48 hours in Amritsar: the Golden Temple, Wagah Border Ceremony and one rather dashing moustachioed fellow

Ahhh, India. After two months, you still don’t make any sense.

We’d almost forgotten that everything is turned up to 11. All the time. The noise, the colours, the smells, the traffic, the crowds and the way that every minute of every day is a new experience.

Delhi airport itself was surprisingly calm and well organised. It took me nearly two and a half hours to get through Mumbai airport, so we’d allowed ourselves plenty of time to get through immigration, which obviously meant that it only took ten minutes. Jamie had a few stern questions from the immigration officers, who didn’t seem impressed that we were planning to visit Amritsar, but other than that we breezed through. They obviously thought he looked the type to try and hop over the border to Pakistan – maybe it’s the beard.

In the end we had four hours to kill before our overnight bus and decided to spend most of these hanging around the airport. If we hadn’t been to an Indian city before, we might have thought it was a good idea to head into town and find a restaurant to wait in. We were tempted but, luckily, stuck to our airport Costa plan. Good job too – the overnight interstate bus stops were located in a part of Delhi that you definitely wouldn’t want to be hanging around in late at night.

We didn’t see much of Delhi other than the inside of our cab, complete with this amusing (and concerning) guide to taxi etiquette. Some word for word highlights from the full A4 page of ‘Do’s and Don’ts’:

  • Do not sleep in the cab while sitting in the co-drivers’ seat as it lulls the driver into sleeping. In fact, it is advisable not to sleep in the cab’
  • ‘Do keep your phone charged at all times while in the cab.’
  • ‘Do not switch cars mid-journey, for any reason.’
  • ‘Do not tempt the driver to drive fast.’
  • ‘P.S. A bottle of pepper spray is kept in the car for safety. You can use it in case of emergency.’

The bus itself was fine, but we didn’t get much sleep thanks to the deafening volume of the Bollywood film they put on ‘for our enjoyment’. This thankfully ended after a few hours, only to be replaced by the girl in the seats next to us who decided it was a good idea to play another full length Bollywood film on full volume on her phone. Until 2am.

We hoped we might have time for a few hours sleep when we arrived but, naturally, we’d forgotten the craziness of budget Indian hotels. I can’t remember whether we mentioned it before, but cheap hotels here are more like big family homes. Doors to the rooms are kept open, sometimes with hotel staff bursting in unannounced, and from around 6am it’s an all-Indian family party in the corridor, complete with music, shouting and screaming children.

So no nap, but at least we only had to wait an hour for our first curry for breakfast, served along with the standard questions about our marital status and an expression of amazement that our parents ‘let us’ travel together. And, of course, while I was taking a shower, I came out to find that a friendly Sikh family had politely and excitedly knocked on our door and snapped Jamie in his first selfie of India Part Two.

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I missed the first crowd, but these little cuties came back for a second snap

Fully indoctrinated back into the weird and wonderful world of India and its curious ways, we headed out to explore the streets of Amritsar.

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Other-worldly narrow and dusty alleys of ornate but crumbling old buildings, illuminated by the cracks of light streaming through the buildings. We felt like we’d stepped back in time as we watched the cycle rickshaws and carts attempting to squeeze through the colourful bazaars.

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And at the end of the narrow walkways stood the highlight of our weekend in Amritsar – the Harmandir Sahib, known to us as the Golden Temple.

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We donned our headgear, lost our shoes and descended the steps for our first glimpse of this sacred building. The descent is supposed to signify humility, while the one path that leads to the temple illustrates the one true path of life.

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It was certainly humbling to be a part of the immense and overwhelming colourfuls crowd. Apparently the Golden Temple can see around 100,000 visitors a day, even more than the Taj Mahal. And, of course, we’d decided to visit midday on a Saturday.

 

All part of the experience, though, and I don’t think it would have felt the same without the crowds. It was our first experience of Sikhism and we were captivated by the colours of the turbans and the ornate swords. Sikhs identify themselves with the ‘Five K’s’ – Kesh (uncut hair), Kara (a steel bracelet), Kanga (a wooden comb), Kaccha (cotton underwear) and Kirpan (a steel sword). I hadn’t realised until Amritsar that Sikhs are actually allowed to carry small knives with them on planes in India and it was quite surreal to be a part of a peaceful crowd full of people all carrying knives and swords.

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Jamie wasn’t entirely at one with his makeshift turban and couldn’t help channelling his inner pirate

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Free food for all is also a core principal of Sikhism, and one of the most captivating sights of the Golden Temple is the Langur Hall, which is run by volunteers and feeds many of the 100,000 daily visitors for for free, 24 hours a day.

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Feeding 100,000 people a day makes for some serious washing up

We loved the atmosphere and the crowds, but wanted to experience another side of the temple so decided to head back at sunset. Far calmer and, although there were still plenty of people there, most were bathing in the holy pool, or sat on the side praying. We sat on the side of the water and joined in the serenity of the evening prayer, as the sun set and the temple lights came on, casting golden reflections over the rippling pool.

 

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Neither of us are particularly religious, but it’s impossible not to be moved by the fervour of the religious communities we’ve seen over the course of our trip. All of the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Muslim prayers we’ve seen are so intensely peaceful and I’m sure it’s these moments of quiet and calm that keep people sane in a country so full of noise and chaos.

As well as the Golden Temple, there are lots of interesting historical sights and monuments in Amritsar. One of the most challenging for us was the Jallianwalla Bagh memorial site which marks the spot where 1500 men, women and children were massacred by a British general during a peaceful independence protest in 1919. The memorial site is very nicely done, despite some slightly inappropriate hedge carvings of men with machine guns, and there’s a permanent flame of remembrance for those who lost their lives. We felt it was important to experience, but the visit was made very uncomfortable by the number of people asking us for selfies. It just felt totally inappropriate to even take selfies in there, and, as two British(-ish) people, we were extremely uncomfortable about being treated like celebrities at this site in particular.

