Friday, 29 July 2011

Preview: The Golden Temple

Being Scottish, I have the confidence that should things ever get a little hairy when at a wedding, I have my sgian-dubh, the short but frighteningly sharp dagger tucked in my sock, that accompanies the traditional kilted attire at weddings. Only if the wedding had a lot of Glaswegians - who have had a lot of stabbing practice - would I be a little afraid. Glaswegians, yes, and Sikhs. The traditional Sikh attire includes a kirpan, a sword of up to a metre in length, which although usually only unsheathed to cut ceremonial desserts could no doubt cut a lot more if required. Don't get rowdy at a Sikh wedding is my advice.

The kirpan is one of the "five Ks", five items of attire expected to be worn by all good Sikhs - their uniform in effect - as brought in by the tenth and last of the human Sikh gurus, Guru Gobind Singh. He also brought in that all Sikh males have to be called Singh, from the Sanskrit for "lion", so you know he meant business. The other four Ks are: "kesh", or uncut hair, which is why Sikh men wear turbans, to keep their long hair under control; "kanga", or a wooden comb, to keep their hair in order; "kara", a steel bracelet; and "kachhera", which are knee-length shorts to maintain their modesty. The five Ks aren't just for ceremonial occasions, they are for all occasions. Which means that all good orthodox Sikhs carry a sword at all times.

You can bet that will be on my mind when I visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar. properly called Harmandir Sahib, literally meaning "House of God." It is the most holy place in Sikhism, the centre of the Sikh world and a symbol of the spiritual and historical traditions of the 500-year-old religion. Attracting up to 4 million visitors a year - most of them, I'll bet, being Sikhs - that averages at something like ten thousand per day. In other words, there are going to be a lot of concealed weapons when I visit the Golden Temple.

Fortunately Sikhism, like all good religions, preaches peace towards fellow man. It is based upon the first Sikh guru, Guru Nanak Dev, and his realisation that God was neither Hindu nor Muslim, God kind of just was, and that we'd all be better if we stopped worrying about following a religion and just concentrated on leading a good and truthful life. The ultimate aim throughout life should be to reach a spiritual union with God - that is, salvation - and the best way to do that was just to be, you know, nice. Fortunately, get it wrong and you'll get more chances - reincarnation is available for those that fail to achieve salvation. Nanak was pretty practical and kept it simple - rituals, ceremonies, idol worship, none of them were necessary; fasting and pilgrimages were out too (all the fancy chanting and clothes regulations came in much later).

This was all at the start of the 16th Century, and the city of Amritsar didn't even exist back then. However Nanak predicted it would, saying that one day a city and a pool of nectar would be there. The Punjabi word for "pool of nectar" is Amritsar. This further took shape when the second guru, Guru Angad Dev, who had a skin condition, was healed by a herb found on location by the to-be third guru, Guru Amar Das.

Although this next part may be apocryphal, the story then goes that Akbar the Great came by. You may recall him as perhaps the greatest of the Mughal emperors, who vastly expanded his empire, built the Agra Fort, and changed the shape of India altogether. He was Muslim, but was very liberal with regard to religion, and was impressed by Guru Amar Das's teachings of equality. Cannily too, he was given some free food . Appreciating all this, he made a gift of the land - and Amritsar was founded in 1577 by the fourth guru, Guru Ram Das. (More prosaically, other accounts say Guru Ram Das simply bought the land from nearby village landlords.)

Guru Ram Das oversaw general construction, including building the sacred pool, and it was the fifth one, Guru Arjan Dev, perhaps the busiest and most active of all the gurus, who built the first incarnation of the Golden Temple, as well as lining the pool with bricks. The temple was to have four doors, to signify accessibility to people everywhere, no matter caste or creed, much in the way that Agra Fort had originally been designed. In fact, a Muslim saint called Mian Mir was specially invited to lay the foundation stone. By this time, Sikh gurus had acquired a decent number of followers, and donations came in from around the country. Construction was therefore fast, helped by the large number of volunteers working on it, and complete in just three years.

Since its early 17th Century construction, Amritsar and the Golden Temple have come under attack from various different sources, from the Moghuls to the Afghans to the British, and even the Indian government. The final effective Moghul emperor, Auragazeb (the one who killed his three brothers and incarcerated his father, the builder of the Taj Mahal) executed the ninth Sikh guru, Gurur Tegh Bahadur, for not converting to Islam. Afghan invaders from the north completely destroyed the Golden Temple on three occasions between 1757-64, filling the pool with animal carcasses as an act of desecration. The British left the temple alone, but not the people, and ruled without much popularity for almost a century, most notoriously during a massacre of hundreds of unarmed protesters in 1919. In 1984, the Indian government killed at least 492 civilians and caused much damage to the Golden Temple and surrounds during Operation Blue Star, an unsurprisingly controversial military operation involving tanks and artillery, to weed out some suspected Sikh terrorists.

The original temple built is not the temple we see now. The current incarnation of the Golden Temple dates from around 1831, and the first Maharaja (literally, "Great King") of the Sikh empire, Ranjit Singh, who galvanised the Sikh world, and spent a lot of money on craftsmen and material to make the Golden Temple glorious. Thus we now have a marble and gilded-copper structure sitting on an island surrounded by a large pool of holy water, linked by a causeway which itself is entered by a large, ornate archway. Like the Shwedagon Pagoda in Burma, the effect is dazzling and "bling" - and I likewise await with interest whether this effect is rich and tasteful, or a little tacky. I would love to give you some reliable dimensions of the temple, but I simply have been unable to find a single reliable source anywhere (some mathematically-challenged websites would have me believe the temple area is less than that of a double bed). I think it might be a little dinky, perhaps about 20-metres tall, but in the absence of any source I believe that's entirely a guess.

I'll be visiting the Golden Temple in January, and will give a fuller account of it then, plus my own impressions.

Reviewed 8th January 2012.


  1. great article yo

  2. What an informative and well written article. It's amazing that the first Guru preached equality almost 500 years and people still have a hard time accepting others.



Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.