Standing in the crush of people waiting to enter Harmandir Sahib (also called the Golden Temple), I was starting to panic just a little. I do not like crowds and this felt like the perfect recipe for a stampede – like the kind you read about in the newspaper about pilgrims at different Hindu temples.
The Golden Temple claims to have nearly 150,000 visitors daily. It is easy to believe. There were nearly 500 of us, standing in the dark, on this cold December morning. And there was a steady stream of tourists and pilgrims filing in behind us. The previous night, I had pored through news articles about the spike in Covid cases around China . The news cheerfully predicted spikes in India too. “Just perfect,” I thought, as the tall Sardar man beside me sneezed so hard that my dupatta flapped against my cheek.
But as time passed, I started to notice that this was different from other crushes I had been in. Occasionally, a toddler or baby would begin to fuss, and suddenly the crowds would part and the young parents would be ushered forward to bypass the long wait. The crowd would part again and helpful arms would extend to help an old lady or aged gentleman move forward towards the inner sanctum. No one complained, groaned or passed snide comments.
By the time I was in the inner sanctum, the efficient crowd control systems in place allowed me the time to really soak it all in. I was able to examine the beautiful engravings in the walls, bow deep before the sacred Guru Granth Sahib and sit in the upper levels to listen to the simple but melodious music.
When I came out, I remember thinking, that I had never had such a peaceful experience at such a crowded place of worship before. This was unlike any of my visits to famous temples, where after waiting for hours for darshan I barely got a glimpse of the deity and the inner sanctum before being manhandled back into a line for the exit.
As I came out, a friendly elderly gent, pressed a bowl of prasad into my hand and I felt overwhelmed by his warmth. He was doing seva like he meant it.
As the dawn sky turned rosy over the temple, my worldly mind began to slowly creak into action. This was the Golden Temple built by Guru Arjan Singh and then terribly damaged by Indira Gandhi’s Operation Blue Star 200 years later?
I looked around. There wasn’t any visible sign of the damage and yet, from Mark Tully’s book on the subject and other articles I had read, the Akal Takht had been severely damaged. Indeed, we had entered the temple without passing through any of the security you might expect in such a place.
The Golden Temple seemed to be above and beyond the ugly and dirty episodes of history that it had had to endure, it felt like. But what a crazy history it is!
The Story of Golden Temple: How it became the Centre of Spiritual and Temporal Authority
Amritsar today sits on the border of India and Pakistan, but in the 15th century there was no notion of nationhood. Guru Amar Das (1479 – 1574) selected the area of modern day Amritsar and asked his disciple, Ram Das (who later became Guru Ram Das – the fourth Sikh Guru) to create a man made pool and establish a city around it. Guru Ram Das finished constructing the pool and founded the town of Ramdaspur by inviting merchants and artisans to settle in the town.
The temple was built during the lifetime of the next guru – Guru Arjan Singh who compiled the scripture Adi Granth and made Harmandir Sahib its home in 1604
Under Guru Arjan Singh, Amritsar became the primary Sikh pilgrim centre. In line with Nanak’s pluralistic philosophy, Harmandir Sahib was open to all faiths. Some stories claim that Guru Arjan Singh invited the Sufi saint Mian Mir of Lahore to lay the foundation stone. We don’t know if this is true, but it reflects the community’s open ness to all belief systems.
As it turns out, this was the beginning of troubles for the Sikh faith itself – for while it was open to all other faiths, they did not receive such openness in return. To the Mughal governors who controlled the Punjab, the charismatic Guru Arjan Singh was becoming a source of concern. He was getting his followers to donate money and time to build gurudwaras and was set up cities. Although he was a spiritual leader who composed hymns, he was also a temporal leader who got involved in the lives of his followers, helping them resolve dispute and manage worldly affairs. Outsiders viewed him as a political threat and soon he was arrested by the Mughal emperor Jahangir. When he refused to convert to Islam, he was tortured to death.
