It’s about 140 miles from Chandigarh to Amritsar, driving through the heart of Punjab state. It was a fairly unremarkable journey, but slow, and tiring, and, by the time we got to Amritsar, too late to do any sightseeing. So we checked in to our hotel, the Hyatt. It’s very well located, but lacks the friendly sophistication of an Oberoi or a Taj. The décor is rooted firmly in the 1970s – all the colours of the rainbow are there, provided you like brown. The room was large and well appointed, although, over our couple of days there we noted that housekeeping was unpredictably erratic. Where the hotel excelled was in the restaurant; great food at a reasonable price.
Next door to our hotel was the Alpha One Shopping Mall, and, despite all our visits to India, we’d never actually taken a turn around one of their more opulent shopping malls. So to kill a couple of hours before dinner, we thought we’d go for a wander. There’s no doubt that it attracts the wealthy shopper; indeed, the tourist shopper too, being so close to the Hyatt and in a city which has plenty to attract tourists. Many international brands are represented; I bought a very smart pair of Levi Jeans – in a sort of khaki green – for half the price they would be in the UK. They are made in India; to a very high specification.
Among the quirkier things you can do in India, if you find the right place, is go to a bar. There are a couple in the Mall, and they look like the kind of place you wouldn’t take your granny. However, we ventured into one – the Fuelstop. I think they’ve modernised it a little from when we went there – which is definitely going to improve things. They were surprised to see an English couple walk in, but they were very welcoming. I had a pint of Kingfisher – you can’t go wrong with that, and it was fine. Mrs C had a gin and tonic – but the trouble was the tonic was warm, and positively disgusting, so we didn’t stay for a second round. Amusingly, they had a “Love Wins” poster on the wall – as you can see in the photo – and I couldn’t help but wonder if they realised what all their signs actually meant.
The next morning we threw open the blinds to reveal an enormous smog engulfing the city. Amritsar suffers badly from pollution; it’s one of those places where an acrid taste lingers at the back of your throat all day. We met our guide for the day, a softly spoken gentleman with the traditional Indian name of… John. We were to take a short drive into the city centre where we would get out and then walk the rest of the way. Only a few weeks before our arrival (this was in October 2017) the city bigwigs had decided to pedestrianise a large area of the city centre, much to the fury of the motorists and the delight of the rest of us. For an Indian cityscape, the buildings were surprisingly clean and attractive. There’s a grand statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh that dominates the main street; he was Emperor of the Sikh Empire from 1801 to 1839 and his monument is 100% glory.
As you walk towards the Golden Temple, the buildings become more and more rose-pink; you might well think you had accidentally got off in Jaipur instead. As this is a holy city, certain standards and practices are enforced; for example, this is the only place in the world (I believe) to have a McDonalds Restaurant that is fully vegetarian.
Before heading directly for the Golden Temple, we first stopped off at a location that was pivotal in the Indian struggle for independence from Britain – the Jallianwala Bagh. This is a public garden, founded in 1951, notable for many reasons, certainly one of them being the numbers of local people who throng here to enjoy the views, absorb its history and enjoy picnics. But the Jallianwala Bagh has a very murky tale to tell. It was here that in 1919 Brigadier General Dyer famously opened fire on a peaceful gathering of Sikhs celebrating the Festival of Baisakhi. They’ll never know quite how many people were shot but estimates are in the region of 1,000 dead and 1,500 injured. When you enter the Jallianwala Bagh, you use the same alleyway that Dyer used to lead his men into the grounds; and the thought of it chills you to the bone.
There are several buildings that still bear the gunshot holes to the outside walls; there’s a gallery that displays pictures of the massacre; there’s another exhibition about Udham Singh, a survivor from that day, who went to London to assassinate General O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, who had approved Dyer’s actions. In the gardens, topiary gun-wielding soldiers form a strangely spooky sight. Inside there is a very tall monument – The Flame of Liberty – constructed in 1961; outside, a very beautiful memorial to the fallen, with the faces of men, women and children forever immortalised within a white flame. It’s a very moving sight; and as a Britisher you feel thoroughly ashamed – but what had the greatest impact for me was seeing how groups of families and friends were using the gardens for enjoyable, recreational purposes.
Continuing along the road towards the Golden Temple, the crowds begin to get thicker and more animated. Eventually the front wall of the complex looms up like a ghostly cake made of icing sugar. Crossing the marble entrance square, John went to secure our tickets whilst we removed our shoes and made sure our heads were covered with the complimentary orange scarves. He announced that there were probably going to be more than 200,000 visitors there that day and that we would be unlikely to be able to get inside the Golden Temple itself, as the queue was just astronomical. We agreed that we wouldn’t attempt to join the queue. The Temple never closes because there is always a crowd of people wanting to get in. As an indication of how busy it was, our driver, Mr Singh, joined the queue to get into the temple at 11.45pm later that night. It took him 45 minutes to queue, even at that late hour.
Once you cross the purifying water channel, you find yourself in an enormous square, with a red-carpet walkway going all the way round, as if you were just about to join some Broadway premiere. The walk takes you all around the central lake, and if you take the clockwise direction you soon come to one of the city’s highlights – the astonishing refectory and kitchens, that never close, and permanently welcome visitors of all faiths and all nations. The local people all devote some of their time to staffing the kitchens – cooking, serving, washing-up, and so on, and it’s a magnificent to see so many people working tirelessly, voluntarily, for the benefit of others. It’s extremely humbling.
