India is the perfect place for a religious experience… and you don’t have to be religious! You can stay in any Sikh temple for free and they’ll even throw in some food. Followers of Sikhism are obliged to offer shelter to anyone who asks. Obliged is a funny word, so when we learnt this, we worried that maybe we shouldn’t call by, it seemed somehow rude. But when we got to the temple we forgot all our worries immediately as we were presented with Masala Chai (spicy tea) and Samosas.
We’d been invited to this particular temple by our landlady/friend from England who had family there. Even better, she was on holiday there at the same time we were passing through.
When we arrived, we were shown around the temple. There was the main temple, with several prayer and bible rooms around it. There was also a big outside kitchen area and courtyard for guests and the homeless to eat freshly prepared meals three times a day.
Perhaps the most interesting part for us was the garden. The picturesque garden looked serene at first, filled with big models. At the gates, you’re welcomed by God’s servants – smiling open-armed statues. But as you walk round the garden you see people who have sinned, and therefore been expelled from Heaven, being punished for their crimes.
It looked something like the Alice in Wonderland maze in Disney Land Paris. But each set of models depicts a horrifying image of torture. This is Hell.
The Hell garden and temple was the vision of Baba Ji’s (the current Saint in the temple) father (creator of temples all over the world). The temple is believed to be a true representation of the temple in their heaven, which he saw during an out of body experience.
It was a surreal experience. But not as surreal as meeting Baba Ji later that evening…
In Sikhism, it’s believed that when you feel an instant connection to someone it’s because you’ve met before in a previous life. When Tim met Baba Ji he was welcomed by the longest hug and the biggest of smiles, almost like they were long lost brothers. Baba Ji didn’t speak the best English but it was clear he felt a connection to Tim. He laughed at everything Tim said, and hugged him regularly. It was truly an experience. Meanwhile, I was greeted with a pat on the head… I guess we fell out in the last life.
During our stay we were looked after by Baba Ji’s helpers. They didn’t speak much English but, as we settled in, we all began to understand one another. They’d talk amongst each other in Punjabi, trying to figure out how to ask us something. One spoke pretty good English but wasn’t a confident speaker, so he’d speak aloud the odd word in amongst the Punjabi. We’d answer in English – ‘o to the beauty of context.
On the second evening, we ate in the courtyard with a whole range of people from temple staff to the homeless. At the end of our meal someone collected our trays ready to wash up. We were truly spoilt and wanted to do something to help. We explained this to our English speaking friend, who grinned and took us to the kitchen.
I was given the job of helping with the chapattis. The dough was already made so I just needed to turn them on the giant hot plate that rests over a burning fire and beat the air out of them when they swelled up like pitta bread. Oh, and not get burnt. By this time our friend from England, her Mum and Sister all arrived back from the temple where special prayers were happening. We asked how to make chapatti’s in England – apparently it’s just the same but you can do it on the hob. Perfect!
Meanwhile Tim was taken away to make Jalebi. This involved dribbling a sweet dough type thing into oil in a squiggly pattern. The dough is then caramelised and becomes a hard shiny orange sweet… don’t ask me how. Dough doesn’t seem like it should caramelise, especially when it turns back into dough the next day. It’s not scientific, but it tastes so good!
This was one of the highlights of temple life for us. And whilst they told us we were helping, I’m sure they just gave us those tasks to entertain us. I know there were walls to scrub and toilets to clean, we’d been told earlier.
If you’re in India, I would definitely recommend staying in a temple. Even if you don’t get quite the guided tour we did, you will still learn a lot from seeing how carefully the prayer books are looked after and watching the people cooking mounds of food to feed all the visitors that day. You’ll see people coming and going, each with their own story. And, if you’re lucky, fireworks set off in the middle of the courtyard to celebrate a Saints birthday or a special event in the calendar. (If you’re unlucky though, you’ll lose an eye – firework safety ads haven’t made it over here yet!)
India is the perfect place for a religious experience. We had a great time at the Sikh temple and, although we’re not religious, we made some great friends and enjoyed hanging out with some lovely people. And surely that’s what religion should be about?
We left a donation when we left, but it wasn’t expected or asked for. So I guess it was Jalebi all round that night – our treat.