HOLY CITY OF AM­RIT­SAR

Airports India - - NEWS - TEXT: ANIL MULCHANDANI SE­LECT PHO­TOS: DI­NESH SHUKLA

Founded in 1577 by the fourth Sikh guru, Ram Das, Am­rit­sar is home to Sikhism’s holi­est shrine, the spec­tac­u­lar Golden Tem­ple, one of In­dia’s most serene and hum­bling sights. The same can­not be said for the hy­per­ac­tive streets sur­round­ing the tem­ple. Am­rit­sar is di­vided in two by a tan­gle of rail­way lines. The old city, con­tain­ing the Golden Tem­ple and other his­toric sights and bound by 12 me­dieval gates, is south­east of the rail­way lines. This is a fas­ci­nat­ing area to ex­plore, with a cap­il­lary net­work of nar­row bazaars that seems to float be­tween the cen­turies. To the north of the rail­way lines, ‘mod­ern’ Am­rit­sar has grown up in hap­haz­ard fash­ion around a scat­ter­ing of colo­nial-era boule­vards. Gleam­ing malls and up­mar­ket ho­tels stand tes­ta­ment to the pros­per­ity of the city, but the hec­tic traf­fic makes this area hard to love at street level. Cross­ing be­tween the old and new cities is best done by cy­cle-rick­shaw, but once you’re in the old city, walk­ing is of­ten the quick­est way to get around. When we ar­rived in Am­rit­sar we found it to be a typ­i­cally crowded city, with bustling lanes and dusty streets but some pleas­ant spots. Driv­ing along the Mall Road, we turned off for Wel­comher­itage Ran­jit’s Svaasa Her­itage Ho­tel and Spa. The ho­tel is ac­tu­ally a con­verted her­itage house, said to be about 250 years old, with pleas­ant court­yards and gar­den. We en­tered through a lobby ap­pointed with early-20th cen­tury colo­nial and Indo-euro­pean style fur­ni­ture, a book­shelf and an­tiques. Our room looked like it was still part of the house of the Pun­jabi landed gen­try’s fam­ily home rather than a ho­tel, with el­e­gant wooden fur­ni­ture, colo­nial and Pun­jabi artefacts, pas­tel curtains and jolly prints. While the room was pleas­antly old-fash­ioned, the bath­room was im­mac­u­late. The bal­cony of the room faced the gar­den while the side windows over­looked a farm­ing plot where we were told the own­ers grow some of the veg­eta­bles for the kitchen, with others com­ing from lo­cal mar­kets and farms.

We drove from Ran­jit’s Svaasa to­wards the Golden Tem­ple and from the park­ing area walked through a bustling bazaar with pushy ven­dors try­ing to con­vince visi­tors to buy scarves, prayer ob­jects and sou­venirs. Taxis tak­ing you to the Golden Tem­ple area will of­ten drop you at Fur­wara Chowk from where you must walk the last few hun­dred me­tres. Once we reached the prin­ci­pal en­trance to the tem­ple, how­ever, the com­plex was re­mark­ably non-com­mer­cial and free of any kind of has­sles. We left our footwear and bags in the cloak room near the clock tower crowned gate­way – this cloak-room is manned by Kar Se­vaks or vol­un­teers, and the shoes han­dled by them re­flects the Sikh doc­trine of caste equal­ity and re­spect for labour. Hav­ing washed our feet in the wa­ter and cov­ered our heads with scarves avail­able free from a bin, we came to the top of the gate­way stairs from where we saw the Am­rit­sarovar, `the lake of the nec­tar of life’, from which Am­rit­sar gets its name, with the fa­cade

of the Golden Tem­ple ris­ing up be­side it. Step­ping down to the mar­ble walk­way, we joined a num­ber of Sindhi, Sikh and other pil­grims walk­ing re­spect­fully on the parikrama path that runs a cir­cuit along the lake be­fore reach­ing the en­trance to the Har Mandir. The cir­cum­am­bu­la­tion of the lake of­fers dif­fer­ent views and photography an­gles. The leg­endary Golden Tem­ple is ac­tu­ally just a small part of this huge gur­d­wara com­plex, known to Sikhs as Har­mandir Sahib (or Dar­bar Sahib). The fo­cus of at­ten­tion is the tank that sur­rounds the gleam­ing cen­tral shrine – the Am­rit Sarovar, ex­ca­vated by the fourth guru Ram Das in 1577. Ringed by its mar­ble walk­way, the tank is said to have heal­ing pow­ers, and pil­grims come from across the world to bathe in the sa­cred wa­ters. Float­ing at the end of a long cause­way, the Golden Tem­ple it­self is a mes­meris­ing blend of Hindu and Is­lamic ar­chi­tec­tural styles, with an el­e­gant mar­ble lower level adorned with flower and an­i­mal mo­tifs in pietra dura work

