As Kulwant inches the small car into thick Delhi traffic, I feel a thrill of expectation. For most of my 49 years I have yearned to visit the land of my grandmother’s birth—she was the daughter of a British railway worker in Bombay—and now, finally, I’m going to see it. Kulwant Singh, a 49-year-old former Indian Army veteran, has been assigned to be my driver for a trip taking in Delhi and the northern cities of Jaipur and Agra. En route, I will follow the well-trodden, yet, for me, magically enticing path to the Taj Mahal, the tomb of the mughal empress Mumtaz Mahal. As a child I had pored over picture books of the 17th-century mausoleum, wondering if I would ever visit it.
Through the car’s open window I’m assailed by the joyous sounds and sensations of India. It’s after 10 this late September evening, but the humid air caressing my face retains some of the day’s heat and carries a heady mix of scents: woodsmoke, frangipani, gasoline, spices, and a whiff of decaying vegetation. Small shops, stalls, and dwellings line the crowded sidewalks. At a traffic light, a swarm of motorcycles surge from a standing start, revving and weaving like angry hornets. Then, rounding a bend, they slow to avoid a pale cow that lies on the road, placidly chewing.
On Kulwant’s dashboard, framed by winking red lights, is a small glass dome containing an image of a white-bearded man. Peering closer, I see the words “Dus Guru” inscribed at the dome’s base.
“Who’s that?” I ask.
“Guru Nanak,” Kulwant says. “He’s the spiritual teacher who founded our religion in the 15th century.” Kulwant explains that Guru Nanak was a wandering preacher who was born a Hindu in 1469 C.E. but was also inspired by the teachings of Islam. He believed that the basic tenets of both faiths—a message of unity and brotherhood—were roughly the same. He was the first of 10 Gurus (spiritual leaders) who taught the Sikh holy scripture.
Listening to Kulwant, I realize that with their turbans and beards, male Sikhs represent one of the world’s most identifiable minorities, yet few in the West understand them or their beliefs. To my shame, I’m among them. There’s a Sikh temple a block away from my home in Sydney, yet my knowledge of the cheerful, colorfully dressed people I’ve seen there has been limited and I vow to find out more.
Warming to his theme and happy to answer my questions, Kulwant explains that Sikhs are among the most independent ethnic groups in the world. They number around 20 million, about 12 million of whom live in India. “We Sikhs have strong beliefs, strong moral codes, and believe firmly in equality,” Kulwant says.
He does not exaggerate. Like many great faiths, Sikhism is inclusive–open to all through the teachings of the Gurus enshrined in a Holy Book known as the Guru Granth Sahib. The gurdwara (temple) is the center of life and followers are required to attend it as part of a daily routine. I see firsthand evidence of this next day when Kulwant drives me to the Sis Ganj gurdwara in Chandni Chowk, a busy thoroughfare in Delhi’s old city.
After parking the car, we dodge platoons of bicycles and rickshas to enter the white-painted temple building. I’m greeted by stocky Saurgeet Singh, clad in slacks, sports shirt, and black turban. Saurgeet is manager of the complex and has agreed to show me around. “You’re welcome,” Saurgeet beams. “Everyone is welcome in the gurdwara.”
To show respect for this holy place, I must remove my shoes and cover my head with an orange scarf. Like their Gurus, Sikh males must wear turbans (women, who are treated as equals, also cover their heads), and visitors here must do so as well.
I follow Saurgeet into the cavernous interior of the temple, lit by a pair of crystal chandeliers and echoing to brassy music. I see some 20 men and women sitting cross-legged on the floor of the central hall, facing a gold-canopied altar where a man reads from a large ornate book. “That’s the Granth Sahib,” Saurgeet says. The holy book contains devotional hymns mainly composed by the Gurus.
Now Saurgeet leads me through a door into a sweltering kitchen where huge steel pots sit on ranges. On a floury blue tablecloth on the floor, five women are deftly rolling dough and forming it into fist-sized balls, ready for baking.
“We prepare 15,000 meals a day here,” says Saurgeet.
It takes a few seconds for the mind-boggling statistic to sink in, but then, in an adjacent hall I fully appreciate the extent of the Sikhs’ generosity. Sitting in orderly rows on the floor, hundreds of people eat from silver trays, tucking into rich dal, paneer, yogurt, and freshly-baked chapati. “Food’s great,” says a man sitting nearby. He gives me a thumbs-up.
This free kitchen-refectory is found in every gurdwara, Saurgeet tells me, where volunteers cook vegetarian meals for anyone without distinctions of race, caste, religion, or gender. All food is funded by donations. “It’s a symbol of our belief in equality for all mankind,” explains Saurgeet. “We serve the high and low, the rich and poor.”
I reflect on these egalitarian sentiments as we explore the labyrinth of the temple complex. The practice of supplying free meals, known as Guru-ka-Langar (community kitchen), is not merely a symbol of generosity, it symbolises a casteless society, selfless service, and humility.
