It’s not often that in a world of headlines only mentioning the negative that you visit a place that truly embodies the positive. Few places demonstrate such harmony in the face of diversity as the Golden Temple in Amrtisar, India. As much as India separates itself into religions, ethnic groups, political parties and castes it’s amazing how tolerant this holy site at the heart of Punjab province is. Not only is it the home of the holiest Sikh temple, which as a rule treats everyone equally. It is also the world’s largest free dining room open to people of all creeds and cultures. My visit to the glittering temple and it’s serene grounds gave me a renewed belief in the possibility of peace.
The chaos, stench and dirt of India that had surrounded me seconds before seemed to miraculously disappear as I passed under the white arches revealing the Golden Temple. The shiny marble floors gleamed in the midmorning sun and offered a sense of cleanliness and order available in few places throughout India. The type of care and attention to detail shown at the Golden Temple was not only impressive, but free and available to anyone. This was the first indication to me that the Golden Temple is a special place with a higher purpose.
Not only do the temple walls offer a reprieve from the world outside it’s gates, but it proves there is such a thing as free lunch. Anyone can eat free at the community dining room within the Golden Temple, which serves 80,000 people on weekdays and double that on weekends. Each visitor gets a vegetarian meal, served by volunteers from all walks of life. The purpose of this communal meal, according to Sikhism, is to place all of humanity on the same plane. Nowhere have I seen a point so clearly portrayed than as I sat cross-legged with fellow diners and we all ate the same food without any expectation of payment.
The point of putting all of humanity on the same plane is further driven home when you see what goes into making this free lunch possible. As I turned in my used plate I saw carts full, of what I found in later research, to be more than 40,000 metal plates, bowls and spoons to be washed, stacked and then put back into circulation for the next set of hungry pilgrims. Fascinated by this process and all the hands contributing to make it possible I wandered towards the kitchen. Inside 1,700 pounds of onions, 132 pounds of garlic and 330 pounds of fiery red chilies were being chopped by anyone who wanted to lend a helping hand, Sikh or not.
Leaving the Golden Temple I had a full stomach and a new found faith in the ability of people to come together despite their differences. Amritsar gave me yet another view into the complexities and contradictions that make India such an unbelievable place. In spite of all it’s fractures, faults and dysfunctional governance it remains united. India could teach the rest of the world a lot about living in harmony.