Amritsar: dirt and idolatry

All religion is essentially idolatry.

Apart from those few religions which started as conscious scams – Mormonism, Scientology – most begin when some well-meaning person has a sincere spiritual or moral insight, and tries to pass it on to others. But 99% of the human race are not in the market for sincere spiritual or moral insight. They just want something to bow down to.

Jesus tried telling people that the most important thing was being nice to each other; soon everyone was fetishizing the object used to execute him, and slaughtering each other to get possession of it. Muhammad tried to do the same; his followers now believe it’s their highest religious duty to travel to Mecca to kiss a piece of space rock in his honour.

The Sikh gurus, Nanak and his successors, realised this. They were a group of men who, influenced by the stringent theology of Islam, wanted to reform India’s religion of idolatrous practices and inspire a pure worship of God. To help spread their ideas and encourage their lasting adoption, they wrote them down in a book, the Granth.

Where did this get them? Their portraits, surrounded by haloes and spruced up with neon and laser lights, objects of veneration. The book, not widely read, understood and followed, but laid on a plush bed, attended by a lackey ritually whisking away insects with an ornate, ceremonial horsehair brush. Never mind the insects bothering the congregation, in a country where tens of thousands die of insect-borne diseases every year.

And do the followers of Sikhism behave measurably any better than those of the predecessor religions the gurus tried with best intentions to improve upon? Not that I can see. They venerate their holy book with just as much piety as their Hindu neighbours in Haryana venerate the Shiva lingam (or, to give it its technical name, a rock), then, with just as high a frequency, murder people for venerating the wrong thing.

These were some of the thoughts going through my head while I watched the live Sikh sermons broadcast on Punjabi TV at the house in Dhuri. Two days later, I was on a train to Amritsar, to visit the Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple, the focal point of the Sikh faith.

For convenience, I’d booked a room at a hotel just opposite the railway station, which turned out to be reasonably comfortable. After checking in, I went out for a walk, to get a feel for the place. That feel was “generic shit Indian city”. Perhaps the fact that the area around the station seems to be the auto mechanics’ workshop district didn’t help, but Amritsar was one of the dirtiest, most decrepit, noisy and generally unpleasant places I’ve visited so far. I’d been warned about this, and even the Rough Guide states that the only thing worth seeing here, its “one saving grace”, is the Golden Temple.

I found a place to have dinner which was clean and smart, although empty. The owner was a large, grizzled-looking Sikh. One of my habits for amusing myself is to imagine what people would have been like if they’d been born in the past (this worked particularly well to stave off boredom during the interminable nightly briefings with the Danish Battalion in Afghanistan, where I’d picture them all as Vikings). The restaurateur, I decided, wouldn’t have looked out of placing smashing British skulls together at Ferozeshah. “Bhir nahee hai?” (not busy?), I commented, more to consolidate the recently-learned word “bhir” in my memory, than because I especially wanted to discuss it. At first he thought I was asking for beer, then understood, laughed, and explained there was a festival on. Later, when some more customers came in, he talked to them, pointed at me, said “bhir nahee hai!” and laughed raucously again. I suppose I’m lucky he found me amusing rather than offensive.

The next morning in the hotel, I had breakfast with Toni and Felipe, from Spain, and Alain, from France. We had spotted each other heading to the hotel cafe, and instantly formed a little European clique, which, according to Felipe, was missing only a German to tell us what we could and couldn’t do. We shared stories about the insanity of India. I mentioned that, though I was used to taking off my shoes to enter mosques, mandirs and gurdwaras, it had still surprised me being required to do the same to go into the C of E church in Shimla. Felipe said he could understand the shoe removing thing, because the street outside isn’t clean. Alain replied, “oui, but I sink ze temple is not so clean also, unh?”

Listen up, India: when a Frenchman is contemptuous of your hygiene standards, it’s time to sort your shit out. Literally.

