Sunday, 8 January 2012

12. Wonder: The Golden Temple

(For the Golden Temple preview, please click here.)

Up a narrow flight of stairs at the main entrance to the Golden Temple complex is the Sikh Museum. The Golden Temple being Sikhism's most holy place, it's perfectly normal and expected that a museum to the religion should be on-site; what isn't so expected is the sheer violence contained within the museum. Sikhism has a violent history, ostensibly in acts of atrocity committed against it; the museum - the vast majority of which are framed paintings with captions - does not shy away from this. The opening notice states: "The portraits of male and female members of Khalsa who laid down lives in cause of Dharma, got their skulls sawn off, got mutilated on spiked wheels, got their bodies sawn, made sacrifice in service of shrines, did not betray their truth... with sacred hair unshorn until their last breath." Yikes. 
The picture-based museum then turns into a series of either portraits of revered figures or historical paintings, many with a pretty gruesome focus. A martyr gets hung upside-down and his skin peeled off - we see his peaceful expression as his legs are stripped bare. Another martyr is boiled alive, again looking serene. Two calm-looking sons of the tenth guru are bricked up alive, never repenting their beliefs. And the one that actually shocked me - and I usually have a pretty strong stomach for these sorts of things - was the imprisonment by Mughal Islamic mentalists of thousands of Sikh women in Lahore in 1745, in which the Sikh babies were hacked up, and pieces of the babies draped and spread over their mothers. This is all history as seen through a Sikh lens, and the latter I can only find Sikh sources for, but it's pretty evident that there's been a far amount of gruesomeness over the years. All throughout the museum are tales of violence, pictorially represented, even going as far as to include portrait-style photos of the dead faces of about thirty men killed in a 1982 road accident, for some reason making them martyrs.
Oddly, very little mention is given to "Operation Blue Star", a highly controversial military assault on the Golden Temple compound in 1984 by the Indian army. Imagine an army going in all guns blazing to the Vatican, or into Mecca - that's the kind of deal we're talking about. It was supposed to be to flush out some Sikh separatists, and in the end it did get their target, but at a cost. Hundreds, possibly into the thousands, of innocent Sikh pilgrims were killed in the crossfire, huge damage was done to the Golden Temple and the surrounding complex, and four months later the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. This then led to reprisals against the Sikh community, killing thousands. A deeply unpleasant modern event in Sikh history, which perhaps for tact, is mostly glossed over in the museum (a painting of the destroyed administrative Akal Takhat building is the most prominent reminder).
So the museum above the main entrance to the Golden Temple is a pretty grim introduction to the world of Sikhism, the world's fifth largest religion in terms of followers (derived from Sanskrit, the word "Sikh" simply means "follower" in fact). For hundreds of years, the followers suffered repeated attacks from neighbouring states and religious groups, with the Golden Temple itself destroyed entirely on a number of occasions. Its first incarnation was from 1591, but it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times since, and what we see now dates from 1831, which was when the gold was added.
And what we see now is anything but grim.

Visiting the Golden Temple is an absolute pleasure. Whatever the religion's combative start to its existence - and there's no question that they had to be fighters to have survived to this day - the experience of visiting their central shrine is a wholly relaxed, friendly, and welcoming one. On my first visit, a morning trip alone while Burness slept soundly through a delayed and crushing New Year hangover, people greeted me, shook my hand, and simply asked where I was from. Never in an overwhelming manner, just friendly and welcoming, and simply interested in who I was, a foreigner visiting their shrine. In all the literature I've seen about it, accessibility for everyone to the Golden Temple is stressed, no matter your beliefs or background, and this was very much the case. Indeed, the four entrances on the temple itself as well as to the complex are to symbolise the openness of Sikhism, open to every direction. Visiting the holiest shrine of a different religion, which has its various customs and taboos, could be an intimidating experience - this was anything but. 
The Golden Temple itself is the shiny golden thing in the middle of the square pond, to put it in pretty basic terms, and is called the Harmandir Sahib ("The Temple of God"), but the surrounding complex is integral to its appreciation and understanding. It's not just the Golden Temple that is sacred, but the complex too, hence why before entering one of the four entrances, socks and shoes must be taken off, feet washed (or at least wettened), and your head covered. Rules for head covering apparently allow for beanie hats but not for baseball caps, and although I didn't see any I imagine top hats would be perfectly permissible. I'd left my top hat behind, but the generally accepted form is turbans or bandanas anyway. The latter are provided free of charge at each entrance, but I purchased my own - a bright orange one, as standard - from a guy in the street for 10 Rupees (about 13p). I must admit to growing rather attached to it.

