….. Rajesh Deshpande © 2013. Based upon my personal visit in February 2012.
Destination Type – Pilgrimage. Trip Type – Leisure.
‘Satnam Waheguru’, ‘Wahe Guruji Ka Khalsa, Wahe Guruji Ki Fateh’ are the sacred chants in the air of Amritsar. The name Amritsar derives from the name of the pool around the Golden Temple (also known as Harmandir Sahib) and literally means “holy pool of elixir” (Amrit: elixir; Sar: short for sarovar or lake). It is the spiritual and cultural center of the Sikh religion. The Golden Temple was initiated by Guru Ramdaas Ji, the fourth Sikh Guru, and was completed in 1601 by his successor Guru Arjan Dev Ji. Amritsar is a major pilgrimage and tourism center in Punjab, India.
The air in Amritsar has the fragrance of divinity and sacrifice due to the holy Golden Temple and the adjacent Jallianwala Bagh. Amritsar is very close to the Indo-Pak Wagah border (27 Kms). Best time to visit Amritsar is in the winter, between October and March.
How to reach?
By Rail – Amritsar is well connected by rail to all major cities of India. From Mumbai, Golden Temple mail is the best train to reach Amritsar. From Delhi the Shatabdi Express is the fastest train to reach Amritsar. Check irctc.co.in, erail.in and indianrailways.com for further details and reservations.
By Road – It takes around 6-7 hours from New Delhi via NH-1 to reach Amritsar. Amritsar is well-connected by road to most major cities and northern India in particular within a day’s drive. Pathankot is about 80 Kms away and it takes about 2.5 hrs. to reach there. Jalandhar is about 80 Kms and Kapurthala is about 65 Kms from Amritsar. There are daily direct buses to New Delhi, Jammu, Katra, Chandigarh, and Dharamsala from Amritsar. Regular Volvo buses ply between Chandigarh, Delhi and Katra to Amritsar.
By Air – Raja Sansi International Airport is about 11 Kms to the north of Amritsar and a 15-20 minute drive from the city center. Most flights are direct to Delhi, an hour away, or at least a hop at Delhi. Off late, direct flights have begun from Mumbai. There are an increasing number of direct international flights from Dubai, Tashkent, London and Toronto.
There is a free bus service from Railway Station and Airport up to Golden Temple.
Where to Stay?
Amritsar has a wide variety of options to choose for a comfortable stay. The Golden Temple complex provides one of the most affordable accommodations to the masses at very nominal rates in the Guru Ramdaas Niwas. Pilgrims must remain quiet and respectful of the surroundings, keeping in mind that this is a holy place of pilgrimage and not a tourist spot. Alcohol and smoking are strictly forbidden, not only within the temple complex but anywhere within sight of the temple complex. If one can handle that, then this is unarguably the best place to stay – immersing the soul in to the recital of divine Shabads and verses from the Guru Granth Sahib, while absorbing the enchanting atmosphere.
There are many budget hotels concentrated near the Golden Temple and Jallianwala Bagh. Mid-range hotels in the vicinity of Golden Temple are Hotel City Heart, Hotel CJ International and Hotel Sapphire to name a few.
The swankier ones for a luxurious stay are Country Inn and Suites by Carlson on Queens Road near Bhandari Bridge, Ranjit’s Svaasa, Ista Amritsar and the Radisson Blue Hotel (on Airport Road).
Tip – Reverence to the Sikh religion is essential while at the Golden Temple complex. Both men and women are required to cover their head (scarves called as bandannas are available at the entrance of the Golden temple free of cost and are also sold by hawkers on the street outside for Rs. 10/-). Good conduct is essential in the temple complex. Littering and talking loud or foul is strictly prohibited and will attract undue negative attention. Smoking and alcohol are forbidden within the complex and anywhere within sight of the temple. It is mandatory to deposit footwear at the building to the left of the entrance, wash feet at the entrance and head in.
Amritsar has good city transport with Taxis, Auto Rickshaws and Cycle Rickshaws available everywhere. There’s no meter system, hence its best to bargain for a good deal. For certain routes rates are fixed.
