Amritsar is an instituition by itself. And the golden temple is the cradle of Amritsar with the city growing around it nurtured by its divine sanctity.
It stands there in simple majesty,the glinded splendour of its panelings, dome ad minarets shining in the morning light, silhouetted softly in the water and etched gently across the city escape. For the Sikh community the harmandir sahib gurudwara golden temple is the final spiritual “vision”, journey’s end or beginning and, for every oter community too, it is a shrine to be visited.
The golden temple in Amritsar is the most exalted of all Sikh shrines, drawing pilgrims from near and far for centuries. The temple’s story began some four centuries ago when the third Sikh guru amar das asked guru ram das (who succeeded him) to build a central place for the congregation of the Sikhs. The work started by guru ram das was completed by guru arjan dev in the 16th century. The gurudwara has four entrance doors, called deoris, in all four directions – symbolic of the new faith which made no distinction between caste and creed. People could enter and bow in any direction they preferred.
The amrit sarovar or pool of nectar had long been associated with Indian legends and lord rama’s twin sons had supposedly been taught the ramayana here. Hoe the land was acquired for the construction of the temple has many stories. Some say the guru bought it, others say it was granted by emperor akbar. Whatever the story, it is certain it was revenue free land.
Oral tradition dictates that the temple’s foundation stone was laid by the muslim divine pir mian mir of lahore at the request of the fifth Sikh guru arjan dev. But there is no record supporting this, not even in the biographies of pir. The recorded account says that the foundation laid by guru arjun dev in 1588. the guru’s followers settled down in the neighbourhood and a small town called ramdaspur quickly came up, deriving its later name, Amritsar, from the holy tank that encircles the Hari Mandir, or the Darbar sahib, now known as the golden temple.
The flourishing town that grew around the temple during guru Arjan Dev’s lifetime grew further in stature as the followers of Sikhism grew in number. Things move fast. The first Sikh maharaja, Ranjit Singh, made Amritsar his spiritual capital while Lahore was the temporal seat of his newly founded expanded kingdom. Ranjit Singh oversaw the temple’s further development, gilding the embossed plates, renewing the pietra dura and embellishing the interior with floral designed, mirrored ceilings.
The golden temple is an eclectic monument that has grown as much of people’s devotion as from the guild craftsmen’s skills. Generation after generation has lavished praise on the art and architecture of the golden temple and it is widely regarded as being amongst the most tastefully decorated shrines anywhere.
As one descends into the temple (unlike most temples, here one actually descends as the structure is built below the level of the surrounding area), one is confronted by the stunningly beautiful sanctum sanctorum glimmering in the water of the holy tank that is flanked on all four sides by spotlessly clean marble walkways and pavements.
The main structure rises from the centre of the sacred pool and is approached by a long causeway. The 52 metre, sqare –based hari mandir stands on a square platform, its lower parts maarble, its upper portion fully covered with plates of gilded copper. In the interior, on the ground, the guru granth sahib 9holy books of the Sikhs) is placed under a jewel-studded canopy. On the first floor is a small pavilion called the shish mahal9mirror room).it is ornamented with pieces of mirrors inlaid in the ceiling and walls. Above is another smaller pavilion. Exquisite murals adorn the walls of the pavilions but other than that, the emphasis is on simplicity.
Situated at the other end of the causeway connected to the hamandir sahib is the akal takht. Literally, it means the eternal throne and its building opposite the temple has a significance. While the temple stands for the spiritual guidance, the akal takht symbolizes the dispensing of justice and temporal activities. During the day, the guru granth sahib is kept in the temple and at night at the akal takht. Traditionally all Sikh warriors sought blessings here before going for war.
As it has done for several centuries. The temple mirrors many images that are dear to the devout. One sees the beautiful golden dome shimmering in the water. One sees thousands of devotees praying and kneeling before the holy book. One sees them touch the holy water and pour it over their foreheads. One sees people streaming into the langar hall to partake of the common meal served lovingly to one and all. Forming a soothing and beautiful soundtrack to all these activities is the continuous kirtan (devotional) recitation that has provided solace to so many.
