Amritsar - The City of Holy Water
I had always been in awe of the retreat ceremony at Wagah border and most of my friends talking highly of it had simply elevated the level of curiosity. I always wanted to visit the borders to witness it first-hand. We had made programs to visit the region a couple of times but there always was some or other hitch which kept postponing the visit. Wifey’s desire to visit the Golden Temple gave my wish another impetus. It was finally last month that we planned to visit the holy city of Amritsar on 25th and 26th of July and I was elated that the long looked forward to trip was happening. And so started the planning for this weekend trip and to top it all, it was after long that we were going for a whole family trip. By 24th, we were all set with train tickets, accommodation bookings and other logistics. We boarded the Chhattisgarh Express of 24th evening from Hazrat Nizamuddin station and the train rolled into the Amritsar Junction railway station on 25th at about 11 in the morning after about 2 hours of delay. It was a refreshing journey with the entire family enjoying a fine morning in confinements of a railway coach over snacks and garam chai and even the delay did not seem to worry us. As we set foot on the great soils of Punjab, the state that feeds a large part of country and famed for its fertile land, we took a grasp of scent of this land of brave and loyal beings, and moved towards our rest house for freshening up.
Amritsar is one of the most ancient and fascinating cities of India and is prominent tourist and religious destination of north India. It is an important seat of Sikh history and culture. The word Amritsar means the pool of holy nectar (“amrit”). This city was founded by Guru Ram Das in 1574 on land bought by him for 700 rupees (well it is believed by locals and so we went ahead with it) from the owners of the village of Tung. Apart from religious significance, there are many other aspects to the city. Being one of the major cities at the end of our side on the highway connecting India and Pakistan, it has always enjoyed strategic importance. Moreover, the historic importance on trade route and the significant role in our freedom struggle does provide the city with additional charm. The story of Amritsar is evident from various historical and religious sites that the city offers to the tourists.
We started our day with a full fleshed Amritsari Breakfast – Chole Kulchas, Stuffed Parathas and other sides. It isn’t possible to describe in words the richness of the breakfast and number of meals that alone could cover for us. After that heavy meal, we began our excursion and the first destination of the day was the obvious point – The Golden Temple. The religious building important to Sikhs has a rich and enriching legacy associated with it. The Amrit Sarovar or pool of nectar has long been associated with Indian legends and Lord Rama's twin sons had supposedly been taught the Ramayana here. The pool occupies a large part of premises and collaborate the human body with proportional amount of water. Originally the monument was a normal temple which was renamed as Golden Temple after significant embellishment of golden artwork by Ranjit Singh. The first Sikh Maharaja, Ranjit Singh, made Amritsar his spiritual capital while Lahore was the temporal seat of his newly founded expanding kingdom. Ranjit Singh oversaw the temple's development and ensured that the temple becomes worthy of its importance and showcases art and culture.
The Golden Temple, also called devotedly as Sri Harimandir Sahib, is not only a central religious place of the Sikhs, but also a symbol of human brotherhood and equality. Everybody, irrespective of cast, creed or race can seek spiritual solace and religious fulfilment without any hindrance. It was really amazing that we could move freely within the premises devoid of any security checking or restrictions on what could be carried on-person by visitors. For a place this famous, this definitely was unexpected. Built at a level lower than the surrounding land level, The Gurudwara teaches the lesson of humility and bowing down before an ultimate power. The four entrances of this holy shrine from all four directions signify that people belonging to every walk of life are equally welcome. There are a number of significant places of interest within the premises of the Golden Temple. The Akal Takht, the seat of power for Sikh community is located here. This is where most of the decisions are taken by the religious leaders and these are mostly bounding on Sikh community. They may not have judicial or administrative power, but the social boundation is a more powerful enforcer than any formal authority. On the backside of the Sanctum Sanctorum is the place called Har ki Pauri where devotees bow down to have a hand full of Amrit (Nectar) from the Amrit Sarovar. The sanctum sanctorum is where the primary significance of the place lies. There are three levels at which the readings of religious literature is undertaken. There also is a tree so ancient and vast that it needs an iron structure to support it. We had a chance to visit the community kitchen where the level of mechanization was really worth appreciating. Besides Akal Takht, there are two flag poles representing faith and power, former being longer than later signifying importance of faith over power. At the end, we were offered delicious pinni prasad. We spent more than 3 hours there amidst peace, tranquility and devotion.
