It’s strange that a city I was in barely more than a day has stayed in my mind for the past few weeks. But in that 28-hour period, sandwiched between a night train from Rishikesh and a bus to Dharamshala, I experienced 3 completely different sights, each memorable in its own very unique way.
At 1.1 million, it’s the second largest city in Punjab (honours go to Ludhiana at 1.6 million) but is far and away the most popular to visit. At first, there seems to be little difference between Amritsar and any other Indian city of a similar size. Traffic is congested and noisy, street traders crowd footpaths, litter is everywhere.
However, once you reach the centre, an immediate change can be seen. Several streets in the vicinity of the Golden Temple have been pedestrianised, while building facades have been made over in a Punjabi heritage style. Statues of local heroes are found at intersections, along with a memorial to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Some describe it as tacky. Personally, after visiting so many large Indian cities, I applaud their efforts to create an enjoyable space for locals and tourists alike, as well as giving much needed respite from the crazy traffic.
This was my main reason for visiting Amritsar. It’s the most important Sikh site in the world, having been founded in the 16th century by the Sikh guru Ram Das, and it inspires millions of pilgrims to visit every year, as well as curious travellers like me.
Aware that all visiting the Golden Temple must have their head covered, I picked up a bright orange head cloth from a local vendor. There are baskets outside the temple where you can collect a used one for free, but given that it was 40 degrees, they were pretty sweaty and smelly so 10 rupees was money well spent on a new one.
After a quick visit to the compulsory shoe and bag storage counters, I headed towards the entrance, located in the Dahar Sahib, itself an impressive sight with its white marble exterior and clock tower. As I emerged from the main gate, I caught my first sight of the Golden Temple – my sense of anticipation had not been misplaced. A gleaming golden temple, estimated to covered in 750kg of gold, located in the middle of a large square-shaped reservoir that captures its shimmering reflection - the Amrit Sarovar (which gave its name to the city of Amritsar), connected by a perpetually crowded walkway. Indeed, this pool is actually more sacred to Sikhs than the temple itself; it’s considered very auspicious for pilgrims to cleanse themselves in its waters.
Queues of worshippers packed the walkway, patiently waiting their turn to enter the temple - I was later told that it often takes up to two hours to reach the Golden Temple itself.
Surrounding the pool is a stunning white marble surface. As a result of the many worshippers bathing in the pool, the marble can be very slippery with hundreds of wet bodies dripping water everywhere. But that is more than made up for by the cooling effect of its white surface– with all shoes having to be placed in lockers, you are walking around barefoot in 40 degrees yet the marble is only mildly warm. The other point worth mentioning is that the white marble is strikingly bright in the midday sun – I rarely wear sunglasses but I was wishing I had them on me that day.
Another interesting feature to note is the presence of several langar, kitchens providing free vegetarian food for all (not just Sikhs), as well as several stands dispensing drinks. I’d already eaten so I didn’t partake but I did sample a rosewater drink, wonderfully thirst-quenching on a brutally hot day.
Later that evening, back in central Amritsar after visiting the border closing ceremony (more on that below), I remembered over dinner that the temple was open 24 hours a day and decided to head back in around 9pm. Again, a breath-taking sight – this time the temple glowed in the evening darkness, it’s reflection glimmering in the pool. Somewhat surprisingly, the Golden Temple was even busier than my midday visit
Most tourists don't seem to be aware of the significance of this site. Indeed, most travellers I spoke to in other parts of India seemed to think that Amritsar was really only worth visiting for the Golden Temple, maybe the border ceremony if there was time. Not one person had mentioned Jallianwala Bagh, even though it is potentially the most important site in the city – its very presence helped bring about modern India as we know it today.
So what happened to make this such a significant site? This otherwise beautiful and tranquil garden, just a few hundred metres from the Golden Temple, was the scene of one of the most bloodthirsty episodes in the history of the British colonial occupation.
