Always a meal for everyone at Harmandar Sahib

A visit to Amritsar is priceless

A visit to Amritsar is priceless and when a devoted Sikh visits Amritsar (Pool of Nectar), it is the totality of the entire spiritual city that gives no choice to one’s preferences. The architecture of the Golden Temple, its history, heritage, cultural and traditional aspects of the Sikh faith is so conspicuous to the devotees and no one aspect of the Darbar Sahib and its allied function can be seen in isolation. Your focus and priority just with the Guru ka Langar puzzled me as there are other wonderful aspects that cannot be excluded from the theme of the unique spiritual experience.

Guru Ram Das constructed the city of Ramdaspur, later became to be known as Amritsar and Guru Arjan Dev Ji decided to build the Temple in the centre of the sarovar. He named this place of worship as Harimandir meaning Hari for God and Mandir for temple; literal meaning the House of God. The idea of the architecture was initially conceived by Guru Nanak Dev Ji and its planning was done by Guru Amar Das Ji. He foundation stone was laid by Sufi Saint Mian Mir and he laid four bricks one on each side and one in the middle of the Sarovar or pool of water. The temple became the holiest of the Holy Shrines of the Sikhs and the shrine was constructed on as low an elevation as possible to be symbolic of humility, simplicity and sublimity.

Harimandir Sahib also known as Darbar Sahib or The Golden Temple to the Westerners was built in the water. The domes of the temple symbolizes the lotus flower, has four doors which signifies it is open to all irrespective of castes; it is to signify that God is everywhere: He is the Universal Truth. All the Gurdwara, is a Parkarma (perimeter path made up of marble and visitors coming from any entrance has to follow to reach the Shrine. The straight bridge that joins the Parkarma to the entrance of the shrine which is called the Darshani Deodhi; it represents the Hukam or the Word of God. The devotee has to take 84 steps which symbolises the liberation for salvation. The magnitude of the temple is significant and in fact the Amrit Sarowar, the pond is 500 feet long, 490 feet wide and 17 feet deep and the Parikarma is 13 feet wide. The link from Darshani Deodhi to the main sanctum is 240 feet long and 21 feet wide. The temple is built in the centre of the Sarowar, on a dimension of 67 square feet. The door of the Darshan Deodhi is 10 feet high and 8 feet wide. The total height of the temple is 54 feet and the floor of the upper storey is 40 square feet (Kuldip Singh Haora, Amritsar Diya Kaya Bata Ne, page 105(Panjabi). There is a step on the rear of the Gurdwara which leads into the Sarowar and the devotees usually cup their hands and drink the sacred water.

Maharajah Ranjit Singh was a devout Sikh and his sewa was incredible. He donated tons of gold to cover its domes with golden sheets and also contributed white marble to the temple. The contributions of gold to the temple is endless and since its contribution by the Sikh rulers, the sewa for the gold, restoration of the temple and the drainage system of the sarowar continues as massive sewa by the Sikhs around the world. The power-point on The Golden Temple by Siridhar Appaji brings to each home clear and captivating scenes of the Darbar Sahib.

Guru ka Langar (Free community kitchen), is a unique institution started by Guru Nanak Dev Ji and later Guru Amar Das Ji furthered these concepts of sangat and pangat and Guru ka Langar that added immeasurably to the cohesion within the Sikhs and delineated Sikhism from the inequality of any sort. Others marvel at such a unique institution and trying to emulate it is a total impossibility as it is Guru Sahibans' blessings that have led to its full development. What underpins the concept is about selfless sewa or service to the community and everything is owed to the Akal Purukh and the service comes naturally for the devoted individual. The number coming to partake as you mentioned in your article varies from 70, 000 to 200,000. In my opinion, and experiences, the number varies greatly and even exceeds the estimated numbers and there is no exact figure to it. They come and go, and I would not even bother counting it as it is Gurudwara and the doors are open to people of different caste, colour, creed or status in society as indicated by yourself. I would just enjoy the hordes of devotees and its splendour whilst immersing in Naam Japna9Utterance of the Name of God).

As you well know, Guru Ram Das Ji’s contributions and dedication were countless and on the strength of his humility, devotion and selfless service in the community Guru Ram Das ka Langar came to fruition and it was very much exemplified by Guru Ji himself giving away the alms to hungry ascetics. Guru Arjan Dev Ji completed Guru Ram Das Ji’s mission, who ordained the Darbar Sahib to be open to anyone irrespective of their caste, creed, religion or gender.