The distance from the shoe-depository to the main entrance is about fifty metres, which doesn't seem much, but on a wet January day in the Sikh city of Amritsar felt much longer. Amritsar, a city of around a million, is a mixture of the shabby and the charming, with most people probably being more struck by the shabby (I, personally, was rather charmed). Upon leaving my shoes at the depository, there was a walk across a patch of road still filled with motorbikes, rickshaws, and lots and lots of mud and water. Plus, this is north India in January, and the temperatures are single figures. Therefore almost each visit we made (only on the last did we more sensibly take a different, less punishing, entrance) it was a relief to reach the entrance, gaze upon the Golden Temple through the gateway, and paddle our cold, dirty feet in the warm pool of cleansing water. With clean feet we could now wander around the Golden Temple complex.
The Golden Temple complex has a pretty straightforward layout, and can be described as a series of concentric squares, or squarish rectangles to be more precise. At the centre is the Golden Temple, the dinky golden heart of it all. In terms of physical size, the Golden Temple is not big - around the size of a parish church perhaps. Getting reliable dimensions is a tricky one for the temple itself, but the official literature says the temple itself is 40.5 feet square on a platform of 67 feet square, which for consistency with previous entries I'll translate into 12.3 metres square on a platform of 20.4 metres square. "Metres square" is very different from "square metres", and 12.3 metres square means that is is 12.3 metres on each side, rather than the tiny 12.3 square metres which would be tiny, 4 metres by 3.1 metres for example. 12.3 metres square would equal 151 square metres - I think you can see the difference. This bamboozling of numbers can be summed up by saying that these dimensions all sound pretty sensible really , with the one small problem - the Golden Temple and its platform aren't square, they are definitely rectangular. So who knows?
Still, the suggested dimensions give an impression that the Golden Temple is quite little, the smallest of my Wonders so far. It and its platform are in the centre of the square-shaped complex, surrounded by a pool of water and connected by a 62-metre causeway to the surrounding marble walkway. The pool of water is called the Amrit-Sarovar (giving its name to the city) and means "The Pool of Nectar". It is said to have healing properties, dating back to the fifth guru, Guru Arjan Dev. He had a magic bag of ash, which when mixed with iron turned to silver, and mixed with copper turned to gold. However, mix it with water and it could cure leprosy. Instead of using it to get rich, he chucked the whole bag into the pool, explaining that health is more important than wealth. Besides, he'd just built a golden temple anyway (it was under his stewardship that the first incarnation was made). In the summer, I expect there are loads of Sikhs bathing in the pool; on a very overcast and chilly day in January, only a few hardly souls were immersing themselves.

The squarish pool is something like 150 metres on each side, with a marble promenade running along each of the four sides. It takes a leisurely ten minutes to walk around. This is where the bulk of the visitors spend their time, mostly in groups, strolling around the pool and temple. Arriving through the main entrance, this is what I did, following the crowds and going clockwise. My first impression is still the lasting one - it was a relaxing and oddly moving feeling. For the visiting Sikh, I can definitely imagine it being a spiritual experience; for the visiting atheist such as myself, it was still tangibly emotional. On loudspeakers, at a distinct but not distracting volume, religious music and devotional singing sounds around the complex, played by musicians within the Golden Temple. It's more or less continuous and quickly becomes background sound, but it was pretty good to be honest. "Not a bad beat", I might say, now that my middle-age is closer than my teenage years. People mill around, taking photos, some bathing, and it's a lovely feeling, in lovely surroundings.

