What Travel Taught Me (in India)

We had finished our meal and stepped outside into the muggy air. I looked to my right as we walked along the path leading way from the hall to see dozens and dozens of men and women giving their time to prepare food, feed, and clean the dishes of the all those who came to India’s Golden Temple to worship. The offering of their time was part of the gift of giving that is an integral the Sikh religion, one which I knew very little about. This was my first time in India. Until a short time before I had never even heard of the Golden Temple. My travelling companion D wanted to visit it. A self-professed non-practicing Sikh she was still interested in seeing it as it was the faith she grew up with. We were staying with her family’s relatives in a small town in Punjab and they agreed to take us there. Their hospitality was incredibly generous.  With several of us in tow we headed to the northern Indian town of Amritsar and made a pilgrimage to this incredible religious monument. The namesake of this place the sanctum, a bit of a holy of holies I gather, set in the middle of giant rectangular pool. Most of the sanctum is copper covered in gold foil where worshippers line up along the single walkway leading up to it. On each side of the pool are boulevards of white giving rise to buildings of the same stone. The gold of the temple gives contrast to the white surroundings and draws my attention to it. My eyes always found the gold shimmering in the sun.  Along the pool are some smaller buildings. We see women entering it. D explained to me before that many would dip into the pool as a ritual for cleansing not of the body but the spirit. This building allowed the women to do so in quiet. She said I could partake and nobody would judge.  Two of the women of the family entered this small area. She asked if I still wanted to. I had been thinking about this. Although I am no longer religious, having thrown off my former beliefs that no longer meshed with who I had become, I understood that many take rituals seriously. I trusted D that there would be no judgment yet felt that I may still offend inadvertently, something I did not want to chance.  I chose not to dip into the waters, though she did encourage me to dip my bare feet into them. We then sat nearby on the warm white stone.  It is filled with people. D explains further that this is the most important site for Sikhs. I ask a few more questions. I know so little about this faith. She answers what she can and says I could ask her older sister if I ever wanted to know more as she practices her faith and is devoted to it. D mentions also mentions the attacks during the 1980s in Amritsar, in the temple. I had never heard of that event happening.  I remember many news events of that time but not this one. I look around. This, a place of beauty and peace, so vital to so many. A microcosm of the world. “I know nothing.” It comes into my head swiftly. I suddenly realize how big our world is. How much is going on all at once.  And I am only a small part of it. My view of everything shifted in that moment.

“The more I see the less I know”. For a long time I wondered what this phrase really meant. It almost doesn’t make sense. If you see, learn, and experience more wouldn’t you know more? That seems to be the way things work, one would think. I know the saying is pretty much a cliché though when I finally understood, it made all the sense in the world. That moment, right there at the Golden Temple was humbling and awesome at the same time. Realizing that I am so small, minute and limited in my world experience – that I really do not know anything at all, all the while realizing how incredibly huge the world around me was. It was like standing on the edge of the universe and realizing how unimaginably huge it is. That moment has stayed with me ever since.  Travel does that to me.

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