best things to do in amritsar

What to see in Amritsar – Walking through History in the Punjab

Leaving Delhi we were on a complete downer.  It had been a long day there, then, there was an overnight train to negotiate, which means an arrival in the wee small hours.  We were taking a foray into the northern reaches of the Punjab and the loaded with heritage Amritsar.

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You’ve probably figured by now, that I am, we are, NOT city people.  I make an exception for Amritsar.  This may be a dirty, hot, dusty city, but she is glorious.

As if it’s not enough that we’ve discovered the incredible Golden Temple here, or that we see the most spectacular spectacle at the Wagah Border Closing Ceremony, there’s more.  Amritsar is a city to get lost in.  It’s a great city in which to walk down lanes and alley ways.  It’s where we find the most incredible paratha.  And we taste the most delicious lassi.  And we’re eating street food which usually scares us in India.  There’s more on the food of the Punjab here!

First though there’s an overnight train.

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The Golden Temple Mail Train

We depart Delhi from the Hazrat Nizamuddin station where our train, the Golden Temple Mail Train leaves.

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It’s good news that we’re on the reservation chart, which you can see below.  This has the names of all folks who’ve made it to the promised land and who have been assigned a berth.  A reservation chart is compiled for all trains and is available here on the noticeboard on the platform.  If this wasn’t so archaic it would be quaint.

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Trains in India are long.  Very, very long and so we’ve learned to use www.indiarail.info to get some indication of where our allocated carriage might be in the 18 plus carriages that this train comprises.

We’re on the Golden Temple Mail Train and we’re in a 2AC class carriage.  It’s just a little more money than 3AC, but a whole lot more comfortable.  There are two bunks in space where there would be three, so we get more headroom and less people.

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Food from the Pantry Car

At this point we’re novices on Indian trains and walk off in the direction of where we think the “Pantry Car” is.  It is “several” carriages away.  It’s a black hole of horrifying dirt.  I’m amazed that we go ahead and order food from it, although this isn’t the way that things are done.  We’re supposed to wait at our seats and someone will come around and take our order.

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Although it’s hard to tell who works for the railway catering company and who is just a hawker walking through.  Although I’m not sure why that matters, they’re all wearing dirty scraggy polo shirts anyways.  Besides, if the kitchen that we found in the pantry car is anything to go by then we’re going to die a slow painful death.

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The food arrives 20 minutes later and it’s surprisingly good.  Although, someone really ought to figure out that filling a container to the brim with a very watery curry gravy is going to end in disaster.

Although I suppose cleaning up is someone else’s job and the container filler doesn’t care about that.  It’s probably one of those job creation schemes.  Still it’s enough and Í survived to write this, so my stomach must have been stronger than I anticipated.

Arriving in Amritsar

We arrived in the city in the dark and trekked off the 30 minutes to find out hotel, the Veenus International, dropped our bags and then headed for the first of our visits to the glorious Golden Temple.  You can read about that here and also get an introduction to the Sikh faith.

For the rest of Amritsar we had plans.  To start with we had jalebi for breakfast on that first day.  You can read more about our foodie outings in Amritsar here.

The Heritage Amritsar Walking Tour

Sweet tooth that I didn’t realize that I had sated we headed off to meet up with the Amritsar and Punjab Tourist office to take the 75 INR heritage walking tour of Amritsar.  It’s run by Mr Davinder Singh and you can read many of the reviews here.   Today Mr Singh had a meeting and couldn’t take the tour, however, he did come along to very graciously meet us and apologise in person.  Instead a colleague took us around.

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Astoundingly, it was just the two of us.  We’d emailed ahead of time to reserve places, expecting to be joining a throng of people.   Oh Amritsar you’re so lovely.

The Town Hall

We start at the Town Hall – the crumbling remains of the 1866 British colonial building which housed the administration centre before 1947.

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It looks like it’s in need of serious repair, but that the state has been going on for some time.

