Saturday, 3 December 2011

The wonderful and weird temples of Amritsar

My recent weekend visit to Amritsar with visiting friends Tara and Matt wasn't as intense an experience as Varanasi, but I did get to explore two of the city's temples that provide a lesson in contrast reflecting the astonishing diversity of religion in India.

The first, and by far the best known, is the city's most famous landmark (and indeed probably India's best known building after the Taj Mahal: the Golden Temple, Sikhism's holiest shrine and an island of tranquility in the middle of the heaving city. Its name evokes exoticism and spirituality in equal measure, and it lives up to the hype. We visited twice, and the experience of seeing the temple at night, glittering in the middle of its holy lake, is the one that will stay with me. There can't be many man-made sights as beautiful.

Sikhism is famously inclusive, and everyone is welcome to visit the temple. There are some requirements: you have to remove your shoes and wash your hands and feet before you enter, and your head must be covered. Not just any old which way, either: a cap doesn't cut it, which means Matt and I had to wear the less-than-flattering orange headscarves provided specially. Of course, women have it way easier since they have any number of lovely, graceful scarf options, whereas us blokes end up looking like reject from a pantomime Dutch pirate ship:

Ludicrous headgear or not, though, it was definitely one of my best "touristy" experiences in India. The place is heaving - with pilgrims and tourists both Indian and foreign - but unlike similarly crowded places elsewhere, there was no hassle at all. What struck me most was the hush that held over the crowd despite their sheer numbers. Getting across the causeway to the temple took us a good 40 minutes of shuffling, packed armpit-to-nose with hundreds of devotees. Ordinarily this would induce feelings of claustrophobic panic in me, but I had no issues here - the atmosphere is just too calm and friendly. I can understand why, sadly, the place is a target for pickpockets - it's a very disarming experience being surrounded by huge numbers of people but having a real sense of peace at the same time.

The causeway to the temple...not exactly a solitary experience

All of this is quite hard to reconcile with the temple's recent history, having been the site of one of independent India's worst atrocity in the form of Indira Gandhi's botched Operation Blue Star, a military assault to remove Sikh separatists from the temple in 1984 which caused over 500 deaths (some say thousands), led to horrendous communal violence and brought about Gandhi's assassination. But walking around the wide, white marble pathway that surrounds the lake, it seems inconceivable that such violence could have occurred here. Another paradox of India.

The second temple is less iconic, less historic and less beautiful, but in many ways more intriguing: the Mata cave temple, dedicated to the 20th century female saint Lal Devi. Before going there I assumed "cave temple" meant it was in a cave, but actually it's in a regular building. What makes it cave-like is that the whole place is built as a winding, circuitous route in and out of tiny rooms and enclaves, walls and ceilings covered in glittering coloured glass, past numerous icons and shrines, and even requiring at times that you crawl through tunnels and wade through water. Getting through the whole thing takes a good half hour - it seems to go on forever.

And I spotted a familiar figure whose appearance had perplexed me so much at the National Museum when I'd only been in India a few weeks:

Much of the significance of all of this was, naturally, lost on us, but it was certainly a spectacularly bizarre place of worship. Many of the locals seemed to share our sentiments - there were at least as many snapping photos and giggling as there were paying homage to the various statues (we snapped a few photos but steered clear of the giggling).

It might be profane to say it, but the place reminded me of nothing so much as a Hindu-themed version of the fun houses you used to get in the travelling fairground that came to my home town every year - in places it even had the same rattly, texturised metal flooring that I remember from them. And the atmosphere was an odd fusion of religious devotion with a fun day out for all the family. It's not the first time here that I've felt a little bit queasy about balancing my fascination as a visitor with the knowledge that I'm in a place of worship rather than a tourist attraction.

But this is one of the things I kind of envy about India - its religious heritage is just so much more interesting than ours. The Church of England is a fine, respectable organisation in many respects. But it doesn't produce churches that remind you of fairground rides, does it?


Anonymous said...

It looks as though the Dutch pirates were having a wonderful time.
The place looks magical - I loved some of the interiors with narrow passageways and such wonderful detail on the walls.

Sean Ellis said...

The Golden Temple is quite a site and sight. Next time I am in Amritsar, I shall make it a point to visit at night.