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To the uneducated mind, Amritsar’s Golden Temple is simply a bright structure in the middle of a square pool surrounded by marble buildings. To the Sikh, The Golden Temple is their holiest Gurdwaras although a reader pointed out, Sikhism does not create hierarchies so, technically, it is not the holiest.
The origin of Amritsar
The name Amritsar was given to an ancient lake that used to exist where the pool is today and it refers to the city that surrounds the lake and the temple. But there is more to it than just a word. Amritsar, meaning “pool of ambrosial nectar”, comes from the Sanskrit for “immortal” or Amrit and is “a syrup considered by Sikhs to be divine”. The word shared the same meaning with the Greek for “Ambroto” and is interpreted by the Sikh as the magical substance that facilitates enlightenment.
The ancient lake, located in the middle of a forest at the time, was a place where even Buddha spent time in contemplation some 2,000 years ago. But it was not until the 15th century when the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak, came to spend time in meditation here. After he died, his disciples continued to come to the lake, thus turning it into Sikhism’s most sacred site.
Toward the end of the 16th century, the lake was enlarged and turned into a square pool and shortly after, the Hari Mandir, or Temple of God, was built. The temple was destroyed and rebuilt through the centuries as a result of attacks from the Muslim armies, as Amritsar is located in modern day Punjab, close to the feud of the Mogul Empires in today’s Pakistan. It was not until the 18th century that the Sikh army became strong enough to contain attackers and peace returned to the temple.
From Temple of God to the Golden Temple
During the first four centuries after its construction, the Temple of God was not golden. It was during the reign of one of the most famous royals, the Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), that the Hari Mandir was enriched with marble sculptures, golden gilding and generous amounts of precious stones.
The Golden Temple is home to the sacred scripture of the Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib, which contains poems, prayers and hymns that are chanted throughout the day through the speakers in the temple, with translations in Hindi and English for visitors and devotees on four large screens at either corner. The chanting echoes through the carved marble walls providing an air of serenity and peace like no other. Pilgrims and visitors walk around the pool, clockwise, to the sound of the chanting from sunrise to well after sunset, as if in a state of trance.
Although the Golden Temple is a Sikh shrine, it is also a place where everyone, regardless of religion, race, gender, age or spiritual orientation can seek solace and peace. The temple was built at a lower level than the surrounding ground to signify humility and equality and its four doors, at each of the four cardinal points, elude to the fact that the temple is open to people from all walks of life. In fact, the temple offers free meals to all, an incredible gesture of kindness.
Amritsar’s Golden Temple today
At over 50 million visitors a year, Amritsar’s Golden Temple is more popular than Times Square or the most famous Indian building, the Taj Mahal and it is also, arguably, of greater beauty. The marble walls, made with the same technique and style as those of the Taj Mahal, are carved from “pietra dura” and some of them are covered with intricate inlay designs in colourful semi-precious stones reminiscent of the Lahore Fort. Eluding to its origin as a magical substance, the water of the lake is filled with pilgrims taking a dip to cleanse their souls. There are separate enclosures for women but the men get down in their undergarments and wash themselves in the open.
What to see and do at the Golden Temple
One of the most impressive experiences at The Golden Temple is to simply people watch. The temple opens its doors at 2:30am every day and closes after 10pm. At around 4:30am, the Sikh scripture Sri Guru Granth Sahib is carried to the Akal Takhat Sahib inside the Golden Temple where it spends the day until it is carried back in at night. Once it has been installed, chanting by the priest will start and not stop until it is stored in for the short night. Pilgrims queue up very early to pay their tributes and at peak times or days, like during Diwali, the queues can extend well outside the Gold Temple’s entry platform.
Around the pool, there are several buildings worth exploring. The main one is the Central Sikh Museum where you can see canvas, rare pencil sketches, musical instruments, guns of Sikh Raj and other important Sikh items. It is a good place to get to know more about Sikh history and heritage. This is the building you will most likely enter the temple through as it lies on the main square linked to the Amritsar heritage area that has recently been restored.
To the left of the Museum when facing the temple one can see the red building of the Ramgarhia Bunga and two watch towers. A bunga is a place to live that was built to accommodate the pilgrims that visited the temple. At one point, there were 22 watch towers around the temple but most of them were destroyed and only two still stand.