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We started this walk at 0800, as it gets pretty hot during the day here.  We’ll be finished and dropped off at the Golden Temple by 1000.

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Amritsar is like a rabbit warren.  The bookmarks that we’re given as both a receipt and a memento of our visit are a useful reminder of our route.  I doubt, though, that I could find it all again without a guide!  It is, though a fabulous city to just wander around, getting lost in.

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There is much darkness, though in the heritage of Amritsar.  While its pleasant to talk of the great food here, of the photogenic people and the friendliness we would be remiss to ignore the horrors of history.

The Gurdwara Saragarahi

We pass the Gurdwara Saragarhi which is dedicated to the 21 Sikh soldiers of the 36th Sikh Regiment who died defending their posts on September 12th, 1897 against an attack of ten thousand Pathans.

The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre is a dark day in British and Indian history.  Hundreds of Indian civilians were killed in cold blood on the orders of a British officer on 13 April 1919.  In the early 1900’s the rise of two Indian leaders, Mahatma Gandhi and Annie Besant produced an increase in political activity.  This led to the 1916 annual conference of the Indian National Congress asking the King to issue a proclamation.  They wanted the proclamation to say that it is the “aim and intention of British policy to confer self-government on India at an early date”.

In early April 1919 two popular activists were arrested.  This led to a general strike in Amritsar and a 50,000 person strong march to protest to the arresting deputy commissioner in Amritsar.  The crowd was stopped by the military and fired upon.  The official report states that 12 were killed.  An inquiry puts the number at between 20 and 30.

Crawling Street

Three British Bank employees were beaten to death and Miss Marcella Sherwood was assaulted by a mob in a street called the Kucha Kurrichhan.  She was rescued by local Indians, hidden and then moved to the fort.  Newly arrived to assume command in the area was Colonel Reginald Dyer.

He designated where Marcella Sherwood had been assaulted as sacred, as a result, he instituted a new rule.  Between the hours of 6am and 8pm anyone wishing to use the street, all 180 metres of it, must crawl along, flat on their bellies.  A curfew was in operation at night.  Houses in this street had no back doors.  No doctor or supplier was allowed in or out for the time the order was in place, from 19 April until the 25 April 1919.

Jallianwalla Bagh

Colonel Dyer was convinced that there would be a major insurrection and therefore banned all public meetings effective from the morning of Sunday April 13th 1919.  The notice was not effectively disseminated.  April 13th is the traditional festival of Baisakhi, as such, thousands of Punjabis gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh with the celebrations scheduled for 16:30.  An hour after this the British arrived with 80 soldiers.

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The Bullet Holes are Still Evident at Jallianwala Bagh

With no warning the exits were blocked and the troops were ordered by Colonel Dyer to begin shooting into the crowd.  A British enquiry placed the death toll at 379.  The Indian National Congress identified that around 1,000 people were killed.

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The massacre and the initial positive celebration that Dyer’s actions received are considered by many to be the beginning of the end of British rule in India.   This is the darkest day we have found in India.  I struggle massively with the thoughts of what is done in the name of empire.

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I can’t, though, leave Amritsar in the darkness, because despite the history, there is so much to love about this city.

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Architecture, Alleyways and Amritsar’s People

Amritsar is a walking city.  There are lanes and alleyways to explore, that are just too narrow for vehicles.  Oh sure you might get a cycle rickshaw down them, but just walking is a great way to explore the city.

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On our Heritage Walking Tour we go through alley ways, along lanes that lead us past the sacred Banyan Tree, the Baba Bohar.

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We walk into courtyards, where imagination shows the beauty of buildings, as they might have been.  In a time before they slipped into this state of what seems like arrested decay.

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There are doors that draw you in, with their colour and their detail.

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And everywhere the people, they’re just so photogenic.

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Oh Amritsar, I’m going to miss you.  I’m especially going to miss your food, the next part of our adventure here in the Punjab!

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