A desire to visit Amritsar appeared almost immediately as we’d started to plan a trip to India.
At first I read about it in blogs. I knew that I wanted to go for sure (more specifically to see the Golden Temple) after having seen a cycle of TV-programs “The world inside out” by our countryman Dmytrii Komarov.
Practically at the very beginning we dismissed the idea of going to Agra to see the Taj-Mahal, but however we changed our itinerary we’d always left a visit to Amritsar and the Golden Temple in it.
Such decision wasn’t motiveless. Sure, the Taj-Mahal is a famous complex, India’s visiting card. But it’s merely a showplace. The Golden Temple of Amritsar is a live place, “The abode of God” as its Indian name “Harmandir Sahib” is literally translated. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from India and the whole world flock to this place to worship the main Sikh shrine and bathe themselves in the waters of holy spring. The doors are open not only for Sikhi followers, but for people of all religion, culture and nationality.
But that’s not all. The Golden Temple might be the only place on earth, where one can receive shelter and food giving absolutely nothing in return. And it won’t be charity, nor alms, but the very constitution of Sikhi laws – complete equality of all people. In addition, imagine all this happening amongst the incredible fairy-tale clatter, where India of Kipling’s stories comes to life.
But let’s take one thing at a time.
Something about the city Amritsar
Amritsar is situated in India’s north-west and administratively belongs to the state of Punjab.
It is believed that in 1577 the 4th guru of Sikhs, Guru Ram Das, has dug a reservoir, which was filled with holy water. The pond was begun to be called “Amrita” – “nectar of immortality”. The city that grew around it was named Amritsar. In the middle of the reservoir the Golden Temple – the main Sikhi gurdwara (place of worship) – is located.
In general, a lot looks the same in Amritsar as it does in Delhi. Same uncomplicated architecture, conspicuous advertisements on facades, garbage on the ground, horrendous traffic, rattle of rickshaws and scooters, endless sound of horns beeping and squealing, walls of dust, street vendors, and phlegmatic holy cows with lost interest in life…
Same as in Delhi unceremonious looks from everyone you meet haunt you, and the feeling of everyone looking at you at the same time arises.
The usual pictures of insane Indian reality
As Google prompted, there was a half-an-hour walk from our hotel to the Golden Temple.
Along the way we saw streets with buildings of Colonial times, sometimes even swept clean. And although Amritsar is hardly a clean city, it’s a lot tidier than Delhi. For example, this central street leading to the Golden Temple is promenade laid with tiles.
And unlike the capital Amritsar is friendlier to tourists. On numerous streets and squares adjacent to Harmandir Sahib there are lots of vendors, trading souvenirs, Sikhi attributes, ornamentals, footwear, clothes, food specialties, teas, street food.
We appeared in the rows of the market in the morning, when sleepy mongers have just started laying out their goods on counters and rugs. Lively motion came to these streets in the afternoon. Auto rickshaws and simple rickshaws (human-powered) rode back and forth, pedestrians walked, trade flowed.
Decent places to grab a meal can be found in the city’s center. We dined at “Brothers Dhaba” (a sort of fast food restaurant, but with vast range of national Indian meals). We asked for “not spicy” of course, because Indian’s “not spicy” is still too hot for us. We ordered rice, flatbread “naan” with garlic and cheese and “malay kofta” (vegetarian potato rissoles with huge amount of sauce).
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On the next day’s morning we found McDonald’s. And although we avoid these bistros in trips and in everyday life, it’s as to eat in a good restaurant in India. One can have a cup of fine coffee here, snack with french fries and eat a sandwich (not fearing to suffer from heartburn the reminder of the day). Among other luxuries is the comfortable lavatory and free Wi-Fi. To sum up, breakfast at McDonald’s cheered us up that morning.
There were more than few tragic events in the history of Amritsar. One of the most famous is perhaps the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (or the Amritsar massacre) which took place on April 13th 1919. A group of nonviolent protesters were fired upon by the troops of British Indian Army under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer. A mass meeting was gathered in support of nonviolent Gandhi movement. British soldiers blocked all exits and fired at civilians for approximately 10 minutes. Number of dead reported by British government was 379 (by Indian National Congress – approximately 1000).
Nowadays there is a memorial park at the place of those tragic events.
