Nearly six seemingly eventless hours after it left New Delhi, my train arrived ahead of schedule at Amritsar Junction. This felt like a very good start to my first trip to the city in many years. The few faint memories I had were dominated by lively streets, heat, good food and strains of devotional music. I set out to discover what the city had to offer today.
The ride from the train station to the city centre on the auto-rickshaw wiped out any crumbs of slumber I may have been savouring. We sped past bazaars and shops bustling with activity, auto-rickshaws ferrying as many as they could fit, motorcycles weaving in and out, pushcart vendors jostling their way and cycle rickshaw pullers hopping off to navigate their passengers on uphill stretches. Most roads in the heart of Amritsar are narrow and relatively unchanged but somehow everyone makes it through and to wherever it is they are headed unscathed.
I was headed straight to the Harmandir Sahib or the Golden Temple, as it is popularly known. Several streets close to the gurudwara complex are off limits to motorised vehicles during the day to allow pedestrians and cycle rickshaws space to mill about. I walked the last hundred meters to the north entrance and deposited my shoes and bag at the cloak room. Free saffron scarves were available in a basket and I tied one like a bandana on my head. The stone and marble path leading up to the complex was cool and immaculately clean. As I approached the doorway, I stopped to wash my hands and stepped through the water channel to cleanse my feet.
As I descended the steps into the main complex I felt like I had entered an oasis far from the maddening cacophony of the surrounding streets. Harmandir Sahib stood resplendent in its golden glory, its reflection shimmering in the Amrit Sarovar (reflective pool). The sarovar looked clean and had plenty of healthy carp swimming in it. The devout were lining up in an orderly manner in front of the Akal Takht, waiting patiently for their turn to visit the inner sanctum of the temple where the holy book, Guru Granth Sahib is recited each day from pre-dawn until nearly 10.30pm. I could discern an omnipresent sense of a quiet, calm efficiency which ensures that the serenity can be experienced sans stress or confusion. The smartly dressed guards ensure that people keep moving, bathe only in designated areas, refrain from lying around and most importantly—keep their heads covered at all times.
Everything here seemed to work like a well-tuned Swiss precision instrument. As I got closer to the inner sanctum, I could hear the gurbani wafting through the main entrance. Throughout the day, these teachings and recitals can be heard through stylish but well-concealed Bose speakers and English translations were displayed on a giant blue LED screen.
Upon entering the durbar sahib I was struck by the glow around me. Straight ahead, the head granthi was serenely reading from Guru Granth Sahib while the musicians sat to his right, reciting shabad to the melodious accompaniment of a harmonium and tabla. The visitors streamed in and paid homage by kneeling, praying and offering donations. Every wall, pillar, chandelier, ceiling fan and doorknob appeared to have been immaculately polished and seemed to reflect the colours, faces and clothes milling through. I found out later that each night, once the Guru Granth Sahib has been ceremoniously carried in a palanquin over to the Akal Takht, the entire sanctum is indeed elaborately scrubbed, washed and ritually shined. Narrow steps led me up to the next two levels – each offering a visual feast inside and shimmering vistas outside as I peeked through the ornate portals.
The complex also houses several other shrines dedicated to Sikh gurus and martyrs and prominent among them are Thara Sahib and Shaheed Bunga. I noticed drinking water kiosks at each corner, hemp mats laid out on the cool white marble, beri trees dating back over 400 years, and imposing turrets (Ramgarhia Bunga) at the edge of the langar hall (community kitchen that serves free food).
No visit to a gurudwara is complete without the taste of a langar and the scale of the community meal at the Golden Temple has to be seen to be believed. Rows upon rows of people line up to collect clean trays and cutlery and make their way to the two-level langar hall. All the food is prepared, cooked and served by volunteers called Kar-Sevaks and is available from early dawn to late night. Chapattis roll off multiple automated conveyors and are served hot along with dal, vegetables and usually a dessert to rows of people seated on hemp mats. As I carried my empty dishes out I stood amazed at the efficiency with which the volunteers collected, segregated, cleaned, washed and stacked the dishes, ready to feed the next thousand hungry souls.
Right around the corner from the Golden Temple is the tower of Baba Atal. Besides being a unique nine-storey structure, it’s also home to intricate wall paintings and murals depicting the life of Guru Nanak. The panoramic views from the top are unparalleled and on a clear day, the eye can nearly see every tower, minaret and dome in Amritsar.
A few minutes’ walk from Harmandir Sahib is the historic Jallianwala Bagh that will forever be infamous for the British massacre of innocent citizens. The gardens are verdant, well manicured and blooming with colour. Joggers and walkers mingle with the tourists. It’s hard to imagine that this beautiful place was the scene of the 1919 tragedy. Soon, however, I could not miss the prominently highlighted bullet marks on the boundary wall: stark reminders of a century-old dark day.
Night time in Amritsar has the feel of a small town yet the heart of the city is agog with activity until well into the night. By sundown, Harmandir Sahib glistens with thousands of incandescent lamps and practically emanates a warm glow. As I sat by the sarovar soaking in the sounds and sights around me, a spectacular fireworks display lit up the night sky. I was unsure if these were a part of celebrations at a nearby temple or at a boisterous wedding but given the visual treat I was perfectly happy to just sit back and enjoy it.
The streets surrounding the Golden Temple complex are a true representation of the city and its spirit. Not many tourists venture into the alleyways to explore bazaars with enticing names like Bazaar Keseria, Deori Bazaar, Guru Bazaar, Jhatkiya Bazaar, Bartan Bazaar, Bazaar Maisewan, and Kash Taire Bazaar. Those who do can, discover treasures like rows upon rows of shops specializing in clothes, brass and copper pots and utensils, gold jewellery, embroidered footwear, woollens, framed pictures, wooden toys and more. I spent hours meandering and browsing around. It was while passing through Guru Bazaar I stumbled upon Gurudwara Santokh Sar, a smaller gurudwara with its own water reservoir.
I tasted some of Amritsar’s best food in restaurants tucked away in these narrow, winding lanes. Breakfast was a glass of creamy Lassi accompanying crisp Amritsari kulchhas – served with chickpeas, chutney and chopped onions. Later in the day, I gorged on richly flavored sarson ka saag with makki ki roti, and phirni for dessert.
Along with fast food joints and coffee shops, high-end chain hotels are cropping up all over Amritsar. The city continues to adapt to the changing preferences of the modern travellers while retaining its old-world charm of a border town with a rich cultural and historical heritage.
As I swung my backpack over my shoulder and walked away, I looked back one last time and knew I would be back soon.
You may also like: