Like some of you reading this, I had never heard nor seen pictures of Amritsar before. I actually learnt about it when our newly found friends in Boothgargh, Hoshiapur where we were living, invited us to visit a place they loved. Amritsar is home to the Sri Harimandir Sahin otherwise known as the Golden Temple, which is the spiritual and cultural center of the Sikh religion. Amritsar exposed me to lots about India, Sikhism culture, great architecture, beautiful scenery and lots and lots of dance and music.The highlights of the place are Golden Temple, Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre and the Wagah border that separates India and Pakistan.
As you walk around, you will find most people either dressed in their traditional Punjab suit or modestly dressed. We took this time to bring out our newly tailored “Punjabi suits” that our friends mother had sawn for us. The ladies outfit is composed of three parts, the kameez which is the long top that reaches near the knees, the salwar which is baggy trousers that are made with pleats and are supposed to loosely hang on the body and the dupatta which is a long scarf used to cover the hair, neck and shoulders. This outfit is very beautiful, comfortable, can be worn anywhere and allowed us to blend in and feel somewhat like Punjabi ladies. Some of the places you will visit may be religious, thus as always, it is only polite to dress appropriately so as to respect those in the area.
2)Visit the Golden Temple:
This place is beautiful, the architecture of the buildings is unique, the layout attractive and the amount of Sikh culture you learn is lots and very interesting. The Golden temple is commonly and locally referred to as Sri Hamandir Sahib and it is revered by the Sikh community as being the holiest gurudwara (temple). It is however open to people of all faiths, religions, races, beliefs, status and walks of life. I highly advise arriving early to this place as it actually receives many visitors, more visitors than the Taj Mahal. It is estimated that there are about 50,000- 100,000 people daily.
As you enter the compound, all are required to leave their shoes at the entrance. One is then directed to where you wash your hands, feet and then proceed to receive a free headscarf if you do not have one. You are required to leave these behind as you depart to assist another. Covering ones head is a show of respect and a requirement when entering the compound, good thing my outfit had a duppata.
As you enter, you are met by what looks like white marble tiles with great intrinsic designs. I was awed by the throng of people around me as well as the beauty of the sight before me. Ahead of me was a lake of sorts referred to as sarovar which in Punjab language means a pool. Across it, is the majestic Golden Temple , the Sri Harimandir Sahib, in all its glory, towering and shining bright due to the “gold”. The reflection of the Golden temple glimmered in the pool and I took some time to enjoy this beautiful sight before me. Beside it is a striking white building that I later came to learn offers accommodation to visitors and pilgrims.
a) Enjoy the sarovar (pool)
This pool is revered by the devotees and you will see women, men and children taking a dip in it. Most people come prepared thus will change in the provided changing rooms and then head for the pool. It is believed that taking a dip in the pool will bring spiritual and worldly benefits to them. The rest of us just enjoyed the beauty of it as well as watching the devotees enjoying a dip.
b) Enter the Sri Harimandir Sahib
The path leading to the entrance of the gurudwara is simple yet very impressive. They have placed cloths to act as a roof and thus protect all on the walkway from the heat of the sun. They have then placed fans around to also try and keep the people cool as they walk slowly into the temple. At intervals, water is sprinkled to further make the wait as comfortable as possible and you will be impressed with the orderliness of all the people, no pushing or shoving. The area has speakers that then give one a chance to enjoy several ballads that are played which are both songs and also hymns. One is not allowed to take pictures in the gurudwara, but sometimes you learn a lot from observing.
You will find people sitted on the floor facing one direction. The area has been greatly decorated with brightly coloured cloths on the roof and above is where I believe the real gold is located. At the front seemed to be the elders of the temple all sitted on the floor with one having a flywhisk. Before them, was a semi raised platform that had a large book open. I learnt the book is called Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, which is the central religious scripture of Sikhism. As devotees entered, they would bow, touch the walls, sit and/or donate money. There was music and readings from the book and looking at peoples faces, you could sense how much this place meant to them.
C) Visit the Langar
Langar in Punjab refers to the kitchen but in Sikhism, it refers to the common kitchen/ canteen where all visitors to the temple are served food for free. At first I did not believe this statement but experience is the best teacher. We headed here after having spent lots of time walking around the Golden Temple and its compound. We all walked in a line as you would at a buffet and picked a traditional Indian plate , the one with various slots. We were then ushered into a hall of sorts where all people sit together, on the floor, regardless of religion, status, creed or race. This to me is a sight to behold, as it is a true glimpse into humanity, where people do not associate or discriminate because of their differences but sit and eat as one humanity.
