Amritsar is a city of many faces. When I got down from the bus a sea of autos, electirc rickshaws and cycle rickshaws almost swarmed me to take to my hotel. What appears to be wide roads and posh hotels around the city trickles down into really narrow lanes that take you to the temple. My hotel was in one such narrow alley and I knew only an e-rickshaw can go there! The heart of Amritsar lies on those narrow alleys filled with heritage buildings, some abandoned, some so beautiful, streets filled with old and famous food stalls, opening up into shoes, saree and dupatta markets. And some alleys so small that you can only walk through! Though the Golden temple was at walk-able distance, I had reserved the entire next day for the same and I decided to walk aimlessly through the markets stopping for a jelabi or chai at the street corner. Among those narrow lanes was the Kulwant Singh’s Kulchian Wale. The small place looked abuzz and I asked for a plate of aalu wala Kulcha. Amritsar Kulchas are sooo famous and I knew right then why it is so! It was so flaky, so tasty, even that butter did not seem overwhelming, the channa was lite as home made and a pickle that tasted so delicious. If you are near the temple forget other dabbas and have kulcha here. With a happy tummy I retired for the day
Tip: Stay close to the Golden Temple so you can explore food, take heritage walks, catch sunset and sunrise at the temple. Foreigners have a dorm exclusively for them available in the temple complex.
Contents - Read all the way though.
History of the Golden Temple, Amritsar
History says, the Golden temple was initially not a Golden Temple. Sri Harmandir Sahib also known as Darbar Sahib was originally designed and built by the fifth Sikh Guru. Amrtisar, the pool of nectar, was founded by the fourth guru called Guru Ram Das and the fifth Guru decided to build a temple in the middle of the holy tank. Sikhism promotes equality; irrespective of your caste or creed or religion or wealth or skin color. Having kept this in mind, the temple is built on ground level with doors opening on all side as a gesture to welcome everybody in. This Gurudwar was the first pilgrimage site built for the Sikhs, so that they can worship together. The foundation was laid by a Muslim saint and the Gurudwara was completed under the supervision of many prominent Sikh leaders. Over time, it was Maharaja Ranjit Singh who covered the temple with Gold and hence it gets the name Golden temple. The Gurudwara now houses the holy Guru Granth Sahib. Having read about the history of this holy book, I feel this could be the best book to follow. Sikhism was a religion formed by a movement. A movement where people who got frustrated with their religion, the way of life, the way they were treated, joined together to make a better system. These people together wrote the Holy Guru Granth Sahib, meaning, the teachings that are best from every other religion has been noted and also added more good principles to follow in life, there by being the best of the best! The Guru Granth Sahib is by Itself worshiped as the eternal living Guru and not a book!
TIP: The Central Sikh Museum inside the complex has a wealth of information about the Gurudwar, the Golden temple history, about the Sikh Gurus, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Sikhism and much more. Never miss it on your trip.
Visit to the Harmandir Sahib:
Harmandir Sahib is a Gurudwar that never sleeps. The crowd keeps coming in all the time but there is so much discipline. I covered my head with the scarf, washed my hands and legs and entered the temple like every other devotee. I stood by the stairs and watched the temple shining bright in the sun light. The music played inside the Gurudwara was heard all around the complex and a live scroll on the screen showed the lyrics for people to follow. Walking around the complex I saw devotees of all kind. Many taking the ritual bath in the holy tank. Some found a quiet corner and were praying. Some sitting in the corridor lost in the beauty of the temple. Some doing seva, cleaning the water bowls and giving water to the devotees. Some just cleaning the floor. Some just kept chanting “Wahe Guru Wahe Guru”. The queue for the darshan was long and I decided to come back in the evening. Meanwhile Deepak from Punjab tourism took me on a tour of the community kitchen, the langar.
World’s Largest Community Kitchen, Langar at The Golden Temple:
Langar! A concept so beautiful that has sustained over centuries. Langar was introduced by Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru. It was started to eliminate the discrimination among people, everyone sits together on the floor and have a simple meal, nothing fancy. From then on till today the langar or the free meal has been provided to the devotees non stop in ever Gurudwara. Once when Emperor Akbar seeks to visit Third Sikh Guru, He asks Akbar to first have a meal at the langar and Akbar sits along with the commoners to have a meal. Even today, this is what you can see in those dining halls, everyone sitting side by side, extending their hand for the Guru ki prasad, the rotis are dropped in their hand and you are happy with the meal. Everyday about a lakh devotees have their meal at kitchen hall. And everyday it is the sewadars aka the volunteers who run the show. I walk into the dining hall that accommodates 5000 people at a time. There is no commotion, no rush, no fighting for the space, no spillage of food, not dirty. People pick up the plate, spoon and bowl, quietly sit down on the mat and the food gets served. Eat to your hearts content and pick up your plate, move on to the washing area where volunteers take it from you. Almost at every Gurudwar that I sat for langar, the moment I finish the meal and get up, somebody or the other sitting next to me or on the way would take the plate from my hand and take it to the wash area! That is also a form of sewa!
If there are a lot of volunteers distributing the rotis and dal at the dining hall, there is more action happening at the kitchen. I walk back to see how the rotis are being made. The wheat is being pounded. One, a little coarse grind for the prasad and another fine grind for the rotis. The fine ground atta is then taken to the kitchen where it is kneaded, ready to be fed into the roti maker machine. The machine makes not just perfect round rotis but also fluffy ones. The fluffy ones are then passed onto the hands of volunteers who are sitting around and smearing ghee generously over the rotis. They serve nearly 1,00,000 people every day and that my dear friends means more than 2,00,000 rotis gets prepared everyday.
