Amritsar - City of turbulence and turbans

Harmadir Sahib, The Golden Temple, Amritsar.
Harmadir Sahib, The Golden Temple, Amritsar. Photo credit: Jeremy Parkinson

By Jeremy Parkinson

Getting on a flight to Amritsar, you're immediately reassured you're not on the wrong plane. Most of the men are in brightly coloured turbans with huge beards. Some of the women wear turbans too, which you don't often see in New Zealand.

Punjabis, along with Gujaratis, are some of India's best travellers, and many Punjabi Sikhs return home en-masse for festivals and celebrations in the holy city.

Life in Amritsar centres around Harmandir Sahib, The Golden Temple.

Amritsar, in the north west of India, was founded by the fourth Sikh Guru Ram Das. Born in 1534 in Lahore, he chose the village of Tung to build his religious capital and turned the central lake into a pool. That pool is now at the centre of the Golden Temple complex.

Removal of shoes and covering your head is mandatory. Washing your feet at water stations is encouraged. Your shoes are looked after outside the gates and you proceed into the complex through one of the four entrances.

Waiting to enter the Golden Temple.
Waiting to enter the Golden Temple. Photo credit: Jeremy Parkinson.

Everyday more than 100,000 people visit the Golden Temple. Devotees are housed in hostels nearby and fed at no cost, at the communal kitchen or Langar. This is a huge logistical operation and is fascinating to watch in action.

Despite the vast number of visitors, The Golden Temple would have to be one of the most tranquil religious places I've experienced in India. You don't feel crowded like you might at a big Hindu temple or at a gathering for a Hindu religious festival.

The temple itself, sits in the middle of the man-made lake. You approach the Temple along a narrow marble path which takes you out, almost to its centre. Here, temple elders recite Kirtan, passages from the holy book of the Sikhs, Guru Granth Sahib. The book is considered the tenth and final Guru of the Sikh people and is always covered from above.

Amritsar is, in many ways, a city defined by conflict, and the main tourist attractions are centred on a number of cataclysmic events which took place here during the 20th Century.

In 1984, the Indian Army was ordered by Indira Gandhi to remove militant preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his followers from the temple. This action was dubbed Operation Blue Star.

In the years leading up to 1984, Bhindranwale had fortified the complex and stockpiled arms and ammunition. Militant Sikhs claimed the Punjab should be the basis for a Sikh homeland they called Khalistan, and felt their needs weren't addressed at partition.

Operation Blue Star was a success for the Government, at least in the short-term. Parts of the temple were ruined by tanks and gunfire and Bhindranwale was killed. But the most dramatic and unexpected consequence of the operation was the assassination of Prime Minister Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards later in 1984.

In the communal violence that followed Indira's assassination, thousands of Sikhs were killed in cities across north India. The ramifications of this period of Indian history are still being felt today.

The Government repaired the damage to the complex, but not to the satisfaction of the Sikhs who eventually rebuilt it themselves.

Nearby the Golden temple is Jallainwala Bagh, scene of the massacre of hundreds of peaceful protesters by British forces under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer.

In April of 1919, the British were paranoid about growing anti-British activism in the city, and when Col. Dyer heard of a gathering at the walled bagh (garden), he ordered the exits blocked and sent his forces in. The troops fired upon the gathered crowd. Ten minutes later, between 350 (according to the British) and 1000 Indians lay dead.

Dyer was hailed a hero by the British, but his actions had dire consequences for British rule over the next 30 years.

You enter the Bagh through the same narrow entrances the British blocked. It's hard to imagine how they squeezed their field guns in. Once inside, it's obvious how brutal Dyer was. There is nowhere to run, and the only place to hide is a well where many took refuge. Bullet holes are still visible on the walls. It's a powerful place.

The events of Jallainwala Bagh were central to the movement toward Indian self-rule, culminating in independence. Many of the greatest Indian freedom fighters of the movement especially Gandhi and Nehru, were motivated to action by the massacre at Jallainwala Bagh.

The partition of India in 1947, was perhaps the most tragic and traumatic period in the history of the city.

Chaos reigned in Amritsar in the months leading up to and after partition.

Without a lot of thought, the British divided India in two, Amritsar being the closest big city on the Indian side of the border. Over those months, many millions passed through the Punjab either heading toward the new, majority Muslim Pakistan, or from Pakistan into India. Hundreds of thousands were killed in the ensuing violence.

The tragic events of that time are remembered in the Partition Museum located five minutes from the Golden Temple. This is the kind of museum the British ought to have in London.

The other place to visit while in Amritsar is the border crossing between India and Pakistan at Wagah.

Indian border crossing Wagah.
Indian border crossing Wagah. Photo credit: Jeremy Parkinson.

Amritsar is 32 kilometres from the border and Lahore another few kilometres further on the Pakistani side. A bus or taxi to Wagah to see the lowering of the Indian and Pakistani flags is essential. Thousands gather every evening to watch the show on both sides of the border.

Indian border guard, Wagah Border.
Indian border guard, Wagah Border. Photo credit: Jeremy Parkinson

Strutting like peacocks, Pakistani soldiers and their Indian counterparts, face off in an elaborate dance. The crowds are as parochial as any India/Pakistan cricket match.

I chose Amritsar as an alternative to landing in Delhi, but that isn't an option for everyone traveling from New Zealand. Typically, flights from here go through Singapore, Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur and terminate in New Delhi.

Flying from Delhi to Amritsar is an option, but you might want to try the Indian train system. Booking trains is an experience for which you might choose a travel agent in New Delhi . You will pay a premium, but that's not a lot of money on top of the train fare. There is also the option of the International Tourist Bureau at the New Delhi train station.

In an upcoming piece from Jeremy Parkinson, he will talk about his trip from Amritsar, to the hill station of Dalhousie and Dharamshala, home of the Dalai Lama as well as Delhi.

Jeremy Parkinson is a producer at RadioLIVE with a passion for Indian culture. He will be writing a series of articles for Newshub Travel about his time there.