Amritsar For Beginners
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No permit is required to reach India’s nearest city to Pakistan’s border. This fact alone fits right along with the cross section of contradictions tourists will find in Amritsar. One needs a permit to travel the Indo-Tibetan border to the east, yet the border area between two countries fighting a cultural war of words remains wide open. Tension between the two governments leaves a population of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus fighting to carve a life out of an area still sensitive about Partition, and now grappling with a younger generation addicted to various drugs illegally spilling over the border from Pakistan. The hard work of elders who built modern Punjab into a financial success for many is now at a crossroads.
Punjab is the home of Sikhism, a religion not to be confused as a sect of Hinduism. It is a completely separate religion and the host of Amritsar’s main tourist attraction, the Golden Temple. Travelers will experience an entirely different language (Punjabi) throughout the state. Road signs proudly display Punjabi script for a population that is known for it’s farming, cuisine, religion, and music. Caught between two countries, Amritsar and Punjab exist nearly as a land within their own.
Traditions run thick. Female tourists would be advised to travel in groups or with a male. Stick to well traveled areas while visiting the city. Foreign tourists are not a new sight within the city, however one feels outside of the Golden Temple we are thinly tolerated.
A remarkable feat of architecture which begs to be seen. Finding this landmark within the old city is simple and anyone, Anyone, can help you find your way. Appropriate dress is required for entry, albeit I saw tourists in shorts and t-shirts in audience. Head coverings are mandated before entry which are sold for a small fee outside. All are welcome to this impeccably clean temple.
Jallianwala Bagh Memorial
Switching gears from the feeling of euphoria fresh off a Golden Temple visit to touring the 1919 massacre grounds of defenseless Indians by the British takes some time. Walk through well maintained grounds where various memorials or tributes have been built to mark the senseless act. Near the Golden Temple.
Wagah-Attari Border Ceremony
Everyday, at the same time and place, a curious ritual takes place at the far Northwestern edge of Punjab, India. Indian Border Security Force soldiers perform a flag lowering ceremony that attracts more than 1,000 tourists and locals at the Wagah Border.
Ram Tirath Fair: Roughly 2 weeks after Diwali comes this 5 day celebration. Ram Tirath, 11 kms from Amritsar, is an ancient pilgrimage center associated with the period of Ramayana. A 3 km wide tank surrounded by temples is the main attraction. Approximately 100,000 pilgrims converge for the annual festival, who believe a moonlit dip in the sacred water is a must. Special bus service from Amritsar to Ram Tirath last the length of the festival. Be prepared for the countless impromptu stalls selling everything from sweets to religious trinkets.
Basant Panchami: A great spring festival held at the end of January or beginning of February, dedicated to Saraswati, the goddess of learning. On this day everyone wears a yellow cloth as it represents the ripening of the spring crops. Even the food is colored yellow by using saffron. The Golden Temple hosts a large gathering which is visited by both Hindus and Sikhs. Kite flying is of particular interest to attendees who come from all around. Special bus service transports people from the surrounding areas to Amritsar.
Baisakhi Festival: A festival marking the arrival of the harvesting season. Occurring around April or May of each year, this day is marked with great fanfare. Residents of Amritsar celebrate this festival with colors as Bhangra dances and Punjabi songs are performed. Sikh followers celebrate the festival as it is the sacred day when Guru Gobind Singh established the Khalsa Panth.
Guru Nanak Jayanti: A birthday celebration of Guru Nanak Dev, the first Sikh guru and the founder of the Sikh religion. Special programs are held at individual Gurdwaras (Sikh temples), specifically the Golden Temple. The celebration also includes a three days period during which the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib is read continuously, from beginning to end without a break. Local bands perform during the day of the festival as the Guru Granth Sahib is carried in a procession on a float, decorated with flowers, throughout the villages of Punjab. Free sweets and lunches are offered to everyone who attends regardless of faith.