We spent nearly 30 hours on trains headed north to Amritsar. It was early in the morning when we arrived, and the air was not quite cool but was a welcome feeling compared with the rest of India. After finding a place in the old town, we decided to walk over to the Golden Temple, which is the most holy place for those of the Sikh religion.
Sikhism developed as a reaction against the caste system and Brahmin domination of ritual in Hinduism. It was founded by a Guru in the 15th century and believes in one god and rejects the worship of idols but still believes in rebirth and karma (many claim that it is a blend of Muslim and Hindu faiths). The main aspect of their faith is the belief that all beings are equal, and this is overly shown through their manners and also their openness to people of other faiths. The most interesting part of the religion to me is the belief in "Khalsa." The word means "pure and undefiled," but it is a belief in a chosen race of soldier saints who follow strict moral codes and are on a mission for "dharmayudha" (righteousness). They are easily recognized because they all have the following five "kakkars" (emblems) that tell who they are: 1) an unshaven beard and uncut hair symbolizing saintliness, 2) a "kangha" or comb for their long hair, 3) "kaccha" or loose underwear symbolizing modesty, 4) a "kirpan" or dagger/sabre symbolizing power and dignity, and 5) a "karra" or steel bangle symbolizing fearlessness.
It was interesting walking around this pilgrimage site with literally thousands of other people on just a "normal" day. While getting a shave with an audience in Varanasi made me feel like a cross between a circus side show and a celebrity in Varanasi, this experience was all celebrity. Every person there, including the soldier saints, wanted to talk to us and be in our pictures as well as have us be in their family portraits and sign autographs without anyone asking to take us to a shop, travel agency, or get our email addresses, etc. It was an amazing change of pace, and we all enjoyed the friendly conversations and attention except that it was hard to move around. We also joined in on one of the Sikhs' amazing displays of equality by joining in on a "langar," where thousands of people from beggars to millionaires sit down together and eat as much complementary Thali (an Indian dish) as one wanted, which are prepared by volunteers and is performed at every Sikh temple across India. This temple, since it is the largest, serves an average of 40,000 people per day, every day, to anyone, for free…it was an amazing display of generosity, which was only continued as we made our way out of the city past the several stands of young Sikh men running out to cars giving out clean, free water and cool aid!
The culture and generosity of the Sikhs was astounding because they are a race that has been constantly persecuted and tortured by both the Muslim and Hindu faiths for centuries. Fortunately, now they seem to co-exist peacefully, and I hope that they continue to do so because the Sikhs, while being small, seems to accomplish the most good for the common people out of the Eastern religions that I have experienced thus far. We are leaving here shortly for Dharamsala (the home of the Dalai Lama), but before we leave we are headed to the Indian and Pakistani border to see what is supposed to be the most lavish and entertaining changing of the guard and border closing ceremonies on earth!