Alain was leaving that day, so Felipe, Toni and I went off to visit the Golden Temple together. The complex is undeniably beautiful, as well as clean, tidy and serene, especially compared to the noise and dirt outside. I decided to ask someone to take a photo of the three of us. Felipe commented, “you have to find someone who won’t steal your camera. And who can take a good photograph.” I managed the first, but not the second. This is us, with not much of a view of the temple, although a very good view of a semi-naked Sikh bathing in the Pool of Nectar.

Toni, Felipe and me having a pirate party at the Golden Temple

All around the complex, copies of the Granth (or to give it its full, personified and beatified title, the Guru Granth Sahib) sit resplendently on plinths, covered with jewel-encrusted, gold-embroidered, fine silks. In various alcoves, old bearded men read from it, giving complete cyclical recitations in shifts. It’s not clear what this is meant to achieve: it’s not as if anyone is sitting there listening to the whole thing, like a 24 marathon. Besides, they do it so quietly that even sitting immediately in front of them, you can’t hear a word. Some of them are behind glass windows, without even an opening or grill for sound to pass through. But then, no-one’s stopping to try to listen (except for me), they’re just bowing and touching their head to the windowsill before moving on.

One of these worship booths is called the “68 Shrines”, as the fifth Sikh Guru, Arjan, declared that a visit here was worth the same, spiritually, as visiting all 68 of the holiest Hindu shrines in India. Is any more convincing proof required that Sikhism, even before its later Gurus had been born, had descended back into the same pattern of idolatry that Nanak had tried to escape from? (Of course, Arjan was trivially correct: both have a spiritual worth of zero.)

Don’t get me wrong, I love books too. But I show respect for my favourite book, the Fist of Fun TV tie-in hardback, by reading it, re-reading it and understanding its ideas. Not by prostrating myself before a man who’s ritually, silently, meaninglessly mouthing words from a copy decorated with more precious stones and metal than I could ever afford in my whole lifetime.

Bottom: the Pool of Nectar. Top: the LCD Screen of Wisdom.

Three quarters of the way around the giant courtyard, the three of us were ushered over to sit down with a grey-turbaned elder, who wanted to spit half-chewed rice over us while explaining the history of the temple. His English was heavily accented and difficult to follow. I could make out the gist of what he was saying; Felipe and Toni just got the rice.

One of his claims was that the content of the Granth is so beautiful and profound it can only have been written with inspiration direct from god, not by humans alone. I’ve heard this said about the Koran and other holy writings too, and I don’t believe a word of it. I challenge anyone to show me one sentence of the Granth, the Koran, or any other scripture, that demonstrably cannot have been written by a human. An unambiguous, quantified, falsifiable scientific prediction that can only be tested with purpose-designed apparatus and which turns out to be true: that would suffice. It’s not difficult, modern scientists do it all the time. You’d think that god would be able to sprinkle a few of those in, amongst all the stuff blathering on about how wonderful he is.

I asked the old chap about the shrine I’d seen for Baba Deep Singh. He explained how Deep, a Sikh military leader, had made a promise to kill lots of Muslims, and was beheaded in battle, but in order to fulfill the promise, miraculously continued to fight, holding his head in his left hand, and wielding his sword in his right.

Me: And this is true?

Elder: Yes, definitely true.

Me: Definitely true?

Elder: Well, maybe his head was only half cut off…

I barely even questioned it, and his story crumbled apart.

We excused ourselves from the mad old bloke and went to the community kitchen for lunch. All gurdwaras have these, as providing free food, and communal eating, are core Sikh traditions. At the handwash station, Toni searched around and eventually found a small sliver of soap lying neglected to one side.

Reasons it’s nice to be with Europeans #1: they understand that hygiene requires an anti-bacterial agent of some kind, not just water, whatever its sacred provenance.

