Dates: October 18 - 21
Accommodation: Backpackers’ Nest; 400 INR for a dorm bed. Arguably overpriced; has a weird setup -- appears the space was converted in a single day from a mall store into a hostel (there is only one big room comprising of beds and a common area — noise is a problem if you are trying to sleep while people are still hanging). But, the staff was outstanding and great location near the Golden Temple.
Getting in: Train from Ajmer.
Do and See: Harmandir Sahib (the Golden Temple), make sure to go in the day and then again night. Davinder Singh’s heritage walking tour -- a must-do walking tour. Mr. Signh works in the upper echelons of the tourism office but gives walking tours in his spare time. His command over the English language puts no holds on his erudite explanations of the history of Amritsar and the Sikh religion. Border closing ceremony at the Wagah Border crossing for titillating high-stepping military pomp — one hour by taxi or rickshaw from Amritsar. (90 - 150 INR for a shared rickshaw seating up to ten people). NOTE (!) must arrive several hours before ceremony is scheduled to start to get in.
Eat: Dhashan Kulchewala — a local institution that you won’t read about in the guidebooks. specializing in Kulche (Punjabi stuffed naan eaten with chana curry and pungent onion — lemon chutney). You will have to ask around a little to find it, although to help, here it is in Google Maps. Enjoy watching the faces of the local's light when they realize you are asking for Dhashan Kulchewala.
On the train to Amritsar I made the grave mistake of attempting to create a sleeping cacoon of solace by wrapping, around my a head and torso, an ocher dhoti— the same color adorned by nomadic Hindu monks. This resulted in my sleep being continually disrupted by the unpardoning index fingers of conductors believing that I was a vagabonding baba. However, despite arriving in Amristar with bags under my eyes, I have to admit in taking pleasure witnessing the deluge of chagrin overcoming the conductors faces the moment they realized I was a gora (the term Indian's use for a foreigner).
Amritsar, the cultural and religious epicenter of the Sikh nation, is a relatively new city, founded in 1577 by the fourth Sikh Guru, Ram Das, who purchased the land from local villagers. According to legend, during the construction of a tank to store rainwaters, a shell was discovered encasing the form of a yogi in very deep meditation. Thus, Ram Das transitioned the construction of the water tank into a temple and, in 1604, the iconic Harmandir Sahib (or “Golden Temple,” as it is more commonly known) was completed under the direction of 5th Sikh Guru, Guru Arjan. The Harmandir Sahib is India’s most visited monument, attracting even more visitors during the course of a week (over 100,000) than the Taj Mahal.
In accordance with the humanist tenets of the Sikh religion, the Temple was intended to be a place of worship for men of women of all classes and creeds. Even to this day, the Temple dining hall (or “langar”) and dormitories provide food and accommodations on a donation basis to any pilgrim or tourist. The advent of Sikh hospitality dates back to the spiritual teachings of Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru, who sought to suppress the caste system by empowering people of all castes to sit and pray together. Moreover, Sikhism furthered empowered the people of lower castes by emphasizing that all persons have a direct relationship with the divine. In contrast, the Hindu caste system, prescribed that religious activity ought to be mediated by priests and even went so far as to exclude the lowest case, the Dalits, also known as “untouchables,” from temple activity altogether. One may note the parallels between the Sikh project and the Protestant Reformation as both movements sought to redistribute power according to humanistic principles, and, to do so, relied on selling the notion that the summum bonum of the individual is his or her personal relationship with the divine.
Amritsar is also known for the for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre perpetuated by the British on non-violent protestors. On April 13, 1919, following the introduction of the Rowlatt Act, which gave British authorities power to imprison, without trial, Indian suspected of sedition, over 5000 protestors gathered in Jallianwala Bagh -- an open courtyard surrounded by high walls. Under the command of Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, 150 British troops opened fire on the protestors, killing between 400 and 1,000 (British and Indian estimates, respectively) and injuring at least 1,500. Today, Jalliawalla Bagh is a memorial park dedicated to the massacre. A sign at the entrance to the park reads: “...[Jalliawalla Bagh] is an everlasting symbol of non-violent and peaceful struggle for freedom of Indian people and the [sic] tyranny of theBritish.”
Only 17.4 miles from the Pakistan border, the closest city to Amritsar is Lahore (in Pakistan). A popular tourist activity (for Indians and foreigners alike) is to attend the border closing ceremony at the Wagah Border crossing. The exercise in military pomp and ceremony is a comical chest-beating display in which soldiers from both sides march towards the border fence, showing off their superior high-stepping skills by kicking a galea style red crest fanning over their helmets. Despite the seriousness of the soldiers performing the ceremony, the atmosphere has a carnival vibe. Before the soldiers began their theatrics, a group of school girls participated in an Indian-flag relay race, while Ice cream sellers made their way through the crowds; Indians donning hats and face paint cheered and chanted over blasting music coming from a speaker system not pointing at the crowd so much as at Pakistan.