Goindwal (also spelled Goindval) is the site of a township and Sikh shrine Goindwal Baoli, the Well of 84 Steps which was constructed in the 16th century by Guru Amar Das.
The ancient well he built has become a popular historic Sikh shrine. In modern times, the well spans about 25 feet or 8 meters. An arched access opens to a domed entrance decorated with frescoes depicting the life of Guru Amar Das. A divided underground staircase with 84 covered steps descends beneath the earth to the well's sacred waters. One side of the staircase is for the use of women and the side other for men.
Each step is thought to represent 100,000 life forms of a possible 8.4 million existences. Many devotees visiting Goindwal Baoli Sahib recite the entire hymn of "Japji" on each step. The devotees first descend to bathe and perform ablution in the waters of the well. Next devotees begin to recite Japji on the lowest step. After completing the prayer, devotees return to water of the well for another dip. Devotees then move on to the next higher next step, repeating the prayer and performing in all 84 complete recitations, in hopes of being liberated from transmigration. - Sukhmandir Khalsa
I found myself 8,000 miles away from home deep in the well in Goindwal Temple in India. I was skin to skin among a mix of nude, curvy Indian women and determined, wetsuit-clad American woman all trying to get what they came for from this sacred Sikh site. There was thrashing and mumbling as people tried to get themselves in and out of this space that was clearly at its maximum capacity.
“Cathy!” I yelled as I reached my hand out of the wet masses to get a boost out of the well. We grabbed each other’s wrists as she lurched me out of the wet mosh pit leaving a sucking sound behind me. The crowd quickly swallowed up the space I’d just occupied.
I had made it to the fourth step of 84, but we were packed like sardines and I could barely get my feet to fit while I recited the English version of Japji. About 10 minutes later with the recitation complete, I turned once again to enter the overpopulated well to take another ritualistic dip to my shoulders.
As I scanned the area to strategize the quickest path it looked to me like we Americans descended like an alien invasion. Our pale skin, athletic attire and “in it to win it” attitude a stark contrast to the soft, beautifully adorned Sikh women and children taking a leisurely dip and filling their water bottles with the sacred (albeit murky) waters of the Beas river that fed into the well.
I quickly snapped back to a Division 1 college golf course where I was lined up with hundreds of young women to start our 5k charge to the finish line during a large invitational. Once the gun went off, we all jockeyed for our position, hearts pounding as the adrenaline coursed through us. We ran like a herd of gazelles to see who could endure the most amount of physical pain at the fastest speed. Instincts always clicked in. There were three options: lead, keep up or get left behind, vulnerable to extinction.
During the first 10 steps at Goindwal my sense of claustrophobia kept me moving quickly, reminiscent to my days on the cross country course. The bodies pressed together were less distracting than everyone muttering their own recitation in such close proximity. Other voices made my head swirl as I was trying to keep track of my placement on one of the 10 pages I had to read each step between dips. I desperately wanted a least a little space to hear my own voice away from the cacophony. Spaciousness was my motivation at this point. Even above the promised liberation of 14 generations of my lineage after completing all 84 steps, all 84 recitations and all 84 dips in the well each getting further away each time.
It wasn’t long before the pack thinned and I fell in time with a fellow traveler on “The Steps”. There was still enough of a crowd where we had to double up. Between breaths, I asked her if we could fit back to back to save space as my long legs allowed my butt to rest just above hers. In any other situation, this request would feel ridiculous. But we were on The Steps where you gotta do what you gotta do.
The day or so preceding The Steps we received a series of pep talks from our teachers who were alums of this experience. “You have to spend the next 24 hours getting your Japji down as fast as possible,” our teacher Harijiwan advised. “Even if you get it down to 10 minutes that still has you on there for 14 hours, not including the time it takes running up and down to the well.”
“And make sure you go as fast as you can for the first 40 steps,” Guru Jagat explained. “You’re going to slow down and you have to run further the second half so give yourself the best start possible.” They also prescribed rest and carb loading since there was no food for the hours we were on The Steps, advice I had heard before.
I was used to such coaching from my track days at the University of Georgia. When Spring came I had to be one of the top two in my event or I didn’t get to travel to compete - which was the whole point of the training. Sometimes they only took one person per event and I always wanted to be on the traveling team.