Arjan Singh’s martyrdom was a traumatic event in Sikh history that changed its trajectory. Arjan Singh’s treatment woke the Sikhs up to the existential threat they faced and Arjan Singh’s successors became both military and spiritual leaders. Arjan Singh’s successor guided his followers to learn how to defend themselves from intolerance and violence.
The Golden Temple was to become the seat of both spiritual and temporal authority. The Akal Takht was established by Arjan Singh’s son Guru Hargobind Singh. The Akal Takht is highest authority of the Khalsa (collective Sikh body) and the seat of the Jathedar, the highest spokesman of the Sikhs.
Golden Temple: Centre of Conflict
For nearly all its history, the Golden Temple has been attacked, destroyed, rebuilt, attacked, destroyed, rebuilt… and repeat.
The most recent episode was in 1984, when Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian Army to enter to Golden Temple complex to retrieve the popular Sikh militant leader — Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
In the late 1970s, suffering from the economic consequences of the Green Revolution and general political dysfunction typical of India, the rural youth in Punjab were unemployed and were increasingly turning to drugs and alcohol. Enter Bhindranwale, a charismatic Sikh preacher, who travelled through the Punjab countryside reminding people of basic Sikh values and encouraging them to unite under their religion and lead simple and moral lives. More importantly, he seemed to have genuine interest in the welfare of the community, certainly more than opportunistic politicians or corrupt government officials who only showed up when it was election time or needed a bribe to get them to do their basic job. He moderated disputes and tried to address local problems.
While he showed no interest in occupying a political office himself, he supported political parties – suggesting candidates and advising them on political strategy. But Bhindranwale was not averse to the use of violence. He and his followers were well armed and thanks to an excellent distribution network, cassettes of his fiery sermons were able to reach his followers all across the state.
As his popularity rose, he began to identify enemies to the Sikh cause. First it was the Nirankaris (a subsect of the Sikhs who believed in a living Guru instead of the Guru Granth Sahib) who were not accepted by traditional Sikhs, who believed in the ultimate authority of the Guru Granth Sahib. Bhindranwale led a violent clash with the Nirakharis in 1978 and was associated with several murders and acts of violence in the years that followed. Eventually he was even arrested for a while, which further skyrocketed his fame and popularity among the youth.
Why would anyone want to follow a man who was willing to justify violence in the name of religion? Popular leaders like Bhindranwale are a product of their times. At the time, Punjab and Kerala had the best literacy rates in the country at the time, but highschool graduates and college graduates in Punjab were unable to find any jobs. All through history we see that there is nothing as dangerous as a group of disenchanted young people. Bhindranwale’s arrest made his followers view the government as just another enemy of the Sikh community, like the Nirankaris and other critics.
In 1982, Bhindranwale moved into the Akal Takht in the Golden Temple (the temporal seat of authority). By this time, the Indian government viewed him as an extremist and militant. He balked under such labels but he was now the leader of a demand for Khalistan – an autonomous territory which included all Punjabi speaking lands, including Chandigarh. The police reacted to such calls for Khalistan with exceptional violence and every incident of extra-judicial violence became great material for Bhindranwale’s rousing speeches that continued to get spread across the state through cassettes.
As the police picked on the Sikhs, the Sikhs began to chafe under this harsh treatment and more people flew to Bhindranwale’s camp. With all this support, Bhindranwale’s demand for autonomy and Khalistan began to grow louder.
While his popularity increased in Punjab, incidents of violence increased and he and his followers were often blamed for it, even if he denied it. In 1984, Bhindranwale’s supporters assassinated a journalist for his pro-Hindu tone and in 1983, the Deputy Inspector General of Police was shot to death as he exited the Harmandir Sahib.
With Bhindranwale residing in Akal Takht, armed to his teeth and with an ex-Army man leading his forces, the sacred Golden Temple was now also drawing the attention of the Central Government who was nervous about the Sikh leader’s increasing power. In 1984, the army was ordered to enter the sacred temple and get Bhindranwale.
