The Sikh Capital of the World – Amritsar

On 3rd March 2018 at 4:30am we boarded a sleeper train that would take us the 500km from New Delhi to Amritsar which is near the border with Pakistan. This was our first of what would be many trains throughout India which was made harder by having to get it in the middle of the night with no staff around around to help us find the train. After asking a couple of people and checking lots of different notice boards we found our platform and waited for our train. The New Delhi Train Station (NDLS) is massive and the platforms seem to go on for miles. There are also loads of people asleep in the main station concourse and on the platforms, some waiting for trains to come and others we think calling the station their home – something I have never experienced before. We were in carriage B2 which was a class called A3 which had 8 beds in it. There were two rows of 3 bunks and then across from that there was another bunk with two beds. It was meant to have air conditioning but this was being generous with the term as it was very weak so I’m glad we weren’t travelling in the hottest part of the day or at a hotter time of year. All that was in the carriages were the beds with pillows and blankets and so we had to get our bags up onto the beds we’d be sleeping on as there was no luggage wrack. We were on the top beds (called the upper births) and so hoisted our bags up there as well and then slept using them as an extra pillow. The train was 12 hours long so we had to settle in for what was going to be an incredibly long journey.

We were able to get to sleep relatively quickly but that wasn’t overly surprisingly seeing as it was the middle of the night. By 9:30am the train was full of life with families having tea, biscuits and breakfast. People came through the carriage selling chocolate, omelettes and sandwiches and we could hear a lot of noise from everyone waking up and starting their day on the train. It’s probably the most life I’ve ever heard on a train before, the ones in the U.K. are very lifeless and tame in comparison. We were in and out of sleep for different parts of the journey which made it go quite fast and at around 9ish and 1ish the train had a longer stop so that people would get some food either from someone going through the train or from stalls on the platform. We got a paratha and some biriyani rice from a man walking through the train which did the job of filling us up for the remainder of the journey. Really, the journey wasn’t bad at all and went by quite quickly. Everyone was also very friendly on the train and we had been surprised to not see any other tourists, but I guess that was just what we had to get used to and may also have been because we weren’t in the highest class of carriage the train offers. I also imagine that us being on such a long train also had something to do with that as there were faster ones that were already full which cost more and would likely have more westerners on.

Amritsar is seen to be the epicentre for the Sikh religion with many of the administrative and religious dealings being conducted here such as it being the home of the committee responsible for maintaining all the Gurdwaras (Sikh temples) in India. The main attraction in the area is the Golden Temple (also called SriHarmandir Sahib) which is seen as the spiritual and cultural centre for Sikhs all over the world. The golden temple is said to attract more visitors than the Taj Mahal due to its religious significance and grandeur and is estimated to have over 100,000 visitors on a weekday alone!

In Amritsar, we had booked to stay at a hostel called Jugaadus which had good reviews on Hostelworld and was around a 10 minute walk to the Golden Temple. The tuk tuk to the hostel from the train station instantly showed us a contrast between Delhi and Amritsar. Although still big, Amritsar was smaller and less developed but also very crowded. On our journey we saw horse and carts alongside lorries, cars and tuktuks and on the side of the road we saw cows, pigs and goats just walking along the pavement instead of in fields! This was more how I had imagined India to be like and already really enjoyed the energy of the place. It was also considerably cooler and we wore our hoodies in the evenings here. As well as this, as to be expected, there was a much more prominent Sikh presence here shown by the men wearing a range of brightly coloured turbans. Something I have very much enjoyed about Indian fashion so far is the bright colours they all wear as it makes the streets look a lot more cheerful and colourful compared to the blacks, greys and beiges we seem to favour at home.

Once we arrived a cooking tutorial was going on so they asked if we could wait for around twenty minutes while they finished up. We had no issue with this and they had masala chai (really nice, milky, spiced tea) for us to drink as well as some biscuits so we were content to wait before checking in.

It was around 6ish by the time we got out of the hostel and we headed straight away to see the Golden Temple. The Golden Temple was constructed in the 1500s A.D. with work being completed in 1604 A.D. and was created with the purpose of being a pilgrimage site for all those who followed the Sikh religion. It was built with four entrances which is seen to symbolise its welcoming of all sex, creed, caste and religion as it’s accessible from different parts of town.

To get to the temple we walked across a very busy road and down lots of busy side streets before we came to the main shopping area. These were busy streets lined with shops and cafes (including a McDonald’s and Subway which were completely vegetarian) and little alleys that took you in crowded bazaars. The street on its own was very impressive and was full of people creating lots of noise with many walking towards the temple.

We then arrived to an enormous square which was all made of marble and had one of the entrances to the Golden Temple. Here we handed in our shoes in exchange for a token and then went to large metal wash basins to wash our hands. Before entering we both had to cover our heads – they provided head covers which Niall used and I had a scarf with me – and then we walked through shallow pools of water to wash our feet.

