Both a Vision and an Inspiration

Golden Temple, India

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Worshipers pray toward the Golden Temple, which holds the Sikh holy book of scriptures, the Adi Granth.

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Like many Indian cities, Amritsar is loud, crowded, and dusty. But tucked inside a serene, white marble courtyard is one place where people can escape the bustle: the Golden Temple. Considered the holiest site in the Sikh religion, the temple sits on top of a wide rectangular pool, connected by a pedestrian bridge. Its gold-plated dome, shaped like a lotus, shimmers in the water. From a distance, the temple looks as if it is floating. It's an image that connects to the Sikh belief about how people should live their lives: rooted in the earthly world but with an eye toward the divine.

Founded by Guru Nanak Dev in the early 16th century, Sikhism sought to break away from the subcontinent's divisions between Hindus and Muslims with a monotheistic faith that promoted equality and rejected the caste system. (Sikh means learner.) The religion spread, but it wasn't until the end of the century, under the tolerant Mughal ruler Akbar, that Sikhism began to flourish.

That was when Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Sikh leader, decided to build a temple on a sacred pool believed to have healing power. Construction was completed around the turn of the 17th century. But after Akbar died in 1605, Guru Dev fell out of favor with the new emperor and was killed. Yet the temple has endured and, most recently, recovered from a brutal firefight in 1984 when the Indian Army brought tanks into the complex to put down armed Sikh separatists who had taken refuge inside.

Visual aesthetic. The power of the place is rooted in the aesthetic: Everything is constructed to evoke feelings of peace and openness, key tenets of the Sikh faith. "It's a visual translation of the Sikh scripture," says Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, a religious studies professor at Colby College. For that reason, the complex has four doors, symbolizing the belief that any gurudwara, or Sikh temple, welcomes people from all places and of all creeds. To enter, people walk down stairs to the courtyard, an act meant to summon humility. Visitors must purify themselves by taking off their shoes, cleaning their feet, and covering their heads.

The cornerstone of the temple is the Adi Granth, the Sikh holy book, composed of devotional poems taken from the early Sikh gurus as well as Muslim and Hindu writers. Today, the book is regarded as the incarnation of the guru. (The last living one died in 1708.) Early each morning the original scripture—a bulky, 1,430-page manuscript—is carried from an adjacent building to the temple on a palanquin. Once inside, the book is showered in perfume and incense, and its white covers are removed and opened at random. The hymn on the top left-hand page is sung first and is considered the auspicious prayer of the day. Throughout the day, people sing hymn after hymn from the book. Then, late each night, the book is returned to its resting spot.

It's a ritual that has gone on for centuries. And in recent years, it has been broadcast daily on satellite television, extending the reach of this sacred place across the globe.