Exactly at midnight, during a bitingly cold December in Amritsar some years ago, I rearranged the bedcovers on my sleeping wife and sons, left our hotel, and started walking. I headed towards the old city, the walled-in maze of narrow lanes and tightly serried bazaars that close in around Sri Harmandir Sahib, the holiest Sikh gurdwara, more famously known as the Golden Temple.
At that hour, the prosperous outskirts of Amritsar slumbered, eerily lifeless. Brightly lit streets yawned empty before me, lined on both sides by 12-foot walls and imposing metal gates. But my mind crowded with thoughts, even as I strode kilometre after kilometre without encountering even a stray dog. We had accompanied my beloved younger cousin to Amritsar for her wedding. Romila was a cancer survivor with an extraordinary appetite for life, but what if her illness returned? A cascade of conflicting emotions surged through my mind.
After an hour of solitary brooding, attended only by the sound of my own footsteps, my spirits began to rise at the thought of seeing the Golden Temple again. I had visited earlier in the week with the whole family contingent of wife, sons, mother, aunts, and cousins, and all of us had agreed that the spectacular gurdwara was a lifetime travel highlight. Though we spent hours walking around, with my three-year-old riding happily on my shoulders, when the time came to leave, I found myself slightly unsatisfied, even unsettled. When I learned that Sri Harmandir Sahib was open all night, and that the holy Granth was brought in to the inner sanctum in a ceremonial procession at dawn, I knew that I was meant to return.
The layout of Amritsar’s old city is a living testimony to the endlessly contested geography of Punjab, and long military history of the Sikhs. Impossibly tiny bottle-neck entranceways lead to souk-like localities that fold into themselves. These are katras, a defence strategy against the attacks on the city that persisted through the 17th to 19th centuries, as the Sikhs fought the Mughals, the Afghans, and eventually the British. Even now, especially during the day, when chaotic bazaars crowd the bylanes, it can be fiendishly difficult to find the way from one self-contained area to the next.
But that December night, the history-filled gullies hemming in the Golden Temple uncannily recalled Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Half-obscured by a fast-rising mist, strange figures emerged briefly before vanishing into the shadows. I followed in the wake of a seven-foot giant with a beard that unfurled to his waist and two immense milk churns suspended from a pole across his shoulders. I passed a very old man wearing an orange turban piled up to an arm’s-length on top of his head. Then, I washed my feet in a cold water bath in the middle of a knot of unsmiling warriors with naked swords curving at their waists, before we all walked into the holiest of Sikh holies.
Stunningly beautiful in daylight, the Golden Temple is heart-stoppingly exquisite at night. It glows deeply, as if lit from within, with gilded reflections rippling in the dark waters all around. The tank and temple are encompassed by vast white marble causeways and pillared galleries that remain dimly lit, directing the eye back to the sacred, shimmering centrepiece. Arrayed all around are domes, towers, and turrets in the distinctive Hindu-Muslim style that characterises Sikh identity. I will never forget my first sight of this wondrous night tableau. It took me several minutes to regain my composure and start moving again towards the Akal Takht, the imposing seat of Sikh authority.
Today, the Golden Temple complex’s architecture looks seamlessly coherent. But it has actually evolved over many centuries. According to Patwant Singh’s fine, impassioned history, The Sikhs, the 16th-century guru, Amar Das chose the site “because of the tranquillity of the forested terrain” surrounding “a serene stretch of clear water… all it had was a mud hut he built on the water’s edge for meditation and prayer.” His successor, Guru Ram Das bought the territory, and “by the beginning of the eighteenth century the name Amritsar—derived from amrit sarovar—had come to stay. Amrit, in Sanskrit, means the elixir of life or water sanctified by the touch of the sacred, whilst sarovar is a lake or pool.”
