A Day at the Darbar Sahib
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For thousands of Amritsar's inhabitants, the day begins very early. It begins, in fact, the night before, at three o'clock or so in the morning, as households in the city stir with the activity of people preparing for a predawn visit to the Darbar Sahib - a routine that hasn't changed for four centuries. The devout of Amritsar eagerly await this hour each morning with the keen sense of anticipation that comes from knowing they will soon visit the Harimandir.
As they walk through the familiar streets of the old city, their pace quickens in expectation of soon seeing the beloved shrine. Some of them have made this walk at this hour each morning for as long as they can remember.
Outside the main entrance, they take their shoes off, check them with an attendant and proceed into the complex. At a trough of swiftly running water, they dip their feet to cleanse them. As they pass the flower stalls, some stop to buy garlands of yellow, gold or russet marigolds to carry inside as offerings.
The Harimandar Sahib
Descending the marble stairs (teaching humility to mankind) to the parikarma, they behold, in the center of the Sarowar, the serene and immortal Harimandar Sahib. They gaze at it with awe, and with reverence and love-the very emotions others before them have experienced for as long as the Harimandar has existed.
They are transfixed by this first sight of it, by its golden facades and domes. The waters around it are still and glassy in the peaceful early morning silence, and capture an almost perfect reflection. Bowing low to touch their foreheads to the cool marble of the Parikarma, worshippers pay homage and express thanks for the divine grace that has made the visit possible. Then, as is customary, they turn left to go around the entire parikarma, and to stop at shrines on the way, before finally reaching the Harimandar Sahib.
The Parikarma Shrines & Ath Sath Tirath
The first shrine along the marble walkway is the Dukh bhanjani Ber. Built around a jujube tree, it marks the spot where, it is said, a dip in the sacred pool miraculously cured a crippled youth. Since many consider their visit to the temple incomplete without bathing at this spot, they stop here and enter the water, hoping to shed their afflictions and troubles.
Past the Dukh Bhanjani Ber is a raised marble platform which is the Ath Sath Tirath, the Shrine of the Sixty-Eight Holy Places. To bathe near it, some believe, their dreams of visiting the 68 holy places of India will be fulfilled.
Further along the parikarma, around the next corner, is the shrine of Baba Deep Singh, the legendary old warrior who died at this spot. Ever since, pilgrims have paused here to pray, to sprinkle rose petals or to lay fresh garlands in his honor.
Such cameos of valor enliven the rich mosaic of a military tradition that continues to this day. Even now, the names of Sikh martyrs and soldiers who die in battle are inscribed on marble plaques embedded in the floor of the parikarma or on the pillars of the adjoining verandahs. Many Indian army regiments still maintain the tradition of installing commemorative plaques here to honor their war heroes.
As the devout turns the next corner of the parikarma, leading to the Akal takht and the Darshani Deorhi, their excitement builds, for soon they will witness, and possibly join in, the ceremonies that only those who visit the Darbar Sahib at this hour can. These are the rituals that attend the traditional bearing of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib from the Kotha Sahib in the Akal Takht, where it is kept each night, to the Harimandar Sahib, to which it is always returned before five o'clock in the morning.
The Decorated Palki and Sawari
About half an hour before the Siri Guru Granth Sahib is brought down from the Akal Takht, the palki, a gold and silver palanquin, is prepared for it. Attendants replace the cushions and pillows on which the Siri Guru Granth Sahib will rest. They lay down fresh sets of silk and brocade coverings and, when everything is ready, they sprinkle delicately scented rose water over all.
As the head priest of the Harimandar Sahib appears with the Siri Guru Granth Sahib on a cushion on his head, a series of deep, resonant drum beats of the nigara heralds its arrival to the assembled worshippers who, even at this hour, fill the large plaza to capacity. Showering fragrant red, pink and white rose petals, and reciting hymns from the holy scriptures, they make way for the palki's journey to the Harimandar Sahib. This passage, though short, sometimes takes up to half an hour while as many worshippers as possible share the honor of carrying it.
The procession solemnly moves across the plaza, through the Darshani Deorhi, and along the causeway, stopping as it reaches the main door of the Harimandar Sahib. The head priest reverently lifts the Siri Guru Granth sahib out of the Palki, places it on a silk cushion on his head, and enters the holy shrine.
He carries it to its customary place of honor beneath a velvet canopy richly brocaded with the silver and gold, and carefully sets it on velvet cushions and silks placed on a manji sahib. As the Sangat (congregation) stands in hushed silence, the head priest seats himself in front of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, ceremoniously opens it, and reads aloud the vaaq, or Lord's message, for the day.
The recitation of Asa di War, which had been in progress here since a little after three a.m., had stopped as the Siri Guru Granth Sahib was carried in. Sung always at this predawn hour of the morning, the Asa di War also, like all other compositions recited here, is taken from the Siri Guru Granth Sahib.
