Discovering Amritsar Differently

The year was 2017 and in 18 years of being a specialist in travel to India, I had never visited Amritsar. Why was this? I have no idea. Maybe because before living in India, I always had to travel for work, and that meant initially discovering and latterly revisiting the most popular ‘tourist’ destinations. Since living there I tended to go off in my spare time to where I had personal connections & invites and again Amritsar didn’t make the list.   All those who are regular readers know that I usually avoid the main sights, my mantra being ‘’Monuments provide the backdrop, people create the experiences,’ however, I did make the effort to visit the Golden Temple and the Wagah Border, but more about those later in the mean time, without the usual suspects here we have, five things to experience in order to Discover Amritsar Differently.
  1. I am going to start with the Moti Lal, Town Hall Library. I was enchanted! For any book lover or historian this is a must. No computer can ever replace the good old fashioned library card system, and the one here is still in use. Cards, handwritten in ink, filed away in drawers; forget the books themselves, for me personally, riffling through these cards was fascinating and gave such a sense of history, time and place. I doubt the library has been updated since 1947 (delighted to be proved wrong here) but the volumes it once housed truly showcase the India of the time. I came across hundreds but a few which come to mind are:

India and Imperial Preference. Madan, Balkrishna, 1939 Invasion of India by Alexander the Great. McCrindle, JW 1893 Last Message of Sri Krishna. Madhavananda.Swami 1939 Trials of Oscar Wilde. Hyde. 1948 Non Violence in Peace and War. Gandhi 1942 Prince of Thieves – The Memoirs of the World’s Greatest Forger. Boyer, Brian David With Three Prime Ministers, Nehru, Indira and Rajiv. Sestian, NK History of the Invasion of England by the Norman’s. Thierry, Augustine 1897. Women Novelists from Fanny Burney to George Eliot 1934 Preface to Yeats. Malins, Edward 1976 Numerology – Sepharial Numbers Book 1957.

Sadly, I got the impression that many of the listed books were missing, and the ones which remain have all been backed in red plastic, whether to preserve them better or to stop people from stealing them I am not sure. It would be great to know just how many of the ones in the filing system remain. Regardless, even just for the filing system itself, this is a must for bookworms and historians.

  1. Saragarhi Memorial Gurudwara.

Not on most tourists lists as, let’s face it, in terms of the actual building, charity work, people watching, fascination and spectacle it can hardly compete with the Golden temple. BUT, delve into the history behind it and you find a story no less impressive. This gurudwara is a memorial to the twenty one British Indian Army Sikhs who held off an army of 10,000 Afghans for (I think) 10 hours at the battle of Saragarhi on 12 September 1897. Yes, that is 21 vs 10,000. On finding themselves in an impossible situation and having sent for back-up which was not forthcoming, or at least not in time, these 21 Sikhs of the 36th Sikh Regiment chose to fight to the death. Although the outpost was lost, they managed to kill around 180 Afghan soldiers and wounded many more. Not a bad effort some might say.  To honour their selfless commitment and courage they were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit, the highest gallantry award of the time, equivalent to the Victoria Cross.  The Gurudwara is close to the Golden Temple.

  1. Street food.

I can’t visit anywhere without sampling the street food and as soon as my visit to Amritsar was announced, accompanied by a faraway look and drops of saliva, were cries of ‘Oh, you must try and Amritsari Kulcha,’ and so I did. It was served adorned with two sizeable rectangles of white butter which proceeded to melt into the bread as they were smeared round and round systematically until they disappeared leaving a glistening glaze atop the hot, perfectly cooked kulcha. I looked upon it admiringly before being encouraged to dive in. One word suffices – divine. Must try. A crime not to.  This was at the Amritsar Famous Kulcha & Nan but I also had a personal cookery demonstration at Amritsar Paneer Burji & Sandwich and was sadly too full to sample the goods at Kesar da Dhaba but, go better prepared than me (ie having not eaten breakfast) and enjoy. I am sure that there are many more places and please do let me know about them, sadly I only had time for the three.

