There are many different sorts travellers out there. Regardless the style of travel you prefer, I would recommend visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar. It's a place that feels much more alive than other sights. The Golden Temple not only gives you the opportunity to look around and take pictures, but also to feel and participate.
A certain kind of tourist-place
I never wanted to write about tourist-locations. Actually, I started this blog to write about everything that happens while traveling away from such places. In my opinion, too many people run travel-blogs or identify themselves 'traveller' on Instagram, posting information about fancy hotels and the nicest beaches. This has little in common with the life and daily realty of the local people. The 'traveller' goes to sights to shoot an image and claim how amazing it was, even though most of the time they just stared at dead walls. Without any real perception of the culture, a lot of the life around them goes unnoticed due to the crazed pursuit of iconic material for social media. Of course, looking at ancient walls sometimes lets you dream about those old times and how life must have been. But why not look around you and see the magic that life brings? To me, quality instead of quantity is the key for happiness on the road.
Traveling and Vacation
I often avoid the tourist hot-spots for the following reason: Culture is converted into commerce and I do not get to know what is really going on. The culture is adapted to my expectations. One of the things I find the most crazy is when people reinvent, adapt and commodify their own culture. They are then compensated by allowing people to photograph them. I want to learn about humanity. About society. About life.
The Taj Mahal is nice to look at, indeed, but the city of Agra annoys me with all its hustle and bustle. But hey! If you like to spend time in restaurants and do all the fancy stuff, it is fine for me. I remember back when I haven’t had proper holidays for a full year and worked a lot of extra-hours in an ambulance. Definitely, a travel trip through India would have been fatal for me. Sometimes, we just need to find a place to relax and recover. At these times we are on vacation and not traveling. The word traveling is so overused as a status-symbol these days, that I avoid using it. Not everyone has to go to take life-threatening bus rides, visit fishermen-communities or stay at garbage-dumps. I however recommend that you think about what your aim is when roaming around. If you have made up your mind, here is my next recommendation: Whatever your aim is, you will find it in the Golden Temple of Amritsar.
The Golden Temple in Amritsar: A good recommendation for everyone
Okay, here is another confession: When I first went to Amritsar, I did not know anything about it. I didn’t even know that it was a Sikh place. Coming back from a motorbike trip in the Himalayas, I had no idea about how to spend my last week. Somehow, I got picked up by a truck driver, who found me aimlessly wandering through the roads of Himachal Pradesh. I involuntarily hitch-hiked to the next bus station and got a bus to Amritsar, just because the driver said I should go there. He told me it was a nice place to visit. And it is. Even for someone who just bumped in.
Cleanliness and modern architecture
The first impression of the area of the golden temple is its cleanliness and the uniform design of shops, cafés and restaurants which you will hardly find anywhere else in India. Even though it is kind of a hustle, it also gives a good insight into the modern and wealthy part of Indian life. I vehemently avoid shopping malls (in fact I really, really hate them more than anything else in the world). Unfortunately, I have to face the reality that these things are part of Indian (or even global) society as well. Still, a mall is a little too hardcore for me. The area around the golden temple is free of traffic and offers a lot of shopping options for people, without being as focussed on foreign tourists as places like Agra or Varanasi. I even have to admit that the street, with its unique architecture and monuments is quite pretty. Without vehicles polluting the air with smoke and noise as well as an enforced prohibition of alcohol and cigarettes, the area is probably the cleanest in any city in India.
Find some peace
As soon as you leave the busy roads and approach the centre of attention, the crowd condenses. Depending on the season, day of the week and time of the day, it can be very busy around the temple. There is one thing that will make your stay amazing: The outstanding organisation in dealing with all the visitors. Even though you will find no ticket-counter anywhere, the golden temple is prepared to deal with masses of people, accommodate them, serve them food, take care of their valuables and still be friendly and welcoming.
If you are a foreigner, you will even get free accommodation with a bed in a sleeping hall. You just have to register with your passport and you can stay as long as you want (even though the normal duration for accommodation in a Gurudwara is three nights). I find it necessary to give a good donation before I leave, but have also been told by some Sikhs not to donate - because it is a pleasure for them to host us. Yet, I want to support this concept and for me, it is really not about the money. Besides meeting other travellers (or people on vacation), the temple offers you a feeling of being part of something bigger. I am not a spiritual person, but the social experience over there somehow connects people.
Become part of the community
On season days, the Golden Temple in Amritsar feeds up to 100 000 people a day. Yes, you read it right: 100 000 people a day! For this giant mission, they need a lot of volunteers. They help visitors, give you food, give you water, maintain the place and organise all the tasks and routines. Just because it is their place, does not mean that others cannot work there. What I like most of the temple is that it integrates all people. It is the most sacred place for the Sikhs, but everyone is invited and treated equally well. Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and sometimes Muslims sit next to each other, cutting potatoes or pealing peas, while just the strongest of them would deal with the mountains of onion.
I love pealing onions, it is a form of meditation for me. In Amritsar, it is a never-ending task. The concept is easy: Sit and go. Whenever you feel like. Just as you can take your meals from 5am till about 11pm, you are free to help out whenever you feel like. Have a chat with people and keep distance from the onions, because their smell also burns your eyes from metres away. Maybe you can also become the hero who cuts them.