Next as we were running behind on schedule, we decided to skip a couple of spots and headed straight to the primary reason we were in the city – The Retreat Ceremony at the Attari-Wagah border. Though the ceremony is conducted post sunset, it is recommended to be at the venue of the ceremony by about 4:30 to be ahead of the massive rush that is common, especially on weekends. And accordingly we left Amritsar by 3:30 towards the border. The ceremony takes place at the Attari-Wagah border, about 25 kilometers from Amritsar. Attari is last village on Indian side and Wagah is its counterpart on Pakistani side. The gates are located besides the border pillar number 102. Border pillars are concrete blocks that are constructed along the entire border such that one half of them lie in India and other half in Pakistan. It took about 45 minutes for us to reach the first Border Security Force (BSF) check-post where we were allowed passage after cross checking our credentials and the authorization pass. In about 10 minutes we reached the second check-post where we disembarked from the vehicle and had to pass through a pat-down frisking and vehicles were checked separately. We boarded the vehicle again and after about 5 minutes’ drive we were there at the destination. We walked for about 5 minutes and entered the arena where the whole play was to occur. We had perfect seats that allowed us to witness the acts, full of patriotic fervor, right from the front. By about 5 we were seated in our seats, right at the front along the highway connecting Amritsar to Lahore, almost midway between two cities. However, as luck may have it, out of nowhere, it started raining heavily. It poured as if there would be no tomorrow and we were stranded at a location with no place to shelter from it. Given the intensity, one would assume that everyone around would be off looking for a shade but we were pleasantly amazed to see that not a soul shifted a side. Each one in the crowd, which by the way was huge by any standards, seemed to be filled with patriotism until brim and was eager to witness the “parade” as they call it there. Patriotic songs playing through the loudspeakers were infusing into the level of nationalism that everyone was already feeling. You could, in between the “Indian” songs, also hear those from other side of the border. At about 5:30 the jawans began the formations as preparations for the ceremony began. Soldiers for the ceremony are especially chosen from among the best from the BSF units and the selection criteria include, among other things, strict height criteria. None of the personnel present there were below 6 feet in height and even the women officers were too high to be imagined. As the soldiers were preparing, the BSF officers encouraged ladies and children to carry flags towards the border gate in an organized fashion to give a sense of participation and involvement for visiting masses. They also instigated the audience to shake a leg on patriotic songs and people were more than willing to join the groups to dance to the tunes of those lovely songs. In all, it was definitely an emotion filled environment and the slogans in praise of motherland were loud enough to force one in having goosebumps. Soon, the drill began and we were marveled at the flawless choreography of each step that the officers took.
The Indian BSF started the ceremony with two women soldiers parading towards the gate and doing the famed foot thumping act amidst the cheers of the crowd. This was one thing that stood apart as unique on the Indian side because the Pakistani counterpart Sutlej Rangers employs no women for this act. The foot thumping salutes of the soldiers created awe in themselves where the feet of soldiers touched their heads during the process. Rangers from other side do the same act in close reciprocity. The ceremony spread over about 45 minutes was intensely absorbing and it was difficult to take eyes off from it even for a moment. Soldiers marched in order towards the border gate, took salutes, showed aggressive stance towards their counterparts from across the border and yet maintained elegance and decency while shaking hands with corresponding soldiers from Pakistani Rangers. They passed through breathing distance of us and we could feel their emotions through shivers across our bodies. One thing noteworthy during the entire ceremony was the coordination between the two sides of the border. I am sure that officers on both sides do not get a chance to practice the drill together, yet the resemblance in drill, the coordination among themselves and leeway to each other for small delays was extraordinarily interesting. The ceremony ended with flags being lowered for the night, folded respectfully, gates shut with bang and culminated with customary salute to the chief guest, a high ranking BSF official visiting the location. Post the ceremony, we got the chance to slip onto the small trail along the border to reach pillar 120, the point that marks the border location of the gates where ceremony takes place. It is exciting to be at the point where all that separates one from the other side is an iron chain. Overall, it was a really amazing experience and we left the venue after a few photo-ops including with officers, double than me in height. We returned back to the rest house and retired for the day but not before a good dinner at a nearby eatery. The one thing that we realized through the day was that food is in itself an attraction far bigger than any other when one visits Punjab and we were absolutely relishing on it.
Next day we had a relaxed start and began the day with a short walk around the area near our rest house and railway station. We aimed at exploring the area in its raw form, fresh, as the rays of rising sun fell on the morning activities of locals. Again we had a breakfast of parathas at a nearby hotel and started with the site seeing. It was shorter day as we had to catch the evening train back to Delhi and hence had planned limited points to cover. More importantly, from a tourist point of view, the substantive points to be covered were the ones we did on first day. Most points that we kept for day 2 were for sake of exhaustiveness. First we visited the Maharaja Ranjit Singh Panorama which showcases various aspects of the life of this Lion of Punjab. The collection includes a picture gallery which throws light on life of this rules who established the Sikh empire. The first floor of the museum presents awesome life-size representation of important battles and specific activities from everyday life. Though this point is not famed on the tourism map of Amritsar, it does deserve a visit if you have time to spare. Post this we headed to the Jalliawala Bagh which is a famous venue with historic significance. Situated besides the golden temple, this is a sprawling memory of the worst massacre in history of Indian freedom struggle that took place in 1919. To commemorate the murder of the innocent people a memorial was constructed at the site of the gruesome tragedy. The entire monument is built in form of a vast garden spread over to an extent of 6.5 acres and the most conspicuous structure in the garden is the memorial of the 1919 massacre victims. The memorial also preserves the portion of the wall with pellet marks along with the well. Next, we visited the Durgiana Temple which is temple of Lakshmi Narain. The peculiarity of this is that instead of being designed as a traditional Hindu temple, it echoes the architecture of the Golden Temple and, in a similar manner rises from the midst of a tank and has canopies and the central dome in the style of the Sikh temple. After visiting the temple we went to rest house for a short break post which we had reserved a good part of our day for a sumptuous Punjabi lunch at one of the most famous eateries of the city – Bharawan Da Dhaba. The joint has earned the reputation of being the best in Punjab and attracts tourists and locals alike. We had a heavy yet mouthwatering lunch complete with North Indian delicacies followed with the famed Lassi, which itself could compensate for a lunch. Once we were done with the lunch we returned to rest house and packed the luggage. At around 4 PM we boarded the Swarna Shatabdi Express back to New Delhi.