After the vaq is read, the singing of the Asa di War continues. As it ends, the entire Sangat and the sewadars of the temple stand up for the ardas, a prayer that is recited at the conclusion of each service. After the ardas, the shabad kirtan, the vocal and musical renditions from the sacred verses, are resumed. The shabad kirtan will be sung throughout the day and late into the evening by a succession of ragis.
Har ki Pauri and Darshani Deorhi
The early morning worshippers now step out of the Harimandar Sahib, walk on the inner parikarma that encircles it, and stop on its southern side at the Har ki Pauri. Here, marble steps descend into the sarowar, so that visitors may cup the water of the sacred pool into their hands and sprinkle it on their heads. Some take a small sip of it as well. Tradition has it that Siri Guru Arjan Dev himself gave this place its name.
Continuing around the Harimandar Sahib, on the inner parikarma, the devotees once more bow in the direction of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, then make their way back over the causeway, through the Darshani Deorhi and onto the main parikarma. As they proceed along the parikarma, towards the stairs by which they had entered, some pause by the Ber Baba Buddha, popularly known as the Tree Shrine. Baba Buddha, the first head priest of the Harimandar Sahib, is said to have sat under this tree as he supervised the construction of the Harimandar Sahib.
Before leaving the Darbar Sahib, once more the early morning worshippers turn to face the Harimandar Sahib with folded hands and touch their foreheads to the marble floor of the parikarma in farewell. As they ascend the stairs on the way out, they feel renewed, invigorated and reinforced by the knowledge that the hand of the Divine will guide them through the day.
The Daylight Hustle and Bustle
With daylight, the pace of activity at the Darbar Sahib quickens. Groups of visitors and pilgrims steadily arrive at the main entrance, in tongas, scooters, cars, buses, trucks, tractors, trailers and on foot. Unlike the predawn devotees who had come to pray or to participate in the early morning rituals, these people have come from longer distances for the pleasure of a pilgrimage whose purpose is both pious and festive. Some will stay in the sacred precincts for a day or more.
This colorful flow of visitors continues all day and late into the night: executives in business attire; farmers in their working clothes; women in a myriad variety of dress and personal adornment; and children in clothes specially made for the occasion. All ages are represented, from those who have already made the better part of their journey through life, to newlyweds come to seek blessings for the life that lies ahead - brides in scarlet and gold wedding finery, the grooms in crisply tied pink or red turbans.
People are spread out everywhere. Some are in the Harimandar Sahib listening to the shabad kirtan on the ground floor, others are absorbed in the words of the akhand path in the quiet of its upper floors. Some visit the Akal Takht where the swords and personal weapons of Siri Guru Gobind Singh are enshrined.
Many join the line in front of the special kitchen where karah parsad is prepared. They make a contribution of money for this sacramental food and carry it into the Harimandar Sahib. They give it to the attendants stationed at the door specially to receive it. The attendants in turn pass it on with God's blessings to those leaving the sanctum. Some devotees sit in quiet contemplation in the shrine of Baba Atal, built to honor Siri Guru Hargobind's remarkably gifted son who died young, or in the shrine built in Siri Guru Tegh Bahadur's memory. Since voluntary service is the very essence of Sikhism, a continuous stream of visitors makes its way to the Siri Guru Ram Das langar, to help prepare the food that will be served to the thousands who eat there daily.
Rahras & Arti
As the sun sets, and the time for evening prayers nears, there is a perceptible change in the nature of the people who now enter the Harimandar Sahib. These devotees come to sit and listen in rapt attention to the evening recitations, and to enjoy the beauty of the verses and the ragas in which these prayers are rendered. Just as in the morning, prayers began with the Asa di War, in the evening, prayers end with the Rahras, the Arti and the shabad kirtan, concluding with the ardas at 9:45p.m.
When the prayers end, the Siri Guru Granth Sahib is reverently closed, wrapped in fresh layers of rich silk and muslin, and ceremoniously carried to the palki waiting outside. As in the morning, so also now, the palki is shouldered by devout Sikhs and taken to the Kotha Sahib where the Siri Guru Granth Sahib will rest for the night.
The massive silver and rosewood doors of the Darshani Deorhi are shut and a group of volunteers inside the Harimandar Sahib starts the ritual cleansing of the shrine with milk and water in preparation for the next day. In a few hours, the doors of the Darshani Deorhi will once again be opened to worshippers, and the Harimandar Sahib will be ready to receive them so they can welcome the arrival of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib and seek its spiritual guidance for another day.
Seeing the glow of the lamps and their myriad reflections in the pool, hearing the melodic chanting of hymns, tossing handfuls of rose petals before the procession of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, and feeling the intensity of the love and reverence that attend each ritual, are experiences that will always be remembered.
Day after day, the Harimandar Sahib, the abiding symbol of the Sikh faith, continues to inspire and uplift those thousands who come to it. It is, in a sense, the heart of the Sikhs, for wherever beats a Sikh heart, there throbs the sentiment of undying devotion for this holiest of all Sikh shrines.