Amritsar’s Golden Temple – Sikhism in the Punjab

Amritsar before dawn is glorious.  It’s noisy, it’s smoky, it’s badly lit.  It’s dirty, and there’s trash, but I love it.   We have taken the Golden Temple Mail train from Delhi to visit our first Sikh temple.  It’s not just any temple, it’s Amritsar’s Golden Temple.

And, yes, we arrived before dawn on another overnight train.  We politely refused the offers of taxis and auto-rickshaws to take us to our hotel to do one of my favorite things in a city.  I love walking through cities as they’re waking up.  You see them at their most raw.  They’re rubbing the sleep out of their eyes.  It’s the best time to see them.  Before they put their makeup on.  Pondicherry and Moscow at 5 am were magical.  (If you haven’t seen Red Square at dawn, you’ve missed out!)

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Where to Stay in Amritsar

There are a host of places to stay in Amritsar – here’s our pick of the luxury places to stay in Amritsar, mid-range places to stay in Amritsar, and budget accommodation in Amritsar.

Welcomhotel by ITC Hotels, Amritsar: The Welcomhotel by ITC Hotels is located close to central Amritsar and is a world-class hotel that features 101 rooms each equipped with satellite TV, a minibar, coffee/tea maker, mini-fridge, iron, sound-proofing, and a private bathroom with hairdryer and other toiletries. This five-star Amritsar hotel has a pool and WiFi accessible by guests along with services such as currency exchange, valet dry-cleaning, spa and salon, laundry, and a doctor-on-call. The Welcomhotel is perfect for a luxury stay in Amristar. See more about Amritsar’s Welcomhotel rooms and rates here.

SureStay Heritage Walk by Best Western Amritsar, Amritsar: The SureStay Heritage Walk is situated at an excellent location right at the heart of the city of Amritsar. This four-star Amritsar accommodation has rooms that include a flat-screen TV with cable channels, a private bathroom with a hairdryer, linens, iron/iron board, safety deposit box, mini-bar, and a coffee/tea maker. The SureStay Heritage Walk in Amristar also provides guests free WiFi, luxury car rental, and in-room dining services. Café Sure at the hotel is perfect for a fine-dining experience with a multi-country-cuisine menu. Check room rates and availability here.

Hotel Aura Grand by Levelup, Amritsar:Located just 600m from central Amritsar, Hotel Aura Grand is conveniently surrounded by Amritsar’s top attractions. The hotel features rooms that have a mini-fridge, flat-screen TV, air-conditioning, and a private bathroom with a shower. Amristar’s Hotel Aura Grand also has a restaurant along with free WiFi throughout the hotel. They also offer laundry services and a doctor on call. The Hotel Aura Grand is a clean and comfortable accommodation perfect for your visit to Amritsar. Want to read more reviews and check room rates and availability? Check here.

So it took us about 30 minutes to walk to the Veenus International Hotel from the railway station, most of which was figuring out the exact location.  There were lanes, roadworks, and early morning horse and cow traffic to negotiate.  And, yeah, it wasn’t exactly daylight.

So, leaving our bags at reception, we set off walking towards Sir Harmandir Sahib – Amritsar’s Golden Temple – the most revered of Sikh temples.  When we arrived in Amritsar we knew nothing about the Sikh religion – so we put together a backgrounder on which to base our visit.

But first, this. This is primarily why we are here in Amristar.

amritsars golden temple the tank

A Backgrounder in Sikhism

Sikh translates literally as student, disciple or learner.  Sikhism originated here in the Punjab region in the 15th century.   Its fundamental beliefs are that there is one creator and that there are many worlds on which life was created.  The concept of God is omnipresent, infinite with power over everything and has no gender.   God is known as Ik Onkar and is timeless and formless.

Sikhs believe that all humankind are equal, there should be no discrimination on gender, caste, or creed.  Humans should engage in selfless service, social justice should benefit all, and that one should live an honest life.  It is the fifth-largest religion in the world with more than 25 million believers.  Sikh beliefs are detailed in the sacred scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib.