Ringing the marble promenade are covered walkways which are effectively the walls of the temple complex, that hold everything in, although in reality they are buildings with mixed functions, such as shrines, cloakrooms, donation counters, the Sikh museum, and others. Faced with white marble, they are four, occasionally five, storeys high, with the second and third level offering balconies that ring the complex, although sadly inaccessible to the public. All across them are simple plaques, written back into the white marble, donated by Sikh individuals or groups, in honour of a person or people. Decoration otherwise is simple and geometric, not too far removed from Islamic architectural styles.
These series of squares - the temple, its platform, the pool, the promenade, and the wall of buildings - make up the core of the Golden Temple compound, but there are a few other buildings that are integral also. One is the Akal Takhat, or the "Throne of the Immortal" in Punjabi. The only building aside from the Golden Temple to display gold (on its dome) it is the administrative authority behind Sikhism as compared to the spiritual heart that is the Golden Temple.
On the other side of the complex is the accommodation. The Golden Temple offers free accommodation for all visitors, Sikh or not. My only small regret is that I never tried it. It's not exactly luxury - massive open halls crammed full of people sleeping - and when Burness and I arrived way past midnight, our train hours delayed, we just didn't fancy it. Burness especially, still deeply suffering from a New Year of excess and some long and delayed flights, upon walking into the special "foreigner room", lit up brightly and over-heated, with about five double beds pushed together, and a handful of people sprawled across them, just said "no." We stayed in a proper hotel instead - far more comfortable and allowing Burness to manage some recovery, but with a little less of the (uncomfortable, sleepless) authentic experience of the Golden Temple.
What we did manage was the free food, or "langar". Possibly this was the highlight of the whole experience. During our two days in Amritsar, we didn't pay for any food. A central philosophy of Sikhism - one of its very distinguishing features from the Hinduism's caste system - is that all men are equal and there should be no discrimination. Hence the leveller of all sleeping in the same quarters. Hence the leveller of all eating together. Cannily also, from the early days the gurus recognised that religious instruction sounds hollow to the hungry man. Just beyond the wall of buildings, but still part of the complex, is the giant food hall. Entirely staffed by volunteers, it offers free food, 24 hours a day. It can feed over ten thousand people a day, probably much more during busy times. When I'd first heard about this, I imagined epic queues of people waiting in line for hours, just to get a dollop of rice in a bowl. The reality was far more efficient - and tasty. Walk in, and you are given a metal tray (split into four sections), a metal bowl and a spoon. A person directs you, and you end up in a large open hall lined with people sitting on long lines of rug. Take your seat, and wait. A variety of people are walking about, dishing out daal, curry, rice, chapatis, and water. Want more? It keeps coming round. The whole process, from arriving to leaving and handing your dirty tray to the first in a huge chain of dishwashers, takes around ten minutes.

It is fair to say, very fair to say, that the Golden Temple is a wonderful experience. I was in Amritsar for two days, and visited the complex five times. On the first day, the weather was simply atrocious; as well as being cold, the rain was chucking it down. The upside of this was that the crowds were low, especially in the morning, when I was able to walk along the causeway to the Golden Temple on its island, and only inside the small interior, where the musicians play their music and devotees pray, were the crowds thicker. Compare that to the following afternoon, when the sun finally beat the clouds, some blue sky emerged, and there was a little warmth to the day. The causeway was filled with people all the way to the promenade.

