India 1997: Golden Temple of the Sikhs

 

 

Nordindien 1997
Hari Mandir, the most important temple of the Sikhs, is reflected in a sacred pond, Amrit Sarovar. Most of this temple is covered in plates of pure gold, which gave rise to its popular name, ’The Golden Temple’. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Sikhism originated in Punjab, north-western India, founded by Guru Nanak (1469‑1539), who wanted to combine the best from Hinduism and Islam. As a consequence of his conviction that everybody is born equal, he was very much opposed to the Hindu caste system, which claims that you are born into one of four castes.

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).

 

The sacred pond
All men, who join the Sikh Brotherhood, take the name of Singh (‘Lion’). In 1699, Guru Gobind Singh introduced the rule of the five kakkers, which all Sikh men must follow: kesha (hair and beard are not to be cut), kangha (always bring a comb), kachha (wear shorts), kara (wear a metal ring around your wrist), and kirtipan (always be armed with a sword or a knife to defend yourself and your family). In this way, members of the Brotherhood are able to recognize each other at any time.

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.

 

 

Nordindien 1997
As long as you follow a number of simple rules, everyone – regardless of religion, race, culture, or sex – is welcomed into Hari Mandir. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Visiting Hari Mandir
With my companion, Søren Lauridsen, I pay a visit to Hari Mandir, sacred temple of the Sikhs. Everybody, regardless of religion, race, culture, or sex, is welcome, as long as you follow a number of simple rules. Shoes and socks must be stored at the entrance, and your feet must be rinsed before you enter. Your hair must be covered during your visit, and stimulants and intoxicating substances are banned on the premises.

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.

 

 

Nordindien 1997
Hari Mandir, reflected in the sacred pond Amrit Sarovar (‘The Pond with the Nectar of Eternal Life’). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Nordindien 1997
Nihang Sikhs, armed with long spears, are followers of a militant guru, Gobind Singh. They wear long, blue robes and pointed turbans. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Nordindien 1997 
A 62-metre-long marble bridge leads from the edge of the pond to the temple. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Nordindien 1997
My companion Søren, carrying an offering, called prasad, comprising ghee (clarified butter), flour, and sugar. Your hair must be covered during your visit to the temple. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Sikh hospitality
A flight of stairs leads up to a brownish building, Guru Ram Das Langar, where up to 3,000 people can eat simultaneously. Following Sikh principles about unity and equality, the meals are free. Behind the dining hall are hostels, where anybody can spend up to three nights, also without pay. In former days, you could stay as long as you wished, but this was changed, when India was invaded by Western hippies in the 1960s. The hippies, who generally had very little money, grossly exploited this opportunity, staying for weeks. For this reason, the Sikhs had to introduce the new rule of staying maximum three nights in their hostels.

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.

 

 

Nordindien 1997
This jujube tree (Ziziphus mauritiana), growing near the temple entrance, is about 475 years old. These sacred temple trees supposedly possess healing powers. – You may read more about the jujube tree on this website, see Traditional medicine: Ziziphus mauritiana. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Fighting for an independent Sikh state
Throughout their long history, Sikhs have often wished to create an independent state of their own, Punjab, and several times during British Rule, and also after India’s independence, Sikhs have rebelled. On two occasions, whole-scale massacres have taken place in Amritsar. On 13th April, 1919, a short distance east of Hari Mandir, c. 20,000 people were demonstrating peacefully against a new law, which permitted British forces, without any cause, to arrest and imprison Indians. Without being provoked, General Dyer and his 150 troops suddenly opened fire. Many demonstrators were shot in the back, when they tried to escape. According to official numbers, 337 men, 46 boys, and a baby were killed and more than 1,500 wounded. In Europe, numerous governments fumed against the British. The act, however, only enforced the Indian Freedom Movement, and many people followed Mahatma Gandhi’s call for civil disobedience.

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.

 

 

Nordindien 1997
During ’Operation Blue Star’, which took place in 1984, several of the temple buildings were heavily damaged, e.g. the two Ramgarhia Minarets. This picture from 1997 shows restoration of these minarets. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

(Uploaded February 2016)

 

(Revised October 2017)