Backpacking Through North India–2: Amritsar
Getting up early in the cold of Punjabi plains is a pain in the a** task, and my hotel room, I’d call it cubicle, was unusually cold that foggy morning. I managed to take a bath that early and headed out for Jallianwala Bagh, the site of massacre by British General Reginald Dyer of more than a 1000 Indian civilians in 1919 who had gathered at the spot despite the curfew imposed by Dyer. Enraged, Dyer stormed the venue with his troops and started firing on the unarmed and defenseless protestors for 20 minutes, resulting in death of about 1000 people and injury of many more.
The place belonging to a noble from the court of then Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab, was bought by the Indian government in 1920, a year after the massacre.
After reading so much about these historic monuments in History textbooks in school, one tends to develop grandiose images of the same, but it’s bit disappointing when they look like ordinary places, like this one above, situated between commercial shops selling pastries and SIM cards. Though it has a well maintained open space inside.
That morning, being the republic day, the air was awash with the sound of patriotic songs (or maybe they play it everyday).
The historic passage from where General Dyer conducted soldiers for firing on the gathering of protesters.
To escape being hurt by the ammunition, people jumped into this well nearby, now known as Martyr’s Well. About 120 dead bodies were recovered from this well.
A look into the death bed of 120 Indians.
The preserved bullet marks, 28 in total, on one of the walls. This can make one realize the veracity of the incident, specially to the people of later generations, as in, it’s not merely mentioned in History textbooks, but this happened for real, people with flesh and blood died in thousands by this brutal act of the Empire.
The monument built in the memory of martyrs. British Prime Minister David Cameron visited it last year and marked that fateful incident as a ’deeply shameful event’ in British history.
The complex also houses a museum which displays news clippings and other artefacts relating to and involving the people in the incident along with a bookshop from where one can buy books pertaining to this subject. It would be of interest to those who want to get into more details of the massacre.
After striking Jallianwala Bagh off my itinerary, I headed to the Golden Temple nearby, which for many is Amritsar’s star attraction. Completed in 1604, the holiest shrine of Sikhs contains Guru Granth Sahib, the holy scripture of Sikhism. The temple attracts millions of visitors every year. But unfortunately the place has seen some bloodshed and bad phases of history. The temple which throughout its history has been attacked by Afghans and the Mughals, was invaded by the Indian army in 1984 by the orders of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during Operation Blue Star. The aim of the operation was to remove Sikh separatists – who want to call for a separate state for Sikhs called Khalistan – who had amassed weapons in the temple complex. Following the strike, the temple grounds were heavily damaged and the death toll was more than 500. The decision to attack the temple proved fatal for Indira who was then murdered by her Sikh bodyguard and this resulted in widespread anti Sikh riots throughout the country, bringing into highlight the vulnerability of India’s religious and ethnic tolerance.
The troubles are left behind and the temple is a peaceful place today and a great spot to visit if one is in Amritsar.
Outside the temple, you get free literature on various topics like Introduction to Sikhism, Sikhism in Politics, Codes and Conventions of Sikhs etc.
As a standard convention in Indian temples, one is supposed to take out one’s shoes. Here they have volunteers to collect the shoes, stack them and return them after the visit to the temple based on the token they provide. Often the volunteers are the elderly; it didn’t feel right to me, handing my shoes to them and they picking it up with their hands. I don’t know but it seemed to me like a disrespect to them by letting them touch my dirty shoes.
Before entering the temple you need to cover your head with a du-rag which is sold outside the temple, even if you don’t have your own, there is a big basket of du-rags outside the temple from where you can pick one up. As you enter the premises, you can see the grand temple in the middle of the ‘pool of nectar’. Before entering the temple, many Sikhs take a dip in the waters of the pool. I saw people even making their infants take a dip in the chilling waters, who naturally were wailing because of this act. Now here I would like to make a comment. I understand that this act has religious significance, but why make the infant suffer by inhumanely dipping him in the cold waters in the middle of January? He’s a baby and he doesn’t understand religion yet. And the cries of the infant do not affect the parents. Indeed, religion makes you oblivious to the reality.
A man selling du-rags outside the Temple.
And there it is, the first view of the shimmering monument in the middle of the ’pool of nectar’.
A little kid posing for his parents‘ camera.
People taking a dip in the chilling waters of the pool in the cold of January.
The water, purified by a plant made in the USA harbors fish, apparently, a lot of them.
I dipped my feet in the pool and after going round the girth of the complex, joined in the queue to head in the temple; being a Sunday, it was a long queue. Another point to note is the temple complex is enveloped in melodious music called ‘Kirtan’. The finesse of the vocals and synchronism of the melody made me think that this was recorded, and boy was I wrong. When I entered the temple, I got to see that it was being performed live by the men within the temple. Inside the temple below the grand chandelier lies the Adi Granth, the Holy Scripture. The interiors of the temple are breathtakingly beautiful, and needless to say, golden.
Another peculiar feature of the temple is the Langar, i.e. common kitchen, where food for thousands of people is prepared and served everyday. This is the peculiar aspect of Sikhism – which I genuinely admire – where irrespective of one’s religion, caste or creed, one is welcome to eat at the Langar. Though I didn’t get time to have food at the temple but it is recommended if one visits the temple.
It looks even beautiful by the night.
Coming to the food of Amritsar; in the Punjabi heartland, you’ll definitely get some delicious Punjabi food. I was seriously craving some after having Dosa, Sambhar et al here in Bangalore. The stuffed bread called Kulcha is Amritsar’s specialty. It is straining on the stomach if had with Lassi (Yes, I learnt my lessons in Amritsar) so proceed with caution if you’re not used to such heavy food. But delicious it is indeed. I had the pleasure to have it twice, in the two days I was there.
A Kulcha being prepared at an eatery near Golden Temple.
Kulchas usually are heavily laden with butter, like this one at Amritsar’s famous, ’Bharawan da Dhaba’.
Next day at 3 in the morning, I got up to catch a train to Delhi, from where I headed up to the mountains, to the next stop in my itinerary – Little Lhasa of India, McLeodGanj in Dharamsala district of Himachal Pradesh. More on that in the next post.…