We climbed some steps with a lot of people to get our first look at the Golden Temple which sat surrounded by a body of water. There is one walkway cutting through the water which was full of people queuing to get inside which was around a three hour wait. As it was dark the temple was lit up by artificial lights which made the gold glow and the white marble of the surrounding structures that were also part of the temple complex were also lit up so the place looked phenomenal.

We chose not to wait in the line to go inside the temple. Despite it being a long wait, we also thought that for the devotees queuing this was so important to them with some people coming from huge distances to be there and we didn’t want to take away from that by making them wait any longer even if it was just by two extra people who wanted a quick look inside. We slowly walked around the main walkway of the temple and took in our surroundings. We circled the water and as we did we saw many people going into the water to dip their full body and head under. There was also rooms where the women could go into to dip themselves into the water in privacy as they would remove their clothes to do so. The place was full of people with many people stopping to get photos together with the temple which was encouraging as it meant I felt comfortable taking pictures here too.

One of the most famous and, arguably, impressive parts of the temple is the Community Kitchen (or Langar). Here, anyone can come to share a meal which is prepared completely by volunteers every day of the year for around 22/23 hours a day. Langar is used to teach the etiquette of sitting and eating in a community situation and has created a sanctuary in Amritsar with us protected and secure.

Inside the giant community hall you sit on mats, crossed legged on the floor in rows. As we entered we were given a metal serving tray that had a few different compartments, a metal bowl and a metal spoon. Once we were sat in our row, people came round with giant bowls of food and began distributing out servings down the row to us all. We had some form of potato curry, daal and a sweet rice pudding which is called kheer. We then held out two hands and was given a fresh roti (a type of Indian flatbread).

The food was nice and filled us up. They even came round offering seconds if we wanted it. Once you finished your food you got up and followed the crowds of people to take your plate to volunteers who then washed it five times before it went back out to be used again. The whole process was very efficient and as we were leaving they were already cleaning the floor ready for the next group to come in and eat. I read that the community kitchen uses around 12,000kg of flour, 1,500kg of rice, 13,000kg of lentils and around 2,000kg of vegetables a day. We saw groups of people peeling potatoes as we left the kitchen and most of the food preparation that takes place is done by hand. Around 200,000 rotis are made on a daily basis and these are made using a conveyor belt machine that was donated from a devotee in Turkey. On average, the kitchen will feed 100,000 people a day which is just a staggering number that I couldn’t even comprehend trying to feed and it makes this place even more impressive.

During our time in Amritsar we were asked for an awful lot of pictures. This started as we left the Golden Temple that evening with a few groups of young men asking for our picture. We don’t mind so long as they ask politely and are respectful and we’re never in a rush so it’s not an issue with regards to time either.

On our last day here, our only full day – it was a short but sweet trip – we started by heading back to the Golden Temple to see it in the daylight. In the sunlight the Golden Temple shone and I think the complex looked even bigger than it had the previous night. The streets and the temple itself were also a lot more crowded as it was around 11am on a Sunday. Families were here in droves and the queue to go inside the Golden Temple was even longer than it had been the previous night. We walked around the lake again and also went into some of the smaller temples and rooms along the outside of the complex which were all full of people going to pray or pay their respects.

After visiting the temple we headed to the a memorial for a massacre of 379 unarmed demonstrators that occurred in Amritsar on 13th April 1919. Amritsar had been placed under martial law after protests against the British in the area had been escalating. The protests had been against the conscription of Indian Soldiers for the British army and for the heavy war tax throughout the country. Brigadier General Reginald Dyer was placed in charge and banned public gatherings and meetings. On 13th April a national festival took place that involved many people from rural areas coming to Amritsar, not knowing the recent ban, to enjoy the festivities. Demonstrators had congregated in Jallianwala Bagh which was a local park and this also became flooded with others coming to enjoy the festival. General Dyer surrounded the park and opened fire making his men continue firing on the civilians until they ran out of ammunition – one thousand, six hundred and fifty rounds in total. They didn’t give any warning so no one had any chance to leave (for example if they weren’t part of the protest) or stop demonstrating and disperse. As well as the 379 people killed, more than a thousand were injured. The British Government investigated him and removed him from his post (too little, too late really) and today an eternal flame is in the park as well as markers showing some of the bullet holes in the park’s surrounding walls.

When I read up on this I found it interesting to learn that this massacre sparked a lot of the mass civil disobedience that Mahatma Gandhi led in India. He had originally supported the war effort and India’s involvement in the hope of gaining partial autonomy for India. After the massacre he decided that the British needed to go and that India needed full independence and this was the start of the end of Britain’s rule over India!

The park itself was very nice and it’s good that they have memorialised it for the victims but also for the significance the event ended up having for the future of the whole country. One thing we found strange – probably because we’re British – was that they had also memorialised people who had been radicalised after the massacre to become terrorists against Britain.

