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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 July, 2003, 05:24 GMT 06:24 UK
Golden Temple at last
By Bernard Gabony
BBC News Online South Asia editor

The Golden Temple
Every practising Sikh aspires to visit the temple at least once
This month I did something I had waited 18 years for.

I travelled to the Punjabi city of Amritsar to visit the Golden Temple, the holiest place of worship for the estimated 20 million Sikhs living in India as well as the Sikh diaspora.

In 1985-86 I had travelled extensively in India, from the Tibetan plateau of Ladakh in the north, to the deserts of Rajasthan, to Cape Comorin in the south, where you can watch the sun rise over the Bay of Bengal, and watch it set over the Arabian sea.

But at that time the Amritsar and the Golden Temple were strictly off-limits to foreigners.

For the previous year India had been convulsed by some of the worst violence in its modern history.

Only those entirely devoid of all spirituality could fail to feel something of the presence of God
Broadcaster Mark Tully's reflections on the Golden Temple

Thousands of Sikhs were butchered, most in the capital, Delhi, after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

Their actions were a response to Mrs Gandhi's decision to send the Indian army into the Golden Temple complex to flush out Sikh militants fighting for an independent state.

That all seemed a distant memory as I joined an estimated 100,000 people who would pour into the temple complex during the course of a steaming hot Sunday in July.

'I feel purified'

The first sight of the temple, surrounded by water and with its golden roof glittering in the sun, is dazzling.

"For Sikhs, to come here to bathe, or just make contact with the water is the holiest thing a Sikh can do" Satpal Singh Bhatti, a 26-year-old computer engineer from Coventry in the English Midlands told me.

Bathing in the temple waters
Men take the holy dip in the open, women bathe in closed off compartments

Every practising Sikh aspires to visit the Golden Temple at least once. Satpal was on his fifth visit.

Mandip, a British woman from Leamington Spa was on her third visit. "I feel purified, cleansed," she said.

Navjeet Kaur, a 21-year-old biology student from California said: "It's going to help you a lot after you die."

The atmosphere in the temple complex was one of joy and celebration. And non-believing outsiders like myself were made to feel very welcome.

"This place is not just for Sikhs - Muslims Hindus or Christians can come too," Jaswinder Singh Jassi, an information officer at the temple, told me.

The one real crush comes after you cross the Gurus' Bridge over the water into the temple where the Sikhs' bible, the Guru Granth Sahib, is guarded. Inside visitors make donations and offer prayers as musicians keep up a non-stop rendering of devotional song.

Chapatti machine

Much of the fascination of the site comes from the other buildings that make up the temple complex.
Sikh father and daughter
There is an atmosphere of joy in the temple complex

Facing the Golden Temple is the six-storey Akal Takhat, the centre of decision- making in Sikhism. The Sikhs themselves tore it down and totally rebuilt it after 1984 because of the damage inflicted by the Indian army.

And then there is the enormous communal kitchen where a simple meal of dhal, chapattis (cooked lentils and unleavened bread) and water is served free.

A machine there makes up to 6,000 chapattis an hour, I was told.

As I left the temple a young boy with a limited grasp of numbers in English waved some postcards of the temple under my nose.

"One rupee sir," he asked. I shook my head. "OK, five rupees sir!"

It was a perfect end to a perfect day - and well worth the wait.

Postscript: The contrast between the tranquillity of my day in Amritsar in 2003 with the violence at the Golden Temple in the 1980s was brought home later by the veteran broadcaster and writer Mark Tully.

In his book, No Full Stops in India, he recalls entering the temple complex in 1984 after the Indian army's operation there.

"The walls were pockmarked with bullet holes. Squash-head shells fired by tanks... had pulverized the frontage of the Akal Takhat, leaving hardly a pillar standing... the floors of the shrine were carpeted with spent cartridges. The white marble of the pavement... was stained with blood."

The shock is all the greater because, as Tully so eloquently puts it, the Golden Temple complex is a place "where only those entirely devoid of all spirituality could fail to feel something of the presence of God".

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