Sikhism is centered on the teachings of Guru Nanak, the first Guru of the Sikh faith as well as the ten subsequent Sikh gurus.  Guru Nanak’s words: “Realization of Truth is higher than all else. High still is truthful living” forms the basis for Sikh teaching.   Once the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, died in 1708, the Guru Granth Sahib (the sacred scripture) became the spiritual guide for Sikhs.

Sikhs worship in a gurdwara.  This word means quite literally, a “door to the Guru”.  The holiest gurdwara is the Sri Harmandir Sahib, or Amritsar’s Golden Temple.  Each gurdwara has a langar – or communal kitchen – where anyone is welcome to eat free vegetarian food.

Amritsar’s Golden Temple

Under the instruction of the previous (third) Guru, Sri Guru Ram Das excavated a holy tank (a reservoir of water) in 1578.  It became known as the “Pool of the Nectar of Immortality” – or Amritsar.  If I were to fall in love with a place simply because of its name, this would be it.  As it is, there are many more reasons that I love this place. The construction of the temple, the Sri Harmandir Sahib was also begun at this time.  Darbar Sahib or Sri Harmandir Sahib means, quite literally, the “Temple of God”.

amritsars golden temple map

Entering the Sri Harmandir Complex

Somehow we managed to miss the primary entrance, by the clock tower, so the usual assistance from those who help hapless tourists wasn’t available.  It was the kindest of folks who explained to us in sign language that we must leave our shoes and enter through the foot bath.

footbath at amritsars golden temple

Entering a temple barefoot is something that we’re used to here in India.  But we’ve never been to a temple where there’s a foot bath and you are required to wash your feet on entering.   It’s also a requirement here at the Sri Harmandir to cover your head, whether you’re male or female.  That’s also unusual.  That men and women are treated in the same fashion.   I’m finding that I like Sikhism more than any other religion I’ve come across.

at amritsars golden temple

I’ve never felt such a feeling of peace.    This is a place of pilgrimage.  Of tranquillity.  There is a feeling of inclusion.  Love.  Of a commonality that transcends individual beliefs.

The complex is beautiful.  It is visually breathtaking.  But more than that, it gives me hope.  I feel as though, here, anything is possible.  That we can all, as people, get along together.  Live together.  Not necessarily agree with each other’s beliefs, but at least try to accept and understand them.

We tried another pilgrimage in India, you can read about our experiences in Tiruvannamalai here.

Visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar

We visited The Golden Temple independently – as you can see by the photos, several times during our visit to Amritsar, however we recognise that you may prefer to have a local guide to explain help you visit.

This morning tour of the Golden Temple will give you

  • Explore the 400 year old heritage of Amritsar with a visit to the Golden Temple, a key landmark of the city
  • Visit the temple’s mega kitchen that feeds over 100,000 people in a day
  • Walk through the local market and learn from your guide the historic significance of these serpentine lanes
  • You’ll also learn more about the history of Jallianwala Bagh massacre and visit a local museum
  • Enjoy a cycle-rickshaw ride through the bustle of Amritsari bazaars

Find out more and reserve your Golden Temple tour here.

Alternatively – or as well as (I recommend it, it is the most glorious of places), come at night.

At night at the Golden Temple you’ll get to

  • Learn the history of Sikhism in this Golden Temple night tour
  • Discover why Golden Temple is the most sacred place for the religion
  • Explore the rich history of Sikhism, from its inception to how it has grown into modern times
  • Experience volunteering in the world’s largest sacred community kitchen called ‘Langar’, open 24/7

See the Golden Temple at night here.

Entrances to the Golden Temple and the Tank

There are four entrances to the temple – from four different directions, signifying that people from all walks of life are equally welcome.  That’s very important to Sikhs.  Regardless of your race, caste, or gender, you’re welcome.  You’re equal.  The gurdwara is built at a lower level than the surrounding land to teach us humility.