As this place is situated near the Golden Temple, we visited it too. The entrance is free of charge. As it does probably everywhere in India, visiting sights and memorial places allows to “switch off” the city at least for a little while. It worked here also. Behind the park’s walls one can exhale and relax. There are benches all around, green lawns, fragrant blossoming bushes and lots of Indians ☺ Yes, they like to travel their country also.
The remains of walls with holes from the bullets are saved.
You can see a well on Jallianwala Bagh territory, where people jumped, trying to save themselves from being shot. Naturally, people got crippled. It’s difficult to imagine the animal horror of a man plunging into the deep pit. The inscription on the memorial plaque states that in the aftermath 120 bodies were taken out of the well.
“After ten minutes or so the General gave the order to withdraw. As he returned for dinner, the kites and vultures were already circling overhead. Corpses were piled in drifts around the walls of the Jallianwala Bagh. The well in the corner was choked with them. As darkness fell, relatives looking for their dead were attacked by jackals and feral dogs. Under martial law there was an eight o’clock curfew. Most of the townspeople were now too scared to break it, so the wounded remained where they lay until morning…”
From the book “The Impressionist” by Hari Kunzru.
The barbarian shooting of a nonviolent meeting gave start to the wave of freedom movement for independence of India, which was gained 28 years after bloody events of Jallianwala Bagh.
A bit about Sikhs and Sikhism
Amritsar is a center of political, cultural and religious history of Sikhism.
Sikhism is religion, which emerged from Hinduism and Islam in the beginning of the 16th century. Founder of the religion is Guru Nanak. The word “sikh” itself means “disciple” or “learner”.
Guru Nanak and the following 9 gurus came up with and elaborated quite interesting religious concept. There’s one God in Sikhism, it’s neither a man nor a woman, it doesn’t have birth or death, it has no name. Sikhs decline the caste system, each and every man: rich or poor, white or black, Muslim or Christian is equally important to God. They don’t claim the monopoly of their own religion on God, and think that there are a lot of ways to God, and religion does not matter. Sikhism doesn’t have clergy or priests. Sikhism is a religion of a family man; Sikh can’t be a monk, a hermit, a beggar, can’t take a vow of chastity. Form of worshipping the God is meditation.
Sikhs have untouched hair “kesh” and hide it under the turban “dastar” (or “pagri”). Turban is worn in a certain way and reminds me of a helmet. Then it seems that every man all around is wearing multicolored helmets.
On Sikh’s wrist you will by all means see a steel bracelet “kara”, symbolizing indissoluble connection with God.
Kirpan – a sword or a dagger, hidden under the garment. Sword isn’t used for maintaining holder’s power, threats or violence towards the others. Kirpan is a symbol of serving to weaker.
A small wooden comb “kangha” is hidden in the wrinkles of one’s turban. It’s also one of Five Ks every Sikh has to have at his disposal.
The last, and the funniest thing is “kacchera” – special undergarment, which should remind disciples of Sikhism about constant control of their desires.
In fact, all men wear turbans of different colors and heavy metal bracelets are seen on their wrists. It seems that you’re among the warriors. Every male is armed with a dagger and it’s normal. By the way, not only men are. Since equality lies at the heart of Sikhism, even women, who underwent the rite of initiation, carry the mandatory objects of devoted. As does, for instance, this strict dame.
Turbans are worn with usual dress and with formal suits.
But there are completely fairytale characters in Amritsar – wearing abundantly decorated turbans of immense size, clad in traditional clothes, with bent crooked swords, dangling in a sling.
Modern young people, of course, deviate from tradition and young Sikhs are seen on the streets with uncovered heads and short hair.
Very frequently you can see bearded men on streets with lower jaw supported with a shawl. It looks as if a person suffers from toothache – and supported the sore spot. ☺ But such people were met quite frequently. All men can’t have toothache at once, can they? The answer to the question came later. All Sikhs wear beautiful dense beards and for them not to ravel, get in the face or become dusted while driving the bicycles, motorcycles and other open transport, they simply cover them with kerchief.
In this way we saw the holy city of Amritsar. But the biggest impression and the place of sublime beauty is the Golden Temple, Harmandir Sahib – the main Sikhi sanctuary. We’ll tell about it in our next post.