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THE SHRINE OF THE SIKHS
THE Sikhs are the youngest of the great powers of India. A kind of Hindu Protestants, their Luther arose about 1500 to fulminate against caste and the worship of idols. Instead of Shiva and Kali, they worship their Bible, which is called the Granth. They abhor tobacco, and it is impiety to shave or cut the hair. Sometimes, when a Sikh plays polo, you may see it come undone and Wave behind him like a horse-tail. From Puritans they turned to Ironsides, praying and fighting With equal fervour, wearing an iron quoit in their turbans, partly as a sign of grace, and partly as a defence against a chance sword-cut.
For some three hundred years they fought the Mussulmans, Mogul or Afghan, for the dominion of the Punjab, and won it in the end. The Mussulmans tortured the Sikh teachers to death with their families; the Sikhs sacked and massacred in return. The Mussulmans took Amritsar, blew up the temple of the Granth, and washed its foundations in the blood of sacred cows; the Sikhs took Lahore, blew up the mosques, and washed their foundations in the blood of unclean swine. Fanatics and heroes, they lived only for the holy war, and became the barrier of India against the Mussulman tribes of the North-West. At last, in 1823, the Sikhs were united under Ranjit Singh into the greatest power of India. But he died in 1839; four wives and seven concubines were burned with him, and you can see their tombs under marble lotuses in Lahore. Ten years later the second Sikh War was over, and the Punjab was British. If the Sikh rule was short, their battles have ever been long.
The later history of the Sikhs — how kindly they accepted British rule, which has still treated their religion with more than tolerant respect; how they supplied and supply to-day noble regiments to our army; the splendid services they rendered in the Mutiny, but a decade after their conquest; the unswerving gallantry and devotion which they have displayed on every field of honour, — all this is part of the military history of the Empire. The very officers of Gurkha and Pathan and Dogra regiments admit that the Sikh is the ideal of all that is soldierly.
Ranjit's capital was Lahore, but the holy city has ever been Amritsar. "The Pool of Immortality," it means, and here in the centre of the pool is the Golden Temple. In its present form it is not yet a century old — quite an infant in India. Amritsar, indeed, is full of new things; for, as it is the Mecca, it is also the Manchester of the Punjab. Carpets and shawls and silks are manufactured there, or brought in by merchants from Persia and Tibet, Bokhara and Yarkand. Here you can see modern native India untainted by Europe.
Amritsar wears an air of solid prosperity. Not in the least like the manufacturing towns we know, lacking the machinery of Bombay or Calcutta, it neither shadows its streets with many-storeyed factories nor defiles its air with smoke. But it wears a uniform and thriving aspect, as of a town with a present and a future rather than a past. The Bond Street of Delhi is a double row of decayed mansions propped up by tottering booths; the houses of Amritsar are middle-sized, regular, stably built of burned bricks, neither splendid nor ruinous. The looms clatter and whir in the factories, and the merchant bargains between the whiffs of his hookah in his shop, and Amritsar grows rich in a leisurely Indian way, unfevered by Western improvements.
To the Western eye it is unenterprising and rather shabby. The stable comfort of Amritsar stops short at the good brick walls; inside, the shops are bare brick and plaster. There is nothing in the least imposing about it. "Chunder Buksh, Dealer," says one placard, and it would be hard to say What else he could call himself; for his stock seems to consist of one fine carpet, some brass pots, and a towel. Above him is "Ali Mohammed, Barrister-at-Law," in a windowless, torn-blinded office, which you would otherwise take for the attic of Chunder Buksh's assistant. But compared with the rest of India, Amritsar is a model of well-being. It is dusty, but otherwise almost clean; the streets, of course, are full of bullocks and buffaloes, but it seems rare that animals share their bed with men; there are plenty of people all but naked, but it is rather from choice or religious enthusiasm than of necessity. The trousered ladies, strolling with trousered babies on their hips or smoking hubble-bubbles on shop counters, wear silver in their blue-black hair, pearls in their noses, gold in their ears; they jingle with locked-up capital. Finally, there is a Jubilee statute of the Queen, and a clock-tower for all the world like an English borough's. But besides these and the Government offices and the railway-station there is hardly a whisper from the West in the town; and in Amritsar you begin to conceive a new respect for India.
The stream in the streets sets steadily towards the Golden Temple. From the heavy-browed city gate to the holy pool the winding alleys are splashed with all the familiar hues — orange outshining lemon and emerald throttling ultramarine. Following the stalwart, bearded pilgrims, in the midst of the city of shopkeepers you suddenly break into a wide square: within it, bordered by a marble pavement — white, black, and umber — a green lake dances in the sunlight; and in the midst of that, mirrored in the pool — you look through your eyelashes, for the hot rays fling back sevenfold-heated, blinding — gleam walls and roofs and cupolas of sheer gold.