The disaster that followed was called Operation Blue Star. About 400 members of the Army and about 500-600 followers of Bhindranwale and innocent pilgrims were killed in the operation. The Army claimed that innocent bystanders were being used as human shields by Bhindranwale’s followers. But we don’t really know what happened because the press were forced to leave 2 days before the operation was launched. We do know that Bhindranwale died during the Operation . The Akal Takht prefers to use the word “martyred”.
It was not a small operation. The Indian Army didn’t realise just how well armed Bhindranwale was – he had anti tank missiles and grenade launchers, not to mention a vast variety of guns. Eventually the Army had to go in there with a tank.
I cannot imagine any of this now, standing on the Guru Ram Das’s reservoir.
Just five months after Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi, who had ordered the Operation, was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards. They were avenging the assault on their holy temple Harmandir Sahib. She had violated the sanctity of their holy place of worship.
The Golden Temple, though, feels invincible. This wasn’t the first time it had come under attack.
In the 18th century, the Golden Temple had been defiled or outright destroyed 6 times – three times by the Afghan ruler Ahmed Shah Abdali, who, on one occasion, blew it up with gunpowder, poured cow intestines in the reservoir, and proceeded to raze the rest of the town to the ground.
Harmandir Sahib rose again after every attack. After Majaraja Ranjit Singh reconstructed the temple and donated gold to overlay the dome above the sanctum with gold, the temple was able to enjoy a century of peace which was shattered in 1919, when the Jallianwala Bagh massacre happened a stone’s throw away from its gates.
Now in the 21st century, Golden Temple is back in the news. A few days ago (24 February 2023), a new self styled guru and militant Khalistani separationist named Amritpal Singh Sandhu, led a group of his armed followers to free an associate from a police station in Amritsar. His associate had been arrested under the charge of kidnapping. The pictures from the scene were unbelievable.
After they freed ‘Toofan’, their comrade, they headed to the Golden Temple to pay their respects.
The story of Harmandir Sahib feels like a parable in itself. Along with Guru Granth Sahib scripture within its inner sanctum, the Harmandir Sahib has been witness to all the worst that humans are capable of. But it also inspires the best that humans are capable of. That morning, a portly smiling woman took me my slippers over the counter, another elderly volunteer had smiled warmly as he extended his hand and welcomed me into the inner sanctum before he bent down and wiped the floor behind me. A young man folded his hands and guided me to the steps, politely encouraging me to make room for other pilgrims behind me without rushing me or disturbing my prayer. Like them, hundreds of volunteers help in the preparing and serving meals at the langar, wipe down condensation from the marble steps in the Harmandir Sahib, help manage crowds, distribute prasad, fill water in troughs, roll out carpets, dust and clean and cheerfully greet pilgrims and tourists of all faiths.
I grew up hearing about seva but I had seen most people doing seva like it was obligation. Is it seva or service if you are angry with the people you serve? Just a smile is an act of service because it can be just what a weary soul needs. That cold morning in Amritsar, I got a lesson in what real seva meant. I will not easily forget it.
After reading the history of the Golden Temple, I wonder if perhaps the real lesson that Harmandir Sahib wishes to impart is what it means to be resilient and strong. Everything is temporary – both good and bad times – but the Harmandir Sahib gives off the feeling that it alone shall remain forever. It is like a challenge to the pathetic human condition. “Do what you will, fools. I will remain strong and steadfast. Learn from me if you will.”
Tourist Tip: For any one who plans to visit the temple, I recommend going very early in the morning. Make sure you carry something to cover your head and a mask.
- Book recommendation: Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle by Mark Tully and Satish Jacob (2006)
- Podcast recommendation: ANI Podcast with Smita Prakash – Never before heard stories from the man who led Operation Blue Star – Lt Gen Kuldip Singh Brar
- Podcast recommendation: Sikh History 1469 to Present
- Book recommendation: Walking with Nanak: Travels in his Footsteps by Haroon Khalid (2016) – highly recommended!