  1. The Durgiana Temple.

This is otherwise known as the Silver Temple because of its ornate silver doors but other than that, it is pretty much an exact replica of the Golden Temple. Built originally in the 16th Century, it was remodelled in the 1920’s and fashioned upon the now much more famous version. This isn’t a Sikh Gurudwara but the most prominent Hindu Temple of the Punjab and, although not quite as grand as the Golden Temple, makes for an interesting visit.

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  1. Mata Lal Devi Temple:

This has to be one of the most extraordinary temples I have visited in the whole of India.  Not to take away from the sentiment and facts behind it, it is a Hindu temple which commemorates the bespectacled 20th-century female saint Lal Devi who was born in Lahore District, in now Pakistan, in 1923.  She is said to have had an extraordinary gift and the temple now serves as one of importance for all women wishing to start a family as it is believed that the main one was special fertility giving powers. Which is great for all the believers out there. However, and please my dear Hindu friends, don’t take this the wrong way, but for the uninitiated, visiting India for the first, or possibly even second or third times, they could be forgiven for thinking that  if a group of people took speed and then decided to build a temple, this is what you’d end up with. It is quite quite fabulous and yet quite, quite bonkers, in equal measure.  On my visit, I spent quite some time being followed around by a wild eyed priest, crawled through a cave, entered the mouth of a lion, crawled into the mouth of a cow, landed into a stream, walked past udders dripping on the Shiva Lingam, out of the cow’s bottom, past some very interesting characters, was turned into a kaleidoscope, only to finally be met by the goddess herself! An experience I will never forget and one which should be on any list of places to visit in Amritsar.

Now, I don’t usually mention the main reason why people should visit a destination and indeed, I have already filled my quota for ‘Top 5 things to do’. However, in a break from tradition, I must mention the Wagah Border. I have been advised not to as it is a sensitive subject. However, for me personally, I felt that the entire ceremony, in its current form, is so far removed from the actual sentiment behind the original concept as to be unrecognisable and the deliberate riling up of the crowd and repeated shouts of ‘Jai Hind,’ I personally found disturbing and that is all I will say on that.

However, The Golden Temple  IS extraordinary, I loved it and would happily visit it again and again. This is mainly because, for me, this isn’t just a dead monument, it is a 24 hour living, breathing hive of activity so extraordinary as to be almost incomprehensible (I don’t think grammatically, that makes sense). The Sikh sentiment behind it is one where anyone can visit. It is the world’s holiest Sikh shrine, but is non-denominational in that anyone can worship there.  It is also a temple where pilgrims, devotees, the poor, tourists, in fact anyone who fancies bobbing in for a meal and a chai, is fed for free. This amounts to anywhere between 65,000 and 100,000 people per day – yes, you read that right. How to even begin to consider how to go about catering for that many people is enough to make one’s head spin, and a feat worthy of the tiffin walas of Mumbai, but when you think that the entire temple is operated by volunteers, from shoe storage, to cleaning to food preparation to chai churning and serving, not to mention washing up is all run by volunteers (it was worth repeating). Anyone, including yours truly can venture into the kitchens and lend a hand.

Of course, there is a lot more to the temple than that; as already said, it is the world’s holiest Sikh shrine, which stands in the middle of a sacred water tank, in fact the word Amritsar comes from amrit (nectar) and sar (pool), referring to this sacred tank.  The initial building was founded in 1577 by the fourth Sikh Guru, Guru Ram Das and it is the still existing (even more so actually) visual representation of all that the Sikh faith represents that is truly inspirational and heart-warming.  It was only in the early nineteenth century, after having secured the Punjab region from outside attack, that Maharajah Ranjit Singh, in celebration, covered the upper floors of the gurudwara with gold. Hence it’s English name of The Golden Temple rather than the official name of Sri Harmandir Sahib.

Maharajah Ranjit Singh was the grandfather of Sophia which brings me to mention a great book, Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand, a very interesting read.

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