wondering at the organisational might. What strikes me most is the love for humanity that it emanates. There may be people who think this sensation may be accounted for by some energy stemming from the place, but rather I believe that from this institution of people a feeling of infinite welcome is conveyed that renews itself every moment and every day. A pilgrim is treated as a guest and the primary needs of whoever comes without owning anything are satisfied: there is water to quake your thirst, food to stop your hunger, a bed to sleep, even sticks to clean your teeth. For whoever comes to the Golden Temple, regardless of country, religion, race, caste.

Today people are teeming, because it is Sunday. Turbans of bright colours often stand out on elderly and bearded men. The young too wear a headgear that hides the hair that ought never to be cut. Several people are listening to a sermon uttered by a old man, sitting on the marble floor perfectly cleaned by people who keep it swept with water bucketfuls. The two lofty shafts lined with orange material and tied together by crossed ropes soar high with two orange banners symbolising courage and meditation. They elevate to the sky whoever turns their gaze to them.