The British colonial government of the day passed a series of laws allowing Indians to be imprisoned without trial. Several protests occurred in response, most were peaceful and passed without incident but one resulted in the deaths of three British and dozens of locals. When over 5000 gathered peacefully in Jallianwala Bagh, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer sent in troops and gave the order to fire into the crowd. Exits were blocked, and no warnings given. In a matter of minutes, 400 lay dead and thousands injured. This massacre then became one of the formative events in the rising of the Indian nationalist movement.
Walking round the garden is a surreal experience. It is an oasis of calm in an otherwise busy city; indeed, it's hard to imagine the scenes of terror from nearly a century before. But the evidence still remains - several walls are still marked with bullet holes, while the well where over 100 died trying to escape the gunfire gathers a sombre crowd. Further background to this horrific event is given at the Martyrs Gallery, honouring those who perished, and a small museum that exhibits documents, artifacts, and biographies of those involved from both sides.
You might wonder who on earth would look forward to visiting a border post? Not the sort of place on anyone’s to-do list. This border, however, is different. Very different. For the majority of the day, it fulfils its primary role – to process tourists and traders travelling in each direction. But by late afternoon, things begin to change. Buses, taxes and motorbikes begin to fill the carpark as tourists arrive for the borders other role – the exciting and surreal border closing ceremony.
I arrived at 5pm via shared jeep, at a cost of a very reasonable 200 rupees for both ways. Many on a tour but that’s not really necessary, you just need the transport to the border. And if you’re on the pedestrian street between the Golden Temple and Jallianwala Bagh, you don’t need to find a driver, they’ll find you.
I went through a series of security checkpoints, then followed the road a short distance. We emerged into a grandstand, shaped in an elongated semi-circular shaped, rather like the Greek hippodromes I saw earlier in my trip.
Food and drink vendors wander the aisles, a welcome sight on a day approaching 40 degrees. There’s also merchandise vendors, selling an array of Indian flags and caps for those wanting to get into the patriotic mood.
About 30 minutes later, the crowd begin to cheer as a group of women and children emerge, who then proceed to take turns running several flags up and down the parade in front of the grandstands - all this in view of the Pakistani side, where in response we could see Pakistani soldiers marching the Pakistani flag in a more orderly fashion than their Indian civilian counterparts. A show of India’s more relaxed attitude to women’s rights, or a middle finger to the Pakistani regime in full knowledge that they can’t reciprocate? The Indians in our group think the former; me, I’m firmly in the latter camp, especially given what happened next. Soldiers remove the flags from the women, who then begin to dance on the parade to the loud Indian pop music being played.
Following this, a group of around 20 Indian BSF (Border Security Force) soldiers emerge and over the next 10 minutes take turns at marching in pairs towards the border – no surprise that the only two female soldiers are the first to march. Via our limited view of the Pakistani side, we can see the Pakistani soldiers are also marching towards the border. What follows is a display of patriotic (nationalist?) chest-thumping. High-kicking soldiers who appear in danger of knocking themselves out, flexing of arms, posturing towards their Pakistani opposites - all lapped up by a crowd whipped up in a fervour by an over-enthusiastic commentator.
A quick browse of the internet prior to my visit seemed to suggest that in recent years it enjoyed greater support on the Pakistani side, yet the crowds I’ve just seen were far bigger on the Indian side. The vociferous support from the Indian crowd points toward a surge in rampant nationalism, with the grandstand being nearly at capacity (and I’m told people are turned away in the weekend). Indeed, the recent surge in popularity of this bizarre ceremony has led to a second ceremony in Fazilka, also in Punjab.
As I stroll back to the carpark, I’m bemused by what I’ve just witnessed. This really is one of the most surreal things I’ve experienced in my 14 months on the road. This is one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world; it is also one of the few borders in the world between two acknowledged nuclear powers. India and Pakistan have clashed numerous times over the past few decades over the Kashmir situation – it is worth noting that Kashmir lies only a few hundred kilometres to the north. And yet once a day, this tense situation is pushed aside for a display of pure theatrical patriotism.