Jul '12 - Jan '13
If the tower and cathedral of Pisa were the holiest of monuments for the Catholic faith, I would consider its sister city Amritsar. Among a vast heap of urban disarray, nestled between souvenir bazaars, vegetarian-only restaurants, and shoe and bag shops, lies paradise for an entire religion.
After removing my shoes and covering my head, I entered through the west gate. At first glimpse, the temple gleams in the sunlight- what a magnificent structure! Upon my first steps within the complex, I quickly discerned between white marble and its sun soaked black counterpart, which was inlayed quite justly. If one wishes to remain neutral, a carpet of reeds is laid upon the ground. Fittingly, it was also the track to the Sekh foot race, which perpetually took place there. I shall never know how many laps one must complete, but I am certain of the definitive direction- clockwise.
Many small shrines and tree shrines surround the nectar pool. A pool of water thought to heal the body. Men go about their ritual bathing under the afternoon sun, while women retreat to one of the small white structures flanking the pool. Upon first impression I assumed it was the purifying system that was housed within, but international signage revealed its true intent, as well as the cleanliness of the water.
Upon reaching the causeway, I was met by a stern man in a turban who, coincidentally, bared an equally magnificent beard. With some hostility he asked if I had my shoes or smoking tobacco within my bag. I replied a confident no, and I stood incredulously as he motioned me forward without the prodding search I had now become acquainted with. The line was six men wide and packed tighter than an Indian fagot. Flies buzzed around my toes, babies cried, and everyone held a tin plate of tan colored mush covered in dried leaves. I asked the young fellow next to me concerning the process in which his offering befell. He said he must present his offering first, and then it would be returned upon exiting the temple. Oh what a benevolent God!
A threshold at the door must be touched before entering, as I learned from the woman in front of me. Out of respect, I found myself halfway going through the motions, taking careful note of the inhabitants within, as not to offend any wandering eyes. I fought and elbowed my way to the guardrail adjacent to the central shrine. Here, currency was frantically tossed onto the floor, almost faster than the man with a stick could gather it. I put in my 2 cents, almost quite literally, and regressed to the wall where I could bask more peacefully in the moment.
The extravagance was to every detail- hand painted, hand carved, and hand cut. I looked for flaws in the intricate masonry, or leafed gold, but found none. There were four doorways from the north, south, east, and west. The corners were filled with exotic tasks, praying, folding bright orange clothes, or the likes of which I cannot accurately describe. A gold leafed canopy hung over the central shrine, as colorful flowers were arranged in front of a weighty book.
The non-stop, commercial free, XM radio which had been blasting over the loudspeakers for the past hour was indeed the live performance of three men. Two sat playing Schroeder's piano while another used 8 fingers on each hand to exorcise every laudable sound from two small drums. All men sang in a dulling, intermittent pitched voice, the lyrics to which blended in a sea of frightful monotony. A high-nosed looking fellow, dressed for an exotic dinner party, stood observing, with a bushel of white peacock feathers in hand. An old man kindly motioned for me to exit out the side door, as more visitors were being ushered in.
Before proceeding to the roof, I ventured above to the second floor, circling the interior balcony while being certain to maintain reverence. Here sat three ceremonial guards who were inept at posing for photos, though I'm sure they were used to it by this time. I circled once around the roof shrine, where a man sat vigilantly reading his holy book. Down two flights of marble stairs, across a wooden deck at water's edge, pausing slightly for the admiration of the koi fish, and finally through the causeway- I had reached a man. He stood behind a pan 3 feet in diameter and filled with sacrificial mush. He handed it out, literally, to those who came with open hands. Before proceeding to the roof he motioned for me to hold out my hands and I could not resist. He mashed a handful of the greasy substance with his right hand and plopped it down on mine. I nodded in thankfulness and proceeded to question the sanitation of his hands. I tried the thing of course and to my surprise it was quite tasty, like a sweetened couscous. I washed the grease off my hands in the nectar pool, pretending to take a drink as not to offend.
After finding a shady place against a canopy support, I proceeded to go to work on my sketch. The weather was mild today, and the sweat on my hand was not enough to smear the graphite. No sooner than I could lash my first stroke, was I surrounded by Indians of all ages. They sat, stared, and pointed- went so far as to sneak pictures with me. One small girl was so absorbed as to watch my hand for a full half an hour before being drug away by her parents. It would seem that more pictures were taken of me that day than of the Golden Temple herself!
I made one final lap before regressing from whence I came, and happened upon a Coke stand that sat just outside the Temple’s walls. For a hefty 5 rupees (~10 cents) one may acquire a frosty cold glass bottle of Coca-Cola. I bought one for myself and another for the haggard old man approaching. A woman, placing her hands together, blessed my kind gesture.
The Golden Temple in all her glory
The thatch causeway
The ceremonial guards resting in the shade
The Western pilgrim himself
The quick work of an ill trained hand
In fact, the whole city is blanketed in the red and white of this American icon
An Indo Inquisition is a thirteen-week train expedition across India. The journey will document the influences of international modernism and British occupation, as well as compare the effects of wealth accumulation, culture, religion, and poverty with economic growth and their effect on the built environment.