There’s also a really interesting partition museum based in the old town hall, which I think is sponsored by the Cambridge Centre for South Asian Studies. Another uncomfortable reminder of British colonial history, but an unbiased and informative museum (which makes a nice change from the other museums we’ve visited here). The more we learn about partition, the more we realise just how incredibly complicated and emotive it all still is. Before we started researching our trip to India, we knew embarrassingly little about it and it just emphasises how shocking it is that, while we were at school, there was little to no colonial history on the syllabus.

The partition museum was the perfect context for the Indian/Pakistan border ceremony that evening, which was quite possibly the most bizarre thing we have ever seen.

Back when Punjab was partitioned in 1947 there was no definitive border marked out on the historic grand trunk road so two senior military figures, who had previously served together in the pre-partition army but now found themselves on different sides, went down to the main road and drew up a makeshift border with a couple of flags. A few people would gather round to watch the flags being lowered each night, followed by a few more, and then a few more, until it turned into the bizarre festival it is today. It’s supposed to be a serious ceremony which formally closes the border for the night, but in reality it’s just a show down to see which side can make more noise.

There’s a real festival atmosphere as you walk in (complete with I Love India hats, flags and face paint) to the booming Bhangra music. Foreigners get their own special seating behind the VIP area, close to the Pakistan border, and so every time there’s a slight break in the music between song changes you can hear the same deafening ruckus from the Pakistani side.

 

You can tell which side is more successful in stealing the attention by watching where people in the stands were looking. Over in Pakistan, there was some kind of Pakistani Justin Bieber strutting around the stage, which was soon matched on the Indian side by a series of Indian ladies from the crowd who were brought on stage to run around with Indian flags. This obviously drew the attention of the entire Pakistan male stand, but then all eyes were on Pakistan when they introduced a soldier whose leg had been amputated who did some impressive one-legged flag spinning trick.

 

India stepped it up a notch and started some kind of all-female street party to some absolute tunes, including Jai Ho. No competition after that and India’s colourful, noisy dancing stole the show. Jamie’s put together a nifty little video of the ceremony here:

It was obviously all a bit of a farce, but it was actually really interesting to see the difference between the two sides of the border. The Pakistan side was split into male and female stands and, although we couldn’t really see into the Pakistani female side, the male side was a sea of grey, white and black, standing in stark contrast to the mass of colour on the Indian side.

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The actual show was even more bizarre than the prelude. Lots of soldiers prancing around in exaggerated goose steps and Hakka style war taunts, kicking their legs up to their ears and wiggling their peacock style headdresses. It seemed very well choreographed by both sides – the soldiers moved in unison right up to the simultaneous lowering of the flags. Lots of pomp and circumstance, with some intimidating men standing around with machine guns and dogs sniffing the border gates for land mines, but I assume both sides must rehearse together for the show to work.

 

It would have been a strange spectacle even without considering the tensions between the two countries and the fact that there are still border skirmishes going on in Kashmir.

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The sight of two goras waving Indian flags was too much for this rather dashing moustachioed fellow, who latched onto us as we fought our way through the crowds and made sure we had pictures with each and every member of his extended family

Now for the bit you’ve all been waiting for… if you don’t want to read about curry (who wouldn’t) then you might want to skip the rest of this post (and re-assess your priorities).

We loved Sri Lankan food, and we’re missing the plentiful green veg already, but it really wasn’t that varied. Punjab is famous for its food and is the birthplace of tandoori and butter chicken, two of the greatest inventions yet. It’s totally different to South Indian cuisine – no idlys, dosas or coconut sambals to be seen. There’s not even as much rice on the menu as the main crop up here is wheat. Even the thalis are served with bread instead.

Some new dishes we’ve tried so far:

  • Poori chole – a breakfast dish with puffy bread and a chickpea and potato curry
  • Channa bathura– this seems to be a northern breakfast staple, unleavened bread (kind of like naan), served with a chickpea curry
  • Amritsari kulcha – super tasty paratha, sprinkled with herbs and chilli, stuffed with potatoes and more spices and cooked by sticking the dough to the side of a tandoor.
  • Tandoori chicken – not new, but a highlight of Punjabi cuisine. We bought a half chicken from a street stall for just 150 rupees (it’s normally 300 at least), served with a yogurty sauce and a green chilli dip.
  • Paratha thali – signature dish of the famous Kesar da Dhaba.
  • Dal makhani – made with black lentils, totally different to the dal down south.
  • Goat brain curry (not me!) – disgusting. We saw it on the menu a few times and Jamie was forced into trying some by a friendly local who recommended the tandoori chicken. So gross (although he said it was OK, or at least not as bad as expected).

 

We’ve had some familiar friends too, including a tasty palak paneer and some amazing street momos. Lassis and lime sodas were both available in Sri Lanka but are much cheaper and tastier here.

We’ve also already found our ultimate highlight, MUNCH NUTS. Our favourite chocolate from down south which kind of tastes like what would happen if you mushed together a kit kat, snickers, mars bar and galaxy caramel. Heaven.

There seems to be a lot more street food up here, all of which is amazingly cheap – it cost us 30p for eight veg momos and 50p for our kulcha. We’re on the train to Haridwar now and so far even the train snacks are better up north – proper roti meals and sandwiches, rather than the array of fried goods in the south.

From a sacred Sikh city to the spiritual Ganges, the next post will be coming to you from holy Haridwar, our last stop before meeting my parents in Jaipur. I’ll try and keep the next one shorter – sorry, too excited by all the new North Indian discoveries!


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