The temple that we see in photographs around the world is just a very small part of the gurdwara complex, but it is the tank or reservoir that surrounds the golden central shrine that is the center of this place spiritually.  And, the tank is surrounded by a marble walkway and is where pilgrims from around the world come to bathe.

amritsars golden temple the tank

The Marble Walkway at the Golden Temple

We walk slowly around the marble walkway that surrounds the tank.  There are guides that we’ve downloaded from the Amritsar tourism website, and details of sites within the complex that we should visit.  But it feels like it’s simply enough just to be here.

the marble walkway at amritsars golden temple
the tank at amritsars golden temple

Sri Harmandir Sahib – The Golden Temple

The entire complex is beautiful, but my eyes are constantly drawn to the Golden Temple itself.  So, as it’s still early and there are few people here at this time, we head towards the walkway that will take us there.  It’s usually at this point that we’re stopped.  Inner areas of Hindu temples are reserved only for Hindus.  Christian churches only allow access to certain areas.  We are all equal here.  We might not know what we’re doing, but we’re equal.

Looking as though it’s almost floating and connected via a walkway, the Golden Temple is a blend of Islamic and Hindu architecture with motifs similar to those seen on the Taj Mahal.  The second level of the temple is covered in engraved gold panels.  A dome gilded with 750 kilograms of gold tops the structure.

amritsars golden temple 2
amritsars golden temple

We join the (still rather light) line and walk across the Guru’s bridge to the Golden Temple.  All this while, we’ve been listening to the continuous chant by priests of the Guru Granth Sahib (the holy scripture).  They sit here in the Golden Temple, and their chanting is relayed through speakers in the complex.  But it’s not loud.  It’s comforting rather than irritating.  It feels peaceful rather than annoying.

The Guru Granth Sahib

The Guru Granth Sahib is brought to the temple each morning (4 am in summer, 5 am in winter) and the priests chant from it.  It takes 48 hours for a continuous chant to go through the entire scripture.  It is undertaken by priests who take three-hour shifts.  At the end of the day (940pm in winter and 1030pm in summer) it is returned to the Akal Takhat for the night.

The Akal Takhat is the seat of the Sikh religious governing body.  It was completed in 1609, stormed by the Indian Army in 1984, and completely rebuilt by the Sikhs after that

amritsars golden temple close up

Sikh Langar – The Communal Kitchen

In the 16th century, Guru Amar Das (the third guru) began the concept of the “langar” – or the communal kitchen or canteen.  It’s felt that eating together encourages the shedding of inhibitions and enforces the principle of equality.  The food here is free of charge.  It’s vegetarian and more than 100,000 people a day eat here.  You can also volunteer your services to help in the kitchen, or give a donation as you walk towards the kitchen area. If you’re not certain about volunteering, then you can join a short tour and help out in the kitchen as part of that too.

It’s easy to find.  And it’s an experience that humbles you.  We follow the lines.  Collect our stainless steel tray and sit somewhat awkwardly on the floor in a line with everyone else.  No one pays us the slightest bit of attention.  No more so than anyone else.

Eating in the Langar

Volunteers bring buckets of dhal.  And curd.  And plates of roti.  There’s water too.  Additional helpings if you want it.  Of course, we’re slower than everyone else because we’re still not very good at eating with our hands and I don’t feel it’s appropriate to dig out our sporks in order to dig in.

Once we finish, we again follow the lines and take our stainless steel trays to the washing area, where another horde of volunteers are cleaning up.

There are also two hostels here for pilgrims where it’s possible to stay for up to three nights for free.

The Sikh Museum at the Golden Temple

The main entrance to the complex is designated by the entrance clock tower, the Darshani Deori.  Inside this building, we find the Sikh Museum, which details persecution inflicted upon Sikhs by Mughals, the British, and Indira Gandhi.  It’s an interesting visit, not all of which I comprehend, but I leave knowing more than when I entered.

the Sikh museum at amritsars golden temple

The Golden Temple at Night

It’s not enough to visit this glorious place just once, so we return later in the day and also the following day after we’ve been to the border closing ceremony at Wagah.  In part, it’s to confirm the feelings that we had during our initial visit.  Had we just visited at the right time?  Was it different when more people were there?

amritsars golden temple sunset
amritsars golden temple night time

It is the same amazing feeling.  Still peaceful.  Still inspiring.  And beautiful whatever time of day you visit.  There are many beautiful monuments in India and indeed around the world, here more than ever, though, the beauty comes from within.

This is quite simply the most incredible place of pilgrimage that I’ve visited.

amritsars golden temple at night

Resources for Visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar

Travel Tips for Exploring India

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