In the Land of Shiva: Part XIII

We rose with the sun in search of the holiest site in Sikhism. And I relished the plush green carpet beneath my feet, the Western showers, hot water pouring down, a four star hotel for the same price as a Motel 8 room in the States. It was luxury.

Not the same can be said for the taxi driver we reserved for the weekend. I discovered his bed was the backseat of the taxi, likely a quick face and ear wash with cold water in a bathroom nearby. He packed no change of clothes, np overnight bag for our two day journey, only his thinning button up shirt, pants, and a Punjabi music cassette that we’d listen to for over 5 hours that weekend. I thought it odd to memorize excerpts of a song in a language I didn’t speak, words whose meaning I failed to grasp. 

He left us in a parking lot. Melancholy buildings loomed around, Indian men’s eyes stared at these six Western women huddled together, whispering concerns, debating direction to step. The driver just waived for us to walk away, and hesitantly, we complied. But after five minutes, the same decrepit structures and eyes with different faces remained. It felt like post war Europe invaded with immigrants, and we panicked, racing back to the lot. Taxi and driver gone. Shit. Abandoned in Amritsar. 

We decided to retrace our steps thinking perhaps we didn’t go far enough. But nothing fit, nothing made sense. We were in search of a building of gold, but we were encompassed by forgotten structures, their facades faded and subdued. It would be like finding Eden within the bounds of a wasteland. 

After a ten minute walk and rounding a corner, we came to see this was indeed the case. Red and silver streamers glimmered in the morning light, a party at the edge of disaster. An immaculate structure encircled the Golden Temple, a threshold to be crossed, separating sacred from profane. 

Beneath a tent, we slipped off our shoes and handed them over in exchange for a chip. Within the tiled ground were basins of water. Slowly walking through, washing my feet of impurities so as not to taint holy ground. As I climbed the steps, a sliver of gold began to appear. At the top, all was revealed, a temple of gold that almost seemed to be floating on water. How the rising sun warmed its walls with light, causing it to radiate. 

At the sight of it, Haylee cried. Others wanted a moment of silent meditation. And I was in a state of horrific concern. Never would I share my thoughts at that precise moment with them, even with Jaye, nor with another when I returned home in the weeks to come. Before me was a building that invoked awe. That awoke the numinous and compelled people to to their knees, to prayer, to tears. But inside me, before that great temple, was a terrifying silence, a void of emotive fervor. So scared was I of this absent emotion that I almost broke down and wept. And the source of my tears would have been misinterpreted drastically.

The hallow state I felt then haunted me for so long after that day. I thought myself soul sick. How could a student of religions, so passionate about this discourse, feel nothing before one of the greatest temples in the world? And how could others that knew nothing of Sikhism, little of this temple, of its significance to Sikhs, could be struck so powerfully just at the sight of its walls? I evaded ruminating on this for months, fearing what I may unearth about myself in the process. I blamed it on the sickness waking from dormancy in my belly, the nausea and pepto chewables I ate like candy. Yes, it was illness, dehydration, a sick state of being that ruined my encounter with the Golden Temple. I knew this to be a lie, but I willed myself to believe it until the day I realized what had happened to me that day. A revelation that came almost an entire year later.

At the doors of the temple, sound changes. No longer can the ears distinguish between sounds. All there is is a series of voices, prayers, a chorus of bodies without a conductor to guide them. Men and women stand with eyes closed, hands pressed together all the while their mouths move. No room for air between brother and sister, feel the sweat of another, their breath upon your back. And the deeper inside the abyss of bodies, the sound rises, the mind hears nothing but hundreds of voices in indecipherable tongues and all that I can see is the center, the reason for bowed heads, and prostrations, tears and prayers. Roped off is three men and the sacred text, the eternal prophet of the Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib. 

Standing but several feet away, I am pushed, jostled, shoved away by pilgrims earnestly reaching towards the sacred heart of their being. Rupees are being tossed in, crumpled bills, meager coin change. Dozens on their knees, arms stretched towards men who hold folded orange fabric. These are blessed, to be worn by men upon their brow, but only if the right number of rupees fall to the ground. So many palms open, waiting to be filled. 

I am entranced. Paralyzed by so much before me. My eyes attempt to take it all in, I want to remember it all. And the voices make it difficult to focus. I see the intricate craftsmanship of its underbelly, vivid paints on all its walls, blues, oranges, whites, and the reflected light from its gold walls cascades inside. I cannot move, cannot dismiss these prostrating bodies, their prayers, the smell of their skin, the reading of scripture, too much in this place lives, too much to segregate in the mind. And then I feel my sickness rising, the heat of too many bodies causing my body to concede. Now I pray a silent prayer, “Don’t throw up in their sacred space. Do not throw up in their sacred space.” 

And I’m chanting this over and over in my head. Trying to inch my way towards the closest open space, a bit of air and perhaps I’ll be okay. And then I feel a quick slap across my head, then another. I turn to find an old woman, hair white and face pruned, berating me in Hindi. She slaps the side of my head again, and I jerk away from her, think her mad. But then she smacks her own head, and I realize my grave error. In the midst of my fixation and illness, my headscarf had slipped off, exposing my dark brown hair, a naked head before something so holy. I am horrified, and quickly adjust my scarf, tuck back my hair. All the while I’m apologizing in a language no one around me knows. Long ago was I separated from the others, now alone to face my gaffe. I’m inching away, giving a half bow, the only Hindi word I can think of is Namaste, no use in this context. But I think myself forgiven, for she laughed at me, then went back to her prayer. I managed not to vomit on sacred ground, but brandishing an uncovered head just may trump illness.

The experience and exertion of the morning had drained my energy. I was so tired that all I yearned for was the small cot and window air conditioning that awaited me back at the hotel. My belly and soul were soured, and I just wanted to retreat back to seclusion.

A year later, I once again confronted the void I felt at the sight of the temple. It was an issue I kept analyzing for months, wondering the extent of the illness in my soul. But one day, I realized why it had been such. In Religious Studies, it is said that one sees religion one of two ways: from the top down or from the bottom up. Those focused on the top are usually fixated with god(s), philosophy, abstractions, manifestations of the sacred, symbols, and so on. But those that start at the bottom likely never raise their head enough to even see the sky. The bottom is the people. The focus on the ritual, the internalizing of beliefs, the manifestation of religion in thoughts, speech, action, the union of spirituality and religion with a person, a community, a people.

Since the day I devoted myself to the study of religions, I have been a practitioner of from the bottom up. It is within the lives and stories of the people that I seek religion and spirituality, abstractions do little to entice and engage me, as is the same with gods and philosophy. I felt nothing at the sight of the temple, but was greatly overwhelmed within its walls, engulfed by hundreds of devotees. I sought to etch into my mind the images of praying, prostrating, puja, the smells, all I touched, the sensuality and spirituality that saturated that space.  It took so long for me to see, to realize, what truly invoked me, but the day that I finally understood this gave me insight I had lacked even into my own being.

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This entry was published on December 27, 2008 at 8:28 am. It’s filed under Humanities, India, International Relations, Nonfiction, Religion, Society, Sociology, Travel, Women and Gender Issues and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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