It was here that we also spent around 10-15 minutes in the same spot constantly getting photos with people. Once one person asked and we said yes, more people saw that we were getting pictures and queues and crowds formed with each of them moving next to us with their phones to get a picture. Our jaws were hurting by the end from smiling so much and sometimes we would have more than one picture with different people being taken at the same time. I even had someone hand me their baby which he did not like at all, I wouldn’t want a strange woman holding me either! It was a very funny, surreal experience and everyone was always so grateful and happy once we had stood with them for photos so we didn’t mind at all. We estimated throughout the entire day we spent here sightseeing, we got around 50 photos with different people.

We spent the rest of the morning wandering the streets which are lined with either yellow or red stone buildings and everywhere was very busy with people shopping, having lunch or making their way to the Golden Temple. The town centre was very pretty and I liked walking around people watching everyone going about their day as well as the constant hustle and bustle of the place.

On a street near the Golden Temple we passed a busy restaurant and street vendor selling pakora’s, samosas and paneer and so we bought some to try for our lunch. Everything came to 90 rupees (£1) and was all dropped into a boiling pan of oil before being covered in a flavoured salt and given to us. It was all really tasty and we were happy to try some more Indian food. I was especially happy to be eating paneer (Indian cheese) as it’s a favourite of mine in Indian dishes back home. It is also nice to be taking a chance with the food we’re eating as we don’t really know what things are but this has always worked out for us so far and it’s great for me as I haven’t needed to worry about things being vegetarian or not so far!

That afternoon we went on a tour with the hostel to the Wagah Border. This is the border entry between India and Pakistan and is known for its elaborate and theatrical lowering of the flags that happens everyday before sunset on both sides of the border. The ceremony takes place jointly between the Indian Border Force and the Pakistan Rangers and has done so everyday since 1959.

On our way to the border we were taken to a Hindu temple called Mata Temple. The temple was completely covered in a mosaic of coloured and mirrors tiles depicting scenes of different deities. It must have taken years to complete it. The temple had a one way system and so we walked (and in some places crawled through small passageways) through the temple whilst looking at the brightly coloured pictures and statues. We then got given some sweets and an orange line was drawn on our foreheads along with being given a blessing. It was an interesting temple to walk through and not one I had ever seen like it before.

We then headed onto the border where the ceremony would be held at around 5pm. As tourists, we were made to go in a different line and everyone, tourist or Indian, had their passport or ID card checked and was searched. You weren’t allowed to take bags, only small bum bags, for security reasons and we all got through quickly despite the crowds. We didn’t know what to expect but I couldn’t have imagined what the ceremony would end up being like. Built like a stadium, there are stone steps for seats in a semi circle with a wide path down the middle that leads to the Indian gate on the border. If you imagine the crowd at a football game, that was what we were experiencing with everyone cheering, chanting and dancing to the music being played out. Women could queue to run up and down the path with giant Indian flags and then huge crowds of women all stood in the middle of the ‘arena’ dancing to loud music being blasted over the border.

On the other side, a lot less elaborate and considerably smaller, Pakistan had a similar set up except with noticeably more grass and a much calmer crowd. A man on one leg was holding the Pakistani flag and span around and around and around for what seemed like forever. I don’t know how he stayed on his foot for so long and how he kept his balance but it looked very impressive. Both sides tried to outdo one another with their celebrations and patriotic bravado. It was amazing to watch and you could tell everyone was having a lot of fun.

The main ceremony involved either side practically mirroring one another performing a sort of marching dance where the Indians would elaborately swing their arms as they marched at power walk speed to the gates before swinging their leg up to their forehead and posturing in a macho position in front of the Pakistani soldiers whilst they did the same back. There was chanting, drumming and lots of cheering. It was quite a show and lasted around 40 minutes in total.

That evening we headed out for tea and for one last look around Amritsar and the Golden Temple – our third visit there. We hadn’t really eaten out much yet in India so didn’t know how much things would cost as well as not really knowing what the types of food were. We ended us finding a nice restaurant in the main square and got a few dishes to try. Our main dish was paneer butter masala which was a very creamy sauce with big chunks of paneer in it which we ate with rice and chapati’s (another type of Indian flatbread). We also got a pav bhajji which was served with bread. This is mashed vegetables cooked in A LOT of butter and it even had a large chunk of butter sitting in the middle of it. All of it was really tasty but whoever told us that food in India wasn’t spicy lied to us as our mouth’s were on fire by the time we had eaten it all (and we didn’t leave a bit of it). This was honestly the nicest meal and if this was the calibre of food we’d be having during our time in India we were in for a treat – especially when it all came to £4.20!

We walked one last time around the temple to take in the beauty of it again. It was a really peaceful place even though it was full of people and we enjoyed being able to walk around the site. There was also a very big, bright moon out that night which looked great with the lit up temple.

Amritsar had been loud, busy and beautiful. I loved how their main square looked so grand and how colourful the people who lived there were. The Golden Temple was beautiful and I’m still in awe of the running of the community kitchen. Everyone was friendly and welcoming and we had some really great food. Our next stop on our trip around India was to Agra which involved getting back on a train at 4am. We were having a lot of early mornings but, for the things we were seeing and experiencing, it was completely worth it.

Next stop: Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal.

Sending Love x

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