There was one place in India that continued to be highly recommended, again and again.
It was a place that promised unique sights and events that we wouldn’t find elsewhere in the country and, despite it’s relative distance from all other places on our to-visit list, would be well worth the journey.
It turned out that both Oli and I would experience two travel firsts in this wondrous place, experiences that were culturally unique compared to anything else we did in the country.
That place is Amritsar.
Yes – Amritsar. A bustling, smoggy city in Punjab with almost a million people who call it home. Not mine and Oli’s usual favourite kind of place.
But there are two major reasons you should not miss out on Amritsar and we’re so glad we listened to those bloggers and travel friends singing its’ praises because these are some of our favourite memories from India. In fact, they are among the most unique travel experiences we’ve ever had.
The Wagah Border Ceremony
The centre of Amritsar sits just 28km from the border of Pakistan, historically, one of the most violent borders in the world. Interestingly, when the Punjabi state was split by the British, both Amritsar and Lahore were considered to become a part of the opposing side. This led to heavy rioting when lines were finally drawn.
The Wagah border is now enjoying a period of relative peace but neither country is likely to forget the turbulent past, ceremonially at least, any time soon.
Every single evening at sunset trained soldiers from the Indian army and the Pakistani army perform an incredible show-of-force ceremony for hundreds of spectators, including a handful of bemused foreigners like us.
It’s difficult to imagine what a ‘border ceremony’ might be before you witness it for yourself but let me try to help intrigue you.
We arrived quite early and were able to take a seat close to the front of the ‘foreigner section’, whilst families and groups of friends piled in to the local stands beside us. The atmosphere increased with each new spectator and soon we were grinning aimlessly, wide eyes waiting for whatever was about to happen.
It started with a few warm ups from the soldiers. Complicated, on the spot marching accompanied patriotic shouting and music blasted out the speakers intermittently.
At one point, all the women in the audience were brought down onto the road for a big dance party. Two adventurous little boys set themselves a part from the group to give us a personal breakdancing show.
When the audience were fully pumped up the real show started and they slowly opened the gates into Pakistan. First of all two soldiers from each side, dressed in more modern uniforms with huge guns in their arms, marched forcefully forward to stare menacingly into one anothers’ eyes. They would stay like this, nose to nose, until the very end of the ‘show’.
The rest of the troops came next, all those fully dressed up with the showy hats and sporting giant moustaches. Individually and in groups, both sides sprint-marched toward the border at the sound of a drawn out horn blow, their knees pulled up as high as they could go on each step. Their guns performed more complicated twists and turns and elaborate hat adjustments took place. This happened over and over until every man stood at the border.
The finale involved the ceremonious lowering of flags and everything became a little quieter, a little more solemn.
It was truly one of the most unique things we’ve ever witnessed and there seemed to be so much to understand other than what was going on directly in front of us. It would have been nice to have a guide, but we did appreciate the surprise and spontaneity of going it alone. It’s sometimes nice to simply take in the atmosphere, don’t you think?
The Golden Temple
Whilst we only spent one afternoon at the Wagah Border, we visited The Golden Temple 3 times in our short stay, and probably could have spent much longer there.
The Golden Temple is the holiest site in the Sikh world and what an introduction to Sikhism it was for Oli and I. We have visited a lot of temples on our travels but this might just be the most incredible.
Just look at this shot I got before we’d even made it through the gates:
We first visited at night and I would highly recommend planning your stay in Amritsar to visit the temple at various different times. The way the gold gleamed when lit up at night and how it shone in the morning light, and then glowed later in the afternoon, were all uniquely different.
No matter the time of day, the complex is busy with people. Just as we had witnessed in Haridwar, there is a loud and bustling atmosphere that encompasses the quiet solitude of the individuals taking their devotional dip. This distinction, of social joviality and of pious worship, plays out so harmoniously and is fascinating to observe.
And observe is simply what we did. For hours we soaked in the atmosphere, wandering around and around the temple with the throngs of people or sitting amongst them to watch others wander. We ventured out solely to eat.
While we craved one particular restaurant down the road from the temple, which served a delicious paneer tikka, the temple itself serves up an incredible 10,000 meals a day.
Communal meals, or Langar, freely eaten in temple grounds, is a hallmark of the Sikh religion and is significantly delivered without any distinction for race, religion, gender or disability. How amazing is that?
The temple is also unique in that it is wonderfully informative, and we learnt so much simply by reading through the signs posted around the site. The history of this place is as long, complex and sometimes violent as that of the border and we were impressed at the standard of translation- something not so great in other places we visited.
What was really special was when we ventured inside the temple and realised that the beautiful music we had noticed playing across the whole complex was live. Inside the centre of that stunning golden building sat a passionate groups of musicians, playing continuously hour after hour.
The Golden Temple is incredibly special and unique enough even for the most templed out traveller.
It’s safe to say that Amritsar left a serious impression on us and we so hope we can inspire people to take the time to visit, as our friends did for us.
Have you been to Amritsar? Would you like to now? And what is the most unique thing you’ve seen in India?