Day 22: Amritsar

Amritsar Travel Blog

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Golden Tempel, Amritsar.

Sikhism, professed by 65 per cent of the population here, is one of the world's newer faiths. It was founded by one Guru Nanak, in the early years of the 16th century. After a lifetime of travel, he concluded from what he saw that 'God is to be found neither in the Koran or the Puranas' (the sacred Hindu texts). Unable to accept the Hindu caste system, or what he saw as the intolerance of Islam, Guru Nanak came up with an admirably pragmatic solution. One God for all, rich or poor, with no human hierarchies or priesthoods, idols or icons coming in between.

In a nod towards another religion, the Sikh gurus chose a pool visited by Lord Buddha around which to build their first temple. It was called Amrit Sovar (The Nectar Pool) and though the name was elided to Amritsar, the pool, much extended, still exists and the temple built around it is now one of the most famous shrines in the world.

Golden Tempel, Amritsar.

 

Michael Palin - Himalaya

 

A hotel that's recommended in the Lonely Planet, a bar with cool draught beer, air-conditioning and fan in the room ... Surely there most be something wrong with this place otherwise it would be completely out of place with the other accommodations in this trip. And indeed we were to find out this morning. When we arrived for breakfast at 8:00 AM and ordered a very simple chicken sandwich and two pots of coffee ... 15 minutes past ... 30 minutes past ... 45 minutes past and we started to get impatient (mind you, waiting for so long is quite an accomplishment for me, even in Asia). After reminding one of the waiters (there were probably more than kitchen staff) we finally got our sandwiches, but no coffee.

Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
The coffee actually arrived after an hour when we were leaving, so I kindly told the waiter that we wouldn't be needing it anymore.

 

We took a couple of tuk-tuks to the Golden Temple of the Sikhs, Amritsar's main attraction and our reason for being here. Sikhims is a one of the most empathetic religions I have come across so far. It developed in the 18th century and blends Islam and Hinduism but it also developed out of a disapproval of the caste system and need to help the poor and helpless, regardless of stand and religion. As the first guru of this religion, Guru Narak said: "A person who makes an honest living and shares earnings with others recognizes the way to God'. There's a lot that people can learn from the Sikhs. With their beards, turbans and ritual daggers they might remind us of the Taliban, but we have found them to be (on average) very friendly, smiling and helpful people.

This whole feeling of hospitality just radiates from the Golden Temple.

Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
Everybody is welcome to come inside, as long as you leave your shoes outside, wash your feet, cover your hair and don't take any alcohol, drugs or tobacco inside. Already outside you are greeted by the singing from the Guru Gurath Sahib, the Sikh holy book, performed by four priests in the actual temple and broadcasted in and around the complex by loudspeakers. Unlike Islam chanting or Indian traditional songs this was actually very likeable music and added a lot to the spiritual atmosphere of the surroundings.

 

Entering this holiest of shrines of the Sikh is an experience in itself. In the middle of the Amrit Sarovar (the Pool of Nectar) where pilgrims come to bathe lies the two-story marble Hari Mandir Shabib temple, with its golden dome that is seemingly gilded with 750 kg of pure gold. Surrounding the large pond is the marble walkway, the Parkarma, which is connected with the main temple by the 'Guru Bridge'.

Plate distribution, Golden Tempel, Amritsar.

As mentioned the atmosphere is friendly and unlike certain Hindu temples nobody is eyeing you in a fashion like you don't belong. As a matter of fact, everybody is so welcome that you can even join in with the free food in the huge dining hall (the Guru-Ka-Langar). Everybody that feels like eating gets handed out a bowl and thali dish when entering and during the day meals are distributed to no less than 40.000 pilgrims! To feed these people there is a constant 'machine' of chapatti, rice and dhal production at work around the dining hall, an unbelievable sight and with efficiency that our hotel's kitchen staff could learn a lot from. Even in these working areas we were more than welcome to come in, watch and take pictures.

 

We continued among the marbles walkway, passing stalls were free waters was handed out to all thirsty and arriving at the Guru Bridge.

Dining Hall, Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
Here the Sikhs bought little offers that they would take into the temple. These offerings would then be baked and handed out to the visitors when they left the temple. The inside of the Golden Temple was a magical experience as well, adorned with beautiful decoration and with the four musicians chanting the kirtan texts of Guru Nanak surrounded by pilgrims while upstairs more holy men guarded the holy book under a pink sheer. A true sense of togetherness hung in this place.

Before leaving this lovely place we visited the Sikh Museum in the clock tower. Made up of hundreds of paintings portraying both historical occurrences and characters and featuring rather heavy doses of torture, war and punishment of Sikhs this maybe wasn't the best atmosphere to leave the temple's feeling of compassion with. Another moment of amazement was finding out that the Coca Cola stall outside the temple only charged 5 rupee (7,5 Euro cents) per bottle (normally at least 15 rupee)!

 

After wandering through the small streets where (not unlike Hanoi) every street seemed to have its own specialist trade, and almost succumbing to the hell-hot day, we ended up at a dhaba close to the Golden Temple.

