Amritsar – Gurdwaras in and Around Amritsar and Seva

Good morning all,

Amritsar, the Holy City, is not just home to Darbar Sahib (the Golden Temple) but it is filled with and surrounded by gurdwaras, many of great historical importance for us, the Sikhs.  I rented a car and driver for the day (two different days actually) to tour six gurdwaras near (around 50 – 80 km) Amritsar.  Well worth the effort and something that should be, but generally is not, on the “tourist list”.  
First we visited Baba Budha Sahib (above).  Unfortunately, it was an important holy day (we have a lot of those) so it was packed tight with people, making it hard to get good pics but good pics really isn’t what going to a gurdwara is all about so… the gurdwara is near the village of Thatta, about 20 km or so south of Amritsar.   Baba Budha was considered to be the most knowledgeable of all of the Sikhs, hence the name.    He lived during Guru Nanak’s time and lived such a long life (125 years) that he was around to anoint five more Gurus and to offer blessings to the wife of our fifth Guru.  There is a story about how Mata Ganga wanted the blessings of a son so sought out Baba Budha Ji, arriving near Thatta (at the location of the gurdwara) with pomp and circumstance and with a feast of rich foods to offer him in exchange for a blessing.  He refused to see her.  Refused the wife of the fifth guru, he did.  She returned though with a simple dish, much more suited to the Sikh way of life and was received by him.  The story reminds us, no matter our position in life or the blessings that we seek, to remain humble always.    

The other gurdwaras visited that day included two older gurdwaras, both under serious renovation and restoration work.  The second pic is from Jhulna Mahal Sahib and the third is from Tala Sahib.  Most of the renovation work is done by seva (selfless service) which we will get to again a little later.  Jhulna Mahal Sahib has a small but very deep sarovar with an “earthquake feel” (hence the name) wall nearby.  It is said that when the Emperor Jahangir passed nearby the spot with a procession of elephants, curious Sikhs went to see the procession.  Later, Guru Argan Dev blessed the wall to sway like an elephant.  Now people climb a narrow staircase to the top of the wall and while a granthi recites the Mool Mantra, he shakes the wall causing it to sway.  It’s impressive that a wall so heavy would move the slightest at the push of one person without falling over.  I did not try it.  The crowds were far to thick and ‘pushy’ for my tastes and it is not why I was at the gurdwara to begin with so the swaying wall got skipped.

Tala Sahib was under serious restoration and renovation while we were there.  The only part of the gurdwara hall accessible was the flag poles essentially.  However, the work appears about halfway complete.  It’s going to be spectacular when it is done.  There is a very busy market on the way in to Tala Sahib and there a poor woman picked me out of the crowd and began demanding money (apparently – it was translated after all).  I gave her 10 rupees because she was ballsy and I like a ballsy human being.

My host units also decided to partake in paani poori, a sweet street food pastry that is doused in a spiced water.  Given that the spiced water is uncooked (and likely untreated) I gave it a pass.  I was not yet recovered at that point from my initial gastro-intestinal illness and just wasn’t willing to risk an episode of explosive diarrhoea.

These three gurdwaras were all we could fit in to a day so we saved the next three for the following weekend.  Unfortunately, I can’t recall the name of one of the gurdwaras and neither can the host units but two of them are Darbar Sahib (not the Golden Temple Darbar Sahib but another) and Tarn Taran Sahib.

The gardens around Darbar Sahib are gorgeous!  You’ll see a few pics of them to the left.  The walkway to the gurdwara, the parking area and the small park outside the gurdwara are all filled with lush tropical flora that was just stunning the morning we arrived.  Anyone of my friends that can identify the aloe looking plant… no idea what this is but it is tall and the specimen I took the picture of is a pretty healthy beast of a plant.