with semi-pre­cious stones (as seen on the Taj Ma­hal). Above this rises a shim­mer­ing sec­ond level, en­cased in in­tri­cately en­graved gold pan­els, and topped by a dome shaped like an in­verted lo­tus and gilded with 750 kg of gold, do­nated by Ran­jit Singh, who re­built the tem­ple once dam­aged by Au­rangzeb. It was orig­i­nally built by Guru Ram­das and his suc­ces­sor.

En­ter­ing a gate­way called Dar­shani De­orhi, we fi­nally lined up at the mar­ble cause­way lead­ing to the Har­mandir, the spir­i­tual cen­tre of the Sikh faith. Beau­ti­fully in­toned hymns in Gu­ru­mukhi floated around the com­plex. In the gleam­ing in­ner sanc­tum, to en­ter which there is al­ways a huge queue, so you need an hour at least, photography is pro­hib­ited. In­side, Priests and mu­si­cians keep up a con­tin­u­ous chant from the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book), which lies cov­ered by a jew­elled canopy and fanned by at­ten­dants, adding to the al­ready in­tense at­mos­phere. Af­ter pay­ing their re­spects, pil­grims re­treat to the in­tri­cately painted gallery on the sec­ond level to con­tem­plate. We then joined Sikhs bathing at aus­pi­cious points of the lake, marked by bathing steps or chains, and also vis­ited the shrines along­side the mar­ble path­way – wor­ship­ping a tree shrine called Dukh Ban­jani Ber and bathing nearby it is said to be a po­tent rit­ual for heal­ing dis­or­ders while the Ath­sath Ti­rath is a plat­form that rep­re­sents 68 holy shrines of In­dia. Be­cause of the num­ber of Kar Se­vaks do­ing vol­un­tary duty, the en­vi­rons in the tem­ple com­plex is spot­lessly clean and lit­ter-free. Pil­grims also bow and touch their head on the steps of booths

along the Parikrama where priests called Gran­this in­tone spir­i­tual verses from the Guru Granth Sa­heb, largely the work of fifth Guru Ar­jan Das, and es­tab­lished as the fi­nal edi­tion by Guru Gobind Singh.

Fur­ther along the path is the Akal Takth, where im­por­tant pro­nounce­ments are made. The Guru Granth Sahib is in­stalled in the tem­ple ev­ery morn­ing and re­turned at night to the Akal Takhat, the tem­po­ral seat of the Khalsa broth­er­hood. The cer­e­mony takes place at 5am and 9.40pm in win­ter, and 4am and 10.30pm in sum­mer. In­side the Akal Takhat, you can view a col­lec­tion of sa­cred Sikh weapons. The build­ing was heav­ily dam­aged when it was stormed by the In­dian army dur­ing Op­er­a­tion Blue Star in 1984; it was re­paired by the gov­ern­ment but Sikhs re­fused to use the tainted build­ing and re­built the tower from scratch. Founded in the 16th cen­tury by Guru Ar­jan Singh and built by Guru Govind Singh, the Akal Takht’s first floor was added by the Sikh ruler, Ma­haraja Ran­jit Singh, and con­tains a room with a bal­cony where Khal­sas are ini­ti­ates. This is the com­mu­nity cen­tre of the Sikh fel­low­ship, founded by Guru Nanak as an al­ter­na­tive way of life in the 15th cen­tury when both Hin­duism and Is­lam were strong in North In­dia, and de­vel­oped un­der eight suc­ces­sors called Gu­rus into a com­mu­nity aim­ing for a sense of union with God, the true Guru. Guru Har Govind Singh, the 10th Guru, whose shrine is nearby, or­gan­ised the Sikh com­mu­nity into a po­lit­i­cal en­tity, a mil­i­tary power against the fa­nat­i­cal Au­rangzeb, and a struc­tured reli­gious group with a per­ma­nent fo­cus of at­ten­tion. Flagstaffs sym­bol­ise re­li­gion and pol­i­tics, and meet in the twin-sword sym­bol pro­moted by Har Govind Singh to rep­re­sent reli­gious and tem­po­ral author­ity.