Providing free accommodation in a gurudwara is also a tradition in Sikhism, and the Sis Ganj temple is no exception. The last part of my visit is a tour of the accommodation wing. Saurgeet ushers me into a typical temple guestroom. The freshly-painted chamber is minimalist and spare, yet spotlessly clean. Fresh linen covers four slim mattresses and a window looks out onto a sunny courtyard. “Anyone can stay here free for up to a week,” says Saurgeet. “You’re welcome to bring your family from Australia any time. We’d love you to be our guests.”
Such Sikh philanthropy is evident throughout Indian life. During the Kuwait-Iraq war, Sikhs arranged Guru-ka-Langar for two months at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, serving meals and snacks round the clock for tens of thousands of people. After the earthquake in Bhuj in the state of Gujarat in January 2001, they provided free food, medicines, and clothing for victims.
Next day, on the 130-mile road trip from Delhi to Agra, I ask Kulwant why beards and turbans are mandatory. Turbans were decreed as compulsory by Guru Nanak, as was the beard, one of the symbols of a Sikh indicating brotherhood, he explains. Those who eschew them are known as apostates.
Beards shouldn’t be cut but that doesn’t mean they can’t be improved. “See mine?” says Kulwant. “It’s all black now. My youngest daughter dyed it for me last week.” He chuckles. “She said, ‘Papa you’re looking too old.’” He shows me his steel bracelet. That and a ceremonial sword are worn at all times by Sikhs to symbolise self-respect and self-defense.
The emphasis on defense and service may explain the Sikhs’ association with the armed forces that stretches back to the Anglo-Sikh wars of 1845-49 and continues today. The British were especially impressed by the Sikhs’ fighting abilities. During the Indian Mutiny of 1857 that heralded widespread opposition to British rule, they sided with the colonists, establishing a reputation for discipline, fortitude, and courage. In the two World Wars, more than 80,000 Sikhs died.
Throughout my Indian journey, through every colorful, teeming town and village, I meet many people seeking alms, yet not once do I see a Sikh begging. It’s perhaps not surprising, given their history, but it’s less a product of pride than self-respect, according to Mumbai-based academic K. Jagjit Singh, secretary of the International Punjabi Society, and mainly due to Guru Nanak’s admonition: “If you lose your self-respect while living, life becomes haram (worthless).”
Sikhs are serious, generous, hard-working, and devout, but they possess other admirable characteristics, as I learn from conversations with my genial driver. Behind the piercing eyes lurks a rich humor and a hint of devilment. On long stretches of road he assails me with jokes or spontaneously bursts into song in a booming baritone.
On the road to Agra, after a hectic drive in which I chat with a roadside entertainer with a trained bear, watch monkeys scampering across the road at a truck stop, and tell legions of postcard sellers I don’t want any, we pull up at a roadside restaurant for lunch. It’s a small, unprepossessing building without windows.
“Is this place okay?” I ask Kulwant.
“Trust me,” he says.
Inside, a friendly young man serves us black tea, freshly baked bread, a bowl of pristine white rice, and a potful of a dark, rich goat curry. The blend of spices tantalizes my tongue, bringing a flush of heat to my brow. “Kulwant,” I say when we pause between mouthfuls. “This is an eating experience.”
He says nothing but gives a rumbling laugh. Indeed, the food is delicious. It’s a magnificent meal, unlike any Indian food I’ve eaten in Australia and the best curry I’ve had in many years.
It’s mid-afternoon when we arrive at the turreted red-and-white portals of the Taj Mahal where a throng of people, many of them tourists, are waiting to enter. I have to pay an entrance fee even though the locals don’t, a guide informs me. “I’m not going to argue, having come this far,” I tell him.
The heat and humidity are so strong, I feel as if I’m walking in a steam room. Yet, my pace and pulse quicken at the prospect of viewing the Taj. After the best part of half-a-century of waiting, I’m about to see it, up close.
Through a Moorish archway, the mausoleum abruptly comes into view, its luminous planes reflected sharply in the tranquil waters of an ornamental pool flanked by manicured lawns.
I stare, enthralled, at the structure as filtered sun kisses the western side of the great onion dome with shades of pink. With its four widely spaced minarets and broad marble base, the Taj seems to cling to the earth with an embrace that can never be loosened. I feel overwhelmed by its graceful symmetry and marvel at the skill and vision of the Persian and European craftsmen who built this monument to an emperor’s eternal love.
Kulwant himself has seen the Taj many times, but I can tell that he, too, is moved. Dusk is settling and I have explored every inch of the monument by the time I’m satisfied. Dodging vendors and a cart pulled by a bellowing camel, we leave for our Agra hotel where we’ll have dinner and spend the night.
We retreat immediately to the bar, where we raise glasses of ice-cold local Kingfisher lager in a sparkling salute to India, to its monuments and to Kulwant’s people and religion. I do so, realizing that in few other countries have I met so many friendly people, been so entertained or felt so welcomed.
“We Sikhs aren’t allowed to smoke but we can drink,” Kulwant says with a grin as he sucks in a deep draught of beer. “And now that you can appreciate who we are, you can come back and visit us again.”
Amen to that. I can and I will.
Bruce Heilbuth is a former newspaper journalist, magazine editor, and foreign correspondent based in Sydney.