The Sikhs are noted for their zealous, effervescent and never-to-die spirit that exemplifies them from others, the virtues of a unique Sikh. In addition to this, Sikhs are fearless Sant-Sipahis (saint-soldiers) who would fight injustice, subdue unfair violence whilst standing against oppression of the poor and weak. Apart from being friendliest people of the world, they are endowed with genteel humility, selfless service to the community and this is all possible when the internal clock of Naam Simran is in full pendulum. The most important aspect is his blessings and nadar (Gurprasad), as without this even partaking in Guru Ka Langar may not even materialise.

The institution of Guru Ka Langar has ensured full participation of the community and has played a great part in upholding the virtue of equality irrespective whether he is a pauper or a King. Lets not forget, from rags to riches and vice versa are all his hukam and divine will and it is best one takes life in their strides as arrogance and egocentricity will wipe everything away and be thankful to the Akal Purukh for whatever he has given and even when partaking in Guru Ka Langar, thank him for the food: Daddaa data ek hai sabh kao devanhaar. Dendei tot na aava-ee aganat bharey bhandar. Jis da ditta khavanaa, tis kahiye sabass. Nanak hukam na chala-ee naal khasam chaley ardass, Vahiguru Vahiguru Vahiguru Vahiguru. (Vahiguru jio, You are the One Great Giver, the Giver to one and all. In your plentiful bounties no shortage occurs, and countless are your Treasures. I humbly thank you for this nourishment that you have given me. I am mindful, like Nanak, that with You no commands prevail, only this simple prayer. Vahiguru Vahiguru Vahiguru.)

Besides the Guru Ka Langars attached to all the Gurdwaras, there are as you know, open air Guru Ka Langars at time of Sikh festivals, like Vaisakhi, Holla Mahalla and Gurpurbs. Sikhs flag you down on the way to spiritual centres to stop and partake in the Guru Ka Langar as the spiritual congregation unifies the community. Again, the numbers present is immaterial and irrelevant. It is the sadhsangat that matters as they come and go. Wherever, Sikhs are, they have established their Guru Ka Langars. In their prayers, the Sikhs seeks from Akal Purukh the favour: “ Loh langar tapde rahin- may the hot plates, the langars remain in service.” as exemplified by the Guru Ram Das Ka Langar.


A Day at the Darbar Sahib

(Courtesy of the Late Patwant Singh)

For thousands of the inhabitants of Amritsar, the epicentre of Sikh spiritualism, the day begins pretty early.  In fact, it begins, the night before, at three o’clock or so in the morning, as households in the city stir with the activity of people preparing for a pre-dawn visit to the Darbar Sahib - a routine that has not changed for four centuries and continues to date.

The devout of Amritsar eagerly wait this hour each morning with the keen sense of anticipation that comes from knowing they will soon visit the Harmandir Sahib.

As they walk through the familiar streets of the old city, their pace quickens in expectation of soon seeing the beloved shrine.  Some of them have made this walk at this hour each morning for as long as they can remember; moment to cherish and remember.

Outside the main entrance, they take their shoes off, check them with an attendant and proceed into the complex.  At a trough of swiftly running clean water, they dip their feet to cleanse their feet.  As they pass the flower stalls, some stop to buy garlands of yellow, gold or russet marigolds to carry with them as offerings to the Sri Guru Grant Sahib, Holy Scriptures for the Sikhs.

Descending the marble stairs to the parkarma, they behold, in the centre of the sarowar, the serene and immortal Harimandir Sahib.  They gaze at it with awe, and with reverence and love - the very emotions others before them have experienced for as long as the Harimandir has existed.

They are transfixed by this first sight of it, by its golden facades and domes.  The waters around it are still and glassy in the peaceful early morning silence, and capture an almost perfect reflection of the unique Harimandir Sahib.

Bowing low to touch their foreheads on the cool marble of the parkarma, worshippers pay homage and express thanks for the divine grace that has made their visit possible.  Then, as is customary, they turn left to go around the entire parkarma, and to stop at shrines on the way, before finally reaching the Harimandir.

The first shrine along the marble walkway is the Dukh Bhanjani Ber.  Built around a jujube tree, it marks the spot where, it is said, a dip in the sacred pool miraculously cured a crippled leper.  Since many consider their visit to the temple incomplete without bathing at this spot, they stop here and enter the water, hoping to shed their afflictions and troubles.