It is an amazing place for photography
I almost forgot to mention: Yes, this place is totally worth just looking at it. You can just sit in the temple complex, look at the water and totally get lost in your own thoughts. It is a relaxing place. Sitting on the marble in summer feels amazing (although it can be quite cold in winter) and the only thing that will disturb you is the Indian demand for selfies (assuming, that the readers of my blog are mostly not Indian. If you are, thanks for coming and sorry for the lack of perspective). There will be always people from villages who never saw a foreigner and try to get the sneaky shot of the “farener”, “angrezi” or “gora”. Some of them might even approach you and ask for a selfie. There were times when I got sick of it and refused my picture to be taken. Having travelled for a while now, my recommendation to you is: Just finish this thing quickly, but never in the centre of attention. Especially if you are female, there will be a queue, once the people found out that they can take a picture with you. And you probably do not want to be presented as the girlfriend of the whole country on social media. In most situations, the best way to not get annoyed as well as getting an idea about the locals is just to take the image quickly. I started to shoot a selfie with everyone, who takes one with me, so I can actually enjoy the collection of selfies on my own phone. That makes the whole process more fun and also adds some purpose to it. I start to almost get disappointed, if I am not asked for a selfie the whole day. Learn to trick your own mind!
A place of worship and virtue
Maybe you wonder, why I have not mentioned any spiritual or historical aspect of the temple yet? Because it is the feeling over there, which transmits a sense of spirituality. You don’t need an article or explanation to get the essence of the meaning of the building. Many Sikhs line up for hours to get into the central golden building and worship. I have never been there, because I don’t like queues and it is not as important to me.
The temple lets you feel the meaning that it has to the Sikh community. The Harmandir Sahib, that’s the proper name of the place, has started becoming a place of the Sikh virtue of sharing since centuries. Sharing wealth is one of the three pillars of Sikhism, which developed in the 15th century. The other pillars are meditation for divine purposes and honest work without exploitation or fraud. With the sound of meditative music, recited from the holy book of the Sikhs as well as the everlasting sharing of food and drinks in the temple, the virtues are publically displayed without the need of reading about it.
A dark chapter in Sikh history
In fact, the first langar (the shared, free meal) in the temple is dating back to 1481. Since that time, there was a lot of development and crisis at the temple. It became a place of conflict several times. First in the Moghul era, then during the British rule, and lately in 1984, when some Sikh separatists were trying to work towards the establishment of Khalistan, an independent country for the Sikhs. In the course of events, the temple was attacked by the Indian army in the Operation Blue Star and the Sikh bodyguards of the country’s prime-minister Indira Gandhi assassinated the person they were supposed to protect. The conflict escalated with many more Sikhs being killed. That is probably one of the darkest chapters in the recent history of the religion.
That is history. Politics can be ugly and cruel, but most people are different. Today, the temple recovered and stands as a symbol of integration and openness. Ever since its construction, the access from all directions as well as free accommodation for everyone symbolised the openness of the Sikh. Even while having a bowl of tea, I could feel the concept. While getting the bowl, the old man who was in charge of the distribution smiled at me and said: “Thank you!”. Thank you for what? For drinking your Chay? No. Just thank you for participating and allowing the people to share their world with you.
Is there any reason not to go?
Not at all. There might be little limitations for your comfort zone, if you stay in the temple. On my first trip, I had bedbugs and their bites are annoying. Usually, the little monsters like to stay in the bed and don’t move along with you. On my second trip, my slippers got stolen, because I was too lazy to bring them to the free storage. I left them at the entrance and when I came back after a walk through the temple, they were gone. Yet, there are just few places that I would recommend you more in India, independent of what kind of traveler you are.
Foreign Tourist Accommodation
You find the accommodation on the opposite of the main entrance (left from the golden temple plaza (which will probably be the direction you are coming from). It is a bit hidden in a building complex called the Shri Guru Ram, but you can ask the workers of the temple for help.
Don’t get confused, because Rickshaw-drivers or some random people will tell you that there is no accommodation. They want you in their hotels. There will definitely be accommodation at the temple.
The accommodation offers many beds, drinking water, an own washroom, and 24/7 guarding. You can also charge your batteries. To register, you simply have to show your passport and that’s it. Usually, there is little theft within the rooms, but you can also give your bags to the free storages.
If you come in summer and want a special experience, just lock your luggage away and you can sleep on the marble floor in the temple, along with the Indian guests. Even though you have to get up a few times, because the staff is cleaning the floor, it’s totally worth the experience.
Rules in the temple
There are just a few rules, you have to remember.
- Take of your shoes when going into the temple complex
- Cover your head, when going inside (all genders). You do not have to buy one of the orange cloths, even though the salesmen will tell you to. You can use anything from a scarf to a turban and there are also free cloths at the entrance
- Don’t publicly display cigarettes or alcohol near the building. If you want to consume something, do it in a secret spot outside the temple complex. But even hundreds of metres away from the temple, you might just ask the Rickshaw-Wallah, where it is least problematic.
- Be kind to everyone. It is a lovely space.