Open doors

The architecture of the Golden Temple is an embodiment of the core beliefs of Sikhism. Guru Nanak (1469 CE — 1539 CE) preached an open religion with the revolutionary doctrine of the absolute equality of all people, and engaged with the common themes within the two religions he knew, namely Hinduism and Islam. The architectural realization of these teachings in Gurudwaras is three fold. First, there are gates from all the principal directions leading in to the temple, signifying that there are many roads to this belief. Second, since these paths are always open, there are elaborate gateways but no doors (see the three images in the slideshow). And finally, the equality of all people is given concrete shape in the langar, a common space that absolutely anyone can come to for food at any time of the day, with everyone sitting together.

These teachings eventually brought about conflict with the emperor in Delhi, Jahangir. The fifth of the ten gurus was executed by the order of the emperor. The sixth guru’s first act was to embrace militarism through a notion which he called Miri-Piri, a combination of spiritualism and temporal authority. The physical embodiment of this philosophy resulted in the building of the Akal Takht, the seat of Sikh religious authority, facing the Golden Temple (shown in the featured photo). The next five Gurus spent their lives fighting the Mughal empire, and turning the Sikhs into a military force. As the Mughal power waned, this force was ready to carve out its own empire, as it did with Ranjit Singh (1780 CE — 1839 CE). Imperial power is on show in the marble and gold of the Golden Temple, and in the elaborate structures of the gateways.

Two views of the Golden Temple

Marble inlay work in Harmandir Sahib

The founding of Amritsar is counted from 1577 CE, the date of the digging of the lake, Amrit Sarovar, at the behest of Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh Guru. A few years later Harmandir Sahib was first constructed in the lake, connected by a single causeway. His successor, Guru Arjun, placed a copy of the Adi Granth in it in the year 1604 CE. During the years when the Sikhs were in conflict with the Mughals the temple was destroyed and rebuilt many times. The current structure comes from 1830 CE, when the Khalsa emperor, Ranjit Singh, had the marble and gilded copper temple built.

I’d expected to spend a long time in the area, trying to figure out the best light and angles. But I was lucky with the light. Sunset, and perhaps sunrise, are the best light for photography, and my first visit happened to be at this hour. I missed one thing, the daily journey of the Granth Sahib from the Akal Takht to the Harmandir Sahib and back. So there is a reason for me to go back.

Bling

Merriam-Webster defines bling \ˈbliŋ\ first as flashy jewelry worn especially as an indication of wealth or status, but adds on the broader definition as expensive and ostentatious possessions. We didn’t visit Amritsar to look for things which you can find in any market in any city, but you could not miss the bling. I suppose some people would think that covering a building with gold foil is bling, but we shall excuse the excesses of the past. It is the everyday bling of the middle class that I find especially fascinating. Not just to you and me, but also to a slew of brilliant film makers and cinematographers [1, 2, 3] who defined the look of post-Bollywood-blockbuster 21st century movies.

We’d planned one morning’s walk through the city to take us through parts where we could do some shopping. These streets were lined with shops selling clothes and jewellery. I followed The Family into one which was recommended. After some sensory overload, I took to viewing the street through my phone. Not only easier on the confused eyes, but also fodder for a blog post. It left me free to wonder about the relationship between bling and kitsch (apart from the interesting fact that a person called Kitsch acted in a movie called Bling).

Narrow lanes, wide doors

We lost ourselves in the narrow lanes that lead northwest from the Golden Temple. It is said that Guru Arjun Singh’s favourite spot to view the temple from was a place called Darshani Deori. What he saw in the late 16th century CE would have been very different. It would be another two hundred and fifty years before the present marble and gold building of the Harmandir Sahib would come to be. Nor was Amritsar then a walled city, with houses built up cheek by jowl, and the sky over Darshani Deori reduced to slivers visible over narrow lanes. He would perhaps have looked over open slopes to a small temple in the middle of a lake built by his predecessor, Guru Ramdas.

We’d been looking for the Gurudwara Guru ka Mahal. It marks a spot full of Sikh history. Guru Ramdas, the fourth of the Gurus, stayed in this place while the lake of Amrit Sarovar was dug, so laying the foundation of Amritsar. Guru Arjun, his successor, was married at this place, as was Guru Hargobind, the sixth of the line. Two of Guru Hargobind’s sons, Baba Atal Rai and Guru Teg Bahadur, who became the ninth of the Gurus, were born here. The storied Gurudwara was a little hard to find, until we spotted a sign pointing to a narrow alley which was an approach road.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, in the time of Ranjit Singh’s empire and the later British takeover, when Amritsar became a walled city, this neighbourhood must have been desirable.The building at the head of the lane was festooned with electrical wires slung every which way, but had an impressive arched doorway, with an immense ceremonial door which had a minor door for everyday use set into it. Above this entranceway was a grand, but decaying, edifice of intricately carved wood. In the post-Mughal, pre-British times, this was a style which seems to have been adopted widely in western India. If I was an art historian, I would have been able to notice the difference between the woodwork of the Khalsa Raj and the Marathas. Sadly, I don’t have those skills.

