“Bang, bang, bang…bang, bang…bang, bang, bang, bang…” The loud, erratic but never-ending metallic noise filled our ears as we head closer to the multi-story sandstone building.
“What is that?” We all wondered to ourselves.
However, before I had the chance to figure out the source of the loud banging, a large round metal tray was thrust into my hands by a man wearing a turban. Immediately, a round metal bowl was placed on the tray by another person. Then a metal spoon was placed on the bowl. Without realizing it, our family of five were pulled into a stream of pilgrims of all ages all with metal trays in our hands heading up a stairway.
Little did we know at that point that we were about to witness the “8th Wonder” of the world – the feeding of the pilgrims at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India.
We followed the crowd into a spacious, rectangular hall with rows and rows of long narrow carpets lining the white marble floor. Every person was ushered to sit closely side-by-side on the carpet floor in long rows and to placed the metal tray with the bowl and spoon on the uncovered marble floor.
“What do we do now?” Nathan asked, echoing the same question we all had in our mind.
A man carrying a large tray full of chapatti (Indian flat bread) stood in front of me, holding two pieces of chapatti towards me. I looked at him, held out my tray but he just stood there still holding the chapatti in his hands. He was saying something in Punjab but I couldn’t understand.
I looked around and saw a local Indian holding out his two hands with palms facing up so I did the same. Immediately, two chapatti fell into my hands!
Soon, another man with a metal pail went down our row and skillfully scooped curry containing potatoes, onion, and cauliflower into the tray. Then another followed with dal, then another with rice, and then another with rice pudding all in the same way. Without realizing it, my metal tray contained a full set of hot, fragrant smelling Indian food.
“The curry is so good!” Joani yelled out with a big smile.
“The rice is the best I had tasted yet in India,” Olivia added.
We were all surprised at the tastiness and the variety of the food especially since the food is free.
While we were busily glopping down the food, a man pushing a large barrel with four small wheels stopped in front of us.
With a quick push of a lever, similar to the brake lever of a bicycle, cold water gushed out of a opening near the bottom of the barrel unto the metal bowls we had placed on the marble floor. We watched in amazement as the bowl filled quickly with water to the rim without spilling. After one bowl was filled, the cart moved quickly to the next bowl and so on.
“Look, there are refills!” Olivia exclaimed..
More servers came along our row and scooped more curry, rice, and rice pudding onto our tray. We had to keep gesturing “no more” to stop them from filling the tray with more and more food.
“I have not been so full since coming to India,” Olivia gestured at her stomach.
“We have never ordered five plates of the same food for each of us like this when we travel,” stated Nathan.
“This place is soooooo amazing, awesome,” Joani exclaimed.
“Do you think that we can just keep coming here again and again whenever we are hungry?” Joani laughed, imagining what it would be like.
I started counting the number of people eating in the hall and quickly estimated the number to be around 1500.
“In fifteen minutes, 1500 people were fed. Was this how it was like when Jesus fed 4,000 with two loaves and five fishes?” I thought to myself. Later, I asked and found out that around 100,000 people were fed each day here in the Golden Temple. The dining hall was open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
What happened next amazed us again.
The water barrel cart came by again, but instead of filling the bowls with water, it dripped on the floor a controlled amount of water along the rows of carpet. Another person quickly came with a meter-wide floor wiping mop and scraped the marble floor, pushing the water on the floor towards the side of the hall along with all the spilled food and water. At the side of the hall was a shallow gutter that ran all along the four walls. The dirty water was pushed into the gutter and flowed quickly along the gutter down a drain.
Just like that, the eating floor of 1,500 persons was cleaned!
We followed other pilgrims down the stair with our now empty plates and bowls. We first dropped our spoons into a metal container then we passed the empty tray and bowl to two rows of people who continued to pass them down to a 1.5 meter diameter container, where two persons bang the tray very hard onto the side of the container to clean out whatever food was left.
“BANG, BANG, BANG…” There we finally saw the source of the loud banging that we had heard earlier.
Immediately, the trays and bowls “sailed” into the air into another large container where two people tried to catch them and organized them in order to fit more trays and bowls in the container. The scene was so out of this world that visitors just stood there taking photos and video of the whole chaotic but seemly logical flow of dishes.
“I read that all these people here are volunteers,” I told the children. “Why don’t we also volunteer to better understand how this entire operation functions? Especially if Olivia is going to study at the school of hospitality!”
“Do you know how we can sign up to be volunteers?” I asked Amritpal, the person in charge of our dormitory inside the Golden Temple complex.
“No sign up. Just go and do it,” Amritpal smiled.
So for the next few days, we volunteered doing different tasks after every meal we ate at the Golden Temple. We started with washing the dishes, then peeling garlic, then buttering chapatti, and then cutting eggplants. Each time we volunteered, we came away with even more appreciation for the Golden Temple. Afterwards, we each shared our experiences.