The kitchens are at the farthest end of the complex away from the Golden Temple but you still have a superb view of this amazing sight. It literally shimmers in the sunlight, and with its extraordinarily colourful reflection in the water to complement it, it really takes your breath away. Nevertheless, turn away from it and enter the kitchens complex. You’ll find vast halls where people sit on the floor, eating and talking, sharing nourishment and each other’s company. On the way in, a man stood proudly before his oven of chapatis – there must have been literally thousands of them. A boy was helping to serve them out. Huge vats of spices and vast cauldrons of vegetables all simmer away, making what was already a hot environment even hotter. One man stirs the biggest dish of lentils you have ever seen in your life. Back in the main hall, women make and cook the chapatis on a large heated platform. Rows of men are found bringing back metal trays and plates that have now been finished with. There’s no sense that any of the jobs are more demeaning than any other – they all play an important part in providing the food for the pilgrims. It’s a great leveller.
Back on the walk around the lake, you’ll find men and boys strip down to take a dip in the holy water surrounding the temple; ladies don’t tend to. Family units play together; groups of young people take selfies and ask for photos with us. There’s an office where you can make a donation – above the door it proudly announces, “Please take a receipt of Holy Communion from here”. You skirt the other end of the lake where you cannot help but get physically caught up in the crowds queueing to get into the temple. You can admire the tree that still stands, where, apparently, Baba Budha camped as he was digging the holy tank and construction work way back in the 1500s. Above all, you get an insight into the lives of the huge crowds who live and work nearby and for whom this is part of their daily existence. The sights, the sounds, the colours, the smells; the air of excitement, and the sense of privilege, for it is indeed a privilege to be there. It’s an incredible sight.
After a short rest at the hotel we had one more major appointment – not in Amritsar itself, but 18 miles due west at the border with Pakistan. Ever since I first heard about the daily pomp and pageantry of the Changing of the Guard at the Wagah Border, I knew I just had to see it for myself. It’s a long procedure, with endless security measures and a lot of waiting around. But it’s worth it. Interestingly, as you’re perceived to be wealthy foreign tourists, you’re given a much better vantage point to view the ceremony from than if you were a local Indian resident. Also, there is no charge, which feels a little surprising when you see the administrative nightmare that this daily event causes.
Your car, driver and guide can only go so far towards the border; there comes a time when you have to get out and join the masses walking towards the gate that symbolises the Indian border (it’s not quite at the border, but it’s pretty close.) Your only instruction: keep left. You go through passport check after passport check. One wonders how many times they think you might somehow change your passport details every fifty yards or so. But you have to accept the high security, it’s to everyone’s advantage. Eventually you get to the border – and you really are right on the edge of the country. Take your seat and watch what happens. In front of you and to your left, you see all the people on the Indian side amassing, their Indian flags painted on their faces; whistle-happy Indian soldiers trying to marshal people into position and then make them stay there; loud, unintelligible public announcements on the public address system; and continued jeering to the people on your right, who are the crowd similarly amassing on the Pakistani side of the border, trying to outdo the Indians with their louder music blaring through speakers. There was a moment when a group of Pakistanis broke rank from where they were sitting and grabbed all the posh seats at the front of the terrace, only to be shouted away by angry sounding officials, to riotous laughter of ridicule from those on the Indian side. Mrs C was sitting on my left and so I was fractionally closer to Pakistan – and accordingly my iPhone decided to change time to Pakistani time, which confused me quite a bit – I went back in time by 30 minutes and she didn’t!
There’s no obvious starting point to the ceremony; groups of Indian women, with children, break onto the parade ground in front of us and start dancing and teasing with the Indian soldiers on guard, much to the delight of the man in the white suit who bellows at us all the time to cheer for India (hurrah!) They rush at the soldiers with their big Indian flags and do Bollywood-style dances, whilst the soldiers (lamely) fend them off and invite them back to their seats. It’s all part of the ceremony though; if anyone did anything really out of order, I’m sure they’d know about it. Next, Indian women soldiers start to march towards the border, to the enormous cheers of the crowd, and no Pakistani women soldiers to greet them.
Then out come the big guns, the Indian soldiers in their extraordinary puffed-up uniforms and extravagant headdresses, parading and posing as they go, rushing the border then performing a Ministry of Silly Walks routine at the gate with Pakistan, as Pakistani soldiers do precisely the same back to them. The marching is extremely fast and with extremely high kicks, as they assume ultra-heroic macho stances against each other. There’s some general thumbing of noses towards their opposition and then the flags are lowered, quite quickly as there’s neither time nor desire for solemnity during this operation. The Indian flag is folded up and taken into the office. There are a few more silly walks and then the Indian soldiers beat a retreat and the Pakistanis do the same.
It ends more with a whimper than a bang as everything just stops and everyone gets up. But it’s a fascinating experience; a mixture of pantomime with aggression, and plenty of balletic military pas de deux. If you get the chance to do it, I’d really recommend it!