Prepare to be humbled by the most tangibly spiritual place in the country, one that, in its status as a living monument, even has the edge on the Taj Mahal. Arrive with a few good hours set aside and get lost in its magical beauty. Leave your shoes at the free facility near the entrance, cover your head (bandanas are provided, or you can purchase a "Golden Temple" souvenir bandana from a vendor), and wash your feet by wading through the shallow pool before entering. The most sacred part of the complex is Hari Mandir Sahib (Divine Temple) or Darbar Sahib (Court of the Lord), which you'll instantly recognize as the marble-and-gold sanctuary at the center of a large body of water within the temple complex. The name "Golden Temple" comes from this gold-plated building, which features copper cupolas and white marble walls encrusted with precious stones arranged in decorative floral patterns that show strong Islamic influence. Four chattris flank the structure, which is decorated inside and out with verses from the Granth Sahib (the Sikh Holy Book). Construction of the temple began in 1574, with ongoing restoration and embellishment over the years, including the addition in the 19th century of 100 kilograms (220 lb.) of gold to cover the inverted lotus-shaped dome.
To reach the temple, follow the parikrama (walkway), which circumscribes the sacred water tank -- known as Amrit Sarovar, or the Pool of Nectar -- in a clockwise direction. You'll need to cross a marble causeway, Guru's Bridge, which symbolizes the journey of the soul after death, in order to reach the bangaldar pavilion on which the temple stands. Access to the bridge is through marvelous Darshani Deorhi, a gateway marked by magnificent silver doors. Here, you will join the many devotees who, especially early and late in the day, pass through the temple to pay their respects (and give a donation) to their Holy Book. Within Hari Mandir, the scene -- which is almost constantly being televised for Sikh viewers around India -- is fascinating. Beneath a canopy studded with jewels, scriptures from the Holy Book are sung, while a crowd of fervent yet solemn devotees immerse themselves in the moment. A chauri, or whisk, is repeatedly waved dramatically in the air above the Book, while new musicians and singers continually join the ensemble after another participant has paid his respects. Like an organic human machine, lines of Sikhs pay their respects by touching their foreheads to the temple floor and walls, continuing in a clockwise direction at a moderate pace. After the long, sometimes crushing, wait in the nonstop queue on the causeway, finally being among such gracious devotion will fill you with a sense of inner calm. Once you've passed through Hari Mandir, either climb the narrow stairwells and take your time to drink in the atmosphere or head back along Guru's Bridge. It is along this bridge that the Granth Sahib is carried between Hari Mandir and Akal Takht, the seat of the Sikh parliament, built in 1609 and located directly across from Hari Mandir.
Don't miss Guru-ka-Langar, a community kitchen where each day around 35,000 people are fed by temple volunteers. In an act that symbolizes the Sikh belief in equality of all people, irrespective of caste or creed, everyone is welcomed and invited to join the communal breaking of bread -- a simple and unlimited meal of chapatis (wheat bread) and dal (lentils) is served. Simply raise your hands palm-up in order to receive more chapati; the servers will continue dishing dal until you've had your fill. Before or after you join in for a meal, make a point of going behind the scenes to witness the extraordinary activities in the various industrial-size temple kitchens that prepare the food. There are three distinct sections. In one kitchen, chapattis are prepared by automated machines on a conveyor belt system that's as fascinating to observe as the unit where they're made by hand -- you're even welcome to join in. Somewhat more medieval is where gigantic cauldrons of dal are cooked over burners and stirred with paddle-size ladles. In the Central Sikh Museum at the main entrance, galleries display images and remembrances of Sikh gurus, warriors, and saints; note that it includes some graphic portraits of gurus being tortured and executed in terrifying ways.
Unlike in many other temples in India, here you feel genuinely welcome and not at all pressured to take out your wallet. In fact, the local Sikhs are so proud of their religion, culture, history, and temple that you will almost certainly be offered enthusiastic conversation and valuable information by one of the regular devotees -- in return for nothing more than your attention. The welcoming information office to the left of the main gate gives helpful advice and information, as well as free guides and booklets on Sikhism. Guest quarters are also available for visitors (for a nominal fee), and at least 400 simple rooms are provided free of charge to pilgrims (and you do not need to be Sikh to stay here -- the atmosphere will be very welcoming).
Spiritual Weight Lifting -- The best time to visit The Golden Temple is during Palki Sahib, or the night ceremony, during which the Granth Sahib is carried from the main shrine in Hari Mandir to the sanctum, where it rests for a few hours until the opening ceremony the following morning. Any man can take part in this ceremony by joining one of the queues that form behind and ahead of the heavy palanquin on which the Holy Book is moved. Several devotees simultaneously help support each arm of the palanquin, giving each person a few seconds to take part in the auspicious event. As though it were being transported along a human conveyor belt, one person from each side moves away from the palanquin and is replaced by a new shoulder from each of the lines; in this way, everyone gets at least one chance to participate, and you can join the end of the line again and again until your shoulder refuses to cooperate.