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Charles, Camilla visit Sikh shrine

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LONDON, England -- The heir to Britain's throne Prince Charles and his wife the Duchess of Cornwall showed their respect for Sikhism on Tuesday by kneeling and kissing the floor of one of the religion's holiest shrines in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Charles and Camilla, who are on a royal tour of India following their recent visit to the Middle East, were exploring the northern Indian state of Punjab, the birthplace of Sikhism.

Side by side, Charles and Camilla, knelt barefoot with their palms on the floor as they lowered their heads to the ground of the temple which was laid with fresh white sheets, the Press Association reported.

Charles's head was covered tightly with a maroon handkerchief-style scarf worn like a bandana, while the duchess draped her chiffon blue one over her hair. Camilla wore a scarf and outfit of loose blue top and oyster-colored trousers.

The pure white temple, with its elegant domes and gold minarets, is where the Khalsa movement of Sikhism was founded by Guru Gobind Singh in front of thousands of people more than 300 years ago.

Khalsa Sikhs follow a code of conduct which includes banning smoking and requires daily meditation on certain prayers.

Sikhism was founded in the Punjab in the late 15th century by Guru Nanak Dev. The temple is second only in importance to Amritsar, the city of golden temples.

Inside, the prince, who is the eldest son of Queen Elizabeth II, and the duchess were shown the nine weapons of Guru Gobind Singh, encased behind ornately decorated heavy silver shutters, and were honored by village elders wearing vibrant blue turbans.

Long cream-white scarves were placed over their heads as a symbolic gift. They were also given a thick gold metal sword each and neatly folded head scarves -- bright orange for the prince and gold for the duchess.

Part of the shrine is a sacred Palka book of Sikh hymns. The smell of heavy incense filled the temple and the crowds who had been praying before the royals arrived were kept at bay.

Shortly before Charles and Camilla entered the temple, the white sheets ingrained with dirt from the bare feet of regular worshippers were replaced with fresh ones.

Two dozen mats with "Welcome" printed in red lettering had been put on the steps leading up to the sacred shrine. Inside, musicians sat cross-legged on the floor playing traditional music.

In the courtyard in front of the Gurdwara, glittering gold and blue metallic strips of paper hung from wires, fluttering in the breeze.

The prince, who once said he wished to be known as defender of faiths rather than defender of the faith when he becomes king, has focused heavily on the multi-faith message during his two-week tour.

In both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, he called for greater tolerance between Islam and the West and stressed the importance of the subtle interpretation of religious texts.

Charles and Camilla took off their shoes and secured their head scarves before entering the temple behind two white sheets erected as a screen.

Harkirat Singh, the man in charge of the private royal changing rooms, which contained two wooden chairs with brown leather padded seats, said: "It was prepared for security purposes. I will look after their shoes. Prince Charles is coming."

Asked if he knew who Camilla was, he replied: "Yes, she is the First Lady. We have got orange hankies for them to cover themselves."

During the ceremony in the Gurdwara, Camilla handed coins and notes wrapped in material to one of the priests to be placed at the shrine as a mark of respect.

They received their white scarves from the head of the shrine, Giani Singh. Red varnish could be seen on the Duchess's toenails. Anandpur Sahib, surrounded by picturesque scenery and a lush green landscape, is known as the City of Bliss.

Guru Gobind Singh took charge of the Sikh masses in 1675, when he was nine years old. He took arms against those who wanted to eradicate the Sikh religion and fought around 16 wars over a period of just 20 years.

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