The Golden Temple is the holiest place for the Sikhs and their symbol of equality. It was completed in the 17th century and has withstood many a raid, the Moghuls, the Afghans, and Indira Gandhi's militia. Today the temple is peaceful and imparts tranquility. Sure the Taj Mahal with its grand history and exquisite detail lit by the early morning light left me with similar impressions, but this temple is alive and very much lived in. A three-man band plays hymns that echo throughout the complex. Visitors bath in the Pool of Nectar, eat all meals on the floor of the mess hall, volunteer as cooks and cleaners to keep the temple in operation, and, at night, sleep anywhere on the ground. The temple, constantly scrubbed from top to bottom, is kept in the cleanest condition. Much of the Sikh connection to God is lost on me, but here I feel so well taken care of that I can only compare it to being under the care of some greatness.
There is a lot to learn from Sikh hospitality. The temple complex has not one but four entrances, each facing a cardinal direction, made with intent to welcome everyone. All visitors are fed as much as they require and as frequent as they require. The kitchen, mess hall, and dishwashing room-- all of which is dependent entirely on visitors volunteering their time-- is in operation 24 hours a day. The temple serves from 100,000 to 300,000 people daily, and is the largest free kitchen in the world. To an American, free kitchen connotates charity, but this is not charity. Meals, Langer, is social equality in practice. People of all religions, cultures, races, classes, and genders are welcome to share the same food together in one row. Here, it doesn't matter who you are, devotee or pilgrim or traveler, or where you came from. Everyone is treated the same. Like nourishment, water and a place to sleep here is a given.
Donations are suggested, but there is no pressure. Co-operation is key, and spending a few hours a day volunteering feels natural. Anyone can roll up their sleeves and jump in. There are no schedule or sign ups. I roll chapati for Langer next to women and men who are strangers, many of whom don't speak the same language. As indicated by their laughter, the acknowledgement that I am shit at rolling chapati is universal. But they are patient in teaching me, and no food is wasted even though my first 30 are hideous. With precision these chapatis are swiftly picked up by other volunteers working the grill and served. A mid-morning tea is offered to us, and the chapati room empties for a few minutes.
In the dishwashing room, the heat of the grills and the sound of chit chat is replaced by the rushing of water and the clanging of metal. It is loud in here. Each bowl, dish, and spoon used to eat Langer is washed at least five times and handed off from volunteer to volunteer. Everyone has a slightly different method for the task, some try to clean as many as possible in the shortest time and some make sure everyone has something to clean. To fill up this space where words can’t be heard over the noise, small knowing smiles are exchanged.
In the evening, the Pool of Nectar is golden from the reflection of the sun setting on the temple, and dragonflies dance above the water. An elderly man in a turban is submerged to the chest, and he slowly skims the pool with a long wooden stick. The hymns trail on and on. I sit comfortably, and some people come up to talk. They eagerly ask about America. I want to know more about being a Sikh. I don’t know where the misunderstandings begin outside these walls. I am not religious or spiritual, but tonight I feel hopeful that we, together, can make up a greater something. And that everything can flow in harmony.