In front of the bunga you will see a small shrine and a platform with a tree growing inside called Dukh Bhanjani Beri. The story goes that a leper was sitting under that tree when he saw a crow dip into the pool’s water and then turn from black to white and so he decided to try his luck by taking a dip himself. The holy waters healed his leprosy. No matter when you visit the Golden Temple, that Gurdwara will always be filled with devotees, mostly women, seeking for their loved ones to be healed too. Next to the shrine, on the raised platform, there is a palanquin. Anyone taking a dip by the holy waters near the palanquin will have the benefit of taking a dip into the water of 68 holy places, hence why lots of pilgrims bathe or light candles here.
A visit to the Golden Temple cannot be complete without taking Langar. The community kitchen is located in the building behind the watch towers and everybody is fed regardless of race, age, colour or religion. Langar is a Sikh tradition that teaches humility and sameness to everyone. With a plastic plate in your hands, and sitting cross-legged on the floor, you may be eating your meal with your fingers next to a wealthy man or a child, everyone is the same. A donation is appreciated after the meal or you can help cook or clean.
Another common sighting in the Golden Temple is the serving of Kara Prasad or a mixture of sugar, butter and semolina in equal parts that is given to everyone in small bowls made of dried leaves. This is a sort of communion or offering that must be received with both hands cupped together if not served in a bowl. If you are offered it, you should not refuse as it is viewed as a blessing from the Guru and it would be an insult.
Perhaps the most important part of the Golden Temple complex after the temple itself is the Akal Takht, the seat of the Almighty, where the Sikh scriptures rest every night after they are taken back in from the temple. You can get in the building and climb up to the room where the scriptures and the Guru stay. The room is in the building right opposite the entrance to the Golden Temple queue.
Amritsar beyond the Golden Temple
Although most people come to Amritsar exclusively for the Golden Temple, the city has a few other parts worth getting lost in.
Since 2016 Diwali, the old part of the city has been restored to its former glory in red and orange earthy colours that have brought back Amritsar’s past glory, wandering the streets around the Golden Temple is a lesson in history. But the best insight into the city’s past can be learned through an Amritsar Heritage Walk tour. This tour delivered by the now famous Davinder is a trip down memory lane to the time of the Gurus. The stops on the tour are not even located on Google Maps and there is no information on them online, so the best and only way to get to know more about the city is to join the tours starting at 7:30am. Call ahead to book, he is very popular.
Whether you join one of the heritage walks or not, the streets and alleys behind the gate that is to the right of the Golden Temple are an incredible maze of narrow streets and intricate building facades that seem to come out of a movie. Don’t look down or you may miss them among the chaos and the dirt that fills the streets.
If you didn’t come here for the Golden Temple then you probably came for the food. Amritsar is known for the fantastic kulcha, a rolled up then rolled around flat bread that is then cooked in the tandoori oven and often filled with potatoes or local cottage cheese and covered in shiny butter. They are reason enough to visit, I promise. They are found everywhere and served in most restaurants but they are most commonly eaten at breakfast with a side of beans and potato curry.
As Amritsar is the center of Sikhism, vegetarian restaurants are abound. In fact, the world’s first and only vegetarian McDonalds can be found in the city, in the restored heritage area. Other great dishes include aloo puri, or fried puffed up bread served with potato curry, another local breakfast favourite. Amritsar is also a paradise for sweet teeth, but you better love pure sugar, nuts and butter. Square pieces of sweets are everywhere. Red beans, paneer (cottage cheese), potatoes, spinach and breads of all kinds and shapes are common across the city. Of course, in a primarily alcohol free city, lassi takes center stage. Enjoy them plain or with fruit.
Lastly, another interesting stop in your trip to Amritsar is the Wagha Border. The border between Pakistan and India opens and closes every day in a big way. On both sides, a pompous dance precedes the official lowering of the flags, the hand shaking of the border officials and the singing of the hymns. You can join a tour and witness it all from the Indian side which is less tightly controlled and difficult to reach than the Pakistani side, near Lahore, which is practically impossible to enter as a foreigner.
Where to eat in Amritsar
As one of the cities with the most delicious food in India, Amritsar has a few gems worth trying.
