The Harimandir Sahib, also known as the Golden Temple, is the most sacred site in the world for Sikhs. Sikkhism, one of four religions to have evolved in India, is currently the fourth most prominent religion in the country. Much of India’s Sikh population live in the state of Punjab and regularly visit the shrine, while most other Sikhs in India and around the world endeavor to make a pilgrimage there at some point in their lives. The temple gets its name from the fact that the upper two thirds of the temple is almost completely covered in gold leaf, making it the largest gold-covered structure on Earth.
Sikhism evolved in the Northern Indian province of Punjab in the early 16th century. It was established by a man named Nanak, who became the religion’s first leader, or Guru. Born a Hindu, Nanak was heavily influenced being brought up in a country dominated by Hinduism and Islam, and may have been influenced by Buddhism and Christianity as well. Over years of contemplation and reflection he conceived of an idea that there was only one God, and that religious labels were meaningless.
Challenging the existing power order which was dominated by Muslims and Hindus, he attracted many followers, ironically forming a new religion (though Sikhs, like Jews, also identify themselves as an ethnic group). The new faith grew among the ethnic Sikh population, and by the 16th century it was a dominant feature of the Punjab region.
In 1574 the Sikhs under the fourth Guru founded the city of Amritsar and began construction on their new temple. Interestingly, the foundation stone was laid by a Sufi Muslim. This golden temple was completed in 1604. It distinguished itself early on as a place where people regardless of their personal faiths were welcome to come.
Amritsar and the Golden Temple have been at the center of Sikh life for the last four centuries. In the 1940s following independence from Great Britain, many Sikhs fled here from Pakistan. Since the 1960s, Sikhism and the Golden Temple have been a point of contention with the Hindus and the national government of India. In 1984 a battle took place here between Sikhs and government troops, with hundreds, perhaps thousands, killed. The temple has since been repaired, and peace rules the area for the present.
The Golden Temple is one of the most visually stunning sites in India, which is saying a lot. This is due both to the gold leaf with covers nearly ever square inch of the upper two thirds of the temple, as well as to its position in the middle of a man-made lake. The temple stands on an island in the middle of the perfectly square lake and is connected to the rest of the city by a single causeway. This affords magnificent views of the temple from all sides. This also gives the Golden Temple the illusion that it is much larger than it actually is.
The temple interior is no less magnificent. Four symbolic entryways on its four sides allow entrance into this great hall, which is also liberally decorated in gold. The main site of interest is the Pool of the Nectar of Immortality, which is considered to be the holiest place in Sikhism. Also kept in the temple are sacred writings prepared over the centuries by various gurus.
The Golden Temple is located in the very center of Amritsar, about thirty miles east of Lahore in Pakistan and 250 miles north of New Delhi. The temple is open most of the time and receives tens of thousands of visitors almost every day. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.goldentempleamritsar.org (official website).
Amritsar is also home to the Durgiana Temple, a splendid Hindu Temple similar in appearance to the nearby Golden Temple with which it is sometimes confused. Of the major Sikh sites in India, perhaps the second most worthwhile is the Hazur Sahib Nanded in the city of Nanded in Maharastra.