No one seems to know quite how many temples there are in India, but an accurate count would surely reveal numbers running into the thousands. However, it’s difficult for me to imagine that any of those religious houses could be any more beautiful than the main pavilion of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. I was there during my trip to India that took place from March to April of this year. (Earlier during the same trip, India became the 33rd country on my World Karaoke Tour when I sang in New Delhi.)
A city of about 1.1 million people (ranking 34th in population among India’s cities, per the 2011 census), Amritsar is situated in the Punjab state in northwestern India. Its airport makes it very accessible; I flew there round-trip from New Delhi, a journey with a flying time of about one hour (and my return flight from Amritsar to New Delhi on Air India was my first time flying on a Boeing 787. It was a beautiful and comfortable plane.) Like most of the rest of India, Amritsar is also easily reached via passenger rail service.
The main purpose for my inclusion of Amritsar on my itinerary was my desire to see the Golden Temple, although while in town I also visited a non-religious site of historical significance, as you’ll see. In addition, I’ll tell you about a unique day-trip opportunity from Amritsar.
The Golden Temple
The Harmandir Sahib, also known as the Darbar Sahib but popularly called the Golden Temple, was completed in 1604. Considered the most sacred site for followers of the Sikh religion, it attracts pilgrims from all over the world. (The city of Amritsar in which the temple was built is regarded by the 16 million adherents of the Sikh faith to be the holiest city in the world.) As a result, the Golden Temple actually receives more daily visitors than the Taj Mahal. I’m not a spiritual person at all, but it’s hard not to be moved by the devotion of the pilgrims that you see coming to worship at the Golden Temple, and whose amplified chants reverberate around the temple grounds. The temple is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
At the center of the complex is a gold-plated building, the Hari Mandir (Divine Temple); it’s surrounded by an artificial lake called the Amrit Sarovar (Pool of Nectar). That body of water, which predates the construction of the temple, is the source of the city’s name (“Amritsar” is essentially a contraction of “Amrit Sarovar.”)
I visited the Golden Temple twice — once in the afternoon, and once in the evening. It was worth returning after sundown to see the Hari Mandir beautifully illuminated.
I was curious to find out what was inside the gilded exterior of the Hari Mandir. During my nighttime visit, I braved the long lines and gained entrance to the inner sanctum. In the relatively compact but ornately appointed interior, worshippers chant to the accompaniment of musical instruments. (I understand that these chants consist of verses from the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib.)
Remembering the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh
On April 13, 1919, the date of the Punjabi New Year, British occupying forces opened fire on peaceful demonstrators who had assembled in Amritsar. Depending on which source you consult, the death toll was anywhere from 370 to over 1,000. The incident is remembered as the Amritsar Massacre; it’s also known as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, because public gardens called Jallianwala Bagh were the scene of the atrocity. Today those gardens are the site of a memorial. I walked to the gardens from the Harmandir Sahib.
A sound and light show is offered in the evenings at Jallainwala Bagh. I would have liked to watch the show and learn more about the tragic events that occurred at the site. However, disappointingly, the narration was only offered in Punjabi (which is the official language of the Punjab state). I enjoy sound and light shows — I attended such presentations in both Agra and Jaipur during my trip to India — but in those cities, some of the shows were offered in the English language. At the memorial gardens in Amritsar, there would have been no point in my staying for the show, as I wouldn’t have understood what I was hearing.
Wagah: pomp and circumstance at an international border crossing
During my stay in Amritsar, I didn’t realize that the city is only 18 miles from the only road crossing point between India and Pakistan. The gate that constitutes the border checkpoint lies between the Indian city of Attari and the Pakistani city of Wagah, but is typically referred to as the “Wagah border.” Running through the gate is the Grand Trunk Road, one of the longest highways in Asia; it extends for over 1,600 miles from Chittagong, Bangladesh to Kabul, Afghanistan.
The Wagah zone is more than just a place with an international gate. Visitors can witness a cool spectacle that’s known as the “lowering of the flags” or “Beating Retreat” ceremony. Held daily just before sunset, this military ritual that was first staged in 1959 involves a parade by the border security forces of both India and Pakistan and the synchronized lowering of both countries’ flags.
I would have liked to attend the Beating Retreat ceremony, and I would have liked just to experience being at an international border crossing. (I do hope to make it to the notorious Korean Demilitarized Zone in 2015.) If you go to Amritsar, a side trip to the Wagah border is something to look into.
If you were curious about whether it’s possible to walk or drive through the Wagah border crossing to enter Pakistan if you’re already in India, you should know that citizens of most countries need visas to gain access to Pakistan (just as a visa is generally required to enter India). Given the expense of applying for a Pakistani visa as well as the time required to submit the application, obtaining a visa just to walk into Pakistan for an hour or two will hardly make sense for most travellers. However, if you wish to hit both India and Pakistan on the same journey, passing through the gate at the Wagah border would be an interesting way to transit between the two countries. (From that gate, Lahore — the second-largest city in Pakistan — is only about 15 miles away.)
Sadly, on an evening in early November 2014, a terrorist bombing on the Pakistani side of the Wagah border occurred just after the conclusion of that day’s Beating Retreat ceremony; 110 people were killed in that suicide attack. If you’re thinking of going to the border, be sure to check the latest information from the U.S. State Department and/or similar intelligence authorities from other countries regarding the safety situation there.
Even if you don’t get to the Wagah border, Amritsar — the city that grew around a “pool of nectar” — is well worth visiting.