Writing about a religious site is extremely difficult. On one level, it’s important to include an appropriate amount of information: saying I accidentally walked into Amritsar ’s Golden Temple with my head bare won’t mean much unless you know that visitors to the site have to cover their hair. On the other hand, though, this isn’t wikipedia – it’s stories you’re looking for, interesting experiences accurately rendered. So my aim is simple: to intimate to you why the Golden Temple is – quite simply – the most impressive religious site I have ever visited, a public space contemporary architecture can only dream of.
My guide through all this was Maninder Singh, an articulate young Rajasthani Sikh, who stepped in to explain to me the ins and outs of the temple, after a custodian told me not to lie with my feet facing the Hari Mandir Sahib (the temple itself). It was 22:00, and around me on the Pakarma (the marble walkway surrounding the pool), people sat relaxing, sleeping, playing and chatting, an atmosphere that acquired serenity precisely because it was so this-worldly. The Golden Temple is a holy place because the deity seems to be of secondary importance to the people who come to visit it.
After patiently answering my questions on Sikhism, Maninder and his cousins led me to the Guru Ka-Langar, the dining hall. This is a free, communal dining-hall, churning out dhal, rice and chapattis for up to 50,000 people a day. The eating itself is ritualized. You take your tin cutlery, before being led to sit cross-legged in long rows, where the volunteers come and dish out the food, accompanied by various words of liturgy.
Volunteering is a crucial aspect of running the temple. As soon as I had soaked up my last piece of dhal with the chapatti, Maninder whisked me off to hand out the plates. I was quickly struck by how many people took part in all this. It would be a touch too cynical to say that too many cooks spoil the broth, but seeing eight people lined up on bowl-giving duties did seem a little excessive. So Maninder led me off to the other departments, my volunteer experience rapidly turning into an organized tour.
In the bowels of the building, in an almost unbearable heat, people sat preparing the chapattis. Next to them, massive vats of curry were somehow carried to the dining area. The size and efficiency of the operation was staggering. $6250 a day – a snip! – spent feeding 50,000 people. There are booths to give donations for the Temple ’s upkeep, but absolutely no payment is asked of anyone visiting, and – it should be added – there are no beggars within the Temple grounds, something Maninder told me Sikhs are forbidden to do.
After the tour, promotion. Maninder felt I was ready to dish out the chapattis myself. Teaching me the ritual words, we fanned out amongst the pilgrims, baskets of steaming chapattis in hand, ready to be plopped into the outstretched hands of the diners. Their bemusement was, thankfully, exceeded by their encouragement, and I soon forgot I was a pork pie at a Bar Mitzvah, happily dishing out the chapattis like a seasoned pro.
I found it hard to comprehend this volunteer spirit. Aside from a few spear-yielding holy men, there was no sense of anyone being in charge. Because everyone (even I) felt ownership of the site, they looked after it like their own home. Where else can you walk bare-footed for hours, surrounded by thousands of people, with your soles not losing the pasty colour birth blessed them with? At 3AM, the places becomes a water-park, with hundreds of people swarming, bucket in hand, swishing and washing and reveling. A sight to behold, if you’ll permit me a cliché.
The water is so clean, I even bathed in it, at 4AM. Beforehand, I entered the temple itself, a kind of dolls’ house, or a particularly exquisite female bedroom: people sitting on each level, playing instruments or reading the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book), oblivious to the crowds, inhaling the sweet incense.
The Golden Temple is an extraordinary non-commercial public space, one which provides food, shelter, space and meaning to its visitors. I know of no secular building which fulfils this function, and would argue that it is vital to build one. All you architects out there, the challenge has been set…