The Indian city of Amritsar, and especially its Golden Temple, is the heart of Sikhism. The religion of the Sikhs originated about 500 years ago. It focuses on the worship of a single, formless god, on morality and on charity. This is particularly evident in the Golden Temple: here, members of all religions and castes can stay overnight free of charge. In addition, more than 50,000 meals are given out freely every day. For this reason, a visit to Amritsar is essential for a deeper understanding of Sikhism and Indian spirituality in general.
What is Sikhism?
Religions in India
India is the birthplace and home of many important religions: Buddhism and Jainism originated here, Christianity reached India even before it reached Rome, and nowhere else has Islam developed into such a rich and colorful culture as in the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism in India is more than just religion – it is India itself. These faiths are joined by Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Bahai, and countless smaller sects and religious traditions.
Origin and philosophy of Sikhism
Guru Nanak Dev is considered the founder of Sikhism. He was born in what is now Pakistan and lived in the Indian subcontinent of the 14th and 15th centuries. Already as a child he was fascinated by spirituality, religion and philosophy. His search for the truth was the impetus for a long journey that took him to Tibet, Mecca and Baghdad. Nanak Dev began to transform his experiences and thoughts into teachings. He preached in front of Jain and Hindu temples, mosques and Buddhist monasteries.
Nanak Dev was especially influenced by the Bhakti tradition (the “Yoga of Love and Devotion“) and Sufism – mystical Islam. Nanak Dev said:
“There are no Hindus, there are no Muslims, there are only creatures of God.”
Guru Nanak’s teachings emphazize tolerance, love of God and the equality of all people. Asceticism is rejected. Rather, every deed of daily life should be offered as a sacrifice to God. This selfless action also exists in Hinduism as Karma Yoga. In Sikhism it is called Seva. The God of the Sikhs is formless, timeless, incomprehensible and invisible.
In order to get in touch with, to experience this seemingly so intangible God, several spiritual exercises have been developed. One of them is the singing of bhajans,religious songs. The poems of the Guru Granth Sahib – the holy scripture of the Sikhs – are sung. A particularly beautiful example:
The Ten Gurus of Sikhism
- Guru Nanak Dev: The first of the ten gurus and the founder of Sikhism. He died in 1539.
- Guru Angad Dev: Wrote down the teachings of Nanak and created the Gurmukhi script, which is still used in Punjab today. Deceased in 1552.
- Guru Amar Das: Strongly opposed the caste system and founded the Langar tradition of free food for everyone. Deceased in 1574.
- Guru Ram Das: Born in Lahore, Pakistan. Founded the city of Ramdaspur, which was later renamed Amritsar. Deceased in 1534.
- Guru Arjan Dev: Son of Guru Ram Das, built the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The Mughal Emperor Jahangir had executed in 1606 when he refused to convert to Islam.
- Guru Har Govind: Began the militarization of Sikhism, also in response to the execution of his father. He died in 1644.
- Guru Har Rai: Became the seventh guru at the age of 14 and spread the Sikh faith through non-violent means, focusing on chanting and reciting kirtans. He died in 1661.
- Guru Har Kishan: Son of Har Rai, was appointed the eighth Guru at the age of five and died two years later (1664, Delhi) of smallpox.
- Guru Teg Bahadar: Protested against the forced conversion of Hindus to Islam, was executed in 1675 by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.
- Guru Gobind Singh: Son of Guru Teg Bahadar. He founded the Khalsa Brotherhood of Sikhism, which defended itself – using violence too – against further harassment by the Mughal Empire. He died in 1708.
The eleventh “Guru” – Sri Guru Granth Sahib
The tenth Sikh Guru did not appoint a person as his successor – but a book. Since 1708, the Sikh scripture is the eleventh and last Guru. The book contains hymns and poems of all Sikh Gurus, which are set to music. Also poems of Kabir, Baba Farid and others are found in this holy scripture – although they were not even Sikhs. Baba Farid (today’s Pakistan, 13th century) is one of the most important Sufi teachers on the subcontinent. Kabir on the other hand (Varanasi, 15th century) abolished the polarity between Islam and Hinduism. The fact that writings by non-Sikhs have also found their way into the Sikh holy book testifies to the tolerance and universalism of this religion.
“The world is a drama, staged in a dream”Sri Guru Granth Sahib
Sikhism in recent times
When India gained independence in 1947, two new states emerged: India and Pakistan. The border runs through the middle of the Punjab, the land of the Sikhs. During partition, Hindus and Sikhs who lived in the newly founded Pakistan, fled to India. Muslims in India moved to Pakistan. More than 20 million people resettled or were displaced, eleven million of them in the Punjab. Between 500,000 and one million people lost their lives in violence that followed.
The Sikhs suffered the most. They also had to witness how some of their holiest places suddenly lay in unreachable Pakistan, for example the Gurdwara Nankana Sahib – the birthplace of the first guru.
In 1984 a new upsurge of violence occurred. The Indian military cracked down hard on a Sikh separatist movement, even invading the Golden Temple where the leader of the movement was hiding. Tanks, grenades and machine guns in the inner sanctum of Sikhism – the Sikhs did not like that. A few months later, the Sikh bodyguards of Indira Ghandi took revenge by shooting the then Prime Minister of India. This led to the so-called 1984 Sikh Massacre in the capital Delhi: almost 3,000 Sikhs – including children and women – were killed by angry Hindu mobs. The police looked on inactively, politicians even helped in organizing the massacre. Amritsar 1919 – an excellent book by the British author Kim A. Wagner – deals with these tragic events in a dramatic, gripping and very informative way.
