02 Jul Amritsar: Immersion and Engagement in the Harmandir Sahib
Written by Leah Kirkland and Siobhan Takala, 2014 India: Gender and Religion
Amritsar welcomed us with familiar heat and sunshine as we made our way to the Golden Temple. Despite the exhaustion from another overnight bus ride there was a buzz of anticipation and excitement among the group upon getting our first glimpse of the famous religious temple and community space.
The Harmandir Sahib, or Darbar Sahib, or simply the Golden Temple is a Sikh temple whose construction started in 1570 and took 34 years to complete. The temple itself is marble coated in gold and is constructed in the centre of a large square pool or tank, surrounded on all four sides by further marble temple buildings. Before you enter the temple complex area one must cover their head (men and women alike) and also walk barefooted through a small stream of water. These are all signs of respect and are a mandatory condition for all who are participating in the temple space.
A lot of us did not know much about Sikhism and why this space has such significance as being a community space. Upon arriving, our Program Leaders first challenged us to immerse ourselves in the community by talking to as many people as we could about Sikhism and what different religious and cultural symbols and rituals mean. A few of us were quite unsure how to approach strangers and found the possibility of engaging with a language barrier quite daunting. However, we quickly realized how to make use of conversations we’d had around cultural literacy, and connect to people from all walks of life – even with a language barrier. Many of us started volunteering within the temple space, helping to clean the bowls used to distribute free clean water by polishing the metal bowls with ash. We also tried improve understanding of the religion and space by visiting museum within the complex and asking fellow community members about Sikhism and their traditions.
Another reason why the temple is such an important community space is because it runs solely on donations and volunteers. The temple kitchens feed upwards of 60,000 people every single day and provide accommodation for many visitors free of charge. There are also communal washrooms and showering areas for everyone as well, shared by locals and foreign visitors alike. Our group experienced this generosity and charity first hand by staying the Ramdas Niwas Ashram beside the temple, in the area saved for international visitors. It is an amazingly efficient space, welcoming for all people without discrimination.
This temple space is open to everyone of all ages, races, abilities, classes, genders, sexes, etc. which is one of the amazing aspects of Sikhism itself. One beautiful and symbolic aspect of the temple is the arrangement of entrances to the complex and the Golden Temple itself. There are four through which to enter the temple complex, representing the acceptance of any visitors from any of the four major religions (there are more!!) or four caste groupings (again there are more!). The single door and bridge to enter the golden temple itself is necessarily shared by all visitors and symbolizes how we are all equal and enter with the same substance as every other person despite your position in life.
This concept is also present at the Lungar, free community kitchen, where all visitors are invited to eat side by side. We entered a huge dining hall that could fit upwards of 1000 people every 15 minutes and we all filed in side by side and sat cross legged in order to receive our meal. Many of us on the trip agree that this moment had a strong impact in terms of how we frame a community space, what charity means, and how something like this could or could not work back at home.
One beautiful and exciting part of our time in the Golden Temple came from our group volunteering as part of the washing up process necessary to feed 60,000 people a day, and we worked alongside people in the community wash the plates and cutlery from meal times. The sound of bodies moving plates around and water splashing the floor echoed through the hall and sent us into a frenzy of cleaning. Men and women alike worked together and efficiently cleaned the thousands of plates by having multiple washing stations for rinsing and disinfecting. There must have been 7-10 rows of washing stations which maximized the space and time in which it took to get the plates clean and ready for the next round of hungry people.
The Golden Temple really opened our eyes to how a true community space can function. After our critical focus on privilege and oppression within a community and volunteering compared with working in solidarity we were able to analyse the space and focus on how it worked. Creating a calm space where everyone is seen as equal from entering is very crucial. Looking around the temple, you would just see crowds of colourfully scarfed heads, unable to distinguish between race, caste, age, or even sex – everyone looked the same, equal. Furthermore, seeing how a community can sustain itself solely on the good will and genuine help of its visitors showed us the difference between solidarity and volunteering. All members of the community, young and old, male and female, abled and differently abled, all helped cook, wash up, maintain and provide support for other members. There is no exclusive sense of pride or privilege within the space.
As members of the global community that is Operation Groundswell, we are curious to hear about other community spaces around the world that are like our magical spiritual sanctuary here in India. It is important for everyone to find a space where reflection, learning, inclusion and solidarity can all come together, and the Golden Temple is truly a haven for growth and community.
We challenge the other OG groups around the world to share their experiences of times when they fully immersed themselves in the communities that they have been living in by engaging in these “community spaces.” We have felt that by fully engaging and participating in the functions of the temple we were able to transcend from being merely “guests” in this sacred space, to being members which had something to offer this space. This experience truly was one of the highlights of the trip and we will never forget the true hospitality and sense of belonging that we felt here.
These two short days in Amritsar lent themselves to a lifetime of reflection and understanding in regards to how communities can come together to be a sustainable source for people of all walks of life. It not only made each and every one of us closer to the space and people we lived with for two days, but it also made us closer to each other in the OG group itself.