Looking for an unusual mix of religion, modern history and patriotism, try out Amritsar! Literally meaning the Nectar Lake, colloquially referred to as Ambarsar and supposedly short for AmritSarovar, Amritsar is situated in the northern state of Punjab in India. Whilst The Golden Temple will touch your devotional chords, the Jallianwala Bagh will invoke moroseness for the unwarranted massacre and on the other hand, the high intensity evening parade ceremony at the Wagah Border will give you goosebumps.
Overnight from Delhi by train, we started our day with an authentic Punjabi breakfast of Amritsari Kulche with Chole and a glassful of yummy Lassi (yogurt whisked with cream and sugar).
One thing that comes to mind when you think of Amritsar is the Golden temple or The Harmandir Sahib, the sacred pilgrimage of Sikhism.
The kirtans (religious hymns and prayers) can be heard from right outside the walls of the fortress like temple. I loved the idea of the shallow pools of water called ‘Chhabachha’ at the entrance that cleanse one’s feet as one steps inside the holy complex. The sight hits you hard! Its beautiful! Its overwhelming! The golden shrine stands out like a tiny island in the middle of a lake that is fed by an underground spring off the River Ravi. The holy enclosure can be approached only by a long narrow walkway.
The pilgrims can be seen taking a dip in the lake, a symbolic purging of the soul in the holy waters. One has to cover one’s head with a scarf while inside the temple complex, as that is deemed to be a sign of respect towards the Almighty.
Sikhism came into being somewhere in the 15th century AD based on the spiritual teachings of Guru Nanak, the first Guru and continued amassing spiritual wealth till Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and the last Guru. It is believed that Guru Nanak used to mediate by the sides of a natural lake and after his demise, his disciples kept frequenting the sacred place. The fourth Guru, Ram Das, enlarged and cemented the lake while the fifth Guru, Arjan, constructed the shrine in the middle. After the death of Guru Gobind Singh, Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book came to be the literal embodiment of the spiritual teachings of the ten Gurus. The concept of God in Sikhism is surreal – Ik Onkar, Akaal Purakh, Nirankar – i.e. the eternal spirit beyond the boundaries of time, space or form!
Encircling the golden temple, we eventually stepped in queue to tread the walkway leading up to the entrance. Inside the holy gilded sanctuary, lies the Guru Granth Sahib on a jewel studded platform among marble structures. The live kirtan, accompanied by the Indian musical instruments like the Harmonium and the devotees kneeling in prayer solicit tranquility and spirituality from every corner of one’s heart. What a holy ambiance!
The emergency siege of 1984, Operation Blue Star, conducted by the Indian army on the orders of the then Prime Minister of India, Mrs. Indira Gandhi to terminate the Sikh militants who had taken refuge inside the Golden Temple, almost destroyed the complex but it was rebuilt and now stands proudly as one of the biggest symbols of devotion on the planet.
This was not the first instance when the shrine had to be rebuilt. It has come under attacks by Afghani forces too in the 18th century and every time it took a hit, the guardians of the religion reconstructed it more magnificently than before.
When in a Gurudwara, you do not want to miss out eating at the Langar! A simpleton meal cooked by volunteers and devotees in a mega common kitchen and served to hundreds and thousands of folks who enjoy the free meal sitting on the floor – the rich and the poor alike, without the discrimination of race, religion or gender! Daal makhni and roti – what more does one need to satiate one’s hunger!
Having explored the spiritual side of Amritsar, it was now time to step into the history of the Indian freedom struggle. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 is a black spot on the British Raj and is sometimes considered the beginning of the definitive end of the British rule in India. It was followed by the Non-Cooperation movement spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi that ran from 1920 till 1922 and it aimed at resisting the British forces using the concept of non-violence, a stark contrast to the acute rampage of the Jallianwala Bagh genocide.
On the day of 13th April, 1919, thousands of people had assimilated in the garden, some were pilgrims visiting the city on the occasion of Baisakhi (the harvest festival of Punjab) and the others had gathered in protest of the British. Upon hearing about such a gathering, Colonel Dyer confronted them with the army and ordered incessant firing that lasted up to ten minutes as a token of display of the consequences one has to suffer upon defiance of his orders to not conduct such meetings. Close to a thousand people died that day and hundreds more were wounded.
Spotted with bullet holes, the narrow alley that is the only exit from the Bagh, still bears the signs of the brutality. The Martyrs’ Well into which people including women jumped babies in hand, bears testimony to the dreadful occasion. Commemorating the sacrifices of such a high number, the flame of the Amar Jawan Jyoti burns perpetually and invokes pangs of passion and pity mixed with patriotism and rage for the massacre.
Our next stop was the village of Wagah, an hour’s drive from the main city. Positioned on the border of India and Pakistan on the Radcliffe Line, it is equidistant from Amritsar in India and Lahore in Pakistan and lies on the Grand Trunk Road that connects the two cities. Folks from far and near assemble for the elaborate public parade and flag ceremony where the gates on both sides of the border are closed ceremonially by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) and the Pakistan Rangers.
The place, built up like an amphitheater, was booming with people while Hindi patriotic songs blared from the loud speakers when we took our seats. Children ran around with the tricolor in hand and there was this buzz around in anticipation of the high adrenaline ceremony. One can see the Pakistani counterparts – both security forces and the general public on the other side of the border. Patriotism marred with hints of jingoism filled the air when the soldier hailed “Bharat Mata ki” and we all clamored “Jai” (Let Victory be with Mother India). There were similar chants and slogans from across the border and at one point there was an intense competition to out-shout the opponents.
As one engages in the friendly banter, the barbed wires of the border in the distance remind us of the actual turbulent relations with our not so friendly neighbors.
At sunset, the iron gates of both the countries are opened. The flags on either sides are lowered and folded. The ceremony ends with a retreat that involves a handshake between soldiers from across the border, followed by the closing of the gates again. The flags are carried inside the guard post offices. And then the show is over.
As the sun set and darkness took over, it was time to bid goodbye to the land of the Golden Temple. We made our way out through the trickling crowd and proceeded to the railway station after some quick shopping before boarding the train back to reach Delhi the next day morning.
Amritsar is certainly high on the Punjabi factor! For a change, instead of escaping the crowds and seeking peace in the meadows of the mountains or the shores of the oceans, it was a day well spent amongst the populace – be it at the serene enclosure of The Golden Temple or in the hustle bustle of the Jallianwala Bagh or in the midst of the invigorating Wagah border!
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