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Discovering …Amritsar

| 01 Nov 2017

As a first-time visitor to Amritsar, I was very excited to discover a city that many of my colleagues had told me such great things about. I was not to be disappointed. I discovered a wonderful city with a fascinating culture and some of the most delicious food I have tasted in India. 

Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

Golden Temple, Amritsar

The main reason to visit Amritsar is to see the Harmandir Sahib, better known as the Golden Temple, and the complex of buildings surrounding it. This is Sikhism’s holiest shrine. It is covered in gold and sits in the middle of an artificial lake. The feeling of serenity around it is simply mesmerising and although I had seen plenty of pictures before, you cannot prepare yourself for the temple’s charm.

People often compare the temple with visiting the Taj Mahal, but for me this was a completely different experience. One of the first things you will notice about the complex – admittedly after you  golden shrine – is that among the large gathering of people you will find yourself surrounded by, there is a notable lack of tourists. The temple receives an average of 70,000 visitors every day but is very much a place of worship. Continuous chants, the stillness of the water and the thousands of people paying their tributes, many half-emerged in the water, made for an extremely humbling experience.

Langar hall in the Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

Langar hall in the Golden Temple, Amritsar

Explore deeper into the temple complex and you will discover the langar hall and kitchens, which provide more than 50,000 free meals each day for the visitors, making it one of the largest kitchens in the world. Aside from the logistical complications, what stood out was the vast number of volunteers needed to provide this service, which runs like clockwork. Sikhs treat everyone as equal, regardless of wealth, profession or upbringing. Thousands of people from all backgrounds provide the service in the langar for absolutely nothing in return.

Langar hall and people eating in the Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

People eating in the Golden Temple’s langar hall, Amritsar

Visiting the Golden Temple at night is an entirely different experience and one that’s not to be missed. You will still find the thousands of worshipers, the bathers in the lake and the temple will be just as photogenic  – the glistening gold contrasts against the night sky – but in the evening drums and hymns fill the air for the evening Palki Sahib ceremony. This daily ritual is when the Guru Granth Sahib (the Holy Book) is carried by devotees from the main shrine to the inner sanctum. A guide will help you find the best place to witness this occasion. 

Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

Golden Temple, Amritsar

You could easily be forgiven for thinking that the Golden Temple is the only reason to visit Amritsar, but this is not true. Aside from the bustling streets around the temple, which provide exciting walking and shopping opportunities, Amritsar also hides a sad and haunting past: the site of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919, where an estimated 1,000 non-violent protesters were fatally shot by the British Indian Army, provides a sombre and thought-provoking visit. Bullet holes in the walls of the Jallianwala Bagh garden can still be seen.

Streets of Amritsar, India

Streets of Amritsar

At the other end of the spectrum is the pomp and fanfare of the Wagah Border Closing Ceremony on the India / Pakistan border. Saying that the ceremony was a bizarre and quirky experience would be an understatement.

Wagah Border Closing Ceremony - people

People watching the Wagah Border Closing Ceremony, Amritsar

Every night at sunset, India and Pakistan’s border guards perform an immaculately choreographed display of synchronised marching, military commands, high kicks and foot stamps requiring a great deal of athleticism. Each side of the border takes it in turn to outdo each other before the finale of the flag lowering and the gates closing for the evening.  It was a somewhat amusing spectacle but there was a palpable feeling of patriotism among the 30,000-strong crowd that witnessed it with me, a feeling that stayed with me long after the event. I count the experience as one of my most treasured travel memories.

Wagah Border Closing Ceremony, Amritsar, India

Wagah Border Closing Ceremony, Amritsar

How to get there:

Located in the north-west of India, Amritsar is easily accessible by plane or train from Delhi or by road to other Himalayan towns such as McLeod Ganj, Pragpur and Chandigarh. I took a direct flight from Delhi, which took almost one hour. 

Where to stay:

I stayed in the Taj Swarna, which only opened in January 2017 and was immaculate. This is certainly one of the finest hotels in the city but what I liked most about the property was the homely ambience and the staff who genuinely seemed to love to assist you. The food here was also the best I tasted in the city.

 

What to eat:

Amritsar is a city for food lovers and is nicknamed the culinary capital of India by Indians. Being the land of ghee and butter, dishes are both rich in flavour and calories, but if there was ever a place to forget the diet, Amritsar would be it. Although perhaps not the most adventurous choice, the butter chicken in Amritsar was an exceptional dish. Other favourites included aloo puri (potato curry with bread stuffed with cottage cheese) and Amritsar fish.

Wagah Border Closing Ceremony, Amritsar, India

Wagah Border Closing Ceremony, Amritsar

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