That’s a good word to start with.
Am pleased with that as a follow up.
There, nailed it.
A couple of hours previously, we were negotiating an auto-rickshaw ride to the India Gate when the – coincidentally Sikh – taxi man suggested we hire a car and driver for the whole morning. 600INR. (About six quid.) We meet our drive and his weeny Maruti-Suzuki van and set off onto the wide, green fringed, sunny boulevards of Lutyens city. The sheer of grandeur only pretty much completely ruined by the demolition derby driving. (More of which elsewhere.) Our chauffeur – am being charitable now: a scruffy, unkempt, smiling chap – begins to suggest a tour in the way Indians do. IE: here’s what you want to see, now off we go. No actual asking the paying customer, no sab, that’s not how we are rolling. Made of sterner stuff, we insist on a trip to the India Gate. Well worth it as it turns out: the sheer size of it, a place from which to grasp the vision of Lutyens Delhi and the might of the Empire (rightly/wrongly). Then taking the scale of loss of human life, boggling at the sacrifice in war, watching young soldiers being drilled on ceremonial wreath laying and how fortunate we are to live in more peaceful times. Somewhat traumatised, we are on our way.
“Now Sikh Temple” offers drive (accompanied by customary head bobble).
I confess, faithful reader that I was a careworn Indian traveler at this point: a touch arrogant in failing to take our helmsman at face value. My attitude was a little "yeah, yeah: whatever." How wrong I was.
Following a standard hairy few minutes journey we are descending through an underground carpark. Sensing my raised eyebrow, drive says “all free, all free” which only serves to increase eyebrow/forehead gymnastics. After some comically precise parking shenanigans, we emerge from the concrete bunker and are dazzled by bright sunlight reflecting off wall to wall white marble. Sikhs of every shape, size and age are busying themselves. It’s a temple alright.
As you may be aware, I have many India miles under my belt, so I know the temple drill. Store shoes, cover noggin and limbs, adopt quiet respectfulness of the goings on. Additionally here I am given a temporary turban and as we are led to the Temple proper we pass through a foot bath. With little pause to take the scale of the place in, we are ushered indoors. Momentarily blinded, eyes adjusting to the indoor light, the beautiful sounds of three faithful (volunteer) musicians offering holy song and accompaniment fills my head. Utterly enchanting, atmospheric and calming. Our guide explains the scene as all around the faithful pay their respects and carry out their religious business. The ceiling is golden, ornate, the holy book revered. We do not feel unwelcome, nor intruding, nor out of place: it is a place of deepest peace and gentle reverence: more so than I have experienced in any – say – church.
Proceeding outdoors to the enormous tank – of water, not armoured nor tracked – there are very many folk sitting in the shade in quiet contemplation. I am with them.
At this point, two things are newly in play. 1) our chauffeur has become the most unexpectedly competent, sensitive and passionate guide. He is Hindi not a Sikh, but – in common with so many Indians – he is hedging his religious bets by joining in. (More significantly) 2) proceedings take an unexpected turn. Our drive had been offering some explanation of the activities at the temple and we – to my shame – bounced off the language barrier. I really wasn’t fully understanding what was being conveyed to us and – arrogant SOB – thought I was on point when it came to things that happen around here. Wrong!
Dimly aware of the Sikh penchant for charity, I knew they offered food to all comers. Yet when we descended out of the direct sun, the scene awaited us was on another plane. One I didn’t see coming. In a stockade sat around five hundred folk who were clearly of meagre means. Now you might think you know what poor means. But believe me, when you see the poor in India you’d likely have to re-calibrate. For this author, the creeping sensation of discomfort and involuntary guilt leapt to front of mind. “How can I be so effortlessly wealthy when these folk are so very, very poor? How can that be right?”
We walk past the hungry into a cavernous kitchen where scores of volunteers are preparing food.
So many questions. I start off with a simple one: How many mouths do they feed here each day?
No, that’s not a typo. And yes, I did ask twice.
Dahl, chapatti, a rice-pudding and some vegetables dished up on pressed metal trays with a winning combo’ of fresh cookery and mass produced efficiency. Staring open mouthed at the scale, the industry I am motioned by a gent to pitch in. Smiling broadly I settle cross legged onto a plank to deploy my culinary skills. Task? Fashion chapatti from balls of dough. A whopping flour dusted marble tray set on the floor is attended by around a (bakers?) dozen, er, bakery assistants. I take my rolling pin and we’re in production. An elderly gent opposite forms the dough balls and fires them in short order to each wielder of rolling pin. Not wanting to do wrong, nor let the side down I crack on.
Stacks of rolled breads are then shipped over to a snooker table sized hot plate before being finished over a flame. The puffing of cooked bread and expert flipping into trays was a sight to behold: simple yet mesmeric.
We place our hands together and bow our thanks for having a few scant minutes behind the scenes. For the humble privilege of helping feed those in need, albeit in a microscopic fashion.
Returning to the shoe locker, something never before seen takes place. Luckily I had a) camera and b) presence of mind to capture it. In case the video is indistinct and to relieve the sheer stress of suspense what happened was this: the virtuous Sikhs moved Granny Pat to tears.
So, that fourth word to finish with:
Hopefully the following video gives you a little of what I've tried to explain.