Punjab is in the central north east of India. It is home to the city of Amritsar and the Golden Temple. Amritsar sits about 20km from the border with Pakistan and is only 50km from the Pakistani city of Lahore. The Wagah border crossing hosts a daily ‘gate opening’ show that is a must see and worth traveling for.
The first thing to do when you arrive in Punjab is to buy a new pair of aviator sunglasses. For everyone. Because that’s what everyone else wears. And then call for an Uber to get to the recommended Dhabar for dinner. Oh, hang on – the only Uber option is a motorbike so we call for two.
Lets talk about the Golden Temple first.
The Golden Temple
Best visited at sunrise when it is cool and there are less people.
We on the other hand chose to visit just before midday at the hottest possible part of the day. I’m a rubbish tourist. To enter the Golden Temple, you must remove your shoes, wash your feet and ensure that your head and shoulders are covered. If you don’t have a scarf, one will be provided for you, there are also counters where you can hand in your shoes to be kept safely. It was so hot that even with the rush matting that is laid over the marble it was hot on our feet. To walk across the marble to get to the edge of the pond required grit.
But oh so worth it, at any time of day.
The majority of people who live in Punjab follow the Sikh religion.
According to some reports, the Golden Temple receives more visitors than the Taj Mahal. It was certainly crowded. As a pilgrim you can come to the Temple to pray, and stay and get fed for as long as you like. The kitchen is run by volunteers and feeds as many as 20,000 people per day. The pilgrims greatly outnumber the people who were like us, western and clearly tourists.
The focal point is the Sanctum which is gilt with 24 carat gold. Inside this is the Sikh Scripture – a book call the Guru Granth Sahib. The building is surrounded by the pond, sometimes called the tank. It is permissible to bathe in the water – men and women separately. Don’t worry – if you do the wrong thing someone will tell you in a very friendly but firm way way. What out for the men in blue kurtas with spears.
There is a tonne of politics and history of conflict and violence in Punjab. Before the Partition in 1947 Lahore was the capital city. As a result of the Partition, Punjab itself was divided with the Muslims staying or going to the Pakistan side and Hindus and Sikhs going or staying on the Indian side. There were problems between the Sikhs and the central Indian government and in 1984, Operation Blue Star saw Indian troops enter the Golden Temple to rout the sessionist group that was occupying it. But that is not the subject of this blog, and any further explanation from me would trivialise the conflict.
But suffice to say that for many years Amritsar in particular seemed to outsiders to be a dangerous place to visit. It was dangerous, it is not dangerous now – or no more so than anywhere else. If you want to know more about the history I recommend ‘Durbar’ by Tavleen Singh*, or an easy access point is the 2017 movie ‘The Viceroy’s House’ starring Hugh Davenport (Downton Abbey) and Gillian Anderson (needs to reference point) about Lord Mountbatten and The Partition.
* this is not easy to get hold of outside of India.
Wagah Border Ceremony
The distance from Amritsar in India, to Lahore in Pakistan is only 50km and the Wagah Border crossing sits between the two cities on the Grand Trunk Road. It is a vehicle and rail crossing, and also the location for a very elaborate ceremony that takes place each day.
A visit to the Wagah Border should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Its a show and its very difficult to describe but I’m going to try. Think varsity sports meets Monty Python doing the New Zealand Haka.
There is an amphitheatre that seats twenty thousand people and on the day that we visited it was at capacity. It was also 45 degrees C, and there is little to no shade.
The show starts with women running up and down in front of the spectators waving the flag of India. It seems that anyone can take part in this, provided they are female. After this, women are invited down into a kind of mosh pit where they dance to well known Bollywood songs. This goes on for about an hour. The reason that only women can take part is something to do with Mother India, but it wasn’t clear if you don’t speak Hindi.
The women go back to their seats and then the military gets involved. They march up and down. After a while they stand in formation glaring at the Pakistanis, and the soldiers who are dressed in camouflage gear complete with face paint glare particularly fiercely. Their Pakistani counterparts glare back. They do a kind of haka. The soldiers who are dressed in ceremonial gear do a few manouvers where they look like they are trying do the splits vertically and kick themselves in the face.
There is a flag ceremony where the easy option of pulling on the rope and sending the flag up is not the one they choose. They throw the rope at Pakistan, who throw their own rope back. Eventually they manage to raise the flag. The gates to the border open for about ten minutes and then it happens in reverse.
There is an MC, and his job is to incite the crowd into a frenzy. This all happens in Hindi, but for sure at one point he was inviting the crowd to shout insults at Pakistan. The Pakistanis on their side are showing very little interest. There are about fifty people sitting in the sun picking their nose.
To get there:
You can get there by bus. The hotel that we stayed at provided a car and driver.
The Punjabi Dhabar
I’m going to get pulled up on this – pretending to be an expert or even having an opinion on it. But these are my thoughts – Punjabi Dhabars are popular all over India. Dhabars are an Indian version of a truck stop. i.e. truck drivers food. By the way, my theory about truck drivers food extends to Japan and the theory is that ramen is also truck drivers food – hearty food that is available from no nonsense places on the edge of the road.
So off we head by motorbike Uber, to the Kesai Da Dhabar which is conveniently located quite close to the Golden Temple. The journey was as good as the destination. Kirrily and I on the back of motorbikes and riding with reckless abandon down tiny alleys to get to the restaurant. There is no way we could have found it on our own. I had a veg curry, and from memory Kirrily had goat curry, both soaked up with parathas and dal and washed down with lassi. Very good, quite heavy.
We visited Amritsar in May, hence the hot weather.
Other Agatha Bertram blogs on India:
Always on the look out for a boutique hotel that is not too rustic, we stayed at Ranjit’s SVAASA which was a beautiful ramshackle place that was perfect.
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