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Air pollution affecting India’s glistening Golden Temple

It's unclear how much replacing the gold plating would cost, but it would surely be high

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Golden Temple, Amritsar Image: Wikimedia commons
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The chronic air pollution blanketing much of northern India is now threatening the holiest shrine in the Sikh religion, making the once-gleaming walls of the Golden Temple dingy and dull.

There is little to be done short of replacing the 430-year-old temple’s gold-plated walls — an expensive project already undertaken more than a century ago and then again in 1999.

To cut down on pollution, environmentalists and religious leaders have launched a campaign that includes persuading farmers to stop burning spent crops to clear their fields, removing industry from the area and cutting back on traffic. A community kitchen called a “langar” that serves up to 100,000 people free meals every day at the temple is also switching from burning wood to cooking with gas.

But so far the campaign hasn’t had much impact, with change happening slowly and still no pollution monitoring equipment installed.

“As far as pollution goes, we are paying attention,” said Jaswant Singh, environmental engineer at the State Pollution Control Board, a government regulatory authority. “We are in the process of procuring equipment so that we can check the pollution area, pollution from every source on a day-to-day basis.”

Golden Sikh  Temple, Amritsar. Image: VOA
Image: VOA

Indian Sikh devotees clean the tank early in the morning at the Golden Temple, on the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru in Amritsar, India. The chronic air pollution is now threatening the holiest shrine in the Sikh religion making the once-gleaming walls of the Golden Temple dingy and dull.

Related article: Is it right for Sikhs to oppose the inclusion of Golden Temple in World Heritage Site list?

Officials have also banned burning trash or cooking with certain fuels in restaurants and communities nearby, but enforcement so far remains weak. The city also wants to build an electricity station to stop people from using diesel-fueled generators, but Singh could not say when that might happen.
“The pollution degrading the Golden Temple is growing,” said environmental activist Gunbir Singh, who heads a group called Eco Amritsar. “We need to do a hell of a lot of work to protect the holy city status of this city.”

It’s unclear how much replacing the gold plating would cost, but it would surely be high.

“This is gold. The cost would be huge, but still would not be a problem,” Gunbir Singh said, suggesting Sikh devotees would rally behind the cause if needed. “Most of the activity that goes on there is based on donations — people will take off their bangles and rings and leave them if work needs to be done.”

Thousands of Sikh devotees and tourists every day visit Amritsar, the main city in Punjab state, to see the 17th century shrine, surrounded by a moat known as the “pool of nectar,” or “Sarovar,” and housing the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. Most of the world’s 27 million Sikhs, whose monotheistic religion originated in Punjab in the 15th century, live in India.

The country suffers some of the world’s worst air pollution, thanks to a heavy reliance on burning coal for electricity, diesel in cars and power generators, and kerosene and cow dung for cooking and lighting homes. Heavy construction amid a decade-long economic boom has also kicked up huge clouds of dust, and farmers still regularly clear their fields with fire, sending even more black carbon into the air.

The capital of New Delhi was named by the WHO as the world’s most polluted city, while Amritsar — about 390 kilometers (240 km) to the north — was ranked India’s ninth most polluted.

The Golden Temple is not the only major monument to be affected by pollution. The white marbled Taj Mahal has also become dirty from pollution from the nearby city of Agra, and every few years, workers from the Archaological Survey of India place mud packs on its walls to keep them from turning yellow and brown.

But many across the country remain unaware of the risks in breathing unhealthy air, even as scientists warn it is sickening countless Indians every year. About 1.4 million Indians were killed by illnesses related to air pollution in 2013, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of British Colombia, in Vancouver.

That tally will only rise unless pollution levels are drastically curbed, experts have said. Instead, the pollution is getting worse, according to NASA satellite images revealing particulate matter in the air. An analysis last month by the environmental group Greenpeace showed the overall concentration of PM2.5 — the tiny lung-clogging particulate matter suspended in the air — increasing 13 percent from 2010 to 2015.

With pollution fast damaging the Golden Temple, some in the Sikh heartland said they were reminded of their religious duty to protect nature.

“Our holy book teaches us that the air is the teacher, the water is the father and the earth is the mother. So we have to be mindful of all the elements of nature as true Sikhs,” the environmentalist Gunbir Singh said.

Authorities plan to ban vehicles from the area immediately surrounding the shrine. “Even the devotees will have to come on foot,” said Harcharan Singh, who heads the Shrimoni Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee, which oversees the six major Sikh temples across India.

But efforts have been slow, and officials admit so far incomplete.

Sikh preacher Baba Sewa Singh said he and his devotees have tried to help mitigate the pollution threat by planting more than 100,000 trees in the region.

“If anyone asks about the saplings,” he said, “we plant then for free in their villages.” (VOA)

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  • Akanksha Sharma

    It is very disappointing that the pollution created by us is affecting our health adversely and destroying our heritage and our own creations.

  • Akanksha Sharma

    It is very disappointing that pollution created by us not only affecting our health but also destroying our heritage.

  • Akanksha Sharma

    It is very disappointing that the pollution created by us is affecting our health adversely and destroying our heritage and our own creations.

  • Akanksha Sharma

    It is very disappointing that pollution created by us not only affecting our health but also destroying our heritage.

