To my right, a couple of kids are sitting on the mattress and talking to each other. Like most kids, they are a bit too animated for my liking. To my left there is a largish family, sitting in a circle and talking in low, hushed voices. If I stare straight ahead, I can see the fans swirling from the ceiling. It is still warm and I am still a bit sleepy. I close my eyes and smile to myself. Of all the things I expected to be doing at the Golden Temple, sharing a giant hall with a hundred other people was certainly not one of them.
If I were to write about the one place which pushed me out of my “comfort zone”, the Golden Temple would be it. And it was not because of the shared accommodation or the fact that I had taken a General Class ride the previous night or that we had only four hundred rupees between the two of us for the next few days. Travelling on a budget can be a lot of fun and the masochistic part of me really enjoys the (dis)comforts of cheap travelling. You know, the cold, metal berths of General Class, and the cramped dorm rooms next to a railway station, and waiting (while squirming this way and that) in the line for the common loo. So I like to believe that by the time we stumbled into Amritsar, I had a pretty thick skin when it came to grubby travelling. I was pretty bloody wrong.
You see the thing that really got to me about the Golden Temple was being forced to face faith. Just pure, unquestioned, faith. It was strange and uncomfortable and it was all around me. I could see it in the people who took your shoes and slippers before you entered the temple, I could see it in the old, old lady who would pick up specks of dirt from the temple floor, I could feel it in the hands which slipped me a warm roti during the langar. When I looked at the temple’s dome in the moonlit sky, and when I heard the people singing their songs, I did wonder about God and beliefs and all these things which I don’t really bother thinking about.
I thought I had seen such religious devotion in earlier treks (Vaishnodevi) and trips (Koteshwar) and I thought I had hidden behind a solid wall of indifference. Firmly held onto the “rational” and the objective. At Amritsar, though, I just could not. It generally is spectacularly easy to dismiss religion. Just dismiss it. Don’t discuss it, don’t opinionate. If someone asks you about God, just be cool and call yourself an atheist. But this was about something more than just religion. It was about faith, it was about believing in something and it was probably the closest to a religious experience that I would ever come.