Af­ter our wan­der­ings, we lined up with a mot­ley group for Lan­gar – there were peo­ple of Pun­jabi or Sindhi ori­gin from over­seas, men and women in tra­di­tional Pun­jabi dress, af­flu­ent-look­ing mod­ern Sikh and Sindhi fam­i­lies, tourists from In­dia and abroad, VVIPS, Ni­hang Sikhs in mar­tial dress and hum­ble labour­ers. At the south­east end of the tem­ple, the Gu­ruka-lan­gar is an enor­mous com­mu­nal din­ing hall where an es­ti­mated 60,000 to 80,000 pil­grims a day come to eat af­ter pray­ing at the Golden Tem­ple. There’s no charge to eat here, but a do­na­tion is ap­pro­pri­ate and help with the stag­ger­ing

pile of wash­ing up is al­ways ap­pre­ci­ated. Cater­ing to ev­ery­one from pau­pers to mil­lion­aires, it’s a hum­bling demon­stra­tion of the Sikh prin­ci­ple of hospi­tal­ity. It con­tin­ues the lan­gar or com­mu­nal eat­ing tra­di­tion es­tab­lished by Guru Amar Das to en­cour­age fol­low­ers of the Sikh or­der to eat to­gether with­out prej­u­dice of caste, creed, colour, gen­der or in­come, and cre­ate good­will among strangers. The lan­gar was es­tab­lished by the fourth Guru Ram­das who founded Am­rit­sar in 1577 and of­ten feeds 3000 peo­ple at a sit­ting. There are now ma­chines that make cha­p­atis, etc, to make it pos­si­ble to serve the lunches and din­ners for the thou­sands that sit on mats. On our way out, we lined up for Karah Prasad or halwa and dropped into the Sikh Mu­seum in the clock tower, which shows the per­se­cu­tion Sikhs suf­fered at the hands of the Mughals, Bri­tish and Indira Gandhi.

Af­ter dinner, we vis­ited the Golden Tem­ple once again for a view of the fa­cade il­lu­mined at night. It was a truly up­lift­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. No won­der it at­tracts more visi­tors than the Taj Ma­hal! More shrines and mon­u­ments are dot­ted around the com­pound – the his­tor­i­cal Gur­d­varas, hos­tels called Akha­ras, the re­mains of the 250-year-old Qila Ah­luwalia still show­ing some of the beau­ti­ful work it once had, tem­ples and some im­pos­ing old build­ings. Am­bling round the tank, we came to the Ram­garhia Bunga, a pro­tec­tive fortress topped by two Is­lamic-style minarets; in­side is a stone slab once used for Mughal coro­na­tions, seized from Delhi by Ran­jit Singh in 1783. Just out­side the tem­ple com­pound is the oc­tag­o­nal Baba Atal Tower, nine-storeys con­structed in 1784 to com­mem­o­rate 9-year-old Atal Rai, the young son of Guru Har Gobind, who ac­cord­ing to leg­end, re­vived a play­mate from the dead, then gave his own life as penance for in­ter­fer­ing in god’s de­signs. Its is said that when­ever the city has a long dry spell, the san­gat and devo­tees have a holy bath in the pool next to this nine-sto­ried tower – and in­vari­ably there are wide­spread show­ers in Am­rit­sar.

Baisakhi fes­ti­val is cel­e­brated in Pun­jab with a great deal of feast­ing, bhangra danc­ing, folk mu­sic, and fairs on the first

Photo credit: Di­nesh Shukla

Sikhs bathing in the Golden Tem­ple tank

Golden Tem­ple com­plex

Am­rit sarovar

Am­rit­sar’s lone wo­man bat­tery-rick­shaw driver, Gur­preet

Peo­ple jump into a canal in Am­rit­sar to beat the heat

Lone devo­tee at dawn at the Golden Tem­ple

Lan­gar Kitchens, Golden Tem­ple

Rare old pho­to­graph of the Golden Tem­ple

Guru-kalan­gar

Old photo of Hall-bazaar in Am­rit­sar

Dur­giana Tem­ple

Khalsa col­lege, Am­rit­sar

Atal Tower at Golden Tem­ple com­plex

Mata Lal Devi Mandir Re­visit his­tory at the Jal­lian­wala Bagh

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