“Now I know the dishes we use are so clean!” I exclaimed. “Each dish goes through so many washing stations from soaping, to second soaping, to first rinse, to second rinse. Can you imagine how many thousands of dishes are washed each day?”
Nathan said excitedly, “Washing the dishes was so amazingly efficient. No matter how fast the dishes come in, they pass through so quickly. As soon as the dishes were thrown in, everyone rushes to wash them.”
“The volunteers there are so nice. They allowed our family to participate even though the place was already overflowing with eager volunteers! They created room space so that we can join in. They distribute the bowls to our side so that we have dishes to wash. I actually didn’t work that hard or else I am taking away chance for pilgrims to express their devotions.” Annie commented.
“It was weird to see everyone fighting to wash dishes. At home I never saw people fighting to do chores…except maybe for Daniel Clark when he stayed with us for a week…It was the first time washing dishes was so fun!” laughed Joani.
Olivia sighed, “When these people serve, I felt that is what Christians should be like. They seemed so happy do all these work, even men. Inspiring. I am definitely inspired.”
“I learned a new trick peeling the garlic. If you first soak the garlic in water, the skin falls off so much easier!” Annie said delightfully.
“I actually didn’t want to stop peeling garlic when Dad told us it is time. I was just getting good at it!” Olivia laughed.
“My favorite was buttering the chapatti. It was easy, fast, and fun!” added Joani. “The eggplant curry was the best though. Maybe we are eating the eggplants we helped to chop!”
Not only did we eat and volunteer there, we also stayed inside the Golden Temple complex. At least 10,000 to 20,000 pilgrims slept on the marble floor of the Golden Temple complex every night as well. But they put foreigners in a special foreigner dormitory with simple bed-frame, air-conditioning, cold water, and shower, which were all free. The dormitory was set up to be a communal living space with about 48 bed spaces spread out in 5 to 6 sections. We slept at the most open section so everyday we met many new guests.
“I am glad that we stayed longer to be integrated to the life there. Most foreign backpackers just came and took a quick look. In our five days there, we must have seen three to four batches of backpackers come and leave,” Annie reflected.
Indeed, our family stayed the longest of all the foreigners during the period we were there.
“At night, we couldn’t do our homework or watch movies because new backpackers kept coming in to stay, but it wasn’t like we don’t like it. We were actually very excited to talk to them because they were all so interesting,” Joani recalled.
“After five days, we became like a tour guide for the backpackers,” Olivia joked. “We can even charge money: ‘If you go on the tour with us, we will give you a free meal, free chai, cold water, free bed…”
When it was time for us to leave the Golden Temple, we were really sad to leave.
“Golden Temple was so amazing. There was free chai, food, cold water, air-conditioning…” Joani shared.
“It was such a big contrast between the dirty, narrow, and hectic streets outside the temple and the clean, peaceful atmosphere inside,” I added.
“Golden Temple was special because it was a ‘living’ temple.” Olivia added. “At the Red Fort in Delhi, the tour guide would say that there used to be water here, the roof used to be covered with gold, ceremony was held there, and thousands of people lived here…”
“But at the Golden Temple, the pool is filled with water. There is ceremony every night. Thousands of real people come here every day. The roof is stilled covered cover with real gold. The entrances are still guarded by Sikh saint soldiers with spears. I felt like I was Marco Polo, going back in time seeing exotic places in foreign land the way it was in the past, except it’s the present!”
“I can imagine a thousand years later, when the Golden Temple become an archeological ruin, the tour guide would tell the tourists that this location used to be where the holy book was placed, instead of bronze there was real gold covering the dome, people used to dress with turban carrying daggers…”
“…and this used to be the sleeping quarter where foreign visitor stayed!” I interrupted jokingly.
Most of all, we and the children experienced first-hand, through joining them side-by-side, the heart of service and generosity shown by these thousands of pilgrims.
Annie had the best conclusion, “A heart of service glitters more than gold.”
We did go on two tours while staying at Amritsar: Heritage Walk and Border Closing Ceremony.
We took a Heritage Walk with Davinder to understand the origin of the Sikh religion and the history of the city of Amritsar. At one point he asked, “There are two ways we can take to reach the wall gate. One passes through one point of interest and one passes three points of interest, which way would you like to take?” Luckily I said “the one with three places” because he later said, “That was a test question for me to see if the tour is interesting for you or not. If you seem interested, I would tell you more. If not, I would tell you less!”
The daily border closing ceremony between India and Pakistan was hilarious. We had crossed countless number of borders in the last few years, but we had never witness any place where the closing of border each day was like attending a college football game between two rivalry schools — Indian style with Bollywood dancing, stadium seats, pop corn, and cheerleaders! The border guards reminded us of cock fighting where they crow and raise their feathers in a fighting stance.