In India, Spreading A Green Gospel Among Pilgrims

Nov 21, 2011
Originally published on November 21, 2011 12:36 pm

The Golden Temple at Amritsar, India, doesn't look like an environmental pressure point. The gold-sheathed building gleams serenely as a jewel box in the midst of a broad reflecting pond. Music serenades pilgrims as they cross a causeway to reach the shrine.

Devout Sikhs from all over India and the world come to Amritsar by the tens of thousands every day — and therein lies the rub: The pilgrims eat, pray and love their shrine almost to death. Pilgrims add to a sizable carbon footprint in the northern Indian city, where a dense population and heavy industry already are degrading air and water quality.

Amritsar is by no means unusual. Travel groups, such as the World Tourism Organization, say more than 300 million people travel for religious purposes each year.

Some of the major holy cities have formed an environmental group — the Green Pilgrimage Network — to encourage environmentally friendly practices among religious travelers. They include Assisi in Italy, Jerusalem, various Shinto shrines in Japan, Lou Guan in China, and St. Albans in England.

Reducing The Carbon Footprint

Amritsar is a good example of the strains that religious devotion can put on a site.

At 4 a.m., the brightly lit courtyard of the Golden Temple is already pulsing with life. Thousands of pilgrims pray and sing as they wait for the daily ritual in which the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, is carried to the sanctuary.

The book, covered in rich cloth, is placed in a litter under a golden canopy and carried across a causeway, followed by devotees. Most of the men wear the carefully wrapped turbans and uncut beards that are the most familiar marks of their religion.

Sikhs stay in touch with their faith by visiting this and other holy sites as often as they can.

"Everyone has to be here, once a year, twice a year," says Ravneet Pal Singh, who works for the environmental group EcoSikh. "People come from all over the world, wherever we have Sikh communities. They come back to India, and the one place they surely will go is the Golden Temple."

Singh says about 100,000 pilgrims and tourists visit Amritsar each day; the number triples on festivals and holy days.

"They come here, drink a lot of water and use all those facilities that you have to use when you travel to such a place," he says. "So we can change many things and reduce the carbon footprint a lot."

Solar Panels, Harvesting Rainwater

Singh is particularly fired up because he has just returned from a meeting of other representatives of the Green Pilgrim Cities Network in Assisi. He was part of a small delegation of city and temple officials who pledged to try to incorporate environmentally friendly practices in Amritsar.

Singh says the ideas for Amritsar include solar panels for the lighting system that keeps the temple gleaming throughout the night.

Other plans revolve around a core tenet of the Sikh religion that believers provide food for anyone who needs it.

At the Golden Temple's communal kitchen, volunteers prepare and serve about 85,000 meals each day. Singh is proud that the meals are served on stainless steel plates and bowls, so there's no plastic waste, but he says the temple wants to extend green practices to the cooking and cleaning. That will include installing solar water heaters for the scullery, where steel dishes clash like cymbals as hundreds of volunteers wash up.

Temple authorities also want to make better use of water, using sophisticated ways of harvesting rainwater.

Singh says the organizers hope to educate pilgrims by reminding them of the Earth-friendly messages that are already part of Sikh theology.

"The air is our master, water is our father, and this Earth is our great, great mother," he recites. "So this is [a] direct relation that the Sikh masters have given to us, and we should now reflect the way they taught us."

Singh says the Green Pilgrim Cities Network estimates that about 40 percent of the world's people make religious pilgrimages at some point in their lives.

That, he says, is a lot of people who are potentially ripe for Earth-friendly messages.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

More than 300 million people travel every year for religious purposes. Many are making pilgrimages to holy cities and sacred sites. But when so many people travel, they can endanger the very places they love. Authorities of some pilgrimage destinations want to reduce the pollution and environmental damage caused by so many people. They're joining what's called the Green Pilgrimage Movement. That includes the Indian holy city of Amritsar, where we found NPR's Corey Flintoff.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: It's 4:00 in the morning and the courtyard of the Golden Temple is already pulsing with life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

FLINTOFF: Thousands of Sikh pilgrims pray and sing as they wait for the daily ritual in which the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, is carried to the sanctuary.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

FLINTOFF: The gold-sheathed temple is strung with lights, so it gleams like a jewel box in the midst of a mirror-like pond.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLINTOFF: The book, covered in rich cloth, is placed in a litter under a golden canopy and carried across a causeway, followed by devotees.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

FLINTOFF: Most of the men wear the carefully wrapped turbans and the uncut beards that are the most familiar marks of their religion. Sikhs from all over India and the world stay in touch with their faith by visiting this and other holy sites as often as they can.

RAVNEET PAL SINGH: Everyone has to be here, like, once a year, twice a year. Like, people come from all over the world, wherever we have Sikh communities. They come back to India, and the one place that they surely will go to is the Golden Temple.

FLINTOFF: This is Ravneet Pal Singh, who works for the environmental group EcoSikh. He says the city of Amritsar gets around 100,000 visitors a day - pilgrims and tourists, and three times that many on holidays.

SINGH: They come here, drink a lot of water and use public transport and all those facilities that you have to use while you're in a travel to such a place. So we can change many things and reduce carbon footprint a lot.

FLINTOFF: Singh is particularly fired up because he's just returned from a meeting of other representatives of the Green Pilgrim Cities Network in Assisi, Italy. He was part of a small delegation of city and temple officials who pledged to try to incorporate environmentally friendly practices in Amritsar. Singh says the ideas for Amritsar include solar panels for the lighting system that keeps the temple gleaming throughout the night. Other plans revolve around a core tenet of the Sikh religion, that believers provide food for anyone who wants it. At the Golden Temple's communal kitchen, volunteers prepare and serve around 85,000 meals each day. Singh is proud that the meals are served on stainless steel plates and bowls, so there's no plastic waste, but he says the temple wants to extend green practices to the cooking and cleaning.

He says the temple wants to install solar water heaters for this area, where steel dishes clash like cymbals as hundreds of volunteers wash up. Temple authorities also want to make better use of the water.

SINGH: All the temples here, whether they're Hindu temples or Sikh temples or Muslim mosques or a church, they should have green water harvesting, and as far as possible they should have solar panels.

INSKEEP: Singh says the organizers hope to educate pilgrims by reminding them of the Earth-friendly messages that are already part of Sikh theology.

SINGH: The air is our master, water is our father, and this Earth is our great, great mother. So this is direct relation that the masters, Sikh masters have given to us, and we should now reflect the way they taught us.

FLINTOFF: Singh says the Green Pilgrim Cities Network estimates that around 40 percent of the world's people make religious pilgrimages at some time in their lives. Singh says that's a lot of people who are potentially ripe for Earth-friendly messages. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.