Amritsar, The Centre of Sikhism & The Golden Temple

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January 18th 2020
Published: January 18th 2020
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Our train from Delhi to Amritsar left on time, and it was cold and raining by the time we disembarked in Amritsar. We raced for shelter and Ginny minded the bags whilst I stepped out into the rain and tried to hail a taxi, they all seemed to disappear rather fast today. We wanted a car, not a rickshaw, but that's what we ended up in. A crazy damp ride into town followed and we were dropped at the end of a pedestrian mall, the driver pointing down the mall to where our hotel obviously was.

We found it, after racing straight past it the first time, in our haste to get out of the weather. We were soon settled in our cosy rooms at Hotel City Heart, I couldn't have chosen a better location.

Amritsar is located in the Majha region of the Indian state of Punjab, just 28klm from the Pakistan border, and was founded in 1577 by the fourth Sikh guru, Ram Das, on a site granted by Akbar the Great.

Ram Das ordered the excavation of a sacred tank, or pool, called the Amrita Saras, ‘Pool of Nectar’, from which the city’s name is derived. A temple was erected on an island in the tank’s centre, accessed by a marble bridge, which is now known as The Golden Temple, Sikhism's holiest shrine and one of India’s most serene and humbling sights.

The hyperactive streets surrounding the temple have been calmed to some extent by recent urban landscaping, including graceful pedestrianised walkways, but duck into any side alley and you’ll soon discover Amritsar’s fantastically frenetic old-city bazaars, sheltering a sensory overload of sights, sounds and smells.

Our hotel opened onto this paved pedestrian mall, bazaar style shops lining the streets. Not a rickshaw, cow (or cow paddy) in sight. For the first time since arriving in India we can walk without having to dodge around vehicles and cows, step over piles of garbage or watch where we put our feet. What a difference!

We joined the stream of people passing our hotel and soon found ourselves outside the entrance to the Golden Temple. It was cold and windy, and the thought of taking off our shoes, walking over those freezing marble floors and through the water where feet were washed before entering the temple, didn't appeal. We're hoping for a fine day tomorrow, so we'll be back...

Instead we enjoyed some shop browsing, found an early dinner, and walked the huge pedestrian area until the cold persuaded us to return to our heated hotel rooms. A chocolate bar and novel awaits.

The next morning dawned fine but cold, so after breakfast we headed back to the Golden Temple. A huge marble floored area with a fountain in the centre, is our introduction. On the left side of this area, we have to check our shoes into one of the 'shoe holding' windows in exchange for a numbered token, then walk barefoot along the hessian runners, through the water, then down the steps onto the marble walkway which surround the temple.

This gilt-edged Sikh temple shimmers in the large pool of water that surrounds it. Also known as Sri Harmandir Sahib (Temple of God), the site is visited by over 100,000 people every day and is one of the world's holiest shrines.

The Golden Temple is not only a central religious place of the Sikhs, but also a symbol of human brotherhood and equality. Everybody, irrespective of cast, creed or race can seek spiritual solace and religious fulfilment here without any hindrance. The four entrances of this holy shrine, from all four directions, signify that people belonging to every walk of life are equally welcome here. The temple entrance is located below ground level to signify that one must be humble, and go down to reach the temple of God.

It was already busy at it had been open since 3.00am, and doesn't close until 10.00pm. The walkway across the water to the temple was packed with pilgrims, so we joined the throng of people walking clockwise around the pool instead. The weather had cleared and the sun shone brightly, reflecting off the gold this temple is constructed from.

What a beautiful peaceful place this is. Kept scrupulously clean with long runners to walk on again, the white marble floors gleamed. The 162 kilo of 24 carat gold which lines the walls of the temple was reflected in the sacred Pond of Nectar, a couple of pilgrims braved the cold and bathed in the waters, and the brightly coloured saris and turbans added splashes of colour.

After leaving the temple we browsed the shops again, and bought some lovely embroidered fabric lengths, I could easily have bought more. We explored the alleyways branching off from the paved pedestrian area, to find Amritsar is like every other India city away from the tourist areas, with its constantly beeping scooters, dilapidated buildings and rubbish filled streets.

We also visited Jallianwala Bagh, just 160m from our hotel. The entrance is well signed and opens from the mall area. This garden was the site of a massacre, also known as the Amritsar massacre, on 13 April 1919. A monument stands here, erected in 1951 by the Indian Government.

That day, Sunday, 13 April 1919, Acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, convinced a major insurrection could take place, banned all meetings. This wasn’t widely known and many villagers gathered in garden to celebrate the important Sikh festival of Baisakhi, and peacefully protest the arrest and deportation of two national leaders. Dyer and 50 of his troops from the British Indian Army entered the garden, blocking the main entrance behind them. They took up position on a raised bank, and with no warning fired about 1650 rounds of ammunition into the crowd of unarmed civilians, killing at least 400 including 41 children. Over 1,000 were injured. He later declared his purpose was not to dispel the rally, but to "punish the Indians". It marked a turning point in India’s modern history.