When I was a Sophmore my time in the 1500 meter started to drop dramatically threatening the current Junior who was on the traveling team. Every practice on the track felt like a time-trial to prove my worth. That’s not the way team training was supposed to go but it was how it felt to my 18-year-old self.
I learned how to mentally break my teammate in practice. Through trial and error, I found if I sprinted the first 100 meters of our 400-meter repeats and broke contact with her early I could settle into my normal pace and she’d never catch me again. I would do this 10 times on our most challenging workout of the week when we would do 10, 400-meter sprints with 60 seconds rest in between. It worked every time. So the thought of going full throttle on the first half of this Herculean feat we were undertaking seemed like second nature. But what I didn’t want to bring with me on The Steps was my sense of competition and ability to figure out how to break those who threatened my status.
I entered into a time warp and my companion and I were on step 30-something. We had synced up finishing our recitations, her’s in Gurmukhi and mine in English, around the same time each round. We also found ourselves at the front of the pack, a position that felt familiar. However, instead of trying to conjure up a way to be the fastest or get further ahead the camaraderie felt uplifting. It kept the shadow away and made the experience (dare I say) more fun.
About 10 hours before this point I was in a small print shop outside of the Golden Temple with a 20-something young man from LA. Instead of resting we were in a 1980s time capsule with locals staring at a tall blond woman and a redheaded yogi who obviously weren’t from around here. Moments ago we had gotten permission to do Japji in English as it would still allow for liberation. Neither of us had prepared for the steps in Gurmukhi and we had planned to do the shorter Mul Mantra but with the green light to use the English translation we hopped in a car to print out and laminate our pages.
Gripping these laminated pages was what brought sanity as the time slowed and my body heavied, the pages and the angels who came giving us the occasional bites of food and sips of water. The blessing of English was seeing various lines highlight and come to life. I’ve recited these lines dozens of times, eyes crossing and disorientation setting in, but each step illuminated a new gift of beauty as if it was the first time.
Step 42: The planets, solar systems, and galaxies created and arranged by your hand, sing. They alone sing, who are pleasing to your will. Your devotes are imbued with the nectar of your essence.
Step 48: The spiritual warriors, the heavenly beings, the silent sages, the humble and serviceful speak.
Step 52: The sound current of the Naad vibrates there, and countless musicians play on all sorts of instruments there. So many Ragas, so many musicians singing there.
So on and so forth like a scene from Fantasia, with inanimate words dancing to life.
As time wore on another group of women got closer to our twosome. Some energies felt welcomed like we were part of a pep squad, while others caused a propulsion of polarity causing me to grapple with myself. Do I stay the course or hit turbo drive to accelerate and leave the others in the dust as I’ve trained myself to do?
“Hot tea!” came echoing down the stairwell. “Come and get your hot tea!”
We all were so in it we ignored the beckoning.
A few minutes passed. “Hot tea!” was again offered. We were told the key to completion was to never take a break. We could see the end from here even if it were hours away. We negotiated among our group of six that we would break for tea, refuel and then complete The Steps. The group ascended up the steps, except for one, and tasted the most delicious chai and cookies ever created. I savored every sip as I regained my strength and motivation. Even though it looked like we were close to the end, we had several hours left to go, but I was inspired about how far we had come together.
There was a part of me that knew where the darkness of my mind could take me. The times when I’ve quit and crumbled under pressure or exertion. Times when I couldn’t make it on my own and those moments haunt me. But being part of this group, even those who represented parts of myself I try to push away, kept me elevated above the negativity. I felt aligned and uplifted by likeminded souls fighting for the liberation of their souls and the souls of their lineage.
I’m not quite sure how the final steps were completed. Six of us hovered on the same step, stride by stride for hours. We all seemed to settle into our own flow, to feel the sound currents resonate with our bodies and finish what was once thought as an unthinkable exercise. Finishing one after the other, cheering each other on and lifting each other up.
That day I didn’t have an emotional experience but after I woke up from a 10-hour slumber I couldn’t stop crying. I yearned for my father. I gave him a call while he was at the airport and was greeted with, “What’s wrong?” The tears couldn’t be contained. “I just wanted to let you know that I love you, Dad. I really really love you.” “Well, I’m glad we’re on the same page with that,” he said in true Joe Hagen fashion. “Now stop crying.” “I won’t stop crying, Dad and I love you.”