We waited in the queue for the next sitting, then rushed in with everyone else to find a place on the long strips of rug on the floor. Black daal, vegetables and rice pudding were messily slopped out of buckets into our metal trays, and roti slapped down into our upturned hands with a theatrical flourish. The food was actually pretty good, and the industrial operation was impressive: the floor had been spotless when we came in, so there must have been a rapid clean-up operation in the 10 seconds between the previous diners leaving, and our entrance.

“Yes, I’d like the boeuf en croute, and a bottle of the house red, please.”

After the Golden Temple, the only other thing worth doing in Amritsar is to drive 30km away from it, to visit the India-Pakistan border at Wagah for the evening border closing ceremony. I’ve written about this in a separate post, here. But because it was easy, and Alain, the wonderfully sardonic Frenchman, had recommended it, we’d signed up for the hotel’s Wagah border package deal, which meant a taxi ride there and back, but also included stops at the Mata Temple, and the Golden Temple by night.

The Mata Temple in Amritsar seems to be devoted to some short-sighted granny who must have been alive recently enough for there to be colour photographs of her in her shrine. Whoever she was, apparently someone decided that the best way to honour her, or her teachings, or whatever, was to construct a building that’s half pick-and-mix department store of shrines to every known Hindu deity, and half Pat Sharp’s Fun House. After climbing up some stairs and along a gallery on the outside wall which went up and down in waves, we crawled through a tunnel and navigated a hall of mirrors maze, with Ganeshas, Kalis and lingams popping up at intervals. Entering the giant mouth of a lion, you go round a few more twists of holy dioramas, and emerge from the gaping crocodile next to him. Another tunnel, this one with a stream of water running through it, was supposedly meant to represent, at its far end, the inside of a divine mouth. So this entrance is presumably god’s sphincter:

Felipe and Toni perform an act of penetration that most gods are usually quite sniffy about

I half expected a holy ball pool to be next, but eventually we reached the end and escaped.

After the Wagah border ceremony, we were taken to the Golden Temple again, to view it at night. During the taxi ride, we went past a statue of Subas Chandra Bose, the Indian nationalist and Nazi collaborator who, during the Second World War, formed a unit of Indian POWs to fight alongside the Japanese against Britain. I explained this little bit of history to my Spanish friends.

Reasons it’s nice to be with Europeans #2: They understand the horrors of Nazism. They know what it means to have collaborated with Hitler. They get straight away, without need for further argument, why such a man should be a national disgrace and a hushed up embarrassment, not a memorialised hero.

Three Chinese tourists from the hotel had also joined us for the package tour. I considered explaining to them as well about how the statue commemorates a man who sided with the perpetrators of the Rape of Nanking, but decided that the risk of being misunderstood in translation was too great.

The Golden Temple by night is like the Golden Temple by day, but darker. I wandered around looking for something new that I hadn’t seen that morning, and found the Akal Takht, the large building opposite the causeway to the Golden Temple, open for anyone to walk in. So I did. On the first floor, there were more people tending to the comfort and sensual needs of giant books, or sitting submissively in worship of them. The second floor was the same. I noticed the stairs up to the next floor were also open, but not lit, and so decided to try going up them, thinking that, at worst, someone might shout at me to come back down. But no-one did: the only person in sight was too busy with his recitation to stop me. I found myself on the first roof level, with more open stairs going up again. There were still no lights, and piles of pots, pans and sheets lying around, but still nothing seriously impeding further progress. So up I went again, and reached the top roof storey, where I could look down on the whole Golden Temple complex. I wondered how many people had seen the Harmandir Sahib from this viewpoint and lived to tell the tale.

Machine gun nest’s view of the Golden Temple

2 thoughts on “Amritsar: dirt and idolatry

  1. I agree with everything you said about religion, but I suppose I’ve thought most of it before. What is totally new to me is that way of spelling the noise that French people make which says “Don’t you think?” and “I don’t care what you think because I’m French” at the same time. “unh?”. You nailed it.

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