People of Amritsar, like all Punjabis, are happy go merry and fun loving. Punjabi is the widely spoken language in Amritsar while Hindi and English languages are well spoken and understood by the locals.
Things to see
Golden Temple – is the prime reason to visit Amritsar, it is the most important religious place of the Sikhs. It’s a stunning complex, sparkling clean and spotless with reverence and discipline in the air. There’s no frisking, metal detectors or security checks. The complex is always full of thousands of pilgrims from all over India, Canada, United Kingdom and other parts of the world. The excitement to be at the Golden Temple is infectious.
While inside the temple complex, it is mandatory for both men and women to cover the head, remove shoes and do circumambulation (parikrama) around the Harmandir Sahib. The complex is open almost 24 hours and is worth visiting twice – once during the break of dawn till morning and once at night, when it’s beautifully lit up.
Darshani Deori. This is the main entrance, sporting a distinctly Victorian clock-tower. Wash feet in the water at the entrance in order to keep the temple clean.
Amrit Sarovar. The giant pool of water that surrounds and reflects the Golden Temple. Sections (marked off by ropes) are set aside for male pilgrims wishing to take a holy dip while enclosures are constructed for female pilgrims for taking a holy dip
Harmandir Sahib. The Golden Temple itself, is in the Amrit Sarovar and abode of the sacred Guru Granth Sahib scripture which is recited throughout the day. It is accessible by a bridge from the edge of the pool, and entry here is regulated by traditionally dressed Sikh guards called Nihangs. It’s a two story structure.
Akal Takht, directly opposite to the Harmandir Sahib. Meaning “The Timeless”, this is the seat of the highest council of Sikhs. At night, the Guru Granth Sahib is taken to the Akal Takht.
Central Sikh Museum, 2nd floor (entrance on the right side of the main entrance). Devoted to a large gallery of paintings, mostly showing the gruesome ways by which countless Sikhs have been martyred, and various knick-knacks from the gurus.
All Sikhs are expected at some point in their lives to volunteer for a week at the Golden Temple, and everyone working here is fulfilling that duty. Anybody can join in on feeling so inclined – by asking the people outside peeling vegetables, or those washing dishes.
Jallianwala Bagh – is a short 5-minute walk from the Golden Temple, site of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre. On April 13 of that year, British Indian Army soldiers opened fire on an unarmed gathering of men, women and children. The firing lasted for about 10 minutes killing 1579 people. A memorial was built on the site. To this day the bullet holes can be seen on the walls and adjoining buildings. The well into which many people jumped and drowned attempting to save themselves from the storm of bullets is also a protected monument inside the park.
Mata Temple – is a labyrinthine Hindu cave temple devoted to saint Lal Devi. Traditionally, women wishing to become pregnant come here to pray. The round path to the main temple passes through low tunnels, caves full of ankle-deep water, inclined walkways, and mirrored hallways that make the experience seem more like a fun house than a place of worship.
Summer Palace of Maharaja Ranjit Singh – is in the Ram Bagh park. The palace houses a museum, exhibiting oil paintings, miniatures, coins and weapons from the Sikh period. In this park is also the Maharaja Ranjit Singh Panorama.
Durgiana Temple – is built on the lines of the golden temple and is dedicated to goddess Durga. It is also known as the Lakshmi Narayan Temple. Durgiana temple is located near the Lohgarh gate and is worth a visit for the time spent while at Amritsar.
Wagah Border – is the international border between India and Pakistan cutting the Grand Trunk Road (NH-1 on India’s side). It is 27 Kms to the West of Amritsar. Wagah border is popular for the daily retreat ceremony (flag lowering ceremony), done with fascinating pomp that involves tall soldiers goose-stepping about and slamming gates. The Border Security Force (BSF – a paramilitary force) of India and the Rangers of Pakistan (also a paramilitary force) do the ceremonial honours to lower their respective flags. The ceremony creates a patriotic fervour amongst the crowd.
The flag lowering ceremony which happens around 4:30 PM everyday has become the chief attraction for tourists. A short cultural programme is also conducted by local folk dancers for the waiting crowd before the flag lowering ceremony. A peak crowd of more than 5000 people can assemble on the Indian side on weekends and public holidays. The patriotic sentiment of the crowd, especially on the Indian side energizes the atmosphere and the crowd shouts slogans in praise of their motherland.