No doubt the best known food institution in Amritsar is Kesar da Dhaba. Everybody knows the place and it is mentioned in every single guide as it has been open for 100 years. And without a question. Now occupying two opposite spaces, one where the original kitchen still is and where the food is cooked live in the open for all to see, and another living room across the narrow alleyway.
Kesar da Dhaba is known for its kulcha, curry, and daal that sit in large pots and is prepared when a customer orders it and everything else. Do not leave without trying a few of their dishes and then walk over to the kitchen where the chefs prepare the kulcha from scratch and then cook it in the tandoori oven. It is a fascinating process. Try their lassi too, they come in iron glasses and the top layer is so thick you will have to dip your spoon through to find the smooth liquid underneath. Spoon the top or mix it all in.
Another great place to sample Amritsar’s recipes is Bharawan da Dhaba. Similar to Kesar da Dhaba and other Amritsari places, they serve kulchas, but their cheese and potato are delicious, as well as bean and potato curry, and it is located very near the Golden Temple.
As many places in Amritsar are vegetarian, you might be craving some meat. The chicken tandoori at this roadside stall, that looks nothing more than the neighbour’s kitchen, is to die for. Go in the evening or late for lunch as the owner takes it easy and the food might not be ready until at least 1pm. And consider take away as you may not want to be eating by the car fumes.
Another one for the carnivores is Surjit Food Plaza. Much more upscale than any of the previous unassuming and unpretentious places, Surjit Food Plaza is located in a proper restaurant at the ground floor of a shopping mall of sorts and charges prices to match. After spending $10 for lunch at the other eateries, you might be shocked when the bill at Surjit surpasses the $50 mark. But don’t be deterred, their Amritsari fried fish is spiced with a mix of unique and delicious spices worth the trip and the price. I couldn’t quite describe what they were but they were spectacular. Try also their absolutely tender mutton tikka which does not come in the commercial orange colour but in a dark brown. The mutton is genuinely divine and it breaks apart in your mouth. If there was ever an example of the “melt in your mouth” type of food, this would be it.
Amritsar is well known for the hyper sweet, heart racing, cholesterol inducing, diabetes causing sweets and there are stalls and shops selling them across the city but there are a couple of them that are even better known than the rest. Try Khana Sweets for a great selection of all sugar, nuts and spice squares of goodness. They also make excellent aloo puri which you can have at their venue on the side alleyway where they rent another space. They have a huge selection of sweets there but perhaps one we loved was the pinni, a sort of sweetmeat made from lentil and sugar cane that make great souvenirs and were less sticky than other options. Another great place right next to Khana is Munim Di Hatti also selling a great choice of sweets.
Lastly, to enjoy Amritsar’s most famous item, the kulcha, we found this tiny tiny stall very close to the Golden Temple that was making them on the spot in their tandoori oven in the smallest kitchen-come-eatery I have ever seen. There is no sign but you can spot it if you walk away from the main entrance of the Golden Temple and into the heritage renovated area, it is on the left in the pedestrian street, before the shoe shops and on a corner. Go for breakfast and try their cottage cheese stuffed kulchas. They were so good I just wanted the next morning to come so I had a legitimate excuse to eat them again!
Where to stay in Amritsar
There are a lot of affordable place to stay in Amritsar and very few in the way of little luxury. I stayed at Ranjit Svaasa which is a haveli turned hotel charging relatively high prices for relatively modest service. The place has a lot of charm as it feels like someone’s heritage/ museum home transformed into a hotel with plenty of maze-like rooms and corridors in which it is easy to get lost. The rooms are in various levels and there is no elevator so make sure to specify if you don’t like stairs – we were on a third floor up steep a spiral-type of staircase. The rooms could do with a bit of TLC and a check of the plumbing (our sink leaked providing an unpleasant smell in the bathroom) and a bit more helpful staff, we arrived at 2pm and they could not suggest us a place where we would get some food other than at the hotel, in a city which is known for food! But no other place in the city will have the charm and authenticity of Ranjit Svaasa. The internet is rather slow and Ranjit Svaasa is 15-20min ride from The Golden Temple. Check latest prices and availability here.
For a more practical, closer to town option albeit at international standards, Ramada Amritsar is within walking distance of The Golden Temple and right in the middle of the chaos where it all happens. It’s a pleasant, predictable and safe option for half the price (or less). Check latest prices and availability here.