When planning our trip to India in November 2007, there was one attraction that was set in stone - the non-negotiable, 'come hell or high water', must-see destination for us was the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Ever since I read a review in a guidebook to India saying that Golden Temple made the Taj Mahal look a tad on the tacky side, I was hooked.
My cultural references for the GT were relatively few. It appears in the background of one of the song and dance sequences in 'Bride and Prejudice'; it has a key role in the life (and death) of Indira Gandhi, a woman I'm fascinated (and sometimes horrified) by; and you'll find a picture (or several) on the wall of any Sikh business you ever visit. I'm fascinated by world religions and there could be no better place to learn about Sikhism than at its heart.
I was so fixated on the temple that it had blinded me to the task of finding out what else there was to do in Amritsar. I had in my mind an image of a leafy garden city abounding in beauty and basking in the golden glow of its most famous attraction. I convinced myself that there must be LOADS of things to do in the most holy Sikh city. I really should have done more homework and should have reminded myself how much I didn't like Agra on the two occasions I'd been there. Just because your number one attraction is AMAZING, there's not guarantee that there's much else to do.
I booked a hotel for 3 nights for my husband and myself and our friends booked just the one night because they needed to head back to their father's village due to some family 'troubles'. We were due to leave Amritsar on a night train so we had three and a half days to see a city that can easily be 'knocked off' in 24 hours if you are pushed for time.
A word of advice to anyone planning their own travel – get some brochures for organised tours, check how long they plan to be in a city and add a day because you won't have the benefit of the local knowledge of a tour leader.
We arrived in Amritsar in the early afternoon after being driven from our friend's father's village near to Jalandhar in the Punjab and the city was a shock. We'd been spoiled by our previous destinations - the beautiful vertiginous Himalayan city of Shimla, the clean and geometric city of Chandigarh, even the primitive solitude of our friend's dad's village in the Punjab. Amritsar by contrast was right back to the full-on traffic, blaring horns, polluted air and bedlam. I don't know why I thought it would be different. We had no map, not much of an address and no clue where we were going. Our driver asked other drivers and a policeman or two who pointed us in the right direction. The grubby streets were crowded with cars, cycles, pedestrians, stray dogs and busy people. It took ages to find the hotel despite it being only a block away from the temple on a side street.
On our first afternoon we polished off a big lunch in a café that became our daily brunch spot and then headed off to Wagah on the border with Pakistan for the daily flag lowering ceremony. Back to the city afterwards our Sikh friends tidied themselves up and took us to the temple. We were there just a few days after Diwali and the temple and surrounding buildings were draped in strings of white lights which twinkled in the reflections of the water.
On our second day our friends had deserted us with nothing more than the photocopied pages of their Lonely Planet guide. Amritsar gets only a few pages and they had to be broad minded to manage even that amount. Hubby and I went back to have a proper look at the temple, to check out the museum and to spend – quite literally – about 6 hours just sitting around watching the world go by at the Temple. We became an attraction in our own right if the number of people coming up to say hello, take our photos and ask us to touch their children were anything to go by. You cannot be inconspicuous in Amritsar.
Had we done the sensible thing and gone for just a day or a day and a half like most tourists, I don't think we'd ever have been as moved by the temple and the friendliness of the visitors as we were. Our only other activity on day two was our first visit to the Jallianwala Bagh gardens – site of the 1919 massacre.
On day 3 the Lonely Planet pages came into their own. We tracked down a lad who'd driven us to the border a few days earlier and, with the help of his 'uncle' we negotiated for him to drive us around for half a day so we could see the places we'd found in the guidebook. Despite him having the most unpleasant smelling vehicle of all time, he was a nice guy, a safe driver (don't underestimate how rare that is) and completely flexible to taking us anywhere we asked. We kicked off our self-designed tour with a trip to the Sri Durgiana temple.
Sri Durgiana is a Hindu temple that's 'heavily influenced' by the Golden Temple. When I say 'heavily influenced' it's a bit like saying those knock-off fake handbags sold by dodgy people on street corners are 'heavily influenced' by the designer originals. It was bizarre to find another temple, also set in the middle of a water 'tank' in a design so similar but for a completely different religion. Since we'd spent most of the day before going clockwise round the Golden Temple, we decided to go 'anti-clockwise' round the Sri Durgiana a few times just for a bit of variety. Like sheep that always go the same way round a hill, we didn't want to develop one leg shorter than the other.
After the temple, we hopped back in the van to go to the Rambagh Gardens, a large public park in the north of the city. After a very pleasant stroll through the gardens we came to one of the most unusual museums we've ever seen – the Maharaja Ranjit Singh Panorama. The museum is dedicated to the popular Sikh leader Maharaja Ranjit Singh – and presents scenes from his life and times, some of them reproducing famous paintings, in which dolls and stuffed animals are set out in a strange array to give a sense of enhanced three-dimensionality. It's odd to say the least.
With an hour to go before we were due to meet the driver, we found ourselves stopping off at the Indian Academy of Arts where they were celebrating National Children's Day which occurs each year on the anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru's birthday. The surreal experience of being temporary VIPs, trapped at a prize giving ceremony and garlanded with flowers was one worthy of a review of its own. Only the ability to swear blind that our driver was waiting for us and we had to go prevented us having to stay all evening.
Day 4 was a lazy 'revisit the highlights' day – back to the Jallianwala gardens again and another long visit to the temple before heading off to the station which was one of the nicer ones we've seen in India and a lot less intimidating than the big city stations.
Throughout our stay we'd spent a lot of time 'killing time' but actually surprised ourselves with how much we enjoyed being 'busy doing not a lot'. We had our late breakfast/lunch at the same place every day and soon became recognised as 'regulars' and rotated our evening meals between three other restaurants on the road between the temple and the gardens. Within the area around the temple all restaurants are strictly vegetarian and completely teetotal and we had some outstanding food though a beer wouldn't have gone a miss after a couple of days. Lunch was typically costing us less than $3 for the two of us, dinner less than double that.
Going back and forth to the Temple was always easy and the people at the temple always exceptionally welcoming. We didn't feel just 'tolerated' – we actually felt that people were really pleased to see us there and wanted us to share in their joy at visiting the centre of Sikhism.
My advice on Amritsar? Definitely go and don't just make it a brief visit. It deserves some time to soak up the atmosphere but realistically, you don't need three and a half days – one and a half to two should comfortably give you time to see the temple, go to the border, stop into the Jallianwala and maybe take in the Sri Durgiana.