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Quiet moments at dawn

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Glowing from within: The Harmandir Sahib.
Glowing from within: The Harmandir Sahib.

GUNVANTHI BALARAM

Here's a monument that's an ode to indigenous craftsmanship.

IT is 5.00 a.m. in Amritsar, and my mother and I are up and ready, eager to experience the Golden Temple at the divine moment of dawn. We are apprehensive that there will be no cycle-rickshaws outside our hotel to ferry us to the shrine. But the youngster slumbering on the sofa in the hotel reception, who springs up the moment we enter, assures us that there will be one waiting right by the gate. There is. It's a shabby black-and-pink contraption and its owner is huddled up in a blanket on the one metre-wide seat. We rouse the curled-up gent and a minute later we are trundling on our way. The grubby little streets of the Old Town are deserted, but we see some vegetable stalls being set up and tandoors being stoked to life. Five minutes later, the sound of kirtans wafts through the breeze. Ah, we are at the gates to the Sri Darbar Sahib - known, more commonly, as the Golden Temple.Depositing our shoes at a counter by one of the (four) gates to the temple, we wash our feet at the footbath with warm running water that marks every entrance, walk through an archway and climb down the set of marble steps that leads to the Amrit Sarovar or Pool of Nectar, which gives the town its name. Climbing down the steps is meant to teach us a lesson in humility.

Lit from within

Then, we get our first glimpse of the Harmandir Sahib - the sanctum we have travelled miles to see. The three-tiered, golden-domed, marble shrine glows as though it is on quiet fire from within. The sight of the delicate monument, with its gilded domes and minarets reflected in the charcoal-grey charbagh of water, is uplifting. We sit down by the pool to savour the moment. My mother closes her eyes in meditation; I am wide-eyed with delight. The moment stretches to half an hour. There's a kind of hush I have experienced in no other shrine: nobody hustles us along; nobody hassles us for money; nobody wants to show us a shortcut to heaven.It offers me an opportunity to admire the 1760s ensemble of marble structures set around the historical pond. The beautifully scaled ensemble is a reconstruction of the original temple complex established between 1588 and 1601 by Guru Arjan Dev, which was destroyed by the Afghans in the 1750s. It is crowned by the Harmandir, built in a style that colonial architectural historians Major H. H. Cole and Percy Brown describe as "an adaptation of Mohammedan styles, flavoured with a good deal of Hindu tradition".

A daily ritual

There's some bustle to our right in the imposing Akal Takht, established by Guru Hargobind in 1609, but it is quiet on the other side in the sprawling Guru-da-langar, established by Guru Amardas to melt caste barriers, as it were. The Guru Granth Sahib, wrapped in brocade and muslin, has just been taken ceremoniously in a palanquin from the Kotha Sahib in the Akal Takht to the Harmandir Sahib, an important daily ritual that we've missed. As the pink fingers of dawn steal across the sky, we are among the hundreds of hushed worshippers encircling the Sarovar. We stop to make a small donation in exchange for some prasad, gur-halwa oozing pure ghee in a leaf bowl, before proceeding with the quiet crowd over the 60-metre Guru's Bridge leading to the Harmandir. I'm unprepared for the grandeur within the Harmandir's silver-and-rosewood doors. The Guru Granth Sahib rests beneath a velvet canopy studded with jewels. The beauty of the bejewelled gold and silver interior is matched by the imposing voices of the priests who are accompanied by musicians in their continuous intonation of the Sri Akhand Path, a reading of the Granth. The priests are solemn and stately, with their flowing salt-and-pepper beards and their deep voices. The devotees are as dignified, sitting with their backs to the wall, their covered heads swaying in time to the melodic chanting of hymns. Most are lost in prayer, but the shrine's richly decorated walls and ceilings distract me. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, I remember, donated Rs. 5,00,000 and his top subjects almost as much to have the Harmandir repaired and embellished in 1802. We later climb to the Shish Mahal on the second storey and watch the proceedings below from a square opening in the pavilion. There's splendour in the glass up here: the ceiling is inlaid with small pieces of mirror of various sizes and shapes, and the walls are enriched by colourful mural paintings, mostly floral. Another flight of stairs - the stray bullet marks at the top revive ugly memories of Operation Bluestar - leads us to the lovely little top-floor pavilion surmounted by a low, fluted golden dome and surrounded by a terrace enclosed by a parapet embellished with an array of smaller domes, pinnacles and corner kiosks. A white sardarni, a Canadian convert to Sikhism, is among those meditating on the terrace.Here's a monument that's an ode to indigenous craftsmanship. The Punjab Government's petition to the UNESCO to notify it as a world heritage site will be approved "sooner than later", the UN's Richard Engelhart had told me at a recent seminar in Mumbai. Kiranjot Kaur, ex-secretary of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee, who pushed the nomination, and Delhi-based conservation architect Gurmeet Rai, who has documented and devised a management plan for the complex, hope the heritage tag will arrive by this winter.We leave the Harmandir, cross the bridge and continue our slow encircling of the pool. At the old Jubi tree, reportedly planted by Baba Budha, the first head-priest of the Harmandir, I see a woman touching her forehead to its bark, whispering a fervent prayer. The tree's believed to have the power to make the barren conceive.

Parting impressions

Continuing our peregrinations, we pass the glass-fronted booths that are present on all four sides, inside which are seated stern-looking priests reading from the Granth. At every corner is a stand where visitors are offered cold water in sparkling-clean stainless steel tumblers. The sun's sharp now, and many seem thirsty. It's also breakfast time. At the Guru-da-langar, pilgrim-volunteers are helping prepare the food that's served to hundreds daily. In the vast dining room, seated on coir mats on the floor, are rows and rows of people, all drinking steaming cups of sweet tea and munching on rotis. We click pictures of the happy scene, savour the tea and head out. There's the Old Town outside, waiting to be explored.


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