Visiting Amritsar, the golden temple and a border crossing

We fly with Vistara from Delhi to Amritsar (Punjab). Domestic flights in India are relatively cheap and very comfortable. The most annoying bit is the security check, where men and women are separated for a quick “once over”. For women it means the privacy of a tent, which just takes longer, so if you are travelling with a male they will have to get used to waiting.

We used Uber in Delhi and Mike is happy to find Ola providing ride shares at Amritsar airport.

We are travelling independently, so booked a hotel online, taking a punt. The Amritsar Grand Hotel may not be exactly 250 steps from the Golden Temple as advertised, but it is at the start of the Heritage Street. This is the oldest street in Amritsar that leads from the Town Hall (now the Partition Museum), to the Golden Temple complex.

The Heritage Street area has been completely renovated a couple of years ago, and provides a large pedestrian precinct, lots of shops and places to eat, and connects to the central market and the Jillianwalla Bagh museum.

It also has a beautiful marble statue of a warrior on a horse, in memory of Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), famous for uniting the Sikhs and creating the Sikh empire in the early 19th Century. He is known as the “Lion of Punjab”, introducing reforms and modernisation that led to prosperity and the rebuilding of the Golden Temple.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh statue on Heritage street

Staying in what is defined as “The Temple Precinct”, means that we are totally vegan. No meat, eggs or alcohol are allowed.

And as we stay a couple of nights we get used to the chanting coming over the speakers, a live stream from the Golden Temple.

The Golden Temple, Darbar Sahib / Harmandir Sahib

The first sight to visit in Amritsar is the famous Golden Temple (completed in 1589), the holiest of shrines for Sikhism. This iconic building is located in the middle of a large rectangular pond called the Amrit Sarovar, the Pool of Nectar. Excavated by the fourth guru Ram Das in 1577, the water in the pool is said to have healing powers and pilgrims come from across the world to bathe in it.

Inside the three story gold covered building, priests keep up a continuous chant from the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book). This is also broadcast on large screens along the pedestrianised section of the Heritage Street.

Sikh guards at the Golden Temple

Entrance to the golden temple is free. You drop off your shoes and get a token from the shoe repository (all free) which is very well organised.

Note that respectful dress IS required and the Sikh guards definitely will stop anybody who in their view is dressed improperly. For women that means cover the hair the shoulders, and legs. So wear trousers or ankle length dresses. Men also need to cover their head, and wear a shirt and long trousers.

There are many hawkers selling orange and yellow commemorative head scarfs along the heritage walk, or you can bring your own.

Me appropriately dressed, next to the Amrit Sarovar

We follow the pilgrims from the shoe storage desk, and walk through a shallow foot bath before entering the gate that allows us inside the Golden Temple compound.

It is a stunning sight, the temple in the middle of this man made lake. It is very busy with pilgrims, and there are only a few tourists.

This is a spot you have to visit during the day as well as at night. The lit up temple against the night sky is magical. Whereas during the day you can sit somewhere quietly and observe the pilgrims dipping into the holy water. Men and women are kept separate when bathing.

If you time your visit right, you can see the holy book carried in and out of the Golden Temple at 5 am and 9:40 pm in winter, or 4 am and 10:30 pm in summer. We didn’t bother to stay around for that, it was busy enough during the day time.

Golden Temple and bridge

There are a number of interesting buildings and sites in the Golden Temple complex. You are free to walk around, just abide by the rules. Photography is not permitted on the bridge to, and inside, the Golden Temple.

It has been Mike’s wish to walk across the bridge, so we queue up. There is a seperate lane for men and one for women and small children. VIP guest can be seen ushered in via the exit lane, but we join the crowds.

We start the shuffling process. Slowly but surely we move forwards. Bodies are pressed together and our sweat is mingling. It is nice to be a bit taller than the average pilgrim! People praying and chanting, children ducking in and out of the line, toddlers crying, children and people pushing themselves in front of you to get ahead. It is all fun and part of the experience. In the women’s line we do let nursing mothers move forward quicker.

It takes me 1 hour, and Mike 1 1/2 hours of queuing, to cross the threshold of the actual golden temple. Even then, there is still a lot of pushing and shoving going on. Remember, we are tourists, for most visitors here this is the religious experience of their life!

The Sikh temple guards are disciplined, strict and fair, carrying swords, spears and bucklers (small shields), and are amongst the tallest men we have seen in India. They make sure that the proceedings are not interrupted.

On the ground floor of the Golden Temple a priests reads from the holy book which is covered in gold cloths. He is surrounded by musicians inside this lovely marble building. The stone inlay here is very similar to the style we have seen in the Taj Mahal.

Small stairs take you up to the second floor of the temple, where more priests are chanting from large books, and you can look down onto the ground floor. In corners and around the balcony pilgrims sit and meditate.

There are more small stairs to take you up to the roof. From here I had is a lovely view over the surrounding pond, and there is more space for pilgrims to sit down and meditate.

On exiting the temple you get offered a sweet treat known as prashad, which you are expected to eat. We didn’t know that, and hope we haven’t offended somebody.

Another feature of visiting the Golden Temple are the free meals that are provided to all visitors. We decline the offer of a meal, our western stomachs would probably protest. However, we did make a monetary donation to the food service.

