According to an old Veda script, this caste system was dictated by the god Brahma, who is regarded as the creator of the Universe. The uppermost caste, the Brahmins, is said to originate from Brahma’s mouth. They are the learned intellectuals, who study and teach the sacred Veda texts, often living strictly in accordance with their precepts. The second highest caste, Kshatriya, originated from Brahma’s arms. Originally, they were warriors, but in today’s society, however, they mostly occupy the highest jobs within the army and the police, and many are successful businessmen. The third caste, Vaishya, includes farmers, artisans, and traders. They originated from Brahma’s thighs. The fourth caste, Shudra, originated from Brahma’s feet. They occupy the lowest jobs in the society, being e.g. labourers and servants. (More about the Hindu caste system – and about Hinduism in general – is found on this website, see Religion – Hinduism).
In 1577, the Fourth Guru, Ram Das, heard rumours about a cripple who had been cured in a small pond. This pond, which became the focus of Sikh worship, was named Amrit Sarovar (‘The Pond with the Nectar of Eternal Life’), and a temple was erected in the centre of it. Today, the pond is square, measuring 165 metres across. For Sikhs, a bath in this pond equals a Hindu pilgrimage to the 68 most sacred Hindu destinations.
The temple in Amrit Sarovar was destroyed several times by invading Afghan Muslims, but was rebuilt each time. Baba Deep Singh fought heroically against the Afghans in 1758. According to legend, his head was cut off six kilometres from the temple – but his body continued fighting. Eventually, when he reached the temple, he fell to the ground, dead. Around the pond, a town named Amritsar was founded – today a large city.
Above the entrance, the triangular orange Sikh banner, Nishan Sahib, is fluttering. The temple is guarded by stern, but friendly Sikhs, who wear a blue, black, or saffron turban. We also encounter proud Nihang (’Crocodile Sikhs’), armed with long spears. These Nihang are followers of a militant guru, Gobind Singh. They wear long, blue robes and pointed turbans, to which is attached a Sikh emblem.
An eight-metre wide walkway, Parikrama, has been constructed around the pond, consisting of polished marble slabs, adorned with beautiful patterns. We are here on a quiet day, and only a few pilgrims enjoy a sacred bath in the pond. Hundreds of large carps live in the water, occasionally emerging to gulp a mouthful of air. They assist in keeping the water clean.
In the centre of the pond is the sanctum sanctorum, Hari Mandir, a temple in three stories. As in all Sikh temples, the roof is onion- or lotus-shaped, the roof and parts of the marble walls covered in pure gold plates, all together weighing more than 100 kilos. This gold-covering has given rise to the popular name, ‘The Golden Temple’. The gold was donated by Maharaja Ranjit Singh – the person who united Punjab. Those parts of the walls, which are not covered by gold plates, are beautifully adorned with inlaid precious stones. A 62-metre long marble bridge, leading from the edge of the pond to the temple, is densely packed with pilgrims, each bringing an offering, prasad, comprising ghee (clarified butter), flour, and sugar.
On the lower floor of the temple, priests are singing and playing music from dawn to dusk, and often in the evening as well. On the second floor, the sacred book, Adi Grant, is kept during daylight hours, and priests continually recite from its c. 3,500 hymns. Pilgrims place offerings of money or flowers near the sacred script. In the evening, Adi Grant is carried to a building with golden domes, Akhal Takht, erected in 1609 as the religious parliament of the Sikhs.
At the southern end of the Parikrama is a temple for Baba Deep Singh – the warrior, who continued fighting against the Afghans without his head. Inside this temple is a painting, depicting Baba Deep Singh, standing with his head in his hands. The temple also has a library and a clock-tower – the clock, however, has no hands.
Several sacred jujube trees (Ziziphus mauritiana), said to possess healing powers, are found on the temple premises. Near the main entrance is one such tree, about 475 years old, to which women, who wish to give birth to a son, attach bits of cloth as an offering.
During the 1980s, many Sikhs fought for an independent Punjab. In 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched the so-called ’Operation Blue Star’, ordering troops, heavily armed with tanks and other artillery, to storm Hari Mandir, in which militant Sikhs had taken shelter. Eventually, the army took control of the temple, but about 200 soldiers and 2,000 others, among these many pilgrims, were killed during the three-day long battle. On 6th of June, the Indian government declared that the temple had been ‘liberated’. This action, however, was soon revenged. A few months later, Indira Gandhi was murdered by two of her own Sikh guards. Many of the temple buildings were heavily damaged by bombings, among these the two Ramgarhia Minarets. They were restored in 1997.
In 1987, Sikh separatists again occupied the temple. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi launched ’Operation Black Thunder’, but this time Indian authorities managed to persuade the rebels to surrender without confrontations. Since then, Punjab has been more peaceful, and today Amritsar is as safe as any other city in India.
In Hari Mandir, a flight of stairs leads up to the Central Sikh Museum, which displays paintings of the 1919-massacre, and macabre photos, depicting people killed during the Sikh rebellions.