Moving past the roti section is even more swift action! There is no way you can just stand and watch. The Sewadars are shifting buckets of dal and kheer from kitchen to the dining hall. It is like a rally, the buckets of kheer being passed on from one to another in such swift action that you just cannot cross their path. I was amazed to see how they moved those hot kheer and dal swiftly. At flash speed I managed to enter the kitchen without disrupting the process and I just stood there watching in amazement. Huge woks that can fit in like 10 people inside it! Huge huge ones sitting on top of wood fire stoves being maneuvered by two or three people have dal and kheer simmering. Needs constant stirring and hey are tirelessly preparing food. The steam from the wok, the fire from the wood, the kitchen is just hottt! Tirelessly preparing, cooking, moving it to the dining hall and then start another batch. Never have I felt so puny standing in a kitchen! And so many thoughts keep running through my mind. How can food be so tasty when made in bulk like this, how can it be hygiene, how is this kitchen so clean, how do they manage to cook so much, how do they know they have to cook so much!! So much running through my mind like the fire that just kept burning in the stove. Not wanting to hinder the place anymore, I moved out back to the dining.
Behind the dining hall is the washing area. When I look at the sewadars, I just couldn’t stop but wonder why are they so happy to do a tiresome job. Maybe that is all what sewa is about. There are rows and rows of people standing so close together cleaning the plates and bowls. People walk in, keep aside the bags, squeeze themselves into one of the rows and start to clean the plates which gets passed to nearly six rows! No kidding! It gets washed so many times before it comes out all sparkly clean ready to be stacked up and used. Ten years in IT career where people pay for lunch and pay to wash the plates and never have I seen it so clean nor a food so delicious!
Tip: Try join heritage walks that focus on Amritsar Golden temple only. This way you will get to see the kitchen and participate in volunteering as well. Punjab Tourism conducts Heritage walks in Amritsar, do check with them for details.
Sri Akal Takht:
Right opposite the Sri Harmandir Sahib temple is the Sri Akhal Takht. There is no way you will miss this Takht. Takht means a throne or seat of authority. There are Panj Takht meaning five important Takhts in Sikhism and Akal Takht is one of them. The significance of Akal Takht is, this is where all the political and military strategy of Sikhs used to be discussed. It’s a place of power. While the Golden Temple is a place of worship, devotion and spiritual guidance. So you can see weapons on display in the night. As you enter, you can also see the room where Guru Granth Sahib rests at night. Now as I said before, Guru Granth Sahib is considered as a person. So in the night, the Guru Granth Sahib will be taken from the Harmandir Sahib and will be placed to sleep in the bed at Akal Takht. Again in the morning, rituals are done to wake up and bring back the Granth to the Golden Temple. This is known as the Palki ceremony. Even if you have this holy book at home, you need to do sewa like this! A separate room where you make Him sleep in the night and offer prayers in the morning.
Golden Temple at Night:
You just cannot get enough of the Golden temple and catching a glimpse of Golden Temple at night is a must. The whole complex looked different by the night. It was like some place in Europe with beautiful street lamps and architecture. Entering the temple am once again lost in the beauty of it. It is so well lit up. The air is chill, the water is cold and in the middle of the holy pond there seems to be like some liquid gold poured in! I don’t know if the Golden temple looks perfect or the reflection that looks sooo perfect. I decide to take a darshan and get the Blessings. The queue was not much. As I entered the door the hymns were pleasantly played, I bowed down and offered my prayers. I also looked up to see the murals and beauty of the architecture. Quickly came out, drank some holy water from the pond, moved on to get the Kadah prasad. Kadah prasad is like the yummiest thing you get in Gurudwars made of ghee, sugar and wheat , basically wheat halwa. I come out and wait to see the Palki Ceremony being performed.
Tip: Standing in the queue by 8:30pm or 9:00pm has its advantage. The temple closes at 10pm. The palki ceremony starts by 9:30pm. So the queue will move fast and people will be ushered out pretty efficiently. You don’t have to wait for hours in the queue. I stood for just 15 min.
Palki Ceremony at Golden Temple Amritsar:
The Palki ceremony happens twice a day. As I said before the Guru Granth Sahib will be put to rest at the Akal Takth in the night and then again will be brought back in the morning. This is the Palki ceremony, the Granth will be placed on the palanquin and will be taken to it’s place. You can either watch this ceremony in the morning at 4:30am or in the night at 9:30pm. The temple then closes at 10pm and the devotees are no longer allowed to enter.
Watch the ceremony here,
The temple is closed but the commotion never subsides. I had langar and the kitchen seemed to be still abuzz. Walking out in the chill air, I sat down on the marble floor by the holy tank, overlooking the Golden temple. It’s 10:30pm and I see that even though the temple door is closed there are people inside. Volunteers cleaning the sanctum vigorously. Like ants busily scurrying around, trying to find food for winter, picking up bits and pieces whatever comes their way. I was amused at how they were working.. They were so engrossed with cleaning the place, like one would clean a spot and another would come in and clean the same spot. Just keep on doing sewa!
As the night fell people retired for the day. Some at the open halls, some at the verandahs, some just anywhere within the temple complex, wherever they could find a place! I had one last glance at the temple, all shimmering and shining ready for the next day. Content is the feeling that I had in mind when I walked up the stairs and left the Golden Temple complex. A day that I will remember for long. WaheGuru ji ka Khalsa, WaheGuru ij ki Fateh..
How To Reach Amritsar:
Amritsar has an airport – Sri Guru Ram Dass Jee International Airport. AC/Volvo buses ply from various places like Chandigarh, Delhi etc. Trains also ply from Delhi. Punjab is well connected with buses and good roads so not a problem. Within the city there is Ola (similar to Uber) but stick to autos and e-rickshaws which are in abundant and easy to get.
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