One of the calmest spots I can remember visiting is in Amritsar, India. Finding calm anywhere might be a challenge, even more so in India. Whether you visit or live in this country, one common experience is the unrelenting assault on the senses — the smells are too strong, the colors are so bright, it’s always hotter or colder than it feels like it should be, everything tastes stronger than expected. In my experience, coping with the sensory overload is key to figuring out how to live here because it is unrelenting. Getting on the right side of that makes India enjoyable; not figuring it out results in torment. Occasionally, a calm emerges on its own that is completely surprising. I have had two of these surprises so far in 2018. The first came while hiking to the top of a 500 year old fortress near Pondicherry, where, along the hike, a gateway along the mountain path provided some shade from the sun, and just the right amount of distance from the town and road in the valley that the only sound was the deafening ringing of silence in a very gentle breeze. The calm threw me — it was the quietest experience I’d had in India.
The second moment of true calm I felt came sitting in the inner courtyard at the Golden Temple, in Amritsar, India. I wanted to visit Amritsar almost the moment I first heard someone describe it, but it is not easy to get to from Chennai. Transportation there and back is inconvenient, and a visit doesn’t quite fit into a long weekend. Amritsar is in the state of Punjab, far in the north of the country; Punjab was once a larger semi-autonomous region but was split in two when Pakistan was formed during the 1947 Partition. About a million people live in the city, most of whom are Sikhs. For Sikhs, this city is home to one of the holiest shrines: the Golden Temple.
Amritsar feels like it’s a long way from Chennai. It’s a smaller city than Chennai is, and it feels grittier, more dense, like a mountain town where streets are narrower and people feel somehow closer to one other. In the oldest part of the city, streets are so narrow that it feels like they were intended only for walking, yet all kinds of two and three wheel vehicles run the gauntlets. In my brief introduction to the city, fewer denizens spoke English as in Chennai. Like every Indian city I’ve visited, colors explode. The saris women wear throughout India typically are the harbingers of color; however, in Amritsar, the men are just as much a part of the vibrant color display as the women.
In my experience, men in all parts of the country wear solid color pants or traditional dhoti or lungi. Their shirts sometimes have patterns, but they’re softer tones than what women usually wear. The same is true in Amritsar for the pants and shirts that most men wear, but Sikh men also wear turbans, and these elaborate head wrappings are luscious with color. Yellow, pink, lavender, indigo, violet, bright red — you imagine the bright color, and it’s there. Because the color is on their heads, it punctuates all space differently than I’m used to, and I loved it. This is a tourist destination, so the crushes of people are wild with their turban and sari colors.
The Golden Temple sits in the center of the old city. The surrounding streets are a surprising display of urban planning: updated store fronts, pedestrian malls, and tourist trinkets geared toward the 100,000 visitors the Golden Temple hosts each day. This temple is revered because it contains the holy scriptures for Sikhism. There are many here who come everyday, as well as those who travel from very far afield to worship in this space. The temple is as organized as any tourist destination I’ve seen, and It’s staggering to think of how many people visit here. One man told me 10 million visitors come to the Golden Temple a year. The Hindustan Times reported that more people visit the Golden Temple than the Taj Mahal each year. The daily total is roughly double number of visitors than Disneyland in Anaheim, California hosts in a single day. This happens every day.
The temple complex has an outer entrance area and an inner sanctuary. The inner sanctuary is a simple courtyard design and large in scale: the temple, covered in actual gold, sits in a large “water tank” — a ceremonial pool that’s larger than an a American football field. A wide walkway runs the perimeter of the tank thus creating the courtyard feel, and every surface that isn’t gold or water is white marble. Visitors — pilgrims and tourists alike, leave their shoes outside, cover their heads, and silently circumnavigate the tank and temple. There are men and women who do ritual bathing on one side of the pool — this is a holy site afterall. Others sit along the walkway, saying prayers or sleeping depending of the time of day. Gentle kirtan music is performed by musicians who are sitting inside the Golden Temple; stadium concert sized speakers in the corners of the courtyard amplify the gentle harmonium, tabla drums, and melodic chanting. Usually the rule in India is loud is great. Here, the music volume is just soft enough to make you feel like the music is only in your head.
Our first visit was for sunrise, which came around 5:30am. We found that many devotees had arrived nearly two hours before (hence the sleeping by some) for the opening prayers when the Holy Book is put on display. We found a small piece of marble to sit down and watched for over an hour as people, nearly all Sikhs, wandered by us. Some were alone, most were with family or friends. Again, the colors, even in the pre-dawn light, were vibrant: the white marble, the black water, the Golden Temple, and the pastels of the turbans and saris filled every direction. The kirtan music was just audible enough to push away any sounds of the soft talking. It felt like silence even with so much activity.
The transition from dark to light was meditative as if it were designed by this place. Crowds swelled after sun-up, and we left for the day, returning again in the evening for the opposite transition, from sunlight to darkness. The hour we spent in the morning, and the other hour in the evening were among the most tranquil experiences I’ve had here. Amidst all the movement was just the right level of calm.
There’s a famous food kitchen attached to the Golden Temple complex. It’s well known to some because it feeds all patrons the same meal — three different forms of dal and roti bread — for free. All people are welcome, and nearly all of the labor and service is provided by volunteers. Tens of thousands eat here each day (reports I’ve read vary from 30,000 to 100,000). When we went, we sat on the floor with everyone else in a large hall; I think there are seven more halls like this one where food is served. By my estimation, there might have been two thousand people sitting on the floor in our hall. Each person puts his or her metal tray on the floor in front of them, and servers come by with big buckets of the different types of dal. They ladle it out quickly to each person, and within minutes the whole room has been served. Sitting like this, everyone just the same, is a powerful communal experience, even if it lasts for 20 minutes. One of our friends brought her family here over a year ago and loved it because her two young boys were sitting at the same level as all the other children — literally they made eye contact with each other and in spite of language barriers, were afforded interactions that aren’t possible in other parts of life here. My experience was similar — lots of eye contact and not a lot of words. It’s a surprisingly intimate experience in a room with 2,000 people.
The photos that you can take in Amritsar are fantastic — it’s hard to take a bad one. What isn’t captured, however, is that the beauty in Amritsar is more fully felt than seen. The contrasts of the gritty, grimy streets in the city and the sparkling marble and impossibly bright turbans, the glimmering temple are magical in real life, but get dulled in the camera. The music feels like a warm hug. Eating with thousands of others at the same time feels connected, calming, and unexpectedly still.