Chapati production line, Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
We had an Indian vegetarian lunch (and lots of cola). We took some rickshaw’s back to the hotel (jumping out and helping the drivers push during the steep bits), tipped them well and fled into the air-conditioned Buttom's Up bar where multiple big glasses of cold beer were emptied before retiring to our rooms for an hour or two.

 

At seven we gathered back in the lobby. We had decided to have dinner at a different restaurant in order not to miss the end ceremony at the Golden Temple. We rented a tuk-tuk with two benches but still, trying to fit nine people in was almost like an attempt to get into the Guiness Book of Records. Only after a couple of hundreds of meters there was a loud clanging sound from below the tuk-tuk, of which the motor immediately stopped. 'No problem, no problem', the driver assured us, jumping out and pushing his vehicle including nine tourists the last stretch.

Chapati production line, Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
Of course, I got out helping the poor guy push, arriving at the Crystal restaurant sweating like an ox. Confusion followed when there proved to be two Crystal restaurants next to each other, and both the doormen made severe efforts to get us in. Assuming that they were branches of the same restaurant we followed the tuk-tuk driver’s advice to take the left one, arriving at a rather classy place.

Dinner at the Crystal was good and plentiful; I wasn't able to finish tonight's sizzler. Regardless of the seemingly tight organization the staff had to run out and get some cold beers elsewhere and the air-conditioning was set to freezing, nearly giving me frost-bite. But besides this everything was fine and judging from the locals that had filled the place when we left this was a popular spot.

 

Only thing left to do today was visit the Golden Temple again to view the ritual of returning the holy book to its nightly resting place.

Chapati production line, Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
Our previous tuk-tuk driver who had promised to pick us up at half past nine was nowhere to be seen. The damage to his machine was probably more substantial than he’d originally thought. Fortunately there are more than enough others willing to take nine people in their cart.

After going through the ritual of removing shoes, wearing a bandana and cleaning our feet we entered the temple a second time. The Golden Temple was beautifully illuminated and the chants and music were still all around. I decided to walk to the temple across the Guru Bridge one more time and arriving there I found myself in the middle of the evening ceremony.

Kitchen, Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
One of the Sikh chanters started reciting some lines, being answered by the crowd surrounding the central area. Then the book was hoisted in the air and carried away on a sort of sedan chair, followed by yours truly only mere meters behind, going with the flow of the Sikhs. When the sedan left the Guru Bridge it was placed on the ground while the locals continued to praise it and covered it with flowers and cloth. Then it was picked back up and locked securely in a chamber by the side of the bridge. Today's services at the temple were over, only to be continued again tomorrow at 4:30 AM. At that time tomorrow we needed to be at the train station for our return to Delhi, so after enjoying the serenity of this place a bit longer we grabbed a tuk-tuk back to the hotel where I was happy to take a cool shower after this hot and exhaustive day.

 

Twenty years ago this altruistic environment saw dreadful violence when a group of Sikhs demanding their own state barricaded themselves in the Akhal Takht, the second most sacred building on the site. The siege was lifted in the infamous Operation Bluestar, when the Indian army brought tanks into the temple and pulverized the building. It's estimated that several thousand died in the fighting. Such was the strength of feeling that a few months later Prime Minister Indira Ghandi, who authorized the attack, was assassinated by Sikh members of her own bodyguards. Such trauma seems almost inconceivable tonight as a setting sun burnishes the 500 kilograms of gold that sheath the marble walls of the Hari Mandir, hymns echo around the arcades and turbanned and bearded Sikh men and their families move slowly in through its doors to pay homage to the Holy Book, the most precious object in a religion that rejects idolatry.

 

Michael Palin - Himalaya

Biedjee says:
patience my tinsel angel :-)
Posted on: Sep 07, 2008
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Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
Plate distribution, Golden Tempel,…
Plate distribution, Golden Tempel…
Dining Hall, Golden Tempel, Amrits…
Dining Hall, Golden Tempel, Amrit…
Chapati production line, Golden Te…
Chapati production line, Golden T…
Chapati production line, Golden Te…
Chapati production line, Golden T…
Chapati production line, Golden Te…
Chapati production line, Golden T…
Kitchen, Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
Kitchen, Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
Doing the dishes, Golden Tempel, A…
Doing the dishes, Golden Tempel, …
Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
Golden Tempel, Amritsar.
Water distribution, Golden Tempel,…
Water distribution, Golden Tempel…
Cola for 5 rupees!
Cola for 5 rupees!
Golden Tempel at night, Amritsar.
Golden Tempel at night, Amritsar.
Carrying the Holy Book away, Golde…
Carrying the Holy Book away, Gold…
Carrying the Holy Book away, Golde…
Carrying the Holy Book away, Gold…
Golden Tempel at night, Amritsar.
Golden Tempel at night, Amritsar.
Amritsar Hotels & Accommodations review
Nice hote ... inefficient staff
This was one of the better hotels we stayed in during our 25 day trip. It had a nice room with a well working air-conditioning and an actual pub next … read entire review
Amritsar
photo by: frankcanfly