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Why a trip to Amritsar’s Golden Temple will restore your faith in humanity
A cook at The Golden Temple in Amritsar
16 JANUARY 2018 • 11:52AM
Food has become such an important part of our holiday plans and choices that it is rare to take a break – be it overnight, for a long weekend or long-haul – without first thoroughly researching the food options. This is equally true when choosing a spa or well-being retreat.
We may be on a mission to purify, cleanse, detox, get fit or even lose weight, but who says food can’t be part of the holistic experience? Eating well is one of the great joys of life, something we imbue with memories, friendship, happiness and, most of all, love. To me, food is entirely in keeping with health and spirituality.
Nowhere is the connection more apparent than at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, the most sacred place in Sikhism. Imagine what it is like to share and celebrate food with as many as 50,000 pilgrims or, on high days and holidays, twice that number.
The waters of the pool at The Golden Temple are believed to have healing powers
Better still, it is free. All the food is donated and most of the helpers are volunteers. The Golden Temple is a shining example of the good in people’s hearts. Everybody who visits is welcome to the feast and the kitchens (there are two) and dining halls (also two) are open all day. The food is prepared and cooked non-stop, at all hours of the day. This is a place that is never closed to travellers, worshippers, witnesses or the simply gobsmacked – and no one is ever turned away.
Diners sit on the floor, there is no hierarchy, and all are equal. Men, women and children sit and eat together. The meal itself consists of roti, rice, dal, vegetables and dessert. There was a time when all the bread was made by hand, but a devotee donated a machine that now churns out 25,000 rotis in an hour.
After the meal, teams of volunteers clear away the dishes and utensils and wash them five times before stacking them for the next serving. It’s an astonishing feat and a great floorshow for visitors. Until this year, all the cooking was carried out using gas cylinders, but now a solar energy system has been donated to assist in this version of mass-catering.
The Golden Temple has been on this site since the 16th century but it was destroyed several times by raiding armies from Afghanistan and the Mughal Empire. Each time it was steadfastly rebuilt, and now occupies prime position at the centre of a man-made lake. Over the centuries, the marble compound surrounding it has grown to incorporate other buildings – offices, a museum, a clock tower and, of course, the dining hall – but at the centre of it all is the Golden Temple itself, a jewel of Hindu and Muslim architecture.
I was overawed by its gilded and decorated surfaces, rich with carvings and precious stones. In fact, the top of the temple is made of pure gold. At the building’s centre is the sanctuary that houses the Guru Granth Sahib – the Sikh sacred scripture of hymns, poems and prayers, which are chanted to the accompaniment of flutes, drums and stringed instruments.
Amritsar means “pool of the nectar of immortality” and was originally the name of the pool around the Golden Temple, which then became the name of the city that grew up around it. This pool is fed by an underground spring and its waters are believed to have healing powers, which is why pilgrims come to bathe in it.
Tourists are welcome at the temple, its compound and the sanctuary, as well as the dining halls. There are entrances on four sides to symbolise openness. The only rules are that you cover your head – men as well as women – and wash your feet at one of the dedicated areas before entering. Worry not, there are lots of cheap cover-ups for sale outside the compound, while shoes and sandals are kept safely in cloakrooms for all comers.
This is a sacred and historic site not to be missed – especially if you are looking for peace of mind, thoughtfulness and true soul food.