We wake up early, which is fortunate during the hot season. It’s been about 41° C here at the hottest time of day since I arrived two days ago, and humidity is high – nearly 50 percent. So getting out early for a walk is a good idea. Even at 6:00 AM, which is when we set out today, I was mopping myself with a handkerchief by the time we stopped for tea.
As usual, we had to wake up the hotel employee sleeping on a couch in the lobby, to ask him to unlock the doors and let us out. The lobby, enclosed by a huge glass wall and glass doors, felt like a hot yoga studio. Once we were outside, there was little change, other than a slight movement of air as we rounded the corner and headed down the street to the tea shop that opens early.
We sat under a tree, sipping strong tea flavored with fresh ginger. I enjoy watching the man make it. As the pot of simmering tea gets too low, he pours in more milk and water, ladles in a bit more tea and sugar, and holding a piece of fresh ginger root in one hand over the pot, uses a small knife to scrape more ginger into the brew. This is why it’s so hard to imitate the taste of street tea when you make it at home: No amount of boiling can give the authentic flavor that’s produced by adding ingredients to the same pot all day.
After this refreshment, it was time to move on. We agreed to walk down to the fast-food restaurant we stopped at yesterday, to see if it was open for early breakfast. If not, we could just keep walking down Bangla Sahib Road to the gurudwara, which we both remembered as a pleasant place to visit.
Whatever the destination, the walk is pleasant. The street is lined with large old trees, and traffic is very light so early in the morning. People were already out sweeping and cleaning in front of shops, and the little family of street dwellers we passed yesterday were variously cleaning their teeth, building a fire and preparing potatoes for the food they will cook and sell today.
Soon we reached a Kali temple, with people praying inside and bells ringing.
We walked on, and suddenly the gurudwara was in sight, its white and gold towers rising above Delhi’s streets.
Once inside, the atmosphere is serene, despite the fact that already, somewhere between 300 and 400 people are already in the gurudwara’s expansive precincts, washing, talking, praying at the temple itself or at the holy pond.
Water is an important part of this temple. Guru Har Krishan, the eighth Sikh guru, lived on this site in the 17th century, and gave fresh water from his well to the poor and to people suffering from smallpox. The water is said to have cured many people (unfortunately not the guru himself, who died of the disease), and people still regard the water as holy and curative. I noticed a small pagoda where the holy water was dispensed; people were filling bottles from it to take away with them. And as you walk into the temple, there is a man filling steel tumblers with fresh cold water, “R.O. water,” as the sign says, meaning filtered by the process of reverse osmosis.
We each took a tumbler of water and finished it off before going in. We checked our shoes and socks into a station constructed below the temple for that purpose. A line of ladies stood behind the counter where you leave your shoes and collect a token, stepping up in turn to help the next person so that no one has to wait more than half a minute. After leaving your shoes, you walk through a continuously-filling footbath right before ascending the stairs to the temple. There a young man stopped us, and gestured to our heads, then to a basket of head coverings behind us. I grabbed a hot-pink covering, while Alan picked through the basket to find one in a more dignified color. With these tied on, we walked once more through the footbath and up the steps to the temple.
We were both eager to visit the holy pond. There’s something so soothing about the sight of water when it’s hot outside, and I’d glimpsed the pond through slits in its surrounding wall as we approached the temple. As we walked down the steps, we were refreshed by the sight of the water, the cool white marble with its inlaid decorations, and the people walking around the pond or taking a devotional dip in it. Some men strip to their underpants and dip all the way under, rising to take the water in their mouths and raise their praying hands towards the sky. It’s a poetic, beautiful and eternal image, distinctly Indian.
After a walk around the pond, we spent a little time listening to the prayers from outside the temple. Foreigners may go in with a guide, but we didn’t feel the need, though the inside looks splendid, with gilded walls and decorations.
I noticed how well organized everything is at this gurudwara. The shoe check-in, the place where you buy tickets to receive a meal, the line for receiving prasad (blessed food) – everything is perfectly run and well staffed. Every surface looked freshly washed, and every detail seemed thought out. There was even soap provided at the hand-wash sinks flanking the entrance to the temple.
People beckoned in such a friendly manner for us to take water, to take prasad, to cover our heads, to use the benches provided for shoe removal. The feeling is one of helpfulness, sharing and openness, an expression of Sikh values.
We took another tumbler each of the cool R.O. water before leaving. The man dispensing asked if we wanted more, so I held out my steel water bottle to be filled. He poured out what I had, carefully rinsed my bottle and filled it to brimming before handing it back to me with a kind look. I drank enough to be able to close the bottle; it tasted delicious.
As we left the temple, I noticed a white car turn into an underground parking garage for worshippers. The driver was perfectly groomed, with a turban that matched his upper clothing, and the lady with him – presumably his wife – was beautifully dressed as well. It was not yet 8:00 AM, and yet they were much later than the many people who’d already visited the temple to partake of spiritual refreshment before starting their day.