How do you describe a city that has food to fill the raging appetites of an army, dress each of the beauteous contours of a woman, stretch the well cultivated city dweller's instincts of survival to navigate its routes, lanes and bazaars, and at the end of it, silence all thoughts by the sheer grandeur of its single most defining feature - the majestic Golden Temple.
Indeed, this sacred city has the guru's presence everywhere. From the old guru ka bazaar to the Amrit Sarowar which was originally a tank that remained un-bricked till Guru Arjan Dev ascended the Gur Gaddi in 1581. It was later that it was made pucca and the place renamed as Amritsar. The Golden Temple or Shri Darbar Sahib came to be regarded as the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion. Here, is a benign presence of the Lord that you can feel in the air. Even random shopkeepers, rickshaw pullers and local residents will go out of their way to guide, offer advice, even accompany you to your destination and fine tune your itinerary.
We were a motley bunch of 10, including friends from the US and our wish list from the temple city was ambitious, to say the least. From visiting the temple during amrit vela time to seeing the sound and light show at Jallianwala Bagh, going to Wagah border, buying Amritsari juttis and Pakistani suits, to sampling its famed chola kulchas, kulfis, meethi lassis, shahi paneers, rogan josh, chicken tikka, chicken butter masala and lachedaar naans, we knew it was a tall order to accomplish in the two nights and three days that we had, but we were optimistic all the same.
Entering the Golden Temple, which is in the old city, through an ornate archway with intricate inlay work, at first sight, one sees it sitting on a rectangular platform, surrounded by Amrit Sarovar or pool of water, Pristine beauty and an all-encompassing spirit of compassion and bhakti greet us as. How else would you describe the fact that as thousands queue up through the periphery of the temple, right up to the darbar sahib or sanctum sanctorum, standing cheek-by-jowl with bodies in close contact, nowhere is there an impatience or any sort or rude pushing and jostling. There is a quiet acceptance that each person's chance at bowing the head and seeking blessings will come and that everyone there has an equal right to darshan.
Pilgrims come from across the world to this Mecca of the Sikhs to visit the shrine that houses the holy script of the Guru Granth Sahib. From devotees hailing from the small pinds (villages) in Punjab who come with their potlis (sheets and cloth bags stuffed with clothes and prayer books) or with steel trunks, camping in the many lodges and budget hotels the city has, to the well-heeled Canada and US returned Sikhs living in deluxe five star hotels like Ista, the spirit of compassion, devotion and charity with which they descend on the Temple, is Universal.
After a 90-minute wait, you get your chance to enter Harmandir Sahib to do your matha teko. A 52-meter, square-based structure that enshrines the Holy Book, Guru Granth Sahib. Placed on a palanquin with emeralds, rubies and diamonds, it has silver poles and a golden canopy. The fifth Guru, Arjun Dev (1563 - 1606) began its construction and completed it in the late 16th century. It is from the Adi Granth scripture that granthis recite hymns through the day. This is the entry to the last bastion of the temple and is guarded by Sikh guards attired in traditional finery.
The Akal Takht, is the seat of Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, and the place where Guru Granth Sahib is kept during the night. Established by the sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind (1595 -1644), it is also the repository of ancient weapons, used by Sikh warriors and Gurus. Since there is time still for the guru ka langar (roti, daal and sabzi served by sevadaars or volunteers), you decide to go up to the Central Sikh Museum on the second floor
The first round of the temple done, you stroll down to Jallianwala Bagh, about 400 metres north of the temple complex. The bullet marks on the boundary walls bring alive the agonising tale that still haunts Indians. Situated 400 meters north of the Temple, it has an air of solemnity, as tourists mill about, discovering the well, hand writing intonations on the wall and other signs that reveal vignettes of a tortuous past. Even today, entrance to the Bagh is narrow, instantly making getting you to wonder how people must have tried escaping gun shots with almost no success, trapped within confines of the ground, surrounded by high walls on all sides. Spending an hour in the Bagh and then in their museum (you wish things were better chronicled and preserved), reading the various announcements made at the time by Mahatma Gandhi, other global leaders of the time and the media, the scene from the 1919 massacre that killed hundreds of men, women and children on the spot, you miss the evening's sound and light show but find the walk around the bagh equally heart warming.
Bracing ourselves for the Wagah border, we set off in two SUVs. At the entrance going in with crowds, minus VIP passes, we were forced to resolve that next time we too should use our 'contacts' to have our vehicles slyly whisked into the special area before being escorted to a separate enclosure. But we had chosen to be aam junta, wanting to experience 'freedom' the way it was meant to be for every Indian and not just the chosen few.
So here we were, bifurcated in separate queues for men and women. Before we knew it, crowds, mostly of young people had engulfed us. We were soon rudderless. Pushed, swayed and jostled not with any mal-intent but just as a result of what can be a heightened state of impatient crowd dynamics. Result: our food packets got crushed beneath our feet, those of us without closed shoes had scratches, a wallet got picked and the person ahead of us had his forehead split open as he fell against what were iron barricades meant to protect us all.
An hour later we were seated on cemented steps overlooking a historic street. On our left was the Swaran Jayanti, in front of which the 'Beating the Retreat' would be conducted by the Indian Border Security Force and the Pakistani Rangers. Perched high above on our right was the portrait of Mahatma Gandhi and on the left, Mohamamd Ali Jinnah. Before the 'change of guard'ceremony, patriotic songs from the 1950's right uptil the present, blared. On both the Pakistan and Indian side, could be seen a building sense of enthusiasm that wanted to believe their side to be stronger, better and more energeised. The event concluded with the lowering of the respective national flags at sunset and after much cheering and clapping, and a dispersal of the crowds, this time with not as much frenzy as at the time of entry.
For all its jingoism and attempts at fuelling the patriotric streak, you are left breathless, not so numb with wonder, awe and inspiration, as with sheer exhaustion. Yes, it is a must see. For you cannot come to Amrtisar and not visit the Wagah border, though it would be hard not to be cynical about the entire manner in which the ceremony is carried out and the resultant emotions it builds up in an easily swayed audience.
The lanes of the old Amritsar are where the remnants of a bygone era prevail. While the new part is more posh where successful traders, exporters and businessmen reside in beautiful bungalows, shopping from high-end boutiques and studios, we settle for the old lanes, where bargains are sought and a frozen-in-time feeling lingers. Embroidered suits from Rs150 to Rs 10,000 vie for attention. A few shops sell Pakistani suits which they tell you come into Amritsar not from the look-over-your-shoulder neighbour Pakistan