As I write we are just leaving Amritsar, having spent a couple of days in this famous city located in the northwestern Punjab region of India.
Amritsar is best known as the home of the spectacular Golden Temple, the holiest site for Sikhs. The city was founded in 1577 by a Sikh Guru, and later was a flashpoint in the fight for Indian independence in the early 20th century. Outside of the serene Golden Temple complex lies a network of frantically busy streets, constantly packed with pilgrims, touts, market stalls and legions of honking rickshaws.
We arrived in Amritsar by train from Delhi, after eventually managing to leave Kashmir by plane. Although we loved Kashmir, we stayed longer than we had originally intended, due to the devastating effect the floods had on the transport network. This had also limited what we were able to see and do whilst in Kashmir, and so we spent longer than we would have chosen sitting in the house, playing cards and chatting with the family. Although this was enjoyable, and the hospitality much appreciated, we were relieved to be able to return to Delhi and continue our journey.
We arrived into Delhi airport late at night, planning to leave for Amritsar the following afternoon by train. When we arrived at the station in the morning, we were informed that there were no second class tickets left, only 1st class. Oh well! We joined the trendy Indians and smart businessmen in 1st class, somewhat bringing down the standard in our travelling attire, laden with huge rucksacks. The train was excellent; huge reclining seats, overly aggressive air conditioning (we were both wearing our fleeces by the end), and an unceasing stream of food and drink served by the railway staff for the full 6 hour duration. Not bad for £16 each!
Upon arrival in Amritsar, our first stop was the Mata Temple. This temple commemorates the 20th century Hindu Saint Lal Devi, and reputedly has fertility-improving powers. It was not at all what we expected; instead of the usual solemn affair, the temple more closely resembled a fairground attraction. We were directed up a narrow set of stairs, which led us on a trail through crooked passages, up and down more rickety stairs, crawling along tunnels, walking through a canal of ankle deep water, and finally passing through another tunnel decorated as the mouth of some giant beast, complete with a full set of big pointy teeth. Throughout there were lavishly decorated shrines and statues, which included a giant pink horse and an archer with a reindeer, amongst other things. The whole experience was surreal, but also one of the most interesting and unusual temples we’ve seen so far.
After leaving the Mata temple we took a car to nearby Attari, a small town 30 km outside Amritsar, to watch the Border Ceremony which takes place each evening at the border with Pakistan. Strictly speaking, the purpose of the ceremony is simply to lower the national flag of each country and close the border for the night. However, it has evolved into a theatrical contest between the Indian and Pakistani soldiers; of power marching, high-stepping, chest-beating and general macho gesturing. Both sides are dressed in suitably gaudy uniforms, complete with large mohican-style fans on their hats which add a certain je ne sais quoi. The ceremony was really good fun to watch, and the loud music, huge crowds and impromptu Bollywood dancing scenes all combined to create a carnival atmosphere.
As the sun set, we headed back to Amritsar to see the Golden Temple by night. The temple was beautifully lit, and much quieter than when had stopped by earlier in the day. In accordance with Sikh etiquette, we deposited our sandals and donned scarves to cover our heads, before entering the temple to spend a peaceful hour soaking in the atmosphere.
Although the whole complex is referred to as the Golden Temple, the actual Golden Temple is a stunningly ornate gold building, which sits at the centre of a large square lake, linked to the surrounding marble courtyard by a narrow causeway. The central building is topped by a shimmering dome, gilded with over 750kg of gold. Sikh pilgrims travel from across the world to submerge themselves in the Amrit Sarovar (the sacred water surrounding the temple, said to have healing powers), and file across the causeway to contemplate within the inner sanctum. Many pilgrims stay in the free dorms which adjoin the temple, and are also fed free of charge at the enormous temple canteen.
We had a more leisurely time the next morning, revisiting the Golden Temple to write postcards in the shade, followed by a brief visit to the Jallianwala Bagh (a park with a monument to commemorate the killing of hundreds of unarmed Independence protesters by the British army in 1919). After a delicious lunch of dhosa (savoury filled pancake) and kulchi (a Punjab delicacy – paratha bread filled with spices, herbs and potato) at a tucked away little cafe, we headed back to the train station and left for Delhi (lowly 2nd class this time). We plan to stop overnight, before heading south on a sleeper train to Mumbai tomorrow.