Sikh And Ye Shall Find
After an hour-long flight from New Delhi we landed in Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs and home of the Golden Temple, located in the northwestern Indian state of Punjab that borders Pakistan. The sun shone like melted butter in the hazy sky. I had experienced dust in Delhi, but this city brought new meaning to the word—bicycles, cars and carts kicked up clouds that stung my squinting eyes. Brightly colored turbans bobbed through the particle swirls as if they were levitating, revealing brown skin and eyes beneath as they approached. I had never seen so many Sikhs in one place before. On previous trips to India I’d been mostly surrounded by turban-less Hindus, which make up eighty percent of the country’s population; Sikhs are a minority, comprising just two percent. At home in Manhattan my Sikh husband, and I—a Minnesotan of Croatian descent—blend into a sea of New Yorkers from all over the world.
My husband, Jaidev, whose family hails from Patiala in Punjab, flagged a three-wheeler tuk tuk and we sped off, covering our faces with scarves to filter the fumes. Jaidev is a “Cut Surd”: his hair is short and he doesn’t wear a turban. His mother cut his hair at age five because she contended it would have been difficult to maintain at boarding school in a remote location at the foothills of the Himalayas. Jaidev’s Sikh mother and father also wear their hair short, which is more common in India now than it was forty years ago, when Jaidev was born.
Sikhism began in part as a reaction to Hinduism’s caste system; Sikhs believe all men and women are created equal. The tenth Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, developed the “Five K’s,” which are powerful symbols of the faith and a means of showing the Sikh identity. Kesh (uncut hair) is kept covered by a turban; kirpan, a ceremonial sword, is a reminder of a Sikh’s readiness to defend against injustice and persecution; kanga, a small wooden comb, represents cleanliness and order; kaccha, cotton underwear, is a reminder of the commitment to purity; and kara, a steel bracelet that Jaidev proudly wears, symbolizes strength, unity and eternity.
With only eight hours to experience the sacred city we were on a mission to see the interior of the Golden Temple, a central place of worship for Sikhs since 1604. Due to family visits in Delhi and Bangalore and a very brief time in India—condensed because of our short American vacation allotment—we decided to schedule a day trip to the Golden Temple, the central gurdwara, or Sikh temple. The only other gurdwara I’d ever visited is located near New Delhi, in Vasant Vihar, where we were wed.
On the tuk tuk there were agitated moments when I thought we would surely crash into a cart, car, or cow, but our driver wove between vehicles and cattle with surprising ease. A cacophony of horns accosted my eardrums, but it was impossible to cover both my face and ears, so I allowed the screeches and blasts to penetrate. Finally, we reached the temple’s main gates. The sound of voices singing with vibrato and instrument accompaniment emanated over a loudspeaker from within—Jaidev told me these were kirtan, sacred hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib, or Sikh Holy Book, which begin early in the morning and continue until long past sunset. We walked through the scalloped entryway, which reminded me of an eastern-style Arc de Triomphe.
Caught up in the rush of the crowd, we clustered together at the shoe deposit station where I surrendered my Prada boots, which stood out among the traditional juttis and chappals. As one of the few identifiable foreigners I felt conspicuous enough already, and even more so when they asked me for my socks (they had, no doubt, run into the problem of foreigners wearing them for sanitary reasons). Reluctantly, I handed them over—thankful that at first glance, the grounds appeared cleaner than the Taj Mahal’s. Jaidev and I covered our heads with the mandatory scarves and followed others by washing our feet in a trough of murky water, a symbolic cleansing of the soul, before walking down the steps onto the marble pathway encircling the Amrit Sarovar pool.
Amritsar, which means “pool of the nectar of immortality,” refers to both the administrative capital of the Amritsar district of Punjab and the man-made lake surrounding the Golden Temple. At first glance the temple appeared to be floating, reaching towards the sky with its spires and inverted-lotus dome, its reflection shimmering in the nearly still water. I found myself holding my breath, attempting to take in the magnificent view. Even from this distance—by my rough estimate, around one hundred yards—the entire building glowed.
We joined the snaking queue with other bare-footed worshippers, shuffling towards the beginning of the Guru’s Bridge, a dramatic 525-foot-long marble overpass perched just above the water, leading to the temple. I covered my nose with my shawl to lessen the pungent smell of feet. Jaidev calculated that there were probably more than two thousand people in line on the bridge, which meant at least four thousand feet. I looked down and surveyed the mass of brown toes, many with cracking nails, some bulging with bunions or boils. To pass the time, I studied individual feet and attempted to guess the type of person they belonged to.
Three children in front of us turned around to stare at me. I pulled out my camera and snapped a photo of them. They surprised me by taking out a video camera and pointing it at me. Giggling, we showed each other our captured footage, making the half-hour it took to reach the beginning of the bridge much shorter.
A few Nihangs, members of an armed Sikh order, stood with swords guarding the bridge from a possible stampede towards the temple with a long pole acting as a barrier. Jaidev asked the Nihangs in Punjabi if I could take a photograph of them, and suddenly they softened, smiling for the camera. Then they lifted up the bar and a group of us charged through, entering through Darshani Deori, the imposing silver doors granting passageway over the bridge. The barrier was lowered with a formidable thump behind us, preventing the next wave of worshipers from entering.
Now stuck on the bridge, we continued to inch closer and closer to the temple. I was finally able to view the detail on the sides of the two-story building; flower and animal motifs decorated the marble-clad lower half, which was inlaid with precious stones. Above, the gold-plated cupolas and dome glinted in the sun. I later learned that the structure is reputedly plated with 220 pounds of gold.
Like the exterior, the temple’s interior was gilded; a large, elaborate chandelier hung from the ground-floor ceiling. To prevent traffic build-up we were quickly ushered upstairs to the middle floor, which is reserved for reading holy texts, and then to the top balcony with its spectacular views, where children could frolic, finally free of crowds. A typical New Yorker, I checked my watch: not counting standing in line, we were in and out of the temple in forty minutes. Upon exiting we were given prashad—a ceremonial food made of semolina, clarified butter, cinnamon, sugar and spices—which left my lips and hands shiny. It was heavy and sweet, significantly more calorie-rich than the thin wafers I used to receive at Communion. Regardless of religion, economic status or caste, any person is allowed to enter the temple and is offered prashad and langar, a free lunch served by volunteers, which is usually comprised of rotis (unleavened flatbread) and dal (a lentil-rich sauce). On a typical weekend, 160,000 people come to the temple for langar. This policy extends to all gurdwaras, making Sikhism one of the most open religions in the world.
There was a palpable sense of peace in this place and I felt as if I could stay for days, even months, attempting to absorb the reverence. We joined people eating langar—steaming dal sourced from cauldrons the size of hot tubs and piping hot rotis continuously spat out of a groaning gas-fired machine and served on tin trays. As I sat on the ground eating with my hands, an act that is meant to serve as a reminder that everyone is equal, I had a sudden appreciation for the simple things, like a good hot meal shared in the company of people from all walks of life. Even though I was only a Sikh by association, I felt like I belonged.
Kristin Vuković is a freelance writer living in New York City. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction Writing and a BA in Literature and Writing from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town,” The Daily Beast, The Wall Street Journal India, Forbes India, Condé Nast Traveller India, ISLANDS Magazine, Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Culture Magazine: the word on cheese, and foodandwine.com, among others.