Yesterday after a hearty breakfast at the hotel we went to visit the Golden Temple. The area around the temple is called Katra Ahulwalia or “Old City.” It has some of the oldest architecture in Amritsar. Some of the buildings have been in the same families for centuries. The area reminded me very much of Chandni Chowk in Delhi. The narrow alleyways are lined with various shops, each divided into sections like “jewelry” or “wedding attire” and the like. I asked my guide how they ever survived competing with each other for business. He told me that most of the jewlers, for instance all work for various clients and have individual orders. He said this area, close to the Golden Temple is a haven for merchants.
The holy Golden Temple, as known as Darbar Sahib (“abode of God”) is the holiest Gurdwara and the most important pilgrimage sites of Sikhism. The temple is built around a man-made pool (sarovar) that was completed by Guru Ram Das in 1577. The temple was repeatedly rebuilt by the Sikhs after it became a target of persecution and was destroyed several times by the Muslim armies from Afghanistan and the Mughal Empire. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, at the tender age of 21 founded the Sikh Empire. He rebuilt it in marble and copper in 1809, and overlaid the sanctum with gold foil in 1830. This has led to the name the Golden Temple. The temple is an architectural marvel and contains 750kg of pure gold.
The Harmandir Sahib is an open boat of worship for all men and women, from all walks of life and faith. It was specifically built to recognize all people as equal, and thus doesn’t recognize the specific castes in India. It has a square plan with four entrances, has a circumambulation path around the pool. The four entrances are to symbolize complete access and equality to all. The temple is a collection of buildings around the sanctum and the pool. People regularly come to take a holy dip in the waters. The men bathe or “dip” out in the open, but there are covered areas for women to bathe in private. Additional buildings include a clock tower, the offices of Gurdwara Committee, a Museum and a “langar”– a free Sikh community run kitchen that serves a simple vegetarian meal to all visitors without discrimination. Over 100,000 people visit the holy shrine daily for worship. The community kitchen is amazing, there is no better word to describe it. All the food is purchased from donations. The food prep is all done on site, and the kitchen runs 24 hours a day. Volunteerism and service are a big part of the Sikh religion. Anyone at any time can jump into any area of the kitchen, from handing out plates to prepping vegetables to serving floor or washing dishes. Everyone enters and is given a plate, then everyone sits in rows on the floor on mats and the servers come around with the food. I handed out plates before my guide and I partook in the delicious full meal!
After the Golden Temple we proceeded towards Jallianwala Bagh and explore the memorial. Jallianwala Bagh is a public garden in Amritsar famous for one of the most tragic yet landmark events in the history of India. This is where the Amritsar Massacre of 1919 took place. The British Army soldiers upon receiving orders from General Dyer opened fire on a huge, unarmed gathering of men, women and children on April 13, 1919. There is a well inside Jallianwala Bagh into which many people including children jumped to save themselves from the firing. The garden also houses a memorial built in honour of the massacre victims. The portion of the wall with bullet marks along with the well is preserved as a memorial. The museum on the site presents a very sobering timeline with photos and newspaper articles outlining the massacre. I met some delightful Sikh children who I shot some photographs with. It is without fail that everyone asks me where I am from, I answer “America, USA” and they always reply “Ah! America! That is a wonderful country!”
After the Jallianwala Bagh we walked through more of the alleyways and streets and then proceeded to witness the beating retreat ceremony that takes place at the Wagah Border. The border crossing draws its name from Wahga village, near which the boundary dividing India and Pakistan upon the Partition of British India was drawn. At the time of independence in 1947, migrants from India entered Pakistan through this border crossing. The Wagah-Attari border ceremony happens at the border gate, two hours before sunset each day. Foreigners have their own special gate that is much speedier to get through. They also have their own section to sit in. I was lucky to get a seat in the very front row. The Indians turn out in droves! Many families were there with their children. The ceremony starts with a line of women who run with the India flag. Then, all the women who want to dance to Bollywood music flood down from the stadium seats and all get jiggy ‘wit it. This was the best part for me! It was infectious and so much fun to watch. The flag ceremony is conducted by the Pakistan Rangers and Indian Border Security Forces (BSF).