When we arrived the place was practically empty!  What?!?  This is India and we had the run of the place (almost) to ourselves!  Couldn’t believe my luck really since I’m not into the elbowing, shoving and rude pushing that happens so much around here.  A fact that drives my host units crazy by the way because “that’s just how it’s done.”  Normally I’m all about going with the flow in another culture but on this I opt out – no pushing, no shoving, keep your hands to yourself.  It can be done and done well actually, as I’ve had to prove endlessly while I’m here.  Most of it is a matter of timing things well and standing your ground, not allowing any give whenever someone attempts to push you out of their way.

Darbar Sahib is also known as Angitha Sahib, according to my hosts.  They didn’t seem too sure about that, so I won’t quote them.  In any event, there are actually two gurdwaras in the complex, one very small at one end of the beautiful sarovar and one larger at the other end.  The marble work around the sarovar (well, marble and sandstone work) is beautiful and so well done!  It had just been washed while we were visiting so the marble was cold beneath my feet – I loved it!  My poor little sister though was freezing and desperately trying to find a path where the marble was sitting in the sunlight to warm.

The whole place is encircled in gardens inside and out.  Spectacular!  It is hard to believe that most of these gurdwaras are taken care of by, for the most part, the work of volunteers.  There are very few people paid as staff to maintain these places.  It is all done by dedication.

It is winter here (just as it is in the rest of the Northern Hemisphere) and winter anywhere near Amritsar means an almost ever present fog in the mornings and hazy afternoons.  It was nice that the skies turned a beautiful, clear blue while we were visiting these gurdwaras.  By mid afternoon, the temperature would reach 30C though and that’s generally the limit of my heat tolerance being a northerner, so you know… big fan of the cool, foggy morning!   Big, BIG fan.

If I do end up deciding to live in India someday, I really don’t know how I will tolerate the heat.  Though, I suppose like everyone else I will acclimate.  Eventually… maybe.    

I have been trying to convince my other hosts (a wonderful family that you’ll meet later) to come to Canada but they are very, very happy to continue to live and do their good work here.  Sadly, they are the only people I have met so far who are content and very happy to stay on in India though they are a young, well-educated couple at the centre of the family.  I really have come to admire there contentedness – so happy for them.

There is a very different way of life in India.  It’s hard.  I’m not going to sugar coat it.  The poverty and lack of opportunity here is just devastating.  We know nothing about that in the West, at least not on this scale.  Nothing at all about this sort of poverty.  My host units are quite well off compared to most and even they have little to nothing, watching each rupee carefully to make it stretch just as far as it will go.  Still, they have a simple but comfortable home, a maid who helps with keeping the place tidy and with the cold-water, hand done laundry, and they don’t really worry about where their next meal (very simple though it is) might be coming from.  They own more than one outfit each and have a few, simple luxuries like a cellular telephone, gas to cook with, electricity (most of the time), water (most of the time), and even internet (some of the time).  They are living a relative upper middle-class lifestyle as far as I can tell here.

To put that in perspective, the middle-class have homes too, smaller with perhaps one sleeping room, a kitchen with gas to cook with, gates that lock and marble floors.  The lower middle-class cook outside with gas sometimes, cow dung sometimes and bits of wood sometimes, have electricity less often, have no internet at all,  they have outhouses or latrines and more crowded, concrete floor living space.

Then at the poverty line, there is no electricity except perhaps one lone bulb to light a dirt floor and a shack, there is no bathroom to speak of, and the next meal may or may not arrive.  They have clothes that are worn to thread bare and repaired repeatedly but only when necessary.  They have far too many people together for proper health and hygiene and often no running water.  If they get sick, they will not be admitted to a hospital because they have no money to pay for even basic medical service – they must rely on health camps which can provide only so much themselves.

Then there are the even more disadvantaged – children who were abducted as children and maimed so that they can beg money in the street (apparently yes, this happens), women who are forced into prostitution after being abducted and raped as girls or born into prostitution, people who are maimed because they could not afford health care for their injury and then fall even lower on the social scale as a result, the mentally ill, including as far as I can tell some elderly individuals suffering from likely dementia, families of prisoners (political or not), families who have lost the one wage earner.  So many people here are suffering.  So many.  It’s really difficult because you want to try to help everyone but the problem is just … overwhelming.

