The Land of Gurudwaras and the Five Rivers (Punj-ab)
Amritsar is easily connected by air, rail and road. It has an international airport, making travel easier for its Sikh community, which is well settled in all parts of the world.
Amritsar makes a great weekend getaway and it being my ancestral home, I enjoy going there every time I get a chance. This time, it was to educate my children, who had not yet got a chance to see the real Punjabi culture while staying in a metropolis.
The best months to visit Amritsar between October and March, though it could be freezing during December and January. Summers in Amritsar, are scorching.
Golden Temple/ Darbar Sabib, also called Swaran Mandir
We reached Amritsar at 10 in the morning and after checking into a hotel that overlooked the world famous shrine, The Golden Temple, we were raring to be inside its precincts. The Holy scripture for Sikhs, the ‘Guru Granth Sahib’, is read here through the day.
This historical, religious and spiritual site has seen destruction in the past by Muslim invaders and more recently, the India’s own government in 1984.
Since there is no online booking for entry or ‘darshan’, you simply have to get into the queue. Everyone is treated at par here, regardless of their position in society, their religion or caste.
After you deposit your shoes at a counter, you are expected to dip your feet in a patch of running water before entering the precincts. Covering your head is mandatory and those who are not carrying a head covering, need not fret, as the temple provides clean scarves.
The square complex with four entrances is built around a huge man-made pool, called the ‘Amrit Sarovar’, which is believed to have healing powers. The sanctum sanctorum is in the centre of this pool and as you walk on the causeway towards it, you get mesmerised looking at the intricate architecture and with the tranquility of the place.
When we sat inside and listened to the soothing ‘Shabad Kirtan’, we didn’t want to leave. But we were not allowed to sit for more than a few minutes, since there was a whole line of devotees waiting. Once outside, you are offered ‘prasad’. Prasad is a devotional offering made to a god, typically a sweet preparation that is later shared among devotees.
If you are lucky to be here at 3am or 9.30pm, you could be privy to the movement of the ‘Guru Granth Sahib’ from the Akal Takth (where it is taken to rest for the night) to the temple, in a grand procession.
We had lunch at the ‘langar’ (community kitchen), which is one of the largest free kitchens in the world. Here almost a lakh people eat food daily and doing so, is an experience in itself.
Sitting cross legged on mats placed on the floor, simple, nutritious food is eaten with humility and served by the ‘sewadaars’ with love.
Opened this year, to mark 70 years of partition between India and Pakistan, the museum set up by an NGO is a must-visit. This is the only museum that is dedicated to the holocaust, that was triggered by partition. Tickets for Indians are priced at Rs 10 and for foreigners at Rs 150 (USD $2.30). It is located in the Town Hall, just a 5 minutes walk from the Golden Temple.
After resting for a while in our room, we were ready to leave for the India-Pakistan border to witness the ‘Beating Retreat’ ceremony. This should be a ‘must visit’ place in your itinerary. The ceremony takes place every evening, just before sunset, as the flags of both the countries are lowered.
Wagah Border is is just 30 kms away from Amritsar. Recall the Bollywood hero, Shah Rukh Khan, kissing the soil of India, as he is finally released from the Pakistan jail after 22 years, in the movie; Veer Zaara…well, this was the exact location for the film shoot.
For the general crowd, there are long queues, separate for ladies and gents. If you know some army personnel, you can get VVIP passes issued from them, or you can book VIP passes online for a fee, which entitles you to better seating near the gates and with a good view. Foreigners; do carry your passport with you.
As we crossed the city and were on the highway speeding towards the border, the houses became far-spaced. I told the kids horrifying stories about the carnage that had spread during partition.
On the personal front : My mother was just 10 years old that year and was staying near Amritsar Cantonment. She would recount how caravans of displaced Indians from Pakistan, with their cattle and other valuable possessions would pass by daily. How they had their school satchels ready with basic amenities, in case they had to escape overnight. How her own mother had a small packet of poison ready, in case she was captured (death before possible dishonour at the hands of the captors). And how all the little girls in the family were instructed to jump into the well, in their compound, in case the Muslims ever entered the house! How her little sister was born with defective eyes because of the stress her mother was under those harrowing circumstances. How they lost a cousin sister (she was still-born) because her aunt had jumped a wall in full term while escaping.
We crossed Attari; the last Indian station before the Pakistan border, where India’s tallest flag was once hoisted, but has since been taken off since it kept getting damaged repeatedly due to wind.