A wonderful experience then, but is the Golden Temple a Wonder? As I've said, it's the smallest I've yet seen. By itself, in isolation, without the pool or the surrounding complex, it would be unspectacular. Nice, but unspectacular. It's a pretty building, and pleasingly ungaudy despite the shining gold, and the twenty-or-so layers of gold-plating - put on in the late 1990s and supposed to last for 500 years - are attractively decorated. But at the same time, it's no architectural marvel. There's no "how did they do that?" associated with it. Strip away its religious and historical significance, and strip away its surroundings, and alone it wouldn't take your breath away. It's too small, too straightforward.
But that's the thing - the Golden Temple doesn't exist in isolation. Its religious and historical significance are integral. And even if you were entirely unaware of these and just rocked up in Amritsar one day and ended up at the temple, you would be impressed. Because like a small man in a gold suit surrounded by buxom beauties, what the Golden Temple lacks in physical size, it makes for in sheer presence. On an island, surrounded by a sacred pool, then surrounded by a marble-white promenade and marble-white buildings, but gleaming gold itself, the Golden Temple has impact. It exists in perfect harmony with its surroundings: they enhance it, it enhances them. And then there's the simple aura, created by the people and the significance of the surroundings, not to mention the music playing. It's a special experience.
I said in an earlier entry, that appreciation of a Wonder should be separated from personal experience. With the Golden Temple it's pretty difficult - the two are so intertwined. I can see that if the complex was empty and silent, the impact would be less. And if you were to take any building in the world and make it the centre of a religion, with thousands worshipping there every day, it would become more special. The Golden Temple isn't just any old building, it is the beautiful heart and soul of a temple complex, a city, and a religion. It is very special. And in some senses, for example as the centrepiece of the world's fifth biggest religion, it is a Wonder, a religious Wonder. But taken objectively? I'm not so sure. Let's apply some criteria to it. 
Size: Small, although the complex it is part of is larger, and it has a large presence within that.
Engineering: Nothing special. Made from nice materials - marble, copper, gold, with precious jewel inlay - but always within a short space of time, and without any unknown or amazing use of engineering ingenuity.
Artistry: Bright and shining gold, it is attractive and not tacky, and decorated nicely. But at the same time, it isn't outstanding architecturally.
Age/Durability: The current incarnation is 150 years old, but it goes back to around 400 years ago, having being destroyed and quickly rebuilt a number of times. It will exist as long as the Sikh religion exists.
Fame/Iconicity: The very heart of the Sikh religion, it is very well known in India. Outside of Sikhism and India, it is much less so.
Context: The golden centrepiece within a sacred pool inside a white marble complex, all built in concentric squares, it is magnificently framed.
Back Story: It goes back almost to the beginning of Sikhism, is central to the story of a number of the Sikh gurus, has been destroyed and rebuilt in numerous wars and attacks, and is fundamentally tied in with the story of Sikhism.
Originality: The overall complex design is pretty original, although the decoration seems to have borrowed from Islamic designs. I can't say I've seen much like this before.
In terms of impression made, the Golden Temple is up there, and if I was travelling the world and assessing various different tourist experiences, it would rate very highly. But I'm not, I am assessing potential World Wonders, and I'm trying to separate that from the experiences. It was in discussion with Burness that helped me decide where I stand on this one, and the impact made on me despite the powerful human experience. Take another icon, in this case let's take the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the spiritual heart of the Buddhist Thai nation. Built around the same time as the Golden Temple, it has great significance and isn't huge or imposing, but has a well-judged and tasteful aesthetic appeal. However, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is packed daily with processions of photo-taking tour groups; the Golden Temple is packed with genuine worshippers which give it a real emotional punch. Burness said he would want to visit the Golden Temple again any day, not so the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The Golden Temple is definitely the better experience.
But - remove all the people and remove that sense of experience. Strip the Wonder bare, what do we have? And we have that despite the Golden Temple's small size and structural simplicity, the pleasing position in its pool and the square symmetry of the compound nudge it above the asymmetric cluster of buildings that comprise the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. And that's where I'd position it - a little above the Emerald Buddha, but with a larger gap chasing behind the Petronas Towers. A great experience, but only a decent building that doesn't seriously contend as a Wonder of the World.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Angkor Wat
2. Sydney Opera House
3. Borobudur
4. Petronas Towers
5. The Golden Temple
6. Temple of the Emerald Buddha
7. Shwedagon Pagoda

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces

Interesting Places
Ananda Temple in Bagan
Marina Bay Sands

Ayutthaya Historic Park


  1. Wonderfully described. I had been there during my childhood, some three decades ago. I relived those moments through your texts. The paintings in the museum depicting muslim atrocities are still fresh in my mind. I am happy to note that you've respected the sensitivities of the culture and tradition without sounding sarcastic.

  2. I would recommend you read a little into the architecture as well. not only the unique style but the positioning of the buildings with in the complex.
    Yes the current structure was constructed around the early 18th century but all later incarnations were replications of the original. do bare that in mind when assess the architecture.
    Truly fab article, enjoyed reading every bit of it! Hey, i'd check out the newly constructed Gurdwara in Glasgow- see how that compares ;)

  3. Better than most travel sites and documentaries. Save an old woman some grief and tell me which were the less punishing entrances? Looking forward to a late December early January visit.

    1. Avoid the northern(ish) one, where the Sikh museum is - you need to, in part, cross a cold and muddy road. Try for the eastern(ish) one, where the food hall (langar) is - I recall that being a far more pleasant entrance. I think the others may also have been ok, but it's been a while and I can't recall exactly.

  4. Well helped me a lot to find out detailed information related to the structure, its dimensions.
    Thanks a lot...


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