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All that Glitters...
May 27, 2000

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At the <em>gurdwara</em>, dormitory

Suneetpreet Singh, whose nickname at home is "Money," comes up behind me to say hello. It is nighttime, and I am taking a break from my clockwise stroll around the square pool which surrounds the Golden Temple in Amritsar. "Amrit" means nectar or baptism, and the name of this city, in Punjab, refers to this water surrounding Sikhism's holiest shrine. Suneetpreet introduces me to her brother "Monty" and to her parents. All of us sit on the Parikrama, the marble walkway, and enjoy the cool night air together. Directly below us, some large fish congregate to gulp air, but they scatter when Monty runs up to them. Mr. and Mrs. Singh invite me to their house for tea, but it is already eleven o'clock and I feel like it's too late to visit. However, we spend some time discussing Sikhism and the significance of this Golden Temple, also known as the Hari Mandir.

Five Kakkars

Mr. Singh explained Sikhism to me, saying there are 2 crore Sikhs throughout India. Mr. Singh's home city, Amritsar, and the state of Punjab in general have the highest proportion of Sikhs in India. Actually, the last name "Singh," meaning Lion, often (but not always) signifies that the person is a Sikh.

Mr. Singh, with Money's help, pointed out five signs, or kakkars, that distinguish Sikhs. These were introduced by Guru Gobind Singh in the 16th century CE to help Sikhs recognize each other.

1) Kesh, uncut hair, signifies saintliness. Sikhs do not cut their hair and you'll easily recognize the men by their long turbans, the length of a bedsheet, that they wind around their hair.

2) Kangha, a wooden or ivory comb, signifies cleanliness. It's worn in the hair and is often hidden by the turban.

3) Kuccha, shorts, signify alertness. Due to the Sikh's military background, they didn't want to be wearing long dhotis over which they might trip. Today most Sikh men wear long trousers but the shorts tradition persists.

4) Kura, a steel bracelet, signifies determination.

5) Kirpan, a sword, signifies defense of the weak. Most do not wear a long sword, but rather a small dagger somewhere on the body. This caused a problem in the United States recently when a Sikh student faced dismissal under his school's anti-weapon policy for wearing this symbol of faith.

I am staying in the Sri Guru Ram Das Niwas dormitory, which is off to the side of the sacred pool. The Golden Temple complex has dormitories, a shared kitchen with free meals of dal (lentils) and rice, a library of Sikh reading, a post office, a bank, and a railway booking office. Thousands of people pass through this complex each day, and I am impressed by everyone's friendliness and orderliness.

The next day, I have the chance to take some pictures of the shrine. Water surrounds three sides of the Golden Temple, and on the fourth, there's a bridge, so I join the many pilgrims crossing it. Over the loudspeakers I hear the continuous reading of the Guru Granth, the Sikh sacred book, as well as soft music with drums. The two-story temple, made of marble, was covered with copper plates in 1802. The dome of the temple is said to be made of 100 kilograms of pure gold.

Most pilgrims touch the doorstep and then their foreheads as they enter the temple. Once inside, all pause. There are people sitting on all sides of the temple, cross legged. On the left, musicians with purple turbans sit. The smell in the air is sweet,

Take a tour of the Golden Temple at Amritsar.

28.8 56.6 DSL

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like perfume
, and flower petals adorn the spotlessly white cloth in the middle of the room. There's a heavily embroidered tapestry and a curved sword in the center. A man periodically collects the donations of rupees that pilgrims leave on the cloth. On the bus on the way here, my Sikh seatmate gave me 50 rupees (a little more than one US dollar) to donate, saying he hasn't been able to visit the Temple in six months. He asked me to pray here for the health of his loved one, so I leave the money and take a few moments to fulfill that request.

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Pilgrims respectfully enter the shrine.
Prasaad, or food offering, in front of the Golden Temple.

Afterwards, I follow the crowd outside and take the steps up to the second floor, where I look down on the stream of people pouring into the shrine. All around me are tiles with designs of birds, fruit, flowers, other animals, and humans. A small library holds copies of the Guru Granth, and many faithful sit, leaning near the windows, reading quietly or meditating. As I leave the temple to cross the bridge back, someone presses a lump of prasaad into my hand. It's a doughy and oily bread, brown and made of flour. A man tells me, "If you are feeling sick, you can eat it, and if God wants, you will get better." I taste a little, and it's sweet. As I finish the handful, I reflect on the tranquility I feel here.

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Sikhs believe in true equality and tolerance. The ten Sikh Gurus, or teachers, started with Guru Nanak, born in 1469 near Lahore, in modern-day Pakistan. He had a message from God in 1496 and started to preach that 'There is no Hindu, nor any Mussalman.' He was against caste distinctions, idol worship, and elaborate ceremonies with no spiritual background. Instead, he argued for the basic equality of all castes, classes and sexes, encouraged simpler rituals, and believed in one god. A book that I read in the complex library explains that "the Sikh gurus have laid only one path... It is the life of creative love in accordance with the will of god." It goes on to say that the two most important Sikh virtues are humility and love, a message from which all can learn.


congregate - to come together
adorn - decorate
tranquility - peacefulness
militant - a fighting, warring, or aggressive person
crore - 10 million
elaborate - with much detail and involvement
humility - the quality of being modest and respectful

The peace that I feel opposes the recent history of this space. In 1984, Jarnail Singh Bindranwale, a militant who supported the movement for a Khalistan, or separate Sikh state, used the Golden Temple as a base for operations. Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister, crushed this movement, ordering an attack on the Temple. Bindranwale was killed and the Sikh terrorists left the temple, but many Sikhs resented the damage and violence put upon this sacred site. Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated later that year by her Sikh bodyguards. Sikhs are known as warriors, and the Sikh symbol of the khanda includes two kirpans (swords) in it. These swords remind Sikhs that they have two equal responsibilities: to spirituality and to society. To learn about the Golden Temple and about Sikhism, follow these links:


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Andrew - They Say Nobody's Perfect, but They Haven't Met the Dalai Lama
Monica - Jallianwalla Bingh, Memorial to the Massacred
Team - MAD - How a little shrimp can destroy a whole farm

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