Until today there is a group of Sikhs who dream of Khalistan, a Sikh state of their own. The Indian government continues to be uncompromising.
Today, Sikhism is the largest religion in Indian Punjab, the fifth largest religion in India and among the top ten worldwide.
Amritsar, the Center of Sikhism
What Rome is to Christianity, Mecca to Islam, that is Amritsar to Sikhism. Actually, Amritsar is even more important, as it is not only the religious and spiritual, but also the cultural center of the Sikhs. Amritsar is one of the holiest places in India.
Amritsar means Nectar Lake. The city was founded in 1577 by Gura Ram Das as Ramdaspur, and is located only 30 kilometers from the Pakistani border. From 1600 on, Amritsar became more and more important, at the beginning of the 19th century even the capital of the Sikh Empire, which existed from 1799 to 1849.
The Harmandir Sahib, also known as the Golden Temple of Amritsar, is located in the center of the megacity. Its spirituality and tranquility stand in stark contrast to the chaos of the dusty streets. More than 100.000 believers (and some tourists) visit the Gurudwara every day.
Sleeping in the Golden Temple of Amritsar
Tolerance, equality and charity are strongly emphasized in Sikhism. These values are particularly noticeable in a beautiful tradition: Gurudwaras (“Gateway to God”) – the holy temples of the Sikhs – offer free accommodation and food to all people, regardless of religion, nationality, gender or caste.
Hundreds if not thousands of pilgrims sleep every night in the Golden Temple, or rather in the adjacent facilities. The Sri Guru Ram Das Niwas is located directly opposite the Harmandir Sahib. There are dozens of dormitories in this building, including the one intended for foreign tourists. Just fill out a short form and you can stay in one of the 20 beds. Some tourists and backpackers stay one night, others stay a week. The beds – which you have to share with bedbugs – are hard, there is no shower and in the winter months it can get very cold.
But all this is gladly accepted. Because when you get up in the morning and see the Golden Temple floating in all its material and spiritual glory above the waters of the small lake, when the Gurudware glows like a golden sun in the evening, then you feel what pilgrims have felt for centuries: awe, love and a deep inner contentment.
Sleeping in the Golden Temple of Amritsar is the best way to get to know and understand Sikhism and its philosophy.
Langar – Eating in the Golden Temple of Amritsar
This tradition actually originates from Sufism, a mystical current of Islam. Guru Nanak met numerous Sufi masters on his travels throughout Asia, from whom he learned and adopted a lot – just like the tradition of Langar, the free distribution of food.
In every Gurdwara of India free food is distributed – in the Harmandir Sahib of Amritsar over 50,000 meals daily. These are cooked and distributed by volunteers. The volunteers see their work as a form of seva, selfless action. The kitchen is open 24 hours a day, all year round. Women peel, cut and chop vegetables, the men stir dal (lentil soup) in huge pots. Rice, Chappati (flat bread) and Kheer (Indian rice pudding) are also distributed.
The food is eaten in a large hall. Rich and poor, old, young, Sikhs, Hindus, Punjabis and tourists sit next to each other. This symbolizes the equality of all people before God.
Other Tourist Attractions in Amritsar
- Partition Museum: This remarkable museum opened recently, and which deals with the partition of India in a touching and very informative way.
- Jallianwala Bagh: In 1919, in this public garden, about 1,500 peacefully protesting Indians were shot dead by British soldiers. The bullet holes can still be seen today.
- Gobindgarh Fort: This impressive fort is over 250 years old. Up to 12,000 soldiers could be stationed here. Today, museums and art galleries are located behind the thick, red painted walls.
- Shri Durgiana Mandir: Perhaps the most important (and certainly the most beautiful!) Hindu temple in the city. The doors are made of silver, the dome of gold. Like the Golden Temple, the Durgiana Temple is located in the middle of a small artificial lake.
- Statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh: Only a few minutes away from Harmandir Sahib, this life-size statue is one of the landmarks of Amritsar. Ranjit Singh – the “Lion of Punjab” – was the founder and leader of the short-lived Sikh Empire.
From Amritsar to the India – Pakistan Border
From Amritsar to Lahore – the “Heart of Pakistan” – it is only 50 kilometers. There are regular buses, and a taxi costs around 800 rupees (ten euros). Every day at 4:00 p.m. the border-closing ceremony takes place: with a lot of pomp and loud music the two hostile states close the heavy metal gates that have separated families, friends and religious brothers since 1947. This ceremony is watched like a soccer match – or better: like a cricket match. Thousands of Indians on one side, a little less Pakistanis on the other, waving flags, singing hymns and cheering on their own soldiers. A very strange spectacle, which is therefore all the more worth seeing!
Lahore itself is a very interesting city. Lahore is the cultural and historical center of Pakistan. Especially the impressive Badshahi Mosque and the richly decorated Lahore Fort are deeply enchanting. More than anything, however, is is the unmatched hospitality of the Pakistani people that is heartwarming and touching.