Wednesday, March 31, 2010

City of Gold

Imagine a land where all men are equal, regardless of race, religion, nationality or social status, the buildings are made of gold and marble, and anyone can stay and eat for free when you are there. Now add in a dose of typical Indian idiosyncrasies like pushing and shoving, massive crowds, and where foreigners are treated like celebrities, and you have pictured the Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar.

The Golden Temple is revered by turbaned Sikhs as Sikhism's holiest shrine. Set in the middle of a large pool, the copper and gold clad gurdwara glistens in the evening sun. Around the pool is a marble walkway intricately framed by a columned veranda and inlaid with a mosaic of patterns. Walking around the marble walkway, the friendly Sikhs will constantly come up to you initiating conversation.

“What is your name?”
“Where are you from?”
“Snap?” (The universal request to take a picture of or with you)
After about the 20th “snap” request, I am beginning to feel like the subject of an episode of TMZ.

However, to truly experience the Sikh hospitality and the all-inclusive nature of the Sikh religion, one has to stay in the free pilgrim dormitory and eat at the free kitchen when you are at the Golden Temple (donations welcome and recommended). All pilgrims are housed in large complexes adjacent to the temple. The dormitory is basic, but clean and comfortable. There is a separate section reserved for foreigners with about 30 beds available. Standing guard outside the “foreigner's dorm” is a ferocious yellow turbaned guard welding a spear! At night, when all of the beds have been filled, blankets are laid out in the central courtyard, and all over the temple complex, allowing every Indian pilgrim a place to rest for the night.

The massive dining hall with hundreds of volunteers cooking, cleaning and serving pilgrims can only be described as organized chaos! Feeding an estimated 40,000 pilgrims each day, it runs continuously from about 4am in the morning till well past midnight. The dining hall has two levels, each about the size of ten volleyball courts. As you enter the dining complex, you are handed a molded metal tray, a water bowl and a spoon. Following the surging crowds, you are then pushed towards a set of doors. As soon as the doors are thrown open, there is a stampede to get in! Pushing and shoving, a thousand pilgrims rush through several small doorways and run to claim a spot on floor mats laid out along the length of the hall. Within minutes, the entire hall is filled, and an army of servers come along scooping heaps of dal, curries and handing out chapatis to the hungry diners. You may eat as much as you want, and seconds are readily available, but in less than 10 minutes, guards come around urging diners to finish up and leave towards the far end of the hall. In an act of supreme efficiency, an automated floor cleaner appears and wipes the floor clean, sucking up any spilled curries, chapatis, or the stray slow-eater before the next surge of hungry diners may be accommodated.

The Sikh philosophy of equality, voluntarism and charity is truly remarkable. Everything at the Golden Temple from the dormitories to the kitchen operate through volunteers and donations. Even a Maharajah once sat and ate with the commoners in the community kitchen when he visited the golden temple. If this model can be replicated to soup kitchens and shelters around the world, hunger and homelessness may become a thing of the past.


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