A stadium like visitor gallery with cement concrete steps is built on both sides of the Grand Trunk road on the Indian side. This allows most people in the crowd to get a seat but it is common to see around 500 – 1000 people standing at the periphery. There are metal fences to help direct and control the crowds in and out of the seating areas.
Ideally, one should reach the border by 3:30 PM to get a seat on a rush day which means to start at 3 PM from Amritsar. Shared Taxi and Auto Rickshaws for Wagah border are available at the stands near Golden Temple. A full cab can also be hired. All vehicles are parked between 500 metres. to a kilometre from the border. One has to walk in a queue from the parking area up to the visitors’ gallery. There are separate queues and separate seating areas in the visitors’ gallery for men and women. Visitors holding VIP pass must head straight to the VIP area.
Cell phones, Cameras and Wallets are allowed. Bags including ladies purses & handbags are not allowed inside the visitor gallery. However, the BSF personnel allow carrying of transparent plastic bags with few snacks, and transparent water bottles. The restrictions usually depend upon the crowd and threat perception on that day. The security is extremely strict with lots of sniffer dogs and horseback snipers around. Mobile Phone networks are jammed in the visitors’ gallery.
What and where to eat?
The Golden Temple has a dining hall (langar) serving free basic meals to all throughout the day… A must visit for pilgrims and tourists. Plates and spoons are handed out near the entrance of the langar hall, the pilgrim must take the next vacant seat in one of the rows on the floor. Servers come with buckets of roti’s, dal, kheer and rice. Rotis are to be taken as alms with palms of both the hands joined together. Wasting food is not allowed, therefore it is required to take food as much only as required and to finish everything on plate. After the meal, plates are to be taken outside and handed over to volunteers at the washing area.
Bhrawan da Dhaba, a popular eatery is situated near the Town Hall, a 10 mins walking distance from the Golden Temple. It is famous for traditional Punjabi cuisine – Amritsari Kulchas, Naans, Pindi Chana, Shahi Paneer, Dal Makhni, and Lassi. It gets very crowded at meal time and at weekends.
Beware of being confused with Brothers Dhaba next door which is another restaurant.
Kesar da Dhaba. Located near the Golden Temple, it offers good Punjabi food made in pure ghee. Thali is authentic Punjabi and worth trying. Parantha, Chana Masala, Palak Paneer, Dal Fry, Pulao are not to be missed, followed by Gulab Jamun and Phirni. The Dhaba is almost 100 year old. It is located at Passian Chowk, about 10 mins. walk from the Golden Temple.
Kanhaiyalal Santram Sweets on Lawrence road is famous for the hot Gudh Ka Halwa prepared in pure desi ghee (clarified butter). Aloo Puri and Chana Puri is also a must try.
Ahuja Lassi. Perhaps the best Lassi in Punjab is from Ahuja Lassiwala near Hindu College, Amritsar Railway Station. Not to be missed.
Shop for Kandhas, Kadas, Kirpans (Daggers), Swords, Souvenirs, CD’s of Punjabi songs & bhajans on the Golden Temple road.
Shop for Papad, Wadian, Punjabi Pickles, Phulkaari fabric and Juttis at Hall Bazar near the town hall (little ahead from Bhrawan Dhaba on the left).
Phulkaari is a form of embroidery from erstwhile Punjab of undivided India. It is also popular in certain parts of Pakistan, especially Lahore. Phulkaari literally means “flower making”. Brightly coloured Shawls, Sarees, Head Scarves, Salwar Kameez of phulkaari can be found in Hall Bazar and Kapda Bazar. Hand-embroidered ones are more expensive and in high demand for festivals and other joyous occasions. Good haggling is a must at Kapda bazar as it’s a whole-sale market for clothes.
Cycle Rickshaws from Golden Temple charge Rs. 10/- per seat to Hall bazar. It can also be reached on foot in 10 mins from Golden Temple. The main entrance to Hall bazar is from Gandhi gate which is towards the Railway station.
Rajesh Deshpande © 2013