Amritsar: jewel in the Sikh crown

From Vancouver to Wolverhampton, turbaned devotees flock to the holy city's Golden Temple, which is back in the headlines following a visit from the Queen. Jonathan Gregson went too, and managed, amongst other things, to be hailed as an honorary Sikh

As far as I could see, I was the only tourist in town. Certainly, I was the only European among the hundreds of travellers, touts, rickshaw- wallahs and food-vendors who swarmed around Amritsar's central bus depot. There were turbaned Sikhs and Hindu farmers yelling in Punjabi, along with a smattering of Hindi-speakers from further afield. But despite appearances I soon discovered I was not the only stranger in town.

Amritsar is a pilgrimage centre, its Golden Temple the sanctum sanctorum of the Sikh religion, and, as with other pilgrim cities like Varanasi, in its streets you can hear many of the subcontinent's bewildering variety of languages. That much I was expecting.

What came as a surprise as I queued for bus tickets was the medley of different versions of English to be heard. I picked up a nasal twang that was pure West Midlands, while the man in the saffron turban appeared to be speaking in Geordie. Then I tuned in to various North American accents. Everyone looked Indian, and yet I was surrounded by an anglophone equivalent of the Tower of Babel.

The speakers were mostly "overseas-returned" Sikhs - part of the great diaspora that has seen Sikh communities grow and prosper all the way from Vancouver toWolverhampton. Yet, whatever their nationality, they remain Sikhs, and, if they are able to, return to their holiest temple in Amritsar at some point in their lives.

I delayed my own visit until early the next morning, starting out well before dawn, for this is when the Sikhs' holy book, the Granth Sahib, is carried across a causeway to the Golden Temple. The night air was chill and a mist hung over the hollows where rainwater had collected, but around the temple precincts crowds were already gathering.

Everything was highly organised. I handed over my shoes and socks at what looked like a railway ticket office. There was no charge and I was given a numbered slip. Next, a Sikh helped me make an improvised turban out of my neck-scarf. I washed my hands and feet before entering the temple precincts. The white marble underfoot was almost too cold to walk on as I followed an orderly file of pilgrims through the Clock Tower Gate.

Straight ahead, rising up in the middle of the man-made lake known as Amrit Sarovar - the Pool of the Nectar of Immortality - was the Golden Temple, its jewel-like brilliance caught in a crossfire of floodlights so that the shrine and its unwavering reflection seemed to leap out of the surrounding darkness.

I hurried past temple guards in their black turbans and saffron cloaks. From the Akal Takht, where the holy book is kept overnight, there came a fervent cry and the sound of brass instruments. I made it to the causeway just in time, and squeezed back against its polished railings to let the procession come through. The next thing I knew somebody was pushing me forward, urging me to join the male pilgrims who were carrying the silver poles that support the Granth Sahib on its daily journey. I put my shoulder to the pole and, surrounded by the Sikh brotherhood, found myself carrying the Holy of Holies across the causeway.

I didn't know what to think. A sense of honour that I was included in so holy a ceremony. Trepidation, lest I slip on the wet marble and bring the sacred canopy crashing down. It lasted only a few seconds before another took my place. As many pilgrims as possible try to help in carrying the Granth Sahib. For a Sikh, it is both honour and a sign of devotion. Back in the crowd I was being congratulated. A Sikh returned from Canada was telling me I'd "done just fine". "But you know I'm not a Sikh," I protested. "So what?" he grinned. "Coming here at this hour makes you an honorary Sikh."

We followed the procession into the Hannandir, the Golden Temple itself. The crush of pilgrims would have been unbearable if there had been any rushing and shoving, for the interior is surprisingly small. So small, in fact, that the marble inlay and gilt mirrors on its walls were filmed with moisture, the condensation of pilgrims' breath. But within this temple, order and restraint prevailed. Bearded elders made way for young boys and women. There was a rare sense of equality and community.

The Granth Sahib had been placed on a dais. Layer after layer of cloth was being unfolded so that the faithful could gaze upon the holy book. For the Sikhs are very much a "people of the book". From the time of Guru Nana in the 15th century until their 10th and last guru, Gobind Singh, they followed charismatic and sometimes warlike religious leaders. But since the early 18th century, the hymns and sayings of previous gurus contained in the Granth Sahib have superseded the tradition of living gurus. The book, and the continuous reading and singing of its hymns, form the centre of Sikh worship.

The professional singers began on a new text, to the rhythmic accompaniment of tablas and a simple harmonium. Their singing had verve, but it never went too far beyond the bounds of harmony. I couldn't understand the words, but the impact on the pilgrims around me was almost tangible. They stood unmoving, some of them leaning against pillars, their eyes glistening with contained emotion. I slipped out quietly and walked back over the causeway. Somewhere back there I too had been touched by the feeling of brotherhood among Sikhs, and understood something of what they mean by the Khalsa.

The dawn was breaking, casting dull beams on all the white wedding-cake structures that surround the sacred tank. For a few moments they turned flamingo pink, as though suffused with blood, while the Golden Temple glowed like the ember of fire about to reignite. Then the sun rose clear of the buildings to the east, and the temple roof sent golden darts of light in all directions. It was easy to see why Mark Tully considers this the most beautiful building in the world.