I’m sure I’ll be talking about the poverty a lot here so I’ll leave it at that for now.  Small bites of information, easier to digest I hope.  But poverty, disadvantage, misfortune, that is where the Sikh concept of seva comes in to alleviate the suffering and to help our own spiritual growth, our souls so to speak.  Sikhi is not the only faith that has a concept of service – Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism… each of the major religions has a concept of service to other people.  The Sikh concept of seva is more than charity though, it is a part of our identity as Sikhs, to share what we have with those who have a need.  This is different but related to our concept of langar, which is sharing food free of charge with humility and equality with everyone who comes to the langar hall.

There are many different ways to perform seva, which is expected of a Sikh on a regular (if not daily) basis.  You can give money to organizations that perform work.  Or, better yet, you can perform the work yourself which in my submission, is more fulfilling and better for your spiritual self.  The kind of work you do can vary – the point is that you do it in as selfless a manner as possible.  Sikhs try to be without ego, so selfless service is also a part of that concept of dispensing with the ego.  You can go to a local gurdwara and help wash dishes or cut vegetables in the langar hall which feeds everyone, you can help serve food or clean in the langar hall, bring food to give to the langar (though please do some research and find out what they actually serve first – a donation of chicken will not be appreciated), you can scrub the floors in the gurdwara, take care of other people’s shoes (which are removed before entering the gurdwara), help repair or build a gurdwara, help clean and care for the sarovar, help in a homeless shelter or hospital… it doesn’t have to be just at a gurdwara that you serve.  You can perform seva anytime that you are selflessly, with your whole heart, helping other human beings in need.

I’ve been fortunate and blessed to be able to do quite a bit of seva here in Amritsar so far.  I pray that I’ll be able to contribute that much more as the days go by.   My host, Gurmitji, has been kind to accompany be to Darbar Sahib daily (almost) to help in the langar hall there.  It feeds almost 100,000 meals a day.  I can tell you that it serves meals to Sikhs who have come to pray at the temple, to non-Sikhs who have come to visit and perhaps offer prayer, and to the homeless, disadvantaged, and those otherwise down on their luck.  Without question, without discriminating – everyone gets a simple, healthy, vegetarian meal.  No one is counting any chits in the langar hall.

It’s one thing to sit in the langar at a gurdwara the size of Darbar Sahib.  You can see how many people can fit in there to be served a meal – several hundreds at a time easily.  It’s another thing to serve the food there from massive pots, or to wash the dishes that just keep pouring in and must be washed through a series of seven basins to ensure they are cleaned and rinsed, or to clean and cut all of the vegetables that are required – sacks of chili peppers, garlic, onions… daily.  You really get a sense of how many people are served and how much work it takes to accomplish that goal.  Not only that but the Darbar Sahib this year prepared 100,000 additional meals daily for flood relief in Jammu & Kashmir.  Such a massive undertaking for people who were devastated in the floods with little and slow response from the government.  Most of that work was done by Darbar Sahib and other Sikh, Muslim and charitable organizations.

Washing the dishes also gives you a real sense of the community that comprise the Sikhs.  Standing next to so many brothers and sisters doing a simple but important job, washing and rinsing thousands of plates, bowls, cups, spoons and all of the pots, ladles, and other implements, I really feel a sense of brotherhood with the people standing next to me.  We work together, like one unit to clean our lots of dishes and move them on to the next station.  Nobody tries to become the ‘leader’ directing the work, we all just focus on our tasks and it gets done.  The same is true when you are peeling garlic, cleaning chillies, chopping onions, picking through lentils for dhal.  There’s always a brother or sister able and willing to help you figure out what to do, always.  Sitting next to them, cleaning the same vegetables, careful to handle the vegetables carefully knowing they will feed so many… you find brotherhood and also, I think, add to your spiritual reserve.