Guru ka langar: all Sikh temples have a langar (community kithchen) where volunteers prepare free meals for thousands of people everyday. Everyone is welcome. Part of the philosophy of Sikhism is to do seva which means service. One of the ways a devout Sikhs likes to do seva is through community service. The idea is sharing equally as desired by the Sikh gurus. Apart from sharing, the other important aspect is that all are equal ad everyone eats together sitting on the floor as equals. The food of the lagar comes from donations and also from the management of the gurudwara. The tradition of langar is intrinsic to the Sikh faith and symbolizes oneness of the humanity.
The Amritsaris are a robust, hard-working lot, fond of good food and very hospitable by nature. There is never any shortage of courtesy here, no shortage of helping hans if your car breaks down. And there is definitely no shortage of food. The predominance of dairy farming has enhanced the quality of all milk products, and the lassi (buttermilk) served in town, especially at “gyan’s” is the best found anywhere. It is served chilled in long steel glasses, sweet or sour or just plain and topped with a trademark clump of thick cream. You can savour truly gourmet fare cooked in asli ghee (pure clarified butter), and ‘Kesar Dhaba’ leads the pack in serving excellent food. It specializes in vegetarian fare. The legendary ‘Amritsari Fish’ continues to be a big favourite. It is crumb fried river fish seasoned with fresh lime juice. And the rabri (dessert of thickened milk) is delicious!
The bustling bazaars in the city are stocked brimful with papadums, vadis, stocked brimful with papadums, vadis, and other spices, and the ampapad (mango slices salted and dried), are something to carry back home.
Shopping options mostly revolve around handicrafts and rugs with prices being competitive, and a little bargaining being of good use. Woollen blankets and sweaters are cheaper in Amritsar than in other parts of India as they are locally manufactured. Katra Jaimal Singh in the old city is a good shopping area.
Places of Interest
If you take a short walk around the Golden Temple, you can visit several other Gurudwaras which trace their links with the Gurus. Gurudwara Baba Atal Sahib and the Shahidi martyr’s shrine are important religious centres, each with its own history.
Amritsar played a pivotal role in India’s quest for independence, and no national monument has more significance than Jalianwala Bagh, a solemn, grim reminder of one of the bloodiest chapters of India’s freedom movement. The 2000 Indians killed and wounded here in the indiscriminate firing by the British on Baisakhi in 1919, was carnage that had nationwide ramifications, shaking and enraging the whole country. Jalianwala Bagh commemorates the martyrs, keeping the tragic episode in its historical context. Today, one finds a small gallery with photos of key personalities involved, the well into which the crowds jumped to escape the murderous hail of bullets and a simple memorial at the site which shaped India’s destiny.
Within an hour’s drive from Amritsar are several interesting places to visit. Several historical Gurudwaras like Baba Bakala, Goindwal Sahib, Tarn Taran, and Baba Sahib, attract the devout. The drive takes one through the heart of rural Punjab with lush green paddy fields, tiny villages, and robust farmers.
The Amritsar that greets visitors today is a bustling, busy city with a distinct ‘frontier’ atmosphere, nestling as it does within breathing distance of the Indo-Pakistan border.
A popular outing is to the Wagah checkpost on the Indo-Pakistan border where crowds throng to see the changing of the guards ceremony and the flag hoisting and lowering, which is done with great pomp and smartness.
The ever-improving infrastructure in the city is making it easier for visitors to reach it from different parts of the country.
By Air: Amritsar is linked by a daily IA flight.
By Road: There are daily buses to Amritsar from Delhi.
By Train: There are direct links from Delhi. It is a 8-10 hr journey.
The Ritz Hotel was one of the first hotels in the city. It is being renovated and expanded and more rooms are coming up.
Punjab Tourism runs an air-conditioned Amritsar International Hotel. Mohan International Hotel is also air-conditioned.
Gurudwaras offer free accommodation to all pilgrims.