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‘Concept of equality’ pervades world’s biggest community kitchen

The Golden Temple complex itself gets millions of visitors from across the country and other parts of the world annually

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Bangla Sahib is one of the most famous place of worship of Sikhs in Delhi. Wikimedia Commons
Equality is important for the biggest community. Wikimedia Commons

If there is one big leveller for people, irrespective of their religion, caste, gender, social status or riches, it is the “langar”, or community kitchen, at the Golden Temple complex, where the holiest of Sikh shrines, the Harmandir Sahib, is located, in this city considered holy by Sikhs.

Referred to as the world’s largest community kitchen, the Sri Guru Ram Das Jee Langar Hall of the Golden Temple complex is unique in several aspects. On an average, it feeds over 100,000 people daily — from children to old people — from all religions, castes, regions, countries; and people from varied social, economic and political backgrounds.

“It is a 24×7 operation that carries on day and night all 365 days of the year. This has been going on for centuries, since the concept of langar was introduced by Guru Nanak Dev (the first Guru of the Sikh religion and its founder; born 1469) and propagated by other Gurus,” Wazir Singh, senior in-charge of the langar preparation, told IANS here.

Unlike other government organisations and institutions in India, there are no provisions for reservations based on caste or religion. Wikimedia commons
The Golden Temple complex provides food for many. Wikimedia Commons

At any given point of the day or night, the place is not only swarmed by devotees wanting to partake what is considered as blessed by service but by hundreds of volunteers who are ever-so-ready to be part of the voluntary cooking and serving process. The langar food is even sent thrice daily to the two Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC)-run hospitals in Amritsar, especially to a ward where treatment of mentally-ill patients and drug-addicts is being carried out. The SGPC is tasked with the management all Sikh shrines.

“We have over 500 volunteer employees. The sangat (community) also pitches in with great enthusiasm daily. People come from across Punjab on trucks and tractor-trolleys — even other states, different countries — to help in this massive exercise of making and serving food. Several local residents, including women, have been coming here for years. People take time out of their government and private jobs to serve here, irrespective of their religion or caste. We welcome everyone with love,” Wazir Singh, speaking in Punjabi, pointed out, even as he continued to issue instructions to staffers involved in cooking the langar.

The langar is all vegetarian — comprising mainly of dal (maa-chole ki dal), rice (slightly salted for taste), chapattis, achar (pickle) and a vegetable, along with something sweet (kheer or prasad). In the morning, the “chai langar” comprises of tea and rusk.

The devotees sit down on the matted floor inside the langar hall in rows. To manage the huge rush, the SGPC volunteers allow only a few hundred to enter the hall at one time. The whole operation is carried out in a meticulous manner as a daily routine.

Also Read: ‘Government chalked out 1984 anti-Sikh genocide’

“The whole exercise is quite enormous but it goes on, with the blessings of the almighty, seamlessly. The daily expense is around Rs 15 lakh. We use 100 quintals (100 kg) rice and up to 30 kg (each) of dal and vegetables daily. Over 100 LPG cylinders (domestic size) are used daily for the cooking along with hundreds of kilograms of firewood for the traditional cooking. Nearly 250 kg of ‘desi ghee’ (clarified butter) is used in the cooking. We have over three lakh steel plates. We can serve 10 lakh (one million) people in a day,” Gurpreet Singh, in-charge of the kitchen, told IANS. SGPC functionaries pointed out that 30,000-35,000 people from Amritsar and nearby areas are daily visitors to the shrine and partake langar thrice. Many of these are migrants from other states and poor people who cannot afford meals.

“Our doors are open for everyone without discrimination. We follow the concept of equality here,” said Amrit Pal Singh, a SGPC official at the Information Office. The chapattis, in the thousands, are made on eight chapatti-making machines and even by hand by women and men volunteers. The steel utensils (plates, glasses and spoons), used by devotees, also numbering in lakhs, are washed voluntarily by the devotees themselves or by volunteers.

“The shrine complex has such a spiritual attraction about it. The langar served here leaves you satisfied in many aspects. The whole experience touches your soul,” Ramesh Goyal, a devotee from Bathinda, said.

“I had always heard about this shrine. Today, what I experienced was heavenly. The langar service is unparalleled in any religion. They do it with so much devotion and humility despite such huge crowds. It is unimaginable,” Tariq Ahmed, who had come here with his family from Patna in Bihar, told IANS. Anup Singh, a young Sikh devotee from Amritsar, often accompanies his grandparents and parents to the shrine.

Sikh Community, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh
Children belonging to Sikh Community, Wikimedia Commons 

“I love to serve chapattis to the people having langar. It is a very satisfying and fulfilling experience,” he said. “The whole exercise is carried out selflessly. It is a big task but everything is carried out smoothly. We keep introducing changes depending on the needs of the devotees,” Roop Singh, Chief Secretary of the SGPC, told IANS.

The SGPC, known as the mini-parliament of Sikh religion, manages the Golden Temple complex and gurdwaras across Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. It has an annual budget of over Rs 1,100 crore, mostly from donations at the gurdwaras.

The Golden Temple complex itself gets millions of visitors from across the country and other parts of the world annually. The strong Sikh diaspora in other countries like United States, Britain and Canada actively contributes to the shrine and visits it whenever they can. IANS