A couple of weekends ago we went to Amritsar. Amritsar is in Punjab, NW India, on the border with Pakistan. It is the heart of the Sikh religion. Sikhism is the 5th largest organized religion in the world, with approximately 30 million followers. The Sikh religion is not very well known or understood outside India because most Sikhs (about 75%) live in Punjab and 60% of the Punjabi’s are Sikh. There are a lot of Sikhs in Delhi as well and we see many of them on the visa line, so learning more about them, their culture and faith has been fascinating. Most Sikh men (but not all) never cut their hair and wear it in a turban. Some have long beards, others sort of twist their facial hair (beard and mustache together) and pull it up under their turbans. I found that strange at first because I had never seen it but am used to it now. And the turbans, with their bright colors and different ways of draping are starting to really grow on me. But I digress…
Amritsar is also the home of The Golden Temple (aka known as Harmandir Sahib), the spiritual and cultural center of the Sikh faith. We had heard so much about the Golden Temple that we couldn’t wait to see it. We were told that the best times to see it were sunrise and sunset. We went at sunset and it was amazing.
The temple is in the middle of a holy pond, called Amrit Sarovar (nectar of immortality in Punjabi), which is where Amritsar gets its name. In order to get to the Golden Temple you have to go over a bridge. You also have to take your shoes off and cover your hair.
It’s a truly special place and we highly recommend visiting it, if the opportunity presents itself.
We also visited the Sri Durgiana Temple (aka Mata Sitala Mandir), which the Hindu version of the Golden Temple but on a slightly smaller scale. It’s dedicated to the Goddess Durga and is also situated in the middle of a pond. We were there at noonish and had the place almost entirely to ourselves, which was nice as we were able to talk to the priests and walk around without being surrounded by huge crowds, as was the case at the Golden Temple.
Another sight we visited was Ram Bagh, the summer residence of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, one of Punjab’s kings, known for his bravery. His residence is now a nice park with a museum holding multiple dioramas of battles he lead during his reign.
The last sight we saw in Amritsar was Jallianwala Bagh, a small walled-in park very close to the Golden Temple. Around 20,000 Indians were holding a peaceful demonstration against the brutality of the British rule in the park on April 13, 1919, when 150 British troops arrived and opened fire leaving 337 men, 41 boys and a baby dead and 1500 wounded in six minutes. Many found their death jumping into a well to avoid the bullets. In response, Gandhi started his famous campaign of civil disobedience, which ultimately lead to India’s independence in 1947.
A couple of other interesting observations about Amritsar: We saw hundreds of kites in the air while we were there. We were wondering if there was something special going on – a kite festival perhaps? We asked about that and were told there was nothing special, it’s just that the people of Amritsar love kites and fly them year round. Something else that we noticed was that there were a lot of women on scooters around Amritsar. This was kinda refreshing to see actually because you just don’t see it in Delhi. I had never thought about that in that sense but Delhi is not a safe place for women. I have personally never felt unsafe but I never go out alone after dark and when I am out alone I am careful about where I go. That said, Delhi has been declared the rape capital of the country, which is downright horrible and the city was shaken to the core by an incredibly brutal gang rape case about a month ago. There were huge protests that went on for weeks and a lot of discussions about laws, their enforcement and women safety. My only hope is that something good comes out of this tragedy because women deserve the right to be treated with dignity, feel save and go about their business without constantly worrying that someone might attack them.
Last but not least, we went shopping in Amritsar. A colleague of ours, who is Punjabi told us that Amritsar is famous for hand-made camel leather shoes and for patiala salwar (baggy pants). We didn’t get any baggy pants there but we did some hard-core shoe shopping. There are many shoe stores around the Golden Temple and all over town and they are so colorful and fun to explore. They look like this:
I had already bought three pairs of these types of shoes before and I liked them but they are a little different than normal shoes we buy in stores in the US. When you first buy them, there’s no left or right – the two shoes are the same. After you wear them a few times the shoes conform to your feet. The camel leather is soft and they become very comfortable but they feel strange those first few times you wear them. We came home with 6 pairs, which after heavy bargaining, cost us between $4 and $6 a pair.
Ours were of the less expensive variety but there were tons of different kinds with elaborate embroidery that looked really beautiful. Then there were others that were completely over the top, in my humble opinion but what do I know. I wanted to get Paul a pair with the fronts curling up but he said that was too much for him.
Finally, a few random pictures we took around Amritsar:
Singh is indeed king in Punjab. Singh is a last name given to a baptized Sikh male and it means lion. Its equivalent for a female is Kaur, which means princess. These names reflect the egalitarian nature of the Sikh faith and were initially meant to replace a new Sikh’s original name which usually reflected his/her caste. Baptized Sikhs are supposed to wear the 5 Ks (5 articles of faith, the names of which all start with the k sound in Punjabi) at all times– uncut hair, a small comb, a small iron bracelet, a sword/dagger, and special underwear.
A man ironing clothes for people for a small fee. You see that all the time in India. They use these old coal irons. This picture also shows something else I found strange here in India at first – scarves here are not just for women, men wear them too. This man is wearing a thick winter scarf, which is almost like a blanket but men wear light scarves in the summer too.
An embroidered tunic material store - also something I find interesting. In India, you can buy ready made tunics but more often people buy the material, which already has the embroidery work done. You can see the variety of necklines and designs in this store (hanging upside down). You get the material and take it to a tailor for a custom fit.
Cargo rickshaw – I can only imagine how heavy this thing is and to think that he is moving it by his own little self seems just crazy…