Now we're talking monuments. The Golden Temple is the Sikh Mecca, the shrine to which Sikhs the world over come to pray and tourists come to marvel; it's well worth the trip to chaotic, filthy Amritsar in the Punjab. The Golden Temple stands in the center of a compound straight out of The Arabian Nights. The temple sits in the center of the Nectar Pool (a marble, man-made lake full of sanctified water) and is gracefully constructed of honest-to-God gold reflected in the still, holy water surrounding it. The whole blessed thing – gold. I've seen the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, the pyramids, and the Acropolis, but when I saw the Golden Temple I was speechless.
Temple and lake are part of a very large, walled compound and anytime of the day or night you will find people there. Warrior Sikhs in royal blue robes and orange turbans, women with daggers round their necks, a multitude of colorful saris, and western tourists in t-shirts and jeans. Everyone's head is covered whether by turbans, kerchiefs or veils, and everyone is barefoot. There are troughs of running water to wade through on the way in and out to keep the inlaid marble floors clean.
But this isn't just any old Golden Temple. One side of the massive compound is dedicated to kitchens where a simple meal of lentils, chapattis and rice pudding are served 24 hours a day, seven days a week to anyone who wants it. The cooks and servers are part of an ever-changing army of volunteers and they serve 50,000 people a day. They have done this every day for 500 years.
In the kitchen, there are steaming iron pots big enough to boil a camel, and men stand on step stools to stir the contents with paddles that could row a boat. Women with patient eyes sit cross-legged around a wide flat griddle, rolling chapattis, flipping them quickly on the heat, and throwing them in baskets.
In the dining hall, people sit on the ground in straight lines and servers go up and down the aisles, dishing out the meal: One carries a pot of lentil dahl, one serves rice pudding, and one distributes chapattis. Outside, more volunteers scrub the tin plates with sand, and people laze around with cups of tea, digesting.
Amritsar looks pretty down at the heels — piles of garbage line the dusty streets and the best restaurant in town is a dingy Chinese place with hand-lettered signs — but Amritsar was the only place in India where I did not see a single beggar. Could it really be so simple to make sure no one goes hungry?