Gurdwara Sri Harmandir Sahib or Sri darbar Sahib, better known as ‘Golden Temple’, is the most sacred shrine for Sikhs. ‘Harmandir’ literally means “God’s residence’. It is the seat of the sacred ‘Guru Granth Sahib’ – teachings of the eternal Guru. Harmandir itself is located in the middle of a sacred sarovar (pond) and can be reached through a causeway. ‘Akal Takht ‘, the highest seat of earthly authority of the Khalsa Panth (Sikh sect) is housed in another building within the temple complex. There are four entrances on four sides of the complex signifying that the people of all faiths are welcome. In fact, the foundation of the temple was laid by Hazrat Mian Mir, a Muslim saint.
Although more than one lakh (100,000) people visit the temple every day, the entire complex, spread over 6-7 acres of land, is spotlessly clean and well maintained. Rich and poor from all faiths do kar seva (manual work) to keep it clean. A ‘langar’ (community kitchen) offers free meals to all visitors. The delectable ‘kara prasad’ (oil dripping suji halwa) is a real treat.
Amritsar, wherein the temple is situated, is named after the sarovar surrounding Sri Harmandir Sahib. Amrit -nectar of immortality- and sar –pool.
The temple, in spite of being the most sacred place of worship, has had its share of violence. It had to be renovated after the Afghan attack in eighteenth century. It again saw violence in 1984 and again in 1988 when the Indian army had to mount Operation Blue Star and Operation Black Thunder to dislodge the terrorists entrenched within.
One fine August morning a couple of years ago, having aborted several earlier attempts, we – a party of five senior citizens (my wife Alka, her sister Nishi and husband Deep, her late brother’s wife Manjul, and I) left Delhi for Amritsar. Driving on NH 1 is a pleasure. More so because of the excellent eating places all along the way. Delhiwallas frequently visit Murthal just to breakfast on its well known stuffed parathas and dahi. Throughout, the Haveli chain of restaurants is a good source of fine meals. And, of course, when in Haryana and Punjab, lassi is a must.
Humble UNA Smart at Lawrence Road, where we checked in, is a good budget hotel. We had reached Amritsar in the afternoon and, after resting a while, proceeded to Sri Harmandir Sahib described above.
Jallianwala Bagh has a place of its own in Indian History. It is here that, on April 13, 1919, hundreds of peaceful Indian citizens, part of an assembly of about 15000 celebrating Baisakhi festival, were massacred on the orders of the British Colonel Reginald Dyer as a punishment for molesting Marcella Sherwood, a British missionary. That he had made the entire population of the area crawl on all fours was not punishment enough for him. He even regretted that heavier weapons could not be used because the streets were too narrow to bring in armored cars. The nation was stunned by this enormous tragedy. Widespread protests were held across the country. Rabindranath Tagore returned the knighthood conferred on him. The British held Reginald Dyer in high esteem although he was censored by their parliament.
Jallianwala Bagh is now a national memorial. A memorial in the shape of an orange flame has been erected in the middle. The well, from which more than 100 bodies were recovered, has been preserved as have been the bullet marks on the high walls surrounding the ground. A museum displays the scenes of that fateful day. One must visit Jallianwala Bagh to pay homage to the hundreds who lost their lives.
The Durgiana Temple is primarily dedicated to goddess Durga, hence the name. Laxmi and Vishnu are also worshipped here. It is said that the temple was first constructed in the sixteenth century. It was rebuilt in 1921 on the pattern of Golden Temple. It is considered an important Hindu place of worship and is worth a visit.
The locals advised us to visit Mandir Mata Lal Devi too. It is very popular and it is claimed that you need not visit any other tirth if you have worshipped here. Built in 1989 on a small plot of 80’x20’ in a congested locality of Amritsar, the temple boasts of replicas of holy places like Badrinath, Kedarnath, Amarnath, Jagannath Puri, Pashupati Nath etc. As is usual in our country, Mata Lal Devi, born in 1923, is credited to have supernatural powers, an incarnation of the goddess and has been deified. My rationalist mind could not digest these claims and I did not enter the building. To me, it appeared only a money making enterprise. (Remember the film ‘O My God’?).
We wanted to see the ‘beating of retreat’ at the Wagah border but could not, due to unprecedented crowds. Our escort advised us to see the ceremony at Hussainiwala border near Ferozepur the next evening. We were told that it was just as good and were assured of VIP seats. We drove to Ferozepur (some 120 kilometers). Our gracious hosts took us boating in the river Satluj. It looked like a small sea. We enjoyed the boat ride and were thrilled to be so close to what was, till a few decades ago, India. The river, on its serpentine path, traversed both India and Pakistan intermittently. It must be extremely tough to guard a border where one bank belongs to yours and the other to a hostile neighbor you. Our jawans are doing a daunting task extremely well. I salute them.
In the evening we were taken to the Hussainiwala border. The pavilions on both sides, Indian and Pakistani, were teeming with spectators. As promised, we got to be seated next to the commandant of the BSF. A white line marked the international border. What a paradox! With a stroke of pen on a sheet of paper almost seven decades ago a country was divided into two, turning a sizable part of Indians into Pakistanis.
Our BSF Jawans, six feet plus tall, well built, donning immaculate khaki uniforms and stiffly starched kalagis atop their smart turbans presented an impressive sight. The Pakistani Rangers, replicating Indians in black, were just as impressive. Man to man, there was no difference between our Jawans and the Rangers. Both performed exquisite drills, resulting from years of rigorous training and rehearsals. It was heartening to see the flags of the two countries coming together half way in the air, Indian flag collected by the Rangers on their soil and theirs collected by our Jawans on our soil, both sides folding the flags reverently and handing over to their counterparts.
The reaction of the spectators, both Indians and Pakistanis, was detestable, to say the least. Raising slogans for one’s own country is laudable, but bad-mouthing the others’? I was told that, at times, even stones and shoes are hurled at each other. The pain of partition, migration of millions of people across the border, the butchery of innocents on both sides has created a deep-rooted hatred felt till this day. Are seven decades not long enough to forget the past and make a new beginning? The ‘beating of retreat’ is a ceremony to promote brotherhood between the two nations. If the two cannot live peacefully, no ceremony, however impressive, is going to help. We came away with such mixed feelings.
Before returning to Amritsar, we visited the National Martyrs Memorial raised to honor three revolutionaries, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. All three were sentenced by the British to be executed in Lahore Conspiracy Case. Being aware that their execution would spark widespread unrest in the country, they were executed secretly in Lahore jail on March 23, 1931.Their bodies were smuggled out, cremated and the ashes thrown in Sutlej. After paying homage to the three martyrs, we returned to Amritsar.
Amritsar is known for Punjabi cuisine. We had done our home work before leaving and visited every outlet recommended by those who know. We tried the places recommended for fish fry, Amritsari naan and jalebi and found them quite ordinary. Even the Amritsari vadis and papad are nothing to write home about. In fact, we had our best meals in Humble UNA Smart, the hotel we stayed in.
It was a most enjoyable trip, educative and, for me, somewhat nostalgic. I was too young to remember the partition or its consequences. But I have heard so much from my parents and siblings that I feel that I belong to Punjab. My ancestors lived in Lahore, my father was employed in places like Dhilwan, my eldest sister, God bless her soul, had studied in Dev Samaj College for Women at Ferozepur, and Beas is my birth place. Beas must have been a small little village three quarters of a century ago at the time of my birth. A look at the sprawling town from the neighboring flyover and out went my aspiration of visiting the place of my birth.