Founded in 1577 by the fourth Sikh guru, Amritsar is home to Sikhism’s holiest shrine; the spectacular Golden Temple.
We recently visited Amritsar to experience this serene and humbling sight. From Madeleine‘s view, here’s how our experience went:
On arriving in Amritsar, our first stop was our hotel; the characterful Ranjit’s Svaasa. Here, we were met by our guide Chanderkant and briefed on the plans for our stay. This 250-year old haveli is now a family run small boutique hotel in the heart of the city, owned by interior decorator Rama Mehra. Two restaurants are serving a wide range of options from Lebanese to Chinese and, of course, Punjabi favourites.
Chanderkant explained that this evening, we’ll be visiting the Golden Temple for the ‘Putting to Bed’ ceremony. A unique and colourful ceremony, this daily ritual of putting the Holy Scripture to bed is a sight not to be missed on a visit to Amritsar. The temple is home to the Adi Granth or Original Holy Book which is a collection of hymns of the great saints. The book is a focus of devotion. During the day, it’s kept in the Harmandir Sahib. It’s returned to the Akal Takht every evening at around 9.15 pm in winter and 10.15 pm in the summer.
Vehicles are not allowed near the temple, so our driver Manjit dropped us off a ten-minute walk away. As we were walking, our excitement was building! We couldn’t wait to take in one of the world’s most famous temples. Before heading into the temple, Chanderkant explained that we needed to cover our heads (both men and women are expected to). As with all places of worship in India, one is also required to remove their shoes.
My first glimpse of the glittering temple left me quite speechless. It was one of those absolute WOW moments! For me, it was comparable to seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time, or my first tiger in Ranthambhore National Park. The temple is utterly beautiful.
As we walked around the temple, taking it all in, Chanderkant explained its history and introduced us to the Sikh religion and customs. Construction of the Golden Temple began in 1574 on land donated by the Mughal emperor Akbar. The fourth and fifth Sikh Gurus oversaw the building project. The temple was completed in 1601, but restoration and embellishment continued over the years. In the early 19th century, 100kg of gold was applied to the inverted lotus-shaped dome, and decorative marble was added. All this gold and marble work took place under the patronage of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The legendary warrior king was a major donor of money and materials for the shrine and is remembered with much affection by the Sikh community and Punjabi people.
The most famous and sacred part of the complex is the Harmandir Sahib, which is the beautiful golden structure in the centre, surrounded by a holy pool of water known as the Pool of Nectar. The gold-plated building features cupolas and white marble walls inlaid with precious stones arranged in decorative Islamic-style floral patterns. The temple is embellished both inside and out with verses from the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikhism’s holy book).
Inside the Harmandir Sahib, scriptures from the holy book are sung beneath a canopy, 24 hours a day. A chauri (whisk) is continually waved above the book as hundreds of Sikhs pay their respects. They do this by bowing down to the floor.
As we explored the temple, I felt utterly at peace. The energy here is very calm and serene.
We observed the Putting to Bed ritual. Every night, the holy book is carried in a grand procession to its ‘bed’, in the Akal Takht, the seat of the Sikh parliament.
It was amazing and humbling to see how the holy book was treated with absolute respect. Before the ceremony, a vast golden palanquin is carefully decorated with layers and layers of fresh marigolds. Then, cushions are placed, first changing the covers. Several men carry the decorated palanquin into the temple to collect the holy book. As they do so, a volunteer sweeps the path. Throughout this ritual, hymns are chanted. The ceremony was beautiful to watch, and the experience was terrific.
The next day, we returned to the temple for a more thorough exploration. Today we would be learning more about the Sikh way of life, beginning with the huge dining hall that feeds 100,000 people a day, for free! Everyone is invited to join this communal breaking of bread. No matter your wealth, caste or status, all participants sit on the floor, powerfully symbolizing the central Sikh doctrine of equality in all people. Every day, 200,000 chapatis (flatbreads) are served alongside 1.5 tonnes of dal (lentil curry), in addition to an endless flow of chai (spiced, sugary tea).
“Anyone can eat for free here. On an average day, we serve food to 100,000 people. During weekends and special occasions, double the numbers of people visit the langar [kitchen]. The langar never stops. 7,000kg of wheat flour, 1,200kg of rice, 1,300kg of lentils, and 500kg of ghee (clarified butter) is used in preparing the meal every day. The free kitchen uses firewood, LPG gas and electronic bread makers for the cooking and we use around 100 LPG cylinders and 5,000kg of firewood every day.”
– Harpreet Singh, manager of this huge kitchen
The kitchen is run by 450 staff, helped by hundreds of other volunteers. Volunteers also wash the 300,000 plates, spoons and bowls used in feeding the people. The food is vegetarian and funded by donations from all over the world.
During our visit, we also volunteered. We peeled garlic, rolled chapatti, and stirred a massive cauldron of dal!
A wonderful moment for me was as I saw visitors returning their dirty plates to a volunteer. He put his hands together to each diner in a respectful gesture of ‘namaste’ and thanked them for coming to eat the food (you’d think it’d be the other way around?). The Sikh religion is incredibly peaceful and humbling.
Nearby the temple, we visited Jallianwala Bagh, a public garden famous for one of the most tragic events in Indian history. This is the spot where the 1919 Amritsar Massacre took place, as British Army soldiers opened fire on an unarmed gathering of men, women and children.
There is a well inside Jallianwala Bagh into which many people jumped to save themselves. The garden houses a memorial built to honour the victims, and the original bullet marks can be seen on the wall.
We also visited the Maharaja Ranjit Singh Museum. This museum offers an insight into the life of Sikh monarch Ranjit Singh and is housed in his summer palace. The collection displays paintings, armour, coins and manuscripts.
To end our day we headed out to Wagah, a village divided in two at Partition, where the daily closure of the border takes place with great pomp and ceremony. Indian border guards in khaki and Pakistani border guards in dark green march, bark orders and lower their respective national flags in a symbolic stand-off, watched by orderly crowds of thousands waving national flags. There is much partisan cheering in the grandstands as the gates clang shut for the night, to be formally opened the next day again.
After having spent two nights at Ranjit’s Svaasa, we decided to end our time in Amritsar with a night at the Hyatt, for a bit of R+R. The Hyatt is the most comfortable hotel in the city (update 07/05/20: since the time of writing, a new hotel under the Taj brand has opened in Amritsar and taken the title of the city’s best luxury hotel. The Hyatt is still a great choice too) and offers all the mod-cons expected of a high-class hotel. Those who’re seeking charm, heritage and an Indian-feel will be happier at Ranjit’s Svaasa, while those who value a big comfy bed and five-star facilities will prefer the Hyatt.
Facilities include an outdoor pool, gym with personal trainers, and a spa. Many of the guestrooms and suites offer a panoramic view of the city, and all have a sleek and elegant design.
The Hyatt is well known for its great food and is a popular choice for locals, too. At Thai Chi, visitors can enjoy authentic Thai, Sichuan and Cantonese options. Collage features interactive Teppanyaki and Tempura stations. Afternoon tea and evening cocktails can be enjoyed at The Lotus Lounge.
How does Amritsar best fit within my itinerary?
If you’d like to explore Amritsar on your upcoming trip to India (as part of a multi-day tailor-made tour), please get in touch. We’d be delighted to assist with your arrangements, and as specialists in luxury tours of this region, we’re the ideal match to craft your tailor-made tour. For inspiration, you might like to browse our Spiritual India Tour: from the Ganges to the Golden Temple. Our suggested two-night extension to Amritsar can be paired with any itinerary of your liking.0