Past the Dukh Bhanjani Ber is a raised marble platform which is the Ath Sath Tirath, the Shrine of the Sixty-Eight Holy Places.  To bathe near it, some believe, their dreams of visiting the 68 holy places of India will be fulfilled. This was the spot, where Guru Arjan Dev would sit here and observe the construction of the Amrit Sarowar.

Further along the parkarma, around the next corner, is the shrine of Baba Deep Singh, the legendary old warrior who died at this spot.  Ever since, pilgrims have paused here to pray, to sprinkle rose petals or to lay fresh garlands in his honour.

Such cameos of valour enliven the rich mosaic of a military tradition that continues to this day.  Even now, the names of Sikh martyrs and soldiers who die in battle are inscribed on marble plaques embedded in the floor of the parkarma or on the pillars of the adjoining verandas.  Many Indian army regiments still maintain the tradition of installing commemorative plaques here to honour their war heroes.

As the devout turn the next corner of the parkarma, leading to the Akal Takht and the Darshani Deorhi, their excitement builds, for soon they will witness, and possibly join in, the ceremonies that only those who visit the Darbar Sahib at this hour can.  These are the rituals that attend the traditional bearing of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib from the Kotha Sahib in the Akal Takht, where it is kept each night, to the Harmandir Sahib, to which it is always returned before five o'clock in the morning.

About half an hour before the Sri Guru Granth Sahib is brought down from the Akal Takht, the palki, a gold and silver palanquin, is prepared for it.  Attendants replace the cushions and pillows on which the Granth Sahib Sahib will rest.  They day down fresh sets of silk and brocade coverings and, when everything is ready, they sprinkle delicately scented rose water over all.

As the head priest of the Harimandir appears with the Sri Guru Granth Sahib on a cushion on his head, a series of deep, resonant drum beats of the nigara heralds its arrival to the assembled worshippers who, even at this hour, fill the large plaza to capacity.  Showering fragrant red, pink and white rose petals, and reciting hymns from the Holy Scriptures, they make way for the palki’s journey to the Harimandir.  This passage, though short, sometimes takes up to half an hour while as many worshippers as possible share the honour of carrying it on their shoulders.

The procession solemnly moves across the plaza, through the Darshani Deorhi, and along the causeway, stopping as it reaches the main door of the Harimandir.  The head priest reverently lifts the Sri Guru Granth Sahib out of the palki, places it on a silk cushion on his head, and enters the holy shrine.

He carries it to its customary place of honour beneath a velvet canopy richly brocaded with silver and gold, and carefully sets it on velvet cushions and silks placed on a Manji Sahib.

As the congregation stands in rapt silence, the head priest seats himself in front of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, ceremoniously opens it, and reads aloud the vak, or Lord's message for the day from the Guru.

The recitation of Asa-di-War, which had been in progress here since a little after three a.m., had stopped as the Sri Guru Granth Sahib was carried in.  Sung always at this pre-dawn hour of the morning, the Asa-di-War also, like all other compositions recited here, is taken from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib.

After the vak is read, the singing of the Asa-di-War continues.  As it ends, the entire congregation and the servitors of the temple stand up for the Ardas, a prayer that is recited at the conclusion of each service.  After the Ardas, the shabad kirtan, the vocal and musical renditions from the sacred verses, are resumed.  The shabad kirtan will be sung throughout the day and late into the evening by a succession of ragis. The melodious and soothing hymns echoes around the Darbar Sahib and devotees spend considerable time relaxing into the shabad.

The early morning worshippers now step out of the Harmandir, walk on the inner parkarma that encircles it, and stop on its southern side at the Har ki Pauri.  Here, marble steps descend into the sarowar, so that visitors may cup the water of the sacred pool into their hands and sprinkle it on their heads, with a wish in mind.  Some take a small sip of it as well.  Tradition has it that Guru Arjan Dev Ji himself gave this place its name.

Continuing around the Harimandir, on the inner parkarma, the devotees once more bow in the direction of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, and then make their way back over the causeway, through the Darshani Deorhi and onto the main parkarma.

As they proceed along the parkarma, towards the stairs by which they had entered, some pause by the Ber Baba Buddha, popularly known as the Tree Shrine.  Baba Buddha Ji, the first head priest of the Harimandir Sahib, is said to have sat under this tree as he supervised the construction of the Harmandir Sahib. Birds flock in droves and take refuge at this Ber and their chirping is more pronounced before they retire to rest on the branches of the Ber.