A very different sensation awaited me just a stone's throw outside the temple precincts. For there down a narrow lane, is an open space called Jallianwalla Bagh - the scene of one of the most appalling acts committed during the British Raj. Nowadays it is a memorial garden to the 379 civilians who died there in 1919 when Brigadier-General Dyer ordered his troops to fire and continue firing on an unarmed crowd in order, in his own words, to produce a "necessary and widespread moral effect". Nearly 80 years have passed since then, but as an Englishman I still felt the weight of collective guilt when I saw bullet holes in the walls and the well down which innocent people threw themselves to escape the relentless fusillades.

Back inside the Sikh Gurdwara, the gentle singing that came floating across the lake helped to restore a sense of calm. I skirted around the marble-clad parikrama that surrounds the lake as pilgrims descended the steps to take their ritual dip in its waters. Temple guardians looked on, leaning on their laces, as I stopped to read some of the hundreds of memorials to soldiers fallen on the field of battle and other martyrs to the Sikh cause. It was hard to imagine that this tranquil place had, not so long ago, reverberated to the sound of machine-gun fire, that Indira Gandhi could have ordered the Indian Army and its tanks into this sacred compound, or that the marble pavement I was now crossing had become a killing ground.

That was Operation Blue Star in June 1984. The army had been under strict instructions not to fire on the Golden Temple itself. But other buildings, including the Akal Takht and temple library, received a real hammering before the Sikh extremists holed up there were either killed or finally surrendered. This attack on their holiest shrine was why two of Mrs Gandhi's bodyguards - both Sikhs - assassinated her. That act triggered a wave of revenge killings in Delhi followed by terrorism and heavy-handed counter- insurgency measures right across the Punjab.

