Located in northwestern India near the Pakistani border, the city of Amritsar is a lesser known gem. Off the regular tourist circuit that usually includes the Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, the city is famous for another golden reason: the stunning Sri Harmandir Sahib, better known abroad as the Golden Temple. An easy hour-long flight from Delhi, if you have have enough time or are visiting other sites in the northwest, here some reasons to tempt you to include this special city into your India trip.
Visit One of the World’s Most Beautiful Temples
The great draw for many to Amritsar is the spectacular The Golden Temple. Meaning the abode of God, the opulently gilded temple was commissioned in 1570 by the fifth Sikh Guru, Guru Arjan, for the Adi Granth, the holy scripture of Sikhism (more on this below). In essence, the temple is the Mecca or Vatican of the Sikhs, as such it receives pilgrims from the world over amounting to around 100,000 per day. An impressive figure, however, due the site’s size and organization, it never felt crowded when I visited it – both in the evening and mid-morning. I’m more inclined to recommending visiting the temple at night as seeing it shimming and reflecting in its surrounding pools at night is truly breathtaking. At 10pm you can also witness the palki sahib ceremony which consists of carrying the Adi Granth into its evening resting place (this also takes place at dawn for the early birds out there).
Visitors to the temple are kindly requested to follow certain guidelines maintaining the purity of the site and dressing appropriately (fully covered, no shorts, shoes can safely be left at the entrance and head coverings and scarves are available).
Learn About Sikhism
If you can manage to visit the temple with a Sikh guide like I did through my boutique hotel (see below), this will give you an amazing opportunity to discover Sikhism. If you don’t go with a guide you could stop in at the Sikh Museum or the Visitor Centre at the temple, do some advance reading or even try to chat with some of the friendly Sikh visitors who are generally interested in talking to foreign visitors. I have to admit that I didn’t know anything about Sikhism prior to my visit, though I was quite impressed with it from what I learned. In the words of my guide Tarsem, “Sikhism brings together the best qualities of the different religions of the world” – sounds like the right combination to me! As one of the world’s youngest religions, founded in the 16th century, Sikhism is based on the principles of faith and meditation on the name of the one creator, unity of all humankind, partaking in selfless service, striving for social justice for all, and honest conduct and livelihood. Women can also be the head of the religion. Don’t get me wrong, there are iffy parts to most religions, however, I found these basic principles definitely appealing. Today there are around 25 million Sikhs in the world, 75% of whom live in the Indian State of Punjab, however, there are also people of all regions who reside in the region.
Visitors to the Golden Temple can witness and partake in some Sikh traditions firsthand. Out-of-town Sikh visitors can be housed for free in accommodation around the temple, they generally stay a few days or even weeks during which time they volunteer at the temple – a practice the local Sikhs also do on a regular basis. From manning the shoe depository at the entrance to helping prepare meals, everyone pitches in. Speaking of the latter, all visitors can also enjoy a free meal in the community kitchen, something you can do at any Sikh Temple. If you have time, you can even volunteer yourself! I took a hand at making chapatis… though I might need a few more hours of practice before I manage to perfect this art!
There are several other Sikh Temples to visit in the city if you have time.
Delve Deeper into the End of British Rule
An important, though extremely tragic turning point in India’s quest for freedom took place in Amritsar. On April 13, 1919, the British troops stationed in the city opened fire on a group of more than 10,000 unarmed protesters who had gathered in Jallianwala Bagh, a walled-in park near the Golden Temple. It was around this period that unrest against British rule was starting to grow, and public gatherings had just been made forbidden under just imposed martial law. However, restriction was not yet widely known, hence the peaceful gathering for a religious festival misinterpreted by the authorities as an act of rebellion. The crowd wasn’t given any warning and were virtually trapped in when the firing broke out. According to official numbers, 400 people were killed and another 1,200 injured (though actually casualties could have been much higher). The massacre was heavily criticized at the time and led to a re-evaluation of the army’s role. The current memorial was built in 1951 commissioned by the Indian government and designed by American architect Benjamin Polk, it and the gardens pay homage to the victims. The visitors’ center also contains archival material and portraits of Indian freedom fighters.
Gain Insight into India-Pakistan Relations
Amritsar is 30 kilometers from the Pakistani border, an invisible line which didn’t exist before the India-Pakistan partition went into effect at midnight on 14–15 August 1947. This might have given independence to the nations, however, it displaced 10 to 12 million people along religious lines, as well as caused a large scale refugee crises, violence and the lose of hundred thousand of lives. Much of this is little or completely unknown to foreigners and a visit to the area can shed some light onto the topic of India Pakistan Relations. Some like to make their way out to watch the Wagah Border Ceremony which takes place daily around 4:30 pm in winter and 5:30 pm in summer (30 min before dusk). Much like the defunct Berlin Wall, the Wagah Border marks the dividing line between the two countries. The daily ‘lowering of the flags’ ceremony ends with both sides broadcasting patriotic songs and waving flag and even dancing from the audience.
You can go out by organized tour or can get a driver to take you out to witness the ceremony, however, traffic can be very bad and it can involve a good amount of waiting around. I learned more simply by chatting with the locals, similar topics do come up and I found the Punjabi extremely warm and open that I wanted to get to know more about this sad event which separated many friends and families overnight. You can get a sense of this in the touching video above. You can also learn more about local history and local lifestyle on the experiences offered by the Rankit’s Svaasa below.
Access a Different Gateway to the North
If you’re planning on going up to Dharamsala (home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile), further up into the Himalayas or to Kashmir, than Amritsar is well worth the stop and a good starting point for venturing higher. You can take the train to Amritsar, plus flight connections are also much better (and cheaper) than other airports in the area. I got to Dharamsala via the tiny Gaggal airport, an expensive flight, albeit much closer to the town, so when I saw that there was another option for getting back to Delhi while at the same time experiencing a different part of India, I seized the occasion and was thoroughly pleased with this excellent, minor detour. You can travel from Amritsar to Dharamsala by bus, bus-train, car-train or all the way by private car in four hours, the price ranging from 5$ to 60$.
Stay in One of India’s Most Charming Hotels
There are many other fabulous things to do in Amritsar, which I would love to go back to discover. You can also turn your trip into a restful break by staying at the Ranjit’s Svaasa Boutique Heritage Hotel Spa. Hidden away from the street amidst a verdant oasis, is a 250 year old haveli (mansion) of the local noble Mehra family, who have converted it in a stunning heritage hotel and spa. One of the very few heritage hotels in the area, it features a beautiful decor of tasteful furniture, antiques, family heirlooms and vintage photos creating a magical ambiance in this tranquil haven. With is spacious suites, sublime terraces, graceful gardens, delicious cuisine and heavenly spa, it’s almost a destination in itself. Plus they have a fabulous range of cultural experiences from visits to the Golden Temple to cooking classes as well as more unique options (also available to outside guests). I was truly enchanted by my stay here. Discover more about this exquisite boutique heritage hotel spa my full review on it here.