You don’t need anyone’s permission either to help out, just roll up your sleeves, make sure your hands are washed and get to it.  Someone will help you figure it out if you have questions, so you know… go for it.  

To the left you will find pictures of the gurdwara whose name is forgotten (because I forgot my little notebook).  At this gurdwara, near the Darbar Sahib gurdwara above it, there is a museum which was constructed as seva by a Sikh man from Toronto.  To seva can also be performed by preserving and presenting our history.  I guess that the Born a Sikh sites are also seva then, in that they distribute information about Sikhs and Sikhi – who we are and what we are all about.

This gurdwara is also surrounded by lush and beautiful gardens.  I have no idea what the trees with the big red flowers on them are but I could sit near them and meditate all day long.  So could the thousands of green parrots that hang out here apparently.  They are everywhere!

Finally we will come to pictures from Tarn Taran Sahib gurdwara in Tarn Taran, a small city outside of Amritsar.  It has the largest pool of any gurdwara in the world, about 3 times the size of the sarovar at the Darbar Sahib.  It is huge.  I hope that some of the pictures provide enough perspective to give you an idea of how immense this place is.

Like Darbar Sahib, you descend stairs to the temple complex, to remind you to be humble.

On the afternoon that we were at Tarn Taran Sahib, there were hundreds of kites in the air.  Hundreds of them.  Several, after being cut by an opponent, fell into the sarovar or into the gurdwara grounds to be caught by young boys willing to chase the kite as it fell from the skies.

The main temple is partially gilded in gold and like other large gurdwaras, there are many spots for prayer and prostration and other spots for different activities.  There was a large group there during our visit who were celebrating an engagement in one of the larger spaces.  It was sort of cool to see but I felt like we were a little voyeuristic watching the celebration.

The bathrooms here (they are all outside of the gurdwara grounds) were … disgusting.  The smell of ammonia that reeked up the flooded ladies bathroom was nauseating.  We were in our bare feet so going to the facilities had to wait until there was just no other option.  I don’t know who takes care of that toilet facility but … fail.  Huge fail.  It was the nastiest place I’ve ever been in my entire life.

We found a tap elsewhere and practically showered after using that particular facility.  Gross is all I can say.  If you visit here, limit your drinking water until you are well away.  It shouldn’t stop you from visiting this magnificent gurdwara but just don’t drink much while there.  I’d rather dehydrate than go in that washroom ever again.

I was starving before visiting Tarn Taran Sahib.  My hosts and driver asked what I would like to eat and I told them I wanted to try the Chinese food that every place in India seems to be so excited about.  It must be good if it’s everywhere right?  Ummm… nope.  It was not Chinese at all, but maybe Chinese inspired and it was not tasty.  That is once we found the place.  We had to drive around and around Tarn Taran to even find a restaurant that was open.

Praise the driver who finally found as a restaurant… well a bar really but it served food and we were not interested in drinking anyway.  We were the only people inside.  The staff seemed confused about taking a food order and serving food… which tells me it really was a bar.  The name restaurant was probably only there because bars are not socially acceptable round these parts.  So you know… get a basic menu happening and boom, you got yourself a restaurant that just happens to also serve alcohol.
Anyhow, I was starving so we went in.  And despite the red flags, we ordered China noodles (which I think were meant to be Shanghai noodles) and Veg Biryani (because Biryani is apparently Chinese) along with onion paranthas for little sister who has an addiction to onion paranthas.  It was not good.  NOT good at all.  So much curry powder in the noodles that we could have blown it off and so much cumin in the Veg Biryani that we couldn’t taste anything but the cumin and the huge chunks of chilies that were present.

So, in the end, kudos to the super friendly driver for finding the place but next time, we’re packing a lunch.

And with that, until next time, when we finally get to the Darbar Sahib, I’ll leave you here.  Next time we’ll also talk about the marriage proposals.  Those are good stories.  Some heartbreaking but good stories nonetheless.

Peace and love all
– Preet


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