Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
149Trip End Ongoing
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The first is the Golden Temple, the holiest site of the Sikh religion. Only the inner 'sanctum santorum' is actually golden, and this is in the middle of the lake which gave the temple and town their names- the so-called pool of nectar. The water in the lake is credited with healing properties, and pilgrims are free to bathe on the ghats. The road on the way to the temple is lined with entreupeneurs selling headscarves for the unprepared and gerrycans to take some water as a souvenir. The lake is in turn surrounded by a wide marble walkway and other temple facilities, all in white marble or plaster. It's a beautiful sight to behold. I was impressed when I first saw it, but it was upon returning from an emergency visit to the communal facilities at 4am that I really appreciated the glory of the sanctum sanctorum
Sikh temples traditionally offer food and lodging to pilgrims, and since this is the most visited temple in the world, this tradition requires quite an operation. At one end of the temple is the Langar, or 'free kitchen', which on busy days can feed over a 100,000 people. Volunteers take turns preparing the food and washing up afterwards. When I was there the washing up was an entertaining part of the experience; there were more hands than strictly necessary, so it became a competitive sport to get your hands on the plates and bowls. To the left of the entrance was a crowd sat on mats chopping onions and garlic. Even those who hadn't been planning this trip their whole lives entered the langar with tears in their eyes. Behind the kitchen are several accomodation blocks, one of which has a dormitory exclusively for 'foreign visitors'. It seems incongruous that the backpackers, who are after all merely curious bystanders, get a dedicated dorm with its own shower, while the hundreds of genuine pilgrims sleep on mats in the courtyard and share a communal shower between them. Not that I complained
The temple is partly famous for being stormed, under the orders of Indira Ghandi, when some rebellious Sikhs were holed up in the sanctum sanctorum. This act of crass insensitivity to the holiness of the temple led to her assassination by one of her own Sikh bodyguards. I can't help wondering whether the rebels were totally respectful of the holiness of the shrine when they chose it as their last bastion.
The second source of Amritsar's fame was the massacre of hundreds of unarmed Indians by the British at Jallianwala Bagh. This massacre, apart from being one of the most shameful parts of British colonial history, naturally boosted the independence movement that it was intended to suppress. So all in all a good move for the Brits.
Finally, Amritsar is known for being the only open border between Pakistan and India, which is actually at Wagah, 30km away. This was where I finally left India for the 'land of the pure', three months almost to the day since I signed off the Beluga Constitution in Mumbai.