The Golden Temple at Amritsar is one of the most beautiful, evocative places on Earth. It is also, like Jerusalem, a place where recent violence raises all manner of sensitivities. When I saw it, there was still scaffolding around the Akal Takht. The bricks and marble inlay may have been repaired by now. Not so, I fear, the anger and resentment and lack of trust still felt by many Sikhs around the world. AS FAR as I could see, I was the only tourist in town. Certainly, I was the only European among the hundreds of travellers, touts, rickshaw-wallahs and food-vendors who swarmed around Amritsar's central bus depot. There were turbaned Sikhs and Hindufarm ers yelling in Punjabi, along with a smattering of Hindi-speakers from further afield. But despite appearances I soon discovered I was not the only stranger in town. Amritsar is a pilgrimage centre, its Golden Temple the sanctum sanctorum of the Sikh religion, and, as with other pilgrim cities like Varanasi, in its streets you can hear many of the subcontinent's bewildering variety of languages. That much I was expec ting. What came as a surprise as I queued for bus tickets was the medley of different versions of English to be heard. I picked up a nasal twang that was pure West Midlands, while the man in the saffron turban appeared to be speaking in Geordie. Then I tuned in to various North American accents. Everyone looked Indian, and yet I was surrounded by an anglophone equivalent of the Tower of Babel. The speakers were mostly "overseas-returned" Sikhs - part of the great diaspora that has seen Sikh communities grow and prosper all the way from Vancouver toWolverhampton. Yet, whatever their nationality, they remain Sikhs, and, if they are able to,retu rn to their holiest temple in Amritsar at some point in their lives. I delayed my own visit until early the next morning, starting out well before dawn, for this is when the Sikhs' holy book, the Granth Sahib, is carried across a causeway to the Golden Temple. The night air was chill and a mist hung over the hollows where rainwater had collected, but around the temple precincts crowds were already gathering. Everything was highly organised. I handed over my shoes and socks at what looked like a railway ticket office. There was no charge and I was given a numbered slip. Next, a Sikh helped me make an improvised turban out of my neck-scarf. I washed my hands a nd feet before entering the temple precincts. The white marble underfoot was almost too cold to walk on as I followed an orderly file of pilgrims through the Clock Tower Gate. Straight ahead, rising up in the middle of the man-made lake known as Amrit Sarovar - the Pool of the Nectar of Immortality - was the Golden Temple, its jewel-like brilliance caught in a crossfire of floodlights so that the shrine and its unwaveringrefl ection seemed to leap out of the surrounding darkness. I hurried past temple guards in their black turbans and saffron cloaks. From the Akal Takht, where the holy book is kept overnight, there came a fervent cry and the sound of brass instruments. I made it to the causeway just in time, and squeezed back aga inst its polished railings to let the procession come through. The next thing I knew somebody was pushing me forward, urging me to join the male pilgrims who were carrying the silver poles that support the Granth Sahib on its daily journey. I put myshou lder to the pole and, surrounded by the Sikh brotherhood, found myself carrying the Holy of Holies across the causeway. I didn't know what to think. A sense of honour that I was included in so holy a ceremony. Trepidation, lest I slip on the wet marble and bring the sacred canopy crashing down. It lasted only a few seconds before another took my place. As many pilgrims as possible try to help in carrying the Granth Sahib. For a Sikh, it is both honour and a sign of devotion. Back in the crowd I was being congratulated. A Sikh returned from Canada was telling me I'd "done just fine". "But you know I'm not a Sikh," I prote sted. "So what?" he grinned. "Coming here at this hour makes you an honorary Sikh." We followed the procession into the Hannandir, the Golden Temple itself. The crush of pilgrims would have been unbearable if there had been any rushing and shoving, for the interior is surprisingly small. So small, in fact, that the marble inlay andgilt mirrors on its walls were filmed with moisture, the condensation of pilgrims' breath. But within this temple, order and restraint prevailed. Bearded elders made way for young boys and women. There was a rare sense of equality and community. The Granth Sahib had been placed on a dais. Layer after layer of cloth was being unfolded so that the faithful could gaze upon the holy book. For the Sikhs are very much a "people of the book". From the time of Guru Nana in the 15th century until their 1 0th and last guru, Gobind Singh, they followed charismatic and sometimes warlike religious leaders. But since the early 18th century, the hymns and sayings of previous gurus contained in the Granth Sahib have superseded the tradition of living gurus. The book, and the continuous reading and singing of its hymns, form the centre of Sikh worship. The professional singers began on a new text, to the rhythmic accompaniment of tablas and a simple harmonium. Their singing had verve, but it never went too far beyond the bounds of harmony. I couldn't understand the words, but the impact on the pilgrims around me was almost tangible. They stood unmoving, some of them leaning against pillars, their eyes glistening with contained emotion. I slipped out quietly and walked back over the causeway. Somewhere back there I too had been touched by the feeling of brotherhood among Sikhs, and understood something of what they mean by the Khalsa. The dawn was breaking, casting dull beams on all the white wedding-cake structures that surround the sacred tank. For a few moments they turned flamingo pink, as though suffused with blood, while the Golden Temple glowed like the ember of fire aboutto r eignite. Then the sun rose clear of the buildings to the east, and the temple roof sent golden darts of light in all directions. It was easy to see why Mark Tully considers this the most beautiful building in the world. A very different sensation awaited me just a stone's throw outside the temple precincts. For there down a narrow lane, is an open space called Jallianwalla Bagh - the scene of one of the most appalling acts committed during the British Raj. Nowadaysit i s a memorial garden to the 379 civilians who died there in 1919 when Brigadier-General Dyer ordered his troops to fire and continue firing on an unarmed crowd in order, in his own words, to produce a "necessary and widespread moral effect". Nearly 80 ye ars have passed since then, but as an Englishman I still felt the weight of collective guilt when I saw bullet holes in the walls and the well down which innocent people threw themselves to escape the relentless fusillades. Back inside the Sikh Gurdwara, the gentle singing that came floating across the lake helped to restore a sense of calm. I skirted around the marble-clad parikrama that surrounds the lake as pilgrims descended the steps to take their ritual dip in its wat ers. Temple guardians looked on, leaning on their laces, as I stopped to read some of the hundreds of memorials to soldiers fallen on the field of battle and other martyrs to the Sikh cause. It was hard to imagine that this tranquil place had, not so lon g ago, reverberated to the sound of machine-gun fire, that Indira Gandhi could have ordered the Indian Army and its tanks into this sacred compound, or that the marble pavement I was now crossing had become a killing ground. That was Operation Blue Star in June 1984. The army had been under strict instructions not to fire on the Golden Temple itself. But other buildings, including the Akal Takht and temple library, received a real hammering before the Sikh extremists holed up there were either killed or finally surrendered. This attack on their holiest shrine was why two of Mrs Gandhi's bodyguards - both Sikhs - assassinated her. That act triggered a wave of revenge killings in Delhi followed by terrorism and heavy-handed counter-insurgency measures right across the Punjab. The Golden Temple at Amritsar is one of the most beautiful, evocative places on Earth. It is also, like Jerusalem, a place where recent violence raises all manner of sensitivities. When I saw it, there was still scaffolding around the Akal Takht. The bri cks and marble inlay may have been repaired by now. Not so, I fear, the anger and resentment and lack of trust still felt by many Sikhs around the world.

Jonathan Gregson's 'Bullet up the Grand Trunk Road', a motorcycle journey across India and Pakistan 50 years after partition, is published by Sinclair-Stevenson (pounds 12.99). Jonathan Gregson's 'Bullet up the Grand Trunk Road', a motorcycle journey across India and Pakistan 50 years after partition, is published by Sinclair- Stevenson (pounds 12.99). Amritsar Fact file Getting there Trailfinders (0171 938 3366) has flights to Delhi on KLM (via Amsterdam) from pounds 396 return. Amritsar is linked to Delhi by Indian Airlines flights and frequent main-line rail services.

Where to stay Mrs Bhandari's Guesthouse (00 91 183 222390), in the cantonment area, is like stepping into a time machine - inexpensive, lovely gardens, period charm and Heath-Robinson plumbing.

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