In Amritsar: Amritsar is a touristy city near the border of Pakistan. I visited here on the recommendation from a good friend and am so happy I did. While the city is smaller than most of the popular destinations in India, there are two sites that make the eight hour train ride from New Delhi worthwhile.
Every day at 4:30 pm, there is a ceremony at Wagah border, where India and Pakistan meet. Wagah border is an hour by car from Amritsar. (You can get there by rickshaw too, even though they aren’t technically allowed past the city limit.) The demonstration is an expression promoting peace between the two countries, and the stadium was packed with nationals. I was overwhelmed by their patriotism! Pre-ceremony, select members of the audience ran back and forth, waving large Indian flags to entertain the crowd. Then, a spontaneous dance party broke out, and my friend, Sarah, and I just had to join in! The locals belly laughed at the sight of our uninhibited dancing.
For the ceremony, guards in ornate military uniforms performed a number; they stomped in unison, and then one or two would kick their legs as high as possible and race toward the border’s gate, much to the audience’s delight. At the end of the ceremony, the gate opened and the countries exchanged flags, carrying them proudly for everyone to see. The whole spectacle was very amusing as I’m sure it was designed to be.
The following morning, Sarah and I braved the cold and visited the Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib) which opens each day at dawn. In order to enter the temple area, you are required to be barefoot. They have a “shoe check” (like a coat check) on the street leading to the temple. Being that it was winter, the marble floors were freezing cold! There are pools of water that span across the entire walkway at three or so points on the perimeter. The attendants require you to walk through them to clean your feet; fortunately, these pools felt warm in contrast with the winter air.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this site is the kitchen. We read that the Sikhs here feed 60,000-80,000 people a day! They use a chapatti machine to meet the demand. Groups of women and children sit on the floor outside of the eating hall, chopping vegetables. I was blown away at the generous servings of chapatti, rice, dal and potatoes; anyone who visits can eat as much as he wants. Anyone who is willing can help wash dishes. Had it not been winter time, I would have volunteered to do so! The whole operation is downright impressive.
Sikhs welcome visitors into their most holy place (the Golden Temple). They don’t allow photography inside the temple, which makes the visit even more of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. On the ground floor, Sikhs sang and played soothing music beneath a fabric canopy adorned with flowers; and upstairs, a Sikh read from their (giant) holy book, which appeared to be at least a meter wide! On nearly every square foot of carpet, locals were seated and quietly saying prayers. We were happy to experience this while warming our feet on the plush silk carpet.
Even though I knew I was going to Rajasthan later in my trip (where you can find every Indian trinket and souvenir imaginable), I decided to do a little shopping in Amritsar. After visiting eight shops, I stopped in a shop and found two gorgeous saris that I cannot wait to hang in my home! The salesmen here weren’t pushy at all, unlike my experience in the other shops.
Just one more note: when traveling in India during the winter, be sure your hotel has heat! Not all of them do. I found the accommodations at Mango Suites Apex to be wonderful – especially because of the heated rooms, hot water and free wifi. The food in their restaurant was delicious. For our meal, we had chicken tikka, chicken tikka masala, garlic naan and vegetable rice. If I ever return to Amritsar, I’d happily stay there again.