Have you ever been to a place, saw the things you knew were there, then have your mind completely blown away by something you see unexpectedly?
“Travel is about the gorgeous feeling of teetering in the unknown.”Anthony Bourdain
Perhaps Anthony Bourdain knew best.
I was in Shri Harminder Sahib, aka the Golden Temple in Amritsar. It was meant to be a quick trip to recharge my soul batteries. My first glimpse of it was as I had known it to be- picturesque and serene.
Despite a pandemic, the devotees were out in full strength. I suppose such was the pull of the faith.
Our driver, Sardarji, doubled as our guide. In no time, we had zipped from the car park, tied our head scarfs (mandatory for men and women) and deposited our shoes. We walked bare feet inside and stood in a queue to enter the magnificent Shri Harmandir Sahib. It stood in the middle of a lake dominating the complex.
Although the entry was staggered, yet it was packed to the gills. There was a floor above but no respite from the crowd there either. My hands kept tugging the scarf covering my head and mouth, anxiously.
All I remember being drawn to the beautiful maroon and gold floral patterns that glinted spectacularly on the walls inside while we jostled to find space. Sardarji beckoned us to follow him up a narrow staircase in the corner.
That was my ‘pinch me, I am dreaming’ moment.
We were on the roof, close enough to touch the golden dome. There were hardly any people up there and the view was matchless. You just have to take my word for it since I don’t have any pictures of it. I sat on the floor for a long time, letting the soft rays of the morning sun hug me. It was better than any meditation. It was blissful.
The next stop was the ‘langar’, a free community kitchen run by volunteers.
Eating with the others is a big part of the visit. Satiated, we had just left the langar hall when Sardarji was approached by a turbaned gentleman with a flowing salt and pepper beard. He offered to show all of us more of this place in return for whatever we deemed appropriate for his services.
Tip: Get the guide. We saw places we won’t have otherwise seen.
Mukesh Jain, our guide, walked with a limp and spoke with a slight stutter, but his childlike enthusiasm was contagious. He excitedly took us to the mega kitchens that churned out meals throughout the day.
We followed him inside huge lifts and climbed stairs to the different floors.
There were actually floors devoted to storage of raw material, food preparation, disposal of waste and cleaning. Much of it was automated and the army of volunteers made the process seamless.
It was mega in every way.
From the kitchens, we walked out to a lovely courtyard overlooking the sacred pool at a distance.
I was informed, this is the Ahluwalia Inn. (I have Dr Walia to thank for that piece of knowledge.)
Made of Nanak Shahi bricks (named after the narrow bricks of that era), they created brilliant patterns on the ceiling.
A little distance away, a tiny grating opened into the ground that had steps disappearing into a gloomy cavern.
Mukesh Jain exuberantly gestured us to follow him. I felt like Alice, going down the rabbit hole.
It opened into the first floor of a massive brick-lined basement. This cavernous basement turned out to be an infamous lair and scene of action of the 1984 Bluestar Operation.
“I’m interested in memory because it’s a filter through which we see our lives…”Kazuo Ishiguro
Its bullet chipped walls were a reminder of that dark time. Our guide gleefully narrated fascinating tales interspersed with rumours to make this place more than just an architectural marvel. Also there were stairs that went down, perhaps as far as the depth of an underground well but a strong padlocked door ensured we were unable to explore further.
I’m glad Mukesh Jain found us because I would have never seen this side of the complex. I’m sure not many of us know how to access it. At that time, we were literally the only ones loitering in the shadows, imagining the time gone by.
Sardarji’s parting words stayed with me. He said, “This is not my first visit to Shri Harmandir Sahib, yet it felt like I had never seen the place properly, till now.”
I knew exactly what he meant. I had a peek into a world that transcended from a place of worship into a getaway that combined bliss and wonder.
It was exhilarating.
Lens-Artists Photo Challenge: Getting away