The gardens are being renovated and are a complete mess now, though visitors can still enter and see the monument. A large waterfall is under construction, with the monument as it's centrepiece, and new paths and gardens are also underway. It will be lovely when completed, hopefully a green oasis for the locals to enjoy.

At 2.00pm we're heading to the Pakistan boarder on a hop on hop off tourist bus to watch the Wagah Boarder Ceremony. We bought tickets for R200 ($4) each from a booth on the street, cheap compared to the R2000 we were quoted for a taxi earlier in the day. The ceremony itself is free to attend.

Located 28 klm from Amritsar, and 22 klm from Lahore in Pakistan, the Wagah Border marks the boundary between India & Pakistan and is the only road border between the two countries. People from all over the world visit to witness the Beating Retreat Ceremony that is held every day before sunset. It marks the closing of the borders, and lowering of the flags, by the
Street Scene in AmritsarStreet Scene in AmritsarStreet Scene in Amritsar

Sensible dog getting out from underfoot
military of both countries.

The trip to the border took 40 minutes then we had another 20 minutes walk from the car park. I had read there was nowhere to buy a snack or a meal there, which wasn't correct. We ate in the one restaurant we could find, delicious, reasonably priced food with quick service. There were also the usual souvenir vendors there.

Loud music filled the air as we approached, it sounded more like a dance party than a military ceremony. Once inside the area we saw several hundred young Indian women packed together and dancing on the street to very upbeat music. They were having a blast! Grandstand style seating lined both sides of the road, on both sides of the border. We found seats in the VIP section, reserved for foreign tourists, and waited for the ceremony to begin.

It was a bizarre ceremony with lots of hoopla, and we found it rather funny and entertaining, though I'm sure it wasn't meant to be. A warm-up animator got the crowds cheering and clapping, trying to out do the Pakistani side. Both the Indian and Pakistani soldiers did lots of postering along with leg kicks which almost knocked their own ceremonial hats off. We were impressed with those, though they looked painful to do. I likened it to childish tantrums with lots of foot stamping, carried out with pomp and ceremony. The already closed border gates were opened, so they could be closed again once the flags were lowered. The bonus was being able to buy an ice cream from the vendor who did a good trade from his foam icebox as he walked between spectators.

It was all over in half an hour, after which we walked back to the bus for the trip back to Amritsar. We planned to visit the Golden Temple again, to see it at night, as we knew it would look spectacular under lights, and we weren't wrong,

The queue to enter the temple was still long, the causeway packed with pilgrims as it undoubtably had been all day. A young Sikh man approached us and told us it was okay for us to go inside, that the queue was fast moving and the wait no longer than 20 minutes. So we lined up with the pilgrims, the only foreigners there, and eventually we were inside. No photography was allowed and it was breathtaking. Every inch of the walls and ceiling were either hand painted, embossed with gold or had marble inlay studded with semi precious stones. We walked through the first floor and up onto the roof where we were able to touch those golden domes.

Behind the two tall sandstone towers within the temple complex, is a dining hall. Since it first opened its doors in 1574, the Golden Temple has been serving free hot meals, also known as Langar (free kitchen), to people of all religions and faiths, incredibly up to 100,000 per day. As we walked around the outside of this area, once again we were encouraged to go inside. So we took the chrome dishes we were offered at the door and entered the dining hall. We sat cross legged on the floor in the huge room, our dishes on the floor in front of us, and were served naan bread and two spicy dishes to dip it in. We got a few curious looks from the locals, as once again, we were the only foreigners there. After eating, we left the hall, handing our dishes to volunteers who will
Golden Temple GuardGolden Temple GuardGolden Temple Guard

Note the spear he's holding, they sometimes have a sword as well.
wash them five times before they are reused, on the way out. We have just experienced Langar at the Golden Temple...

Free langars are served at all Sikh gurudwaras, wherever they may be in the world. But the langar at the Golden Temple is special. This doesn’t have so much to do with the quality of the food, but for the sheer scale of the operation and the number of devoted volunteers who prepare the food every day. Meals are vegetarian, and are simple, nourishing and nutritious. They usually consist of rotis (bread), rice, daal (lentils), a vegetable dish, and kheer (dessert). The kitchen has two dining halls, which have a combined capacity of 5000 people.

The streets were still teeming with people when we left the temple and headed back to our hotel. We're leaving India tomorrow and spent the day doing nothing much at all until our taxi to the airport at 4.00pm. We had one room booked for the evening so we had somewhere to shower and chill before we left.

It's been a fabulous trip, my research and attention to detail during the months beforehand has definately paid off. Besides a couple of accomodation issues which we resolved, we have had no problems. We haven't felt threatened or unsafe at any time, and have experienced no sickness. I have come home several kilos lighter, fitter, with a suitcase full of dirty laundry and in dire need of a haircut! Would we do it all again? Definately!

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