Most of the workers here are referred to as sewadars , with some mainly being volunteers. The servers then walk around the room between each row that is split by a carpet serving all in the room. We were served with roti (bread), rice, daal (lentils), curry, kheer (dessert) and water, all at no fee. I am still amazed at this considering it happens everyday all year round. I came to learn that this is all sustained via donations, Thank you.
As you walk out, you are able to glimpse from a distance at the kitchen which seemed almost sparse, I could hardly believe that all the food was prepared there. The area was also very clean and well organized, it was easy for all to move around. I saw some dough being prepared and then placed on a roti making machine. Apparently, this machine was donated and can churn up to 25,000 rotis per hour definitely assisting those who would normally do this by hand. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the food in the kitchen was being prepared by both men and women, no gender disparity here.
3) Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre:
This area is located a few metres from the Golden Temple. It is in memory of the two thousand Indians who were massacred by the British Indian Army on 13th April 1919. They had assembled at Jallianwalla Bagh to demonstrate the arrest of their leaders but were met with atrocious violence.As you walk around the area, you will get to see actual bullet holes on several of the walls as well as the location of the shooters. This part of their history is indeed sad and I was honoured to have learnt about it.The mood in the area is solemn and somber and you leave the area feeling quite sad after hearing the sad tales.
4. Wagah Border-India /Pakistan Border:
This place officially gets the entertainment award. If you want to learn about culture, want full scale entertainment from music, dance, running, marching among others, then you must ensure you make a visit. There is no fee charged, so you have no excuse. Kindly arrive early so as to get a prime spot as there are many visitors and intense security checks. The main show starts at 4:30 but arrive much, much earlier.
The foreigners after showing their passports are then guided to a special sitting area, an offer we politely declined as we opted to sit with our friends who are locals. Please do not carry any bags with you as they are not allowed in. As you walk into the compound, you will find very smartly dressed border security officers. They have a stern face but will break into a smile to take pictures if you request.
a)Dancing, singing, cheering
Soon we saw people running towards the bleachers and we joined in. I recommend you do the same if you want a great sitting position, which is where you can see the border gate area easily. On the Indian side, the men and women sit next to each other while I heard on the Pakistan side they are separated. We were soon engaged in watching the women perform several dances near the border gates as we the spectators cheered them on.
The people sung and women danced as we all clapped. Soon after, several women picked up the Indian and Palestinian flag and mock raced each other down a “fictitious ‘ race track, all the while we the spectators shouted loudly “Chak De! India” meaning “Go for it India.” The air was fully charged, excitement rend the air, everyone was laughing, smiling and shouting , it was easy to forget I was a foreigner. Even the scalding heat did not dampen the mood.
b) Lowering of the flags
Just before sunset, the climax of the show which is the lowering of the flags begun. I would best describe this as a dance off. There was a loud shout from one of the guards that went on and on until finally, he got out of breath and the spectators cheered loudly. Next, the gates separating India and Pakistan were opened and the tension was palpable. Soldiers from the Indian side marched very fast towards the gate and then stopped abruptly at the border gate. They raised their feet high while marching and then retreated, seeming agitated and spoiling for a fight. There after, another batch of soldiers did the same and retreated. Finally, a lone soldier matched to the gate and finally, the gates were opened wide and we could see into Pakistan. He seemed to have face to face with a soldier from the Pakistani side who had also marched and stood at the borderline between the two countries. Soon after, other soldiers from both sides marched towards the border and stood near the lone soldiers. They then engaged each other in a sort of “combat”, each trying to out do the other in their marching prowess as we the spectators cheered on wildly. Finally, they all stood behind the “lone soldiers” and with the blink of an eye, the two hoisted their respective flags, which was met with resounding cheers from the spectators. They then shook hands, saluted each other and the gates were closed shut to mark the culmination of the event climax. At this point, you wish that this was the situation between the two countries, where the two parties would be able to laugh, smile and enjoy festivities together instead of being enemies. You need to see this for yourself, go on, make a visit, you will thank me later.
I highly recommend Amritsar as a destination. Talk about a ball of emotions all in one days play. Somberness at the Golden Temple, anger at Jallianwala Bagh and excitement at Waga Border. Thank You Amritsar and thanks to Aman and Harjit for inviting us. For more on the India escapades, check out:
India 101: http://wangechigitahi.co.ke/india-101/