Amritsar, India — ''This is just the beginning,'' says a tall, dark Indian woman staring at the ruins of the Akal Takht, the building across from the Golden Temple, which symbolizes for the Sikhs the seat of temporal power.
Her eyes exude the fierce brilliance of a fire that has just been lit. She is a country woman and a ''Jat,'' the prosperous ethnic group in the Punjab that produces much of India's food. She is one of the many sightseers and has come from a distant Punjabi village to see with her own eyes what has happened to the heart of her faith.
Destroyed several times in the last few hundred years, the Akal Takht (''throne of the timeless'') was most recently damaged on June 6. On that day, tanks of the Indian Army rolled over the marble floors of the Golden Temple to clear it of Sikh terrorists who had become a law unto themselves. For the believers, the most recent is the most brutal attack.
Each Sikh today it seems - man or woman, intellectual or illiterate, believer or agnostic - is inflamed, injured individually and as a community.
''An attack on the Golden Temple is an attack on our hearts. You can repair a temple or a mosque but not a human heart,'' says a dainty woman in a green chiffon sari.
A group of women are gathered in her home, a sprawling red brick house with a lawn in the front and a lawn in the back. It is not the usual late-morning party. Ladies no longer meet to play cards and talk about clothes, jewelry, servants, and children. They talk today of politics.
They are ''women of society'' - affluent, well traveled, and generally thought of as cosmopolitan. Sitting with them on a cloud-filled July morning one wonders where all the acquired traits have gone. The women seem like a bunch of agitated, young college girls. They all talk at the same time, in varying tones of anger.
''To bring out a few hundred extremists you don't wage a war on the temple, the core of our faith,'' says a Sikh woman who has just returned from Europe. ''None of us had ever seen (extremist Sikh leader Jarnail Singh) Bhindranwale, nor supported what he did. Strange it seems that he should become a martyr after the Army action. His death has made each Sikh come alive.''
Adds another, ''I have grown up with Hindus, lived next door to them, shared their joys and problems. Suddenly I see a divide between us. It is deep and cannot easily be healed. Even if it is, it will be like filling up the bullet holes in the Golden Temple.''
''A Hindu can never understand what the Golden Temple means to a Sikh,'' says the woman in green.
Her voice rises above the crescendo and evokes a sudden quiet. ''The Hindus have so many gods and goddesses and avatars. We only have the Granth Sahib, the holy book that carries the teachings of all our 10 gurus. It is not just a book but (the) essence of our religion.
''The Golden Temple has a special meaning for every Sikh, anywhere. When you enter the temple you take off your shoes, wash your hands, your feet, and begin the 'parikrama,' gently circling the temple while hymns are chanted all the time. By the time you reach the sanctum your mind is still. It has been for us the ultimate sanctuary.
''When the fighting started, people must have rushed there, feeling it is the safest place to be. But it was not.... Since the Army operations none of us has visited the temple. We do not want to be told during what hours we should go. It is not a museum that should restrict its hours of entry. It is a temple whose doors have always been open to all at all times.''
Later one of the ladies agreed to take me to the temple.
''Sad it is that you should see it tarnished, its glory departed,'' she says, her eyes softened by tears.
Glory need not always rest in stones, I want to tell her. But I don't. This is not a time for reason.
As we enter the temple, she covers her head and looks composed. ''The temple has four doors,'' she explains. ''The four doors represent the four castes of the Hindus. When Arjun, the fifth Sikh Guru, began building the temple (in the 16th century), he wanted it open on all four sides.
''Arjun had it built on a level lower than the surrounding land so that worshippers would have to go down the steps to enter it. The lowest had to go down lower to meet God.''
As we begin the parikrama,m we stop to buy flowers for the Granth Sahib, the holy book.
We follow the sightseers, scattered groups of men and women, tired, dazed, disbelieving. Some stop to stare at the bullet holes that have not yet been filled. Some touch them to believe. There is a silence about them which is uneasy. When I turn to the woman she looks away, hiding her tears.
''Do you know the story of (Sikh founder) Guru Nanak when he first arrived in Multan?'' she asks me. ''Whenever I remember it I feel revived. When Nanak was at the edge of the city, the holy men dreading his visit sent him a symbolic gift - a bowl of milk full to the brim, indicating that there is no room for holy men in their city. Nanak placed the petal of a jasmine flower on the milk and sent back the offering.
''Even though the bowl was full there was room enough for fragrance. Even though the world is loud with the clamor of rumor and discord, there are some who are still ready to hear a gentle voice.''
Is there a gentle voice left?
Says the woman, her voice charged again: ''The Akal Takht should not be repaired or rebuilt. It should stay as a testimony of our times.''