Founded in 1577 by the fourth Sikh guru, Ram Das, Amritsar is home to Sikhism's holiest shrine, the spectacular Golden Temple, one of India's most serene and humbling sights.
Amritsar is divided in two by a tangle of railway lines. The old city, containing the Golden Temple and other historic sights and bound by 12 medieval gates, is southeast of the railway lines. This is a fascinating area to explore, with a capillary network of narrow bazaars that seems to float over the centuries. To the north of the railway lines, 'modern' Amritsar has grown up in haphazard fashion around a scattering of colonial-era boulevards. Gleaming malls and upmarket hotels stand testament to the prosperity of the city, but the hectic traffic makes this area hard to love at street level. Crossing between the old and new cities is best done by cycle-rickshaw, but once you're in the old city, walking is often the quickest way to get around. When we arrived in Amritsar we found it to be a typically crowded city, with bustling lanes and dusty streets but some pleasant spots. Driving along the Mall Road, we turned off for Welcomheritage Ranjit's Svaasa Heritage Hotel and Spa.
We drove from Ranjit's Svaasa towards the Golden Temple and from the parking area walked through a bustling bazaar with pushy vendors trying to convince visitors to buy scarves, prayer objects, and souvenirs. Once we reached the principal entrance to the temple, however, the complex was remarkably non-commercial and free of any kind of hassles. We left our footwear and bags in the cloakroom near the clock tower crowned gateway – this cloak-room is manned by Kar Sevaks or volunteers, and the shoes handled by them reflect the Sikh doctrine of caste equality and respect for labour. Having washed our feet in the water and covered our heads with scarves available free from a bin, we came to the top of the gateway stairs from where we saw the Amrit Sarovar, `the lake of the nectar of life', from which Amritsar gets its name, with the facade of the Golden Temple rising up beside it. Stepping down to the marble walkway, we joined a number of Sindhi, Sikh and other pilgrims walking respectfully on the parikrama path that runs a circuit along the lake before reaching the entrance to the Har Mandir. The legendary Golden Temple is actually just a small part of this huge gurdwara complex, known to Sikhs as Harmandir Sahib (or Darbar Sahib). The focus of attention is the tank that surrounds the gleaming central shrine – the Amrit Sarovar, excavated by the fourth guru Ram Das in 1577. Ringed by its marble walkway, the tank is said to have healing powers, and pilgrims come from across the world to bathe in the sacred waters. Floating at the end of a long causeway, the Golden Temple itself is a mesmerising blend of Hindu and Islamic architectural styles, with an elegant marble lower level adorned with flower and animal motifs in pietra dura work with semi-precious stones (as seen on the Taj Mahal). Above this rises a shimmering second level, encased in intricately engraved gold panels, and topped by a dome-shaped like an inverted lotus and gilded with 750 kg of gold, donated by Ranjit Singh, who rebuilt the temple once damaged by Aurangzeb. It was originally built by Guru Ramdas and his successor.
Entering a gateway called Darshani Deorhi, we finally lined up at the marble causeway leading to the Harmandir, the spiritual centre of the Sikh faith. In the gleaming inner sanctum photography is prohibited. Inside, priests and musicians keep up a continuous chant from the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book), which lies covered by a jewelled canopy and fanned by attendants, adding to the already intense atmosphere. After paying their respects, pilgrims retreat to the intricately painted gallery on the second level to contemplate. We then joined Sikhs bathing at auspicious points of the lake, marked by bathing steps or chains, and also visited the shrines alongside the marble pathway – worshipping a tree shrine called Dukh Banjani Ber and bathing nearby it is said to be a potent ritual for healing disorders while the Athsath Tirath is a platform that represents 68 holy shrines of India. Because of the number of Kar Sevaks doing voluntary duty, the environs in the temple complex is spotlessly clean and litter-free.