As I walked down the lane to the Gurudwara, I stopped at every door, taking photos. Right outside the Gurudwara was a later building (you see a part of it in the featured image, and more of it in the gallery above). This had more of a British influence in its construction, but still retained an elaborate wooden balcony. I wished I had more time to spend in this neighbourhood. Maybe another year.

Amritsari Kitsch

Kitsch finds a hearty welcome in rural Punjab. Every time I’ve driven through the Punjabi countryside I’ve seen it with my own eyes: two storeyed houses with a giant concrete eagle perched on top, a house sporting a helicopter as a headdress, a water tank shaped like an elephant in full ceremonial regalia, a roadside dhaba announced by fibreglass dragons. In cities this is toned down to mere bling. But not entirely.

Surely it is kitsch when a flower stall displays a large bouquet of plastic flowers among the roses and marigolds? Or when the window display at a restaurant leaves you confused about what might be on the menu? Glad to see a warm Punjabi heart beating in there.

Some dhabas and restaurants in Amritsar

Amritsar is a food lover’s destination, as I wrote in an earlier post, when I took you on a tour of its street food. I’ve also written about the langar ka khana at the Golden Temple. Let me whisk you through lunch and dinner today. Our stay was too short for us to try out a larger number of places. I had short listed a few eateries before starting, based on reading other travelers’ stories, but it was too long. Coincidentally, a couple we know were traveling at the same time, and, by exchanging notes with them, we eliminated a couple of places where their experience was not so good, or very close to what we had already tried. We didn’t only go by what other travelers recommended though. There’s nothing like the advise of locals, and we incorporated them.

Paratha

There are several places which people recommend for parathas, but I’d read about Kesar da Dhaba in old memoirs of Amritsar. It dates from well before Gandhi’s Salt March, and its location in the very atmospheric lanes east of Darshani Deori added to its charm. We wandered through those lanes, and picked up some local achar, before reaching the dhaba. We were not at all disappointed by the butter-soaked parathas and the dal (featured photo). It was not easy to have that plate and finish our superbly creamy lassi. The dal is cooked for twelve hours, we were told, but the paratha is absolutely fresh from the tandoor.

Amritsari Fish

The locals agreed with travelers about Makhan’s Fish. The Amritsari style of fish is either baked in the tandoor or lightly fried. Two kinds of fish are commonly used, Sangara (red snapper) and Sohal, which, I was told, is a local fresh water fish. Our server advised a fried Sangara and a tandoori Sohal. The preparation was typical of genuine Punjabi cooking, light on masala, and emphasizing the freshness of the ingredients. I overdid things a little by adding on a plate of the mutton tikka. This was an amazing dish, the pieces of mutton cooked in ghee until they were soft and melting. The Family went light on the mutton because she wanted to end the dinner with a kulfi. We hadn’t had kulfi in Amritsar before, but I could only have a little taste of their delicate saffron infused version.

Kulchas and Puris

Amritsar Kitchen is not on any traveler’s list, because it opened in early 2020, just before the lockdown. But their food is amazing. The Family had kulchas for breakfast, but I tried out their puris. They came with a choice of one of four accompaniments, but the servers were happy to let me taste all four: the usual potato sabji, another of pumpkin (sweet from the pumpkin and a slight sourness of amchur), one of chana, and one of sprouted moong. Anirudh gave me a taste of something they were trying out: a masala gur. A nice accompaniment.

Paya and mutton paratha

We almost didn’t get to what I consider the high point of this trip, as far as food was concerned: Pal Dhaba. We arrived for dinner on a Tuesday, when it is closed. So we went back for lunch the next day. I’m glad we did. They have a superb paya (goat’s feet, it’s called kharora here). Its rich taste told us that it had been slow cooked for a long time. Another delight was the keema paratha. The old man who served us sat down at the next table and told us about the keema. The minced mutton had been slow cooked till it yielded up its fat, then cooked until it had been absorbed again. I fell in love with it, and ordered a second one. I did not need a dinner that night.

Akali

When we entered the gates of the Golden Temple I immediately spotted the armed Akalis in their distinctive blue and saffron gear. Traditional histories of this armed sect trace them to Baba Fateh Singh, the youngest son of the Guru Govind Singh. In the early 18th century, when the Sikhs battled the Mughal empire, he and his brother, Baba Zorawar Singh, are said to have formed an elite band of fighters. Other histories trace their origin to the Akaal Sena founded by the Guru Hargobind Singh, the sixth Guru, in the 17th century. The ferocity of this militia earned them the epithet of Nihang, a word which means either a crocodile or a sea monster in Persian.

The traditional uniform of the Akali/Nihang soldier was designed so that different parts could be used to stab, slash, or maim. Most of these weapons are still worn by Akalis today as miniature symbolic pieces. I saw a few shops around the temple complex which were selling some of these symbols. There is no longer an unified line of command now. For almost two hundred years now, in the absence of a real enemy, they have fissioned into different deras, each with a different leader. Their lifestyle, and commitment to arms and warfare sets them at odds with a settled society. The sect is somewhat controversial, sometimes in the news for involvement in violence. The deep blue clothes with saffron turban and sashes are part of their traditional clothing. The blue is said to symbolize courage, the saffron, sacrifice. The intention is certainly noble.