Since we had VIP passes and were in an army jeep, we could park quite close to the venue. For others, it’s a long walk. Our driver had instructed us to note the place where the vehicle was parked as there is no mobile signal available here and we wouldn’t be able to connect with him. We heard stories of people taking eternity to find their vehicles as the venue becomes a teaming mass of lost people after the ceremony and people can’t locate their family members or drivers.
We were instructed not to carry anything other than a camera and a water-bottle.
It was very exciting to see the fervour and enthusiasm of people and I somehow thought the zeal was more on the Indian side than on Pakistan’s. With loud patriotic songs playing, sentiments seemed to be on an all-time high. This sort of nationalism is otherwise seen during the India-Pakistan cricket match!
Before the actual ceremony starts, the participation of the general public is encouraged and some people are chosen randomly from the crowd to carry the tricolour and run on the road. Some dance, to the accompaniment of claps from the audience.
The actual ceremony leaves you dumbstruck. The amazing display of zeal and physical fitness shown during the highly energised parade and perfect coordination by the guards while lowering the flags, is the highlight of the ceremony.
We imbibed the allegiance of our fellow countrymen, watching them take photos with the smart BSF personnels and at the ‘Swarn Jayanti Dwar’. The atmosphere here is highly charged, with patriotism and fun.
The World Famous Brothers’ Dhabha
Back to our hotel and soon it was time to have dinner at the famous “Brothers’ Dhaba”. Typically, there are two dhabas, the “Bade Bhai ka Brothers’ Dhaba” and a “Brothers’ Dhaba”.
We ate at the former. We found the set up very casual and the food average. The famed ‘Amritsari Kulcha’ was good but the accompanying ‘channa’ was passable. Even the sweet lassi didn’t meet our standard of expectation.
Interesting facts about life inside the Old City-Lohgarh Gate
The old city of Amritsar was surrounded by 12 gates out of which, 6 or 7 remain which are in quite a sad state.
My ancestral house is inside Lohgarh Gate and I love to visit it whenever I get the chance.The lanes may look narrow to an onlooker, but remember these were constructed when people rode bicycles or commuted in cycle rickshaws. The houses are still inaccessible by four wheelers. The narrow lanes on either side had open drains into which the drainage of houses opened. There were no sewage system from houses, other than waste water. Only one ‘toilet’ existed on the terrace of each house, where members could defecate in a large earthen pot (The house had 4 floors). This was cleaned by a sweeper daily in the morning. She would empty the human waste in her own container and bring it down the three or four floors for disposal. The whole house would stink for the next 20 minutes!
There was no running water and each house had a hand pump on various levels. The centre of the house was an open space for things to be hauled up via ropes, since the stairs going to each floor was too narrow.
I loved watching my kids’ flabbergasted faces while they toured this 19th century house !
We had authentic ‘kulcha channa’ from a hawker at the corner of the lane. This original and authentic ‘Amritsari’ flavour cannot be replicated anywhere in the world.
This is a public garden, located very close to the Golden Temple and has a tearful history. It played a very important part in India’s struggle for Independence against the British. Almost a thousand innocent Indians lost their lives while attending a peaceful meeting here on the day of Baisakhi; April 13, 1919.
They were fired upon by the command of Brigadier-General Dyer and since the only opening of the park was blocked by the gunners, people had no chance to escape. Almost 1600 rounds were fired indiscriminately.
2019 will mark the 100th year since the massacre took place and India is still waiting for an apology from the British for this unprovoked and unwarranted action.
Although the park has now become a little ‘touristy’ after renovation, the well is cordoned off, the park is more lively and one doesn’t get that horrific feeling anymore; it is a great historical place to visit.
Before it was given a face-lift, each brick on the wall seemed to be screaming in pain. Standing next to the well, one could imagine how people stumbled into the then open well, while running helter-skelter in panic and the air would seem heavy with the horror of the slaughter.
Also called as Lakshmi Narayan Temple and Sitla Mandir, this 16th century temple is close to Lohgarh Gate. What Golden Temple is to Sikhs, Durgiana Temple is to Hindus residing in Amritsar. It is also built on the same layout as the Golden Temple is with a sacred lake around the temple and a causeway leading to it. The dome of this temple of the Goddess Durga is also gilded and doors are silver coated (because of which it is also called ‘Silver Temple’)!
As usual, the approach to this temple is through narrow roads and the vehicle has to be parked a little away. So, be prepared to walk.
We spent the evening shopping in the by lanes, for the famed ‘juttis’ , Phulkari dupattas while the foodies, bought the Amritsari paapad and wadiyan.
Packed and ready to leave by the night train, I sat in the cab already planning the next date for my visit here.
Also read: Train to Pakistan: Sikh pilgrimage