Further along the path is the Akal Takth, where important pronouncements are made. The Guru Granth Sahib is installed in the temple every morning and returned at night to the Akal Takhat, the temporal seat of the Khalsa brotherhood. The ceremony takes place at 5am and 9.40pm in winter, and 4am and 10.30pm in summer. Inside the Akal Takhat, you can view a collection of sacred Sikh weapons. The building was heavily damaged when it was stormed by the Indian army during Operation Blue Star in 1984; it was repaired by the government but Sikhs refused to use the tainted building and rebuilt the tower from scratch. Founded in the 16th century by Guru Arjan Singh and built by Guru Govind Singh, the Akal Takht's first floor was added by the Sikh ruler, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and contains a room with a balcony where Khalsas are initiates. This is the community centre of the Sikh fellowship, founded by Guru Nanak as an alternative way of life in the 15th century when both Hinduism and Islam were strong in North India, and developed under eight successors called Gurus into a community aiming for a sense of union with God, the true Guru. Guru Har Govind Singh, the 10th Guru, whose shrine is nearby, organised the Sikh community into a political entity, a military power against the fanatical Aurangzeb, and a structured religious group with a permanent focus of attention. Flagstaffs symbolise religion and politics, and meet in the twin-sword symbol promoted by Har Govind Singh to represent religious and temporal authority.
After our wanderings, we lined up with a motley group for Langar – there were people of Punjabi or Sindhi origin from overseas, men and women in traditional Punjabi dress, affluent-looking modern Sikh and Sindhi families, tourists from India and abroad, VVIPs, Nihang Sikhs in martial dress and humble labourers. At the southeast end of the temple, the Guru-Ka-Langar is an enormous communal dining hall where an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 pilgrims a day come to eat after praying at the Golden Temple. There's no charge to eat here, but a donation is appropriate and help with the staggering pile of washing up is always appreciated. Catering to everyone from paupers to millionaires, it's a humbling demonstration of the Sikh principle of hospitality. It continues the langar or communal eating tradition established by Guru Amar Das to encourage followers of the Sikh order to eat together without prejudice of caste, creed, colour, gender or income, and create goodwill among strangers.
The langar was established by the fourth Guru Ramdas who founded Amritsar in 1577 and often feeds 3000 people at a sitting. There are now machines that make chapatis, etc, to make it possible to serve the lunches and dinners for the thousands that sit on mats. On our way out, we lined up for Karah Prasad or halwa and dropped into the Sikh Museum in the clock tower, which shows the persecution Sikhs suffered at the hands of the Mughals, British and Indira Gandhi.
After dinner, we visited the Golden Temple once again for a view of the facade illumined at night. It was a truly uplifting experience. No wonder it attracts more visitors than the Taj Mahal!
Other attractions of Punjab
Harike Bird Sanctuary: At the confluence of the Sutlej and Beas Rivers, a barrage has created a shallow lake that is an important bird enclave near Amritsar. Thousands of ducks can be seen here in winter and many resident waterbirds are spotted at other times of the year. The sanctuary is known for its darter or snake birds. Beas: The town of Beas is a well-maintained spiritual centre. Every year, millions of Radha Soami followers travel to Beas to attend satsangs.
Patiala: The princely city of Patiala has a fort at its centre. The city's main attraction is the early-20th century Moti Bagh Palace set among terraced Mughal style gardens with water channels. The Sheesh Mahal here has a gallery of paintings and princely memorabilia. There are many palaces, imposing public buildings and gardens that speak of the city's royal pedigree.
Sirhind: This historical town has Mughal buildings and is also one of the most important Muslim religious centres in North India, with the Rauza Sahib attracting many pilgrims. The Fatehgarh Sahib Gurdwara commemorates the martyred sons of Guru Gobind Singh.
Kapurthala: The capital of a prosperous princely state, known as the city of Palaces & Gardens, it has a rich architectural heritage patronised by Maharaja Jagatjit Singh in the early-20th century. Inspired by French and Spanish architecture, the Maharaja built impressive palaces and royal lodges.
Bathinda: An ancient city named after the Bhati Kings, it has gurdwaras, gardens and an ancient fort, where Razia Sultan was imprisoned. It has many artificial lakes and a zoo.