Here is an excerpt from my book Sacred Places:
The Golden Temple at Amritsar in the Punjab is the holiest site of the Sikh religion, which developed in the 16th century as a conscious fusion of Hindu and Islamic teachings. Ten gurus between 1499 and 1708 taught a path that stresses devotion to the One God – chanting or using His name, usually given as Waheguru, as a mantra. The tenth guru declared that the written teachings would become the next guru, and a sacred book – the Guru Granth Sahib – now takes pride of place in the Golden Temple.
On the shore of the lake, great dormitories welcome seekers from all over the world while the temple, known as the ‘Abode of God’ stands in the lake, which is fed by an underground spring. In a radical departure from the religions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, Sikhism rejects the concept of ahimsa – harmlessness – and places great emphasis on fighting social injustice. All are welcome at the Golden Temple and every day free meals are given to as many as 40,000 people.
I do not go to see sacred shrines of pilgrimage, or bathe in the sacred waters; I do not bother any beings or creatures. The Guru has shown me the sixty-eight places of pilgrimage within my own heart, where I now take my cleansing bath. Guru Granth Sahib
Just east of the border with Pakistan, and with Kashmir to the north, the city of Amritsar in the state of Punjab has grown up around the holiest site of Sikhism – the Golden Temple. As one of the world’s most beautiful sacred sites it has managed to survive a turbulent and often tragic history.
The Sikh religion is relatively new – it began at the end of 15th century – and is notable for the way in which it consciously fuses elements of Hinduism with inspiration from Islam. These two great streams of religious thought can be found in Sikh teachings, and in the architecture of the Golden Temple itself.
Before the temple was built, the site was a small lake in the forest that was visited by wandering sages and that was close to a major trade route that connected the lands that are now India and Asia to the east, with Afghanistan and the Middle East to the west. Legends recount that the great epic of the Ramayana was written beside the pool, and that here a jug of the divine nectar of immortality ‘Amrita’ descended from heaven to restore the soldiers of Lord Rama to life.
The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, began teaching the new faith in 1499, and over the following two centuries, a further nine gurus continued to develop the tradition. In 1708 the tenth guru declared that no more human gurus were needed and that the guru in future would be their sacred text, which became known as the Guru Granth Sahib.
Guru Ram Dass and the First Temple
Amritsar only began to develop as a site dedicated to the Sikh faith when in 1574, the fourth Guru, Ram Dass, made his home beside the lake, which by now had a reputation as a source of healing. Three years’ later he purchased it and the surrounding land from its owners. He enlarged the lake and paved its sides, and followers began to build houses nearby, creating a small town which would gradually grow to become the city of Amritsar.
Here is a beautiful song for Guru Ram Dass, sung by Snatam Kaur:
In 1588 the fifth Guru began the building of the first temple, known as the Hari Mandir – the ‘Abode of God’ – and invited an Islamic mystic to lay the foundation stone. Sixteen years later the first edition of the Guru Granth Sahib was installed in the temple with a caretaker, called a Granthi, entrusted with its safe-keeping. The first Granthi was called Baba Buddha.
Destruction and Creation
Although the teachings of Sikhism are focussed on devotion to God, and reject the need for pilgrimage and acts such as ritual bathing, there seems to be an innate human desire to pay homage to certain places, and over the years the temple became a much-visited shrine, and some devotees now ritually bathe in the lake.
In the middle of the 18th century the city was invaded by the Afghanis, the temple was destroyed and the lake desecrated – some say with the bodies of slaughtered horses, tragically prefiguring the British massacre that occurred nearby about 150 years later, when many bodies were recovered from a well.
At the end of the 18th century a Sikh Kingdom was established and in the early years of the following century the temple began to assume the form it takes today. Moslem architects and craftsmen worked on the buildings, and the Hari Mandir was decorated with marble, with much of the exterior plated in gold – giving rise to the name ‘The Golden Temple’. The walls were decorated with gypsum and gold frescoes encrusted with gemstones: Lapis Lazuli, Red Cornelian, Onyx and Mother of Pearl.
Unrest threatened the serenity of the temple in the 1980s, when twice the Indian army stormed the sanctuary in pursuit of Sikh militants, who assassinated the Prime Minister Indira Ghandi in retaliation. Thousands of Sikhs were then killed when riots broke out.
Since then, the damaged temple has been restored and peace has returned to the Golden Temple. Every morning the sacred scripture is carried out before dawn on a gold and silver palanquin that has been sprinkled with rose water. As drums beat, the assembled worshippers shower rose petals on the procession which travels across the causeway to the Abode of God. Inside the book is laid on cushions beneath a velvet canopy and the Head Priest begins reading a message for the day from the text. All through the day and into the evening texts are read and hymns from the Adi Granth are chanted to the accompaniment of flutes, drums, and stringed instruments.
In a region that has seen such conflict, the Golden Temple which welcomes, lodges and feeds members of all faiths, acts as a moving example of the potential for harmony that exists between human beings.
1499 – Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion begins teaching the new faith
1574 – the fourth Guru, makes his home by the Amritsar pool
1581 – Due to the growing popularity of the shrine as a place of pilgrimage, the lake is paved on all four sides
c.1588 – The first temple is built. Muslim leader, Mian Mir of Lahore, is invited by the fifth Guru to lay the foundation stone
1601 – The Temple is completed
1604 – The first edition of the Holy Book of the Sikh’s – The Guru Granth Sahib – is installed in the temple
1740 – The ruler of Amritsar desecrates the Temple by using it as a dancing hall. He is killed by Mahtab Singh
1757 – Ahmad Shah Durrani from Afghanistan attacks and destroys the temple
1799 – Formation of the Sikh Kingdom
1803 – The Maharaja Ranjit begins the refurbishment of the temple.
1808 – The Maharaja invites skilled Muslim architects, masons and wood-carvers from Chaniot, now in Pakistan, to work on the refurbishment.
1830 – Gold plating of the temple is carried out.
1919 – Beside the temple British General Dyer initiates the Amritsar Massacre, in which thousands are killed or injured
1940 – In London a Sikh wounded at the massacre assassinates Sir Michael O’Dwyer who as Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab approved Dyer’s action
1984 – ‘Operation Blue Star’ -575 people die when the Indian army storms the temple. Indira Ghandi is assassinated in retaliation later in the year, resulting in anti-Sikh riots that kill thousands
1986 – In ‘Operation Black Thunder II’, Indian army commandoes storm the temple. The Chief of the Indian Army is assassinated by Sikh militants.