Before leaving the Darbar Sahib, once more the early morning worshippers turn to face the Harimandir with folded hands and touch their foreheads to the marble floor of the parkarma in farewell.  As they ascend the stairs on the way out, they feel renewed, invigorated and reinforced by the knowledge that the hand of the Divine will guide them through the day.

With daylight, the pace of activity at the Darbar Sahib quickens.  Groups of visitors and pilgrims steadily arrive at the main entrance, in tongas, scooters, cars, buses, trucks, tractors, trailers and on foot.  Unlike the pre-dawn devotees who had come to pray or to participate in the early morning rituals, these people have come from longer distances for the pleasure of a pilgrimage whose purpose is both pious and festive.  Some will stay in the sacred precincts for a day or more and some have no wish to hurry home!

This colourful flow of visitors continues all day and late into the night:  executives in business attire; farmers in their working clothes; women in a myriad variety of dress and personal adornment; and children in clothes especially made for the occasion.  All ages are represented, from those who have already made the better part of their journey through life, to newly-weds come to seek blessings for the life that lies ahead - brides in scarlet and gold wedding finery, the grooms in crisply tied pink or red turbans.

People are spread out everywhere.  Some are in the Harimandir listening to the shabad kirtan on the ground floor; others are absorbed in the words of the Akhand Path in the quiet of its upper floors. It is evident that the devotees get mesmerised and immersed in the soothing kirtan or recitation of the Paath. Some visit the Akal Takht where the swords and personal weapons of Guru Gobind Singh are enshrined.

Many join the line in front of the special kitchen where karah parsad is prepared.  They made a donation of money for this sacramental food and carry it into the Harimandir.  They give it to the attendants stationed at the door specially to receive it.  The attendants in turn pass it on with God's blessing to those leaving the sanctum.

Some devotees sit in quiet contemplation in the shrine of Baba Atal, built to honour Guru Hargobind's remarkably gifted son who died young, or in the shrine built in Guru Tegh Bahadur’s memory.

Since voluntary service or nishkam sewa as is commonly called, is the very essence of the Sikh faith, a continuous stream of visitors makes its way to the Guru Ram Das langar, to help prepare the food that will be served to the thousands who eat there daily.

Occasionally visitors go on brief forays into the winding bazaars around the Darbar Sahib, drawn to them by the endless variety of goods on display, the prospect of good-natured bargaining, the banter between the customers and the shopkeepers, and the stimulation of the many colours, textures and sounds that only a traditional Indian bazaar offers.

As the sun sets, and the time for evening prayers nears, there is a perceptible change in the nature of the people who now enter the Harimandir.  These devotees come to sit and listen in rapt attention to the evening recitations, and to enjoy the beauty of the verses and the ragas in which these prayers are rendered.  Just as in the morning, prayers began with the Asa-di-War, in the veering, prayers end with the Sodar Rehras (evening prayers), the Aarti and the shabad kirtan, concluding with the ardas at 9:45 p.m. Nowadays, you do not need to be there as all the proceedings are telecasted to homes around the globe. However, the impact is in the presence of being there and the feel of the vibration of the spiritual Abode.

When the prayers end, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib is reverently closed, patiently wrapped in fresh layers of rich silk and muslin, and ceremoniously carried to the palki waiting outside.  As in the morning, so also now, the palki is shouldered by devout Sikhs and taken to the Kotha Sahib where the Sri Guru Granth Sahib will rest for the night.

The massive silver and rosewood doors of the Darshani Deorhi are shut and a group of volunteers inside the Harimandir starts the ritual cleansing of the shrine with milk and water in preparation for the next day.  In a few hours, the doors of the Darshani Deorhi will once again be opened to worshippers, and the Harimandir will be ready to receive them so they can welcome the arrival of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib and seek its spiritual guidance for another day. Seeing the glow of the lamps and their myriad reflections in the pool, hearing the melodic chanting of hymns, tossing handfuls of rose petals before the procession of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, and feeling the intensity of the love and reverence that attend each ritual, are experiences that will always be remembered.

Day after day, the Harimandir Sahib, the abiding symbol of the Sikh faith, continues to inspire and uplift those thousands who come to it.  It is, in a sense, the heart of the Sikhs, for wherever beats a Sikh heart, there throbs the sentiment of undying devotion for this holiest of all Sikh shrines called the Golden Temple, the eighth wonder of the world.

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