A minute or two you blink and stare, then you see that it is a small temple on an island with a causeway leading to it from under an arch. And after the first blink and stare your notions of beauty rise up and protest against it. The temple is neither imposing by size nor winsome by proportion. It has two storeys — the lower of marble, inlaid, like the marble of Agra, with birds and beasts and flowers, but with none of Agra's grace and refinement; all above it is of copper-gilt. Above the second storey rises something half-cupola, half-dome, but it is not in the middle; there are smaller cupolas at the side overlooking the causeway, and others smaller still at the far side. The whole temple is smaller than St. Clement Danes, and a little building has no right to be irregular. If the Taj Mahal, you say, which is three times this size, can take the trouble to be symmetrical — Well, if this is the masterpiece of modern India — As for the gold, it blinds you for the first moment and amuses you for the second; but you might as well ask beauty of a heliograph.
Nevertheless, do not go away, for you will hardly see anything more Indian. Outside the gate they show you a Government ordinance that everybody must either conform to the religious customs of the place or forbear to indulge his curiosity; you bow, and a bearded giant, who might be a high-priest for dignity, takes off your boots and ties on silk slippers instead. You leave your cigar-case behind you: tobacco must not defile the holy place. Then, behind a white-bearded policeman — Who performs the triple function of guiding, preventing you from doing anything impious, and clearing worshippers out of the way before you — you start forth to see.
The pilgrims shuffle on eagerly round the pavement to the great gate before the causeway. On a gilt tablet, in English and Punjabi, stands the record of a miracle: how that a great light from heaven fell before the holy book, and then was caught up into heaven again, whence the learned augured much blessing upon the British Raj. Past the gate they press without turning the head, though it is carved and pictured over every inch. On one side of the entrance a marble tablet shows the legend XXXV Sikhs and something in Punjabi. From the gate you issue on to the causeway. It also is flagged with marble, and lined with gilded lamp-posts; but the lamps above the gold are that crass-blue and green-coloured glass of the suburban builder, and more than one hangs broken. So you come to the sanctuary itself — a lofty chamber with four open doors of chased silver. Within sit three priests on the floor, under a canopy of blue and scarlet, before a low ottoman draped in crimson and green and yellow. The high-priest, eagle-eyed and long black-bearded, reads continually in a loud voice from the Granth; beside him sits one With a gilt-handled wisk and fans the sacred book. At another side sit two musicians: one twangs a sort of one-stringed mandoline, one thrums a tom-tom. Before the Granth lies a cloth; and each believer, crouching in, flings on it flowers or cowries or copper coins for his offering. To the white man they bring what looks like a dry half-orange or candied citron, only white; it is made of sugar, and the white man responds with the offering of a rupee. The walls about this strange worship blaze with blue and red and gold in frets and scrolls and flower-tendrils; above are chambers and galleries of the same and studded mirrors; in one more than holy room are brooms made of peacocks' feathers wherewith alone it may be swept.
That is the great shrine of all; but there is much else. All round the lake are palaces of stone and white marble belonging to the great Sikh chiefs who came here to worship. Before them, on the pavement, men squatting under canvas screens hawk flowers — lotus, jasmine, marigold, or scabious — to be offered before the Scripture. In one of the palaces, which matches the temple With a gilt dome of its own, you see a glass case; within it, under crimson silk, rest the sword and mace of some old Sikh Boanerges, mighty in prayer as in battle. Then there is a tower temple of eight storeys, dedicated to a bygone saint and miracle-worker, the lower chamber aflame with paint and gold. As the policeman enters he touches the step with his finger; a woman in violet trousers flings a flower on to a cloth and ottoman like that of the central shrine; a woman in green-and-gold trousers places a bread-cake before it and lays her forehead on the marble sill; others grovel and shampoo it with their hands. The next thing you come to is a plain shed with a dynamo that supplies the shrines and gardens with electric light. After that a group of naked fakirs, powdered white with ashes, with long mud-matted hair and mad eyes. Then a door, fast closed and seeming to lead nowhither, with a tiny wreath of marigolds hung on it.
Everywhere the same grotesque contradictions — splendour and squalor, divinity and dirt, superstition and manliness. The Western mind can make nothing of it, cannot bring it into a focus. You simply hold your head, and say that this is the East, and you are of the West. In the treasury above the gate are silver staves and gilt maces, canopies of gold and diadems of pearls and diamonds. In the sacred, putrid lake rot flowers. A fakir standing before an enclosure drones in a full voice words you do not understand, like a psalm without any end to it: the refrain, after every half-dozen words, sounds like "Hullah hah leay." Inside the shrine the high-priest never ceases to intone the Granth, nor the other priest to fan it, nor the musicians to tinkle and thrum; and in and out that holy place fly clouds of pigeons, perching on the canopy and fouling the growing pile of offerings before the ottoman. At every turn you come on little shrines with books on silken cushions and prostrate adorers. A calf, unchecked, is trying to lick the gold off the great gateway.