A later Guru, Arjan Dev constructed Sri Harmandir Sahib in something like its current form. Patwant Singh describes it as “a modest structure” in brick and lime. Sri Harmandir Sahib gained greater significance on 16 August 1604, when Arjan Dev made it the permanent home of the Adi Granth, his original compilation of more than 7,000 Sikh, Sufi, and Hindu hymns, set to 31 ragas and calibrated to different moods, occasions, and times of the day. Each day before dawn, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib is transported in a palanquin from the Akal Takht to the sanctum sanctorum, to be read and sung from until late night.
With two hours to go before the prakash, the wake-up ceremony, I decided to explore the heart of the temple, the jewel set in gold (Maharaja Ranjit Singh reportedly needed more than 100 kilos of the precious metal to complete the job in the early 19th century). Over decades of visiting holy sites around the world, I have never encountered any quite as open and accessible to everyone. I was left completely alone to wander through the outer rooms, richly emblazoned with mosaics, marble carvings, and paintings in a variety of styles, and straight into the innermost chamber with its extraordinary bejewelled ceiling. All around me, pilgrims sang, prayed, and talked to each other in languages and accents that testified to the incredible range of the modern Sikh diaspora. I distinctly heard Bahasa Indonesia, then unmistakable Glaswegian drawls, and even the honk of a word or two in Norwegian exchanged between two young women huddled in a corner.
As I perambulated the tank, I found myself distracted by the inscriptions on the plaques and memorials that line the walls of every corridor. I learned that the Sri Harmandir Sahib has an additional function as an important repository of community history, and a permanent memorial to Sikh remembrance. The names of soldiers who died fighting for the British in Europe, North Africa, Malaya, Mesopotamia, and Turkey, and later for the Indian Army in its contemporary campaigns were listed all around me. I found mentions of Sikhs in Rangoon, Addis Ababa, Jerusalem, and even Okinawa, Japan.
Walking very slowly now, I became lost in thought again about the pioneering migration of Sikhs to North America. I thought about the beatings and racist abuse that accompanied the community’s shameful expulsion from Oregon in the Bellingham Riots of 1907, and the equally ugly story of the Komagata Maru, a ship loaded with mostly Sikh migrants which was shot at, marooned in the Vancouver harbour for two months, then forced to return to India in 1916. That incident prompted the formation of the Ghadar Party (ghadar means mutiny), a San Francisco-based organisation committed to expelling the British from India.
I thought about Sikh faces I had encountered in the most unlikely places. In Vienna, in the 1980s, a young man who suddenly appeared outside my car window at 5 a.m. to proffer a newspaper. In Venezuela, strapping brothers manning a provisions shop in the jungle en route to Angel Falls. The lavishly bearded shooting guard for the Cambridge University basketball team, who I played against for the University of London. I thought of the gentle couple, Jaya and Kulbir, second parents to my mother, who first introduced me to maa-ki-dal. My cousin Romila returned to my mind, so excited about starting a new life with her handsome Punjabi husband.
The sky was still pitch-black when a low, throbbing horn sounded near the Akal Takht. Jolted out of my thoughts, I rushed towards the sound. There was a loud clanging of cymbals, and a terrific rush as the palanquin containing the Guru Granth Sahib moved towards its daytime abode. Shoulder-to-shoulder in an instant crowd, I reached out, along with everyone else, to touch the holy vehicle. Just managing to brush two fingers on its side as it passed, I found myself standing alone again as the crowd moved forward. I realised I had walked at least a dozen kilometres, stayed alert through the night, travelling the world and many centuries inside my head, all for a moment that was gone in the blink of an eye. But more importantly, I realised I no longer felt unfulfilled. Keeping my eyes on Sri Harmandir Sahib as long as possible, I began the long walk back.
This essay is dedicated to the memory of the writer’s cousin, Romila Fernandez.
Appeared in the June 2015 issue as “Amritsar Reverie”.
is a writer and photographer, and founder and co-curator of the annual Goa Arts + Literary Festival. He lives next to Miramar Beach in Goa, with his wife and three sons.
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