Golden Temple food service

A Sikh male should have five symbols: a steel bangle, carry a comb in his hair, have uncut hair, wear warrior undershorts and carry a knife. In Punjab, Sikhs are allowed to carry their knife with them on a plane. Probably the only area in the world where this is still allowed.

Amritsar Old City

The old city surrounding the temple precinct is a warren of narrow streets and bazaars. There are a range of old buildings, some museums which are not well advertised, and large city gates.

We enjoy a stroll around the streets and bazaars, admiring the various dress shops, there are lots of wedding gowns, glittery saris and scarfs. And there are huge number of shoe shops, as well as jewellery stores, stores with blankets (it does get cold here) and various household items.

Souvenir shopping definitely includes a scarf or two and some bedazzled slip on shoes.

Bazaar in Amritsar

The Jillianwala Bagh Massacre museum

Just off the Heritage Street is the Jillianwala Bagh museum, which was under refurbishment when we visited,

On April 13th, 1919, over 5000 Indian protesters gathered in what was then an open courtyard surrounded by high walls. Under orders to make an example of them, British Brigadier General Reginald Dyer arrived with 150 troops and ordered his soldiers to open fire. Nearly 400 protesters died according to the British, although the Indian Congress placed the figure closer to 1000. Around 1500 people were wounded, including many women and children. Some protesters were shot whilst trying to hide from the gun fire in a well in the courtyard.

A poignant remember to something that should never have happened. The site is littered with debris, and most signs have been removed. This is a real shame and I hope the site will be restored soon.

However, you can still see the bullet holes in the walls, pointing to what happened.

Real bullet holes from the 1919 massacre

Vegetarian Macdonalds

We decide to try out the local McDonalds, Amritsar claims to have the only fully vegan McDonalds in the world. I select a MacVeg classic meal and Mike goes for the MacSpicy meal.

Vegetarian MacDonalds

The fries taste normal, and the veggie burgers taste fine. The MacSpicy was indeed spicy, with an interesting texture. Overall, an enjoyable meal in probably the cleanest McDonalds restaurant we have ever been in!

Amritsar Kulcha at Bade Bhai Kha Brothers

The place to sample the famous traditional Punjabi Kulcha, is located at the start of the Heritage Walk in the old city, next to the clock tower, the Bade Bhai Kha Brothers. The atmosphere is a bit like an Indian version of an American Diner from the 1960’s.

They offer other types of food, however, the Kulcha, a bread filled with vegetables and spices and served with sauces and raita (yoghurt) is amazing! One of our most favourite meals on our trip.

Punjabi Kulcha with sauce, chilli and raita

Wagah – Attari Border Crossing (the most entertaining border crossing in the world)

This is a definite “to do” when visiting Amritsar. We organised a taxi to take us to this border crossing and back via the hotel (Rp 2200).

There are also organised tours, or you can take a bus,

VIP tickets can be arranged if you know the right people. Or you can do what we did and turn up early to get a good spot. We left Amritsar at 2 pm, early enough to have a look around the shops and get a bite to eat.

We bought a nice Indian flag to join the crowds and were amongst the first to head through the gate when the non-Indian checkpoint opened at 3 pm. Note, Indians and non-Indians are separated here, with different lines, very thorough security checks and seating. Your passport determines which route you take.

It is a short, approximately 1 km, walk to the border crossing. There is a huge stadium built on the Indian side, which can seat many thousands (? 80,000). It feels like the stadium for a football match, with crowds cheering for their country. The Pakistani side also has a stadium but of more modest proportions, and separated seating for men and women.

Packed stadium on the Indian side

There are seperate sections for Indian and non-Indian visitors. Foreigners get to sit on the second best seats, directly behind the VIP seating. We were the first ones in this section and ended up right next to the Pakistani border.

Security forces organise the seating and fill the large stadium, section by section at the time. They are very persistent on where they want you seated.

The actual ceremony is a flag lowering ceremony, which is linked to the border closing at sunset. But the pomp and fanfare starts well before that. On the Indian side, women get invited to dance on the road in the centre of the stadium, waving big flags to Bollywood music.

In response, the Pakistani side produced a one legged whirling dancer who was absolutely brilliant.

There is a lot of “Pakistan” and “Hindustan” chanting by the crowd, and announcers try their best to outlast the jeer of the other side. The Pakistani commentator had the longest breath, by a small margin.

The tallest Indians and Pakistanis you will ever see march with high kicks towards the border, stomp boots, thumb their chests, make rude gestures and lower and fold flags.

Both sides are trying to outdo each other in pomp and ceremony, who can kick the highest, (yes, Monty Python’s funny walk!!!), shout the longest, wear the most outrageous hats and be the most nationalistic.

The actual flag lowering

It is a wonderfully fun experience, to see that the two countries can do some good natured rubbing and coordinate a show like this every evening of the year.

Note, as this is a proper border crossing after all, you will have to go through an rather invasive security screen and a large number of items are not permitted. Suggestion is to take nothing more than your passport (essential), some money and a camera.

We flew from Delhi to Amritsar in the North of India

Travel details and Tips

Accomodation: We stayed at the Amritsar Grand Hotel, located in the middle of the Old City, close to the start of the Heritage Street. Our room is small, but clean, with an ensuite, hot water and working tv, and friendly helpful concierge service.

Note that there are a number of hotels with similar names in Amritsar. This one was a comfortable, 3 star hotel. We were the only foreigners in the hotel, but it was very popular with Indian families.

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