A notable Gurudwara

South of the Golden temple, a couple of hundred meters away, is a lovely Gurudwara that is often missed. Although the nine storey high octagonal tower of the Gurudwara Baba Atal Rai Ji is the tallest structure in the old city, it is not easily visible from the narrow streets around the Golden Temple. We made our way there one night. It is hard to get a good view of the tower from the ground because of all the structures which hem in your viewpoint, and all the photos that I have seen have the foreshortening that you find in mine.

In the early 17th century this was a cenotaph for, Baba Atal Rai, a son of the sixth Guru Hargobind. About two hundred years later, during the time of Ranjit Singh, it was coverted to a Gurudwara, when the tower and lake were constructed. It is a place worth visiting because of the many late 19th and early 20th century murals that are painted into the walls of the tower. The murals depict the life of Guru Nanak, as told in the Janamsakhi. Some of the murals are badly damaged, and the work of restoration is on. I wish we had taken the time to see this during the day.

Selfies and spectacles

When you reach Amritsar, history suggests that you to take an ancient highway, now called NH1 or the Grand Trunk Road, and drive towards the old (but not ancient) city of Lahore in Punjab. At our time in history you will stop at the half way point where the Wagah border post was established. If you reach in the evening around sunset there is a daily spectacle of beating the retreat.

We’d been advised to reach early and leave as soon as possible in order to avoid crowds. It was not entirely possible to avoid crowding; the usual security barriers create a bit of a bottleneck. But we got through it rather quickly, and found our seats. There was a nice fairground atmosphere in the stadium that has been built around the border gate on both sides. On the Indian side there were vendors selling popcorn, ice cream, and Indian flags. The old sikh who sells paper flags had a very camera-friendly smile.

A couple went right up to the border gate to have their photo taken. I did my bit of ambush photography. Most people were content to take their selfies from near where they sat. Crowd control was tight, but done with smiles. It helped that this was a place where everybody had warm and mellow feelings for the army and security in general, and were on their best behaviour. In turn, the Border Security Force did their best to keep everyone entertained. There was music, lots of opportunities to pose with flags, or dance.

With my camera in hand, I was more interested in the peripheral build up to the main event. In the no man’s land between the gates that each country had built, a member of India’s Border Security Force was preparing for the flag to be lowered. His opposite number from the Pakistani Rangers was also occupied similarly. If you were alert you would not miss the high degree of synchronization between the two. This is a clear signal of some level of cooperation between the two organizations in putting together this daily spectacle.

The military ceremony is the main event of the evening. First the prelude. An officer takes his position. Then various cadres of the BSF march up to theirs. The dog squad was interesting; military dogs seem to be well-trained in deportment. But the literal high point of the evening is what the BSF calls silly march: the high kicks, one of which you see in the photo above. Quite a bit of fun, we thought, grinning as we demolished our popcorn.

The central part of the ceremony is announced by the familiar flourish on trumpets. The gates open, and an equal number of troopers from both sides march into the no man’s land. There is a lot of colourful pageantry, a ceremonial show of aggression. And then the flags are lowered, in perfect synchrony. The folded flag is taken away with an escort, the last of the troops march away, and the gates are closed for the night.

We hastened back to our car, hoping to drive out before there was a traffic jam. Attari village, the last one before the border, is supposed to have a couple of places where they have wonderful sarson ka saag in this season. Should we stop for dinner there?

Hathi Gate

The Mughal Empire decayed after the death of Aurangzeb and several strong regional powers found space to expand. One of them was the remnant of the Khalsa organized by Guru Govind Singh, the last human Sikh guru. Several commanders arose in the 18th century CE, but after 1799 Ranjit Singh became emperor of the Sikhs when he captured Lahore from the Afghan king Zaman Shah Durrani. Soon after, Ranjit Singh ordered that Amritsar, the religious twin next to his capital city of Lahore, be fortified. The eight kilometers long wall had twelve gates (a thirteenth, Hall Gate, was added by the British after the fall of Ranjit Singh’s empire). They are being renovated by the Central Public Works Department in consultation with the conservation architect Gurmeet Sangha Rai. The featured photo shows the newly renovated Hathi Gate, originally called the Shazada Darwaza.

The area around it was chaotic and full of slow traffic. On the outer side of the gate, away from the Golden Temple, we saw a little flower market, exactly where we were told we would find it. Our most memorable trips have been those where we spent more time in a place than is recommended. We use the extra time not to “do” the city, but to wander around aimlessly looking at markets, chatting with people, and sampling the local food. Visiting markets is one of these pleasures. You come across unexpected things, like a rather young Akshay Khanna look alike.

Sometimes The Family cannot let go of a shop-op. We paused by a cart piled high with peas. The seller gave us a few to taste. Sweet and fresh! The Family immediately got a couple of kilos. “We’ll take it back with us” she said. Weight restrictions? “In my hand baggage.” I asked the vendor where the peas came from. Nashik, he told us. So we were basically going to take the fresh peas back to almost where they came from. I resolved to snack on peas for the next couple of days. When in Amritsar, eat like the Amritsaris.

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