‘There are in life a few moments so beautiful, that even words are a sort of profanity.’
I struggle to note experiences I remotely enjoyed in India but, when I do, they are of extreme beauty and cause for deep reflection. None so powerful as visiting Sri Harmandir Sahib, which stands for The abode of God, in north-western India, pretty close to Pakistan. The moment I stepped off the bus in Amritsar, I experienced India as it is often portrayed in the media – intense, hot and chaotic. I couldn’t see the ground, everything and everybody moved so quickly and the incessant sound of drilling and rickshaws hooting consumed me.
In the chaos of the crowds and heat, I didn’t realise that the 3 gentlemen who greeted us were policemen there to protect us – I presumed they were official guides. As I walked with one of them, he explained the history, basic premise of Sikhism and the turmoil experienced at the shrine (and its repercussions in Indian history). I was not able to ascertain exactly what we were being protected from but, the fact that our university felt we needed a police escort in a place of worship, was unsettling but that’s probably just my ideological peace & love thought process.
Having read only a paucity of information on Sikhism, the Sri Harmandir Sahib was like a treasure trove of knowledge and human connection. Contrary to what many people think about Catholic education, my school was amazingly open and we discussed different religions (from an informative aspect rather than doctrinal, obviously), particularly in relation to holy days/festivals and attire, so I was aware of Sikhism and the Five Ks. And, having grown up surrounded by life-affirming diversity in inner city London, I have had the privilege of seeing all sorts of people and obtaining tiny glimpses into their respective cultures. Still, nothing quite prepared me for the devotion and spirituality I felt.
Once inside the temple complex, the atmosphere shifted towards a more peaceful environment. Thousands of people yet barely a sound. That is the most immediate memory. As an introvert, I don’t like noise. It makes me anxious and uncomfortable. I also don’t care for crowds but I was in India… Yet, there at the Golden Temple, it was calm and everybody seemed to be at peace. People stared at me as I obviously look different, I smiled and, as I have found during all of my travels, they smiled back. I politely waved. They waved back.
Men undressed and bathed in the sacred pool (women did the same in to closed off area to protect their modesty). We were invited to enter the water too, which was terribly kind, though I felt it somewhat improper (for me) to carry out religious ablutions I neither understand nor believe in, so observed respectfully from the side-lines. Religion fascinates me – the rituals and art, mainly – so, to be in the holiest place in Sikhism was like a dream. The white marble floor scorching hot under the blazing sun, dazzled invitingly as devotees sought their personal moment of connection with God.
‘Every one of us living on this planet is an Other in the view of Others – I am in their view, and they are in mine.’
Ryszard Kapuściński, The Other
People queued for 5 hours to enter the most sacred part of the Golden Temple; my group was given a private escort but not the Indian PhD students whom had accompanied us on the trip – just the international students. People took photographs of us foreign women, and our professors and the police officers rapidly marched over and demanded the ‘culprits’ delete them. Nobody stopped us from photographing local people in their place of worship. I grew up in mixed race family in inner London, surrounded by every type of person – I never felt different to anybody (based on my appearance/religion/nationality) until that moment. That’s when I understood the frustration and injustice of discrimination which many people experience every single day and, despite being on the ‘privileged’ side, it hurt so much. The Other: them vs us. So much shame attached to this light bulb moment. I wrote about this type of inequality in my article about the Taj Mahal.
The beauty of the Golden Temple stands above anything I saw in India, not only because of its design but because of the people, and this was particularly evident in the kitchen/dining areas. Thousands of people donate their time to help prepare, cook and serve food for people of all creeds. Money donated is used to purchase food items which are served to over 100,000 people per day. Apparently, this type of food kitchen is the norm in Sikhism. When I visited the Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) in Delhi I helped out (only for 30 minutes or so) to prepare vegetables – it’s really a fun and meaningful way to get involved with your host country and her people. This idea of everybody chipping in to create and share with each other, irrespective of your religion, warmed my heart. As people, I think we have a proclivity to seek affirmations for what we want to see in our world, and I’m trying to keep that in mind when I think about my experiences in the two Gurdwaras I visited – still, love this way of life. I experienced openness and human connectivity to a people I didn’t really seem to have any connection to. I felt safe and welcome, and my questions were accepted without suspicion and gratitude at being genuinely curious.
This little girl really made me smile. She was utterly obsessed with me and stared constantly, trying to figure out who this strange-looking person was. Her parents tried to call her away but she wouldn’t move. I reached out my hand towards her, she held my gaze and moved her hands behind her back, making her stance perfectly clear. I asked if I could take her photograph, and her parents obliged, et voilà, here she is: little miss curious.
Even today, 6 months after my time in Amritsar, I struggle to elucidate what was a profoundly-moving experience. There are rare those moments which change you and alter your way of navigating life, and this day is one for me. I remain troubled by the economic and gender inequality of India and I will not forget the gut-wrenching pain of seeing so much extreme poverty, as I observed it, yet the kindness, smiles and donation of time and resources to those (by people already struggling) in a less-comfortable situation astounded me. On one hand, India broke my spirit (for many reasons – classmates, poverty, isolation etc.) and I still don’t feel completely ‘fixed’. As a neophyte gender studies student, I was mentally unprepared for what I witnessed and learnt about the lives of women (particularly at the lower end of the caste system) there, and I am unwilling to deny/ignore this reality. On the other hand, against the backdrop of this darkness, I saw kindness in its purest form and feel invigorated by it. I don’t know what happened to me there; even as I write this, I feel teary and uneasy. Nowhere has tested me quite as much. Upon my return to London, inspired by the open-to-all kitchen here, I began volunteering with two charities in the hope that I can use my time, knowledge and compassion to positively impact others (in need). And, so, when I think about my time in India, at Harmandir Sahib and beyond, I feel grateful for the push it gave me to look beyond myself and my privilege, and contribute towards a better society for us all.