Amritsar: A city that brings you close to God and country

When something you have seen only in the photographs from the time you were a child and admired greatly stands right in front of your eyes, dazzling even more brightly as the sun's rays falls on it, you actually have to pinch yourself to realize that it is no dream.

The Harmandar Sahib, popularly known as the Golden Temple, that was started by the fourth guru of the Sikhs, Guru Ram Das, in the 16th century, left me awestruck as I stood at the entrance, facing the structure.

The foundation of Sri Harmandar Sahib (the temple of god) was laid by Muslim saint Mian Mir of Lahore in 1589. The main structure of the shrine was completed in 1601.

Located in Amritsar, 450 km from the national capital, it is built in the midst of a huge 'sarovar' (pond) which sparkles with the reflection of the gold structure. There are four gateways one can take to reach the place where the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy scripture) is housed.

Surrounding the pond are two huge clock towers, atop of one of which is a museum narrating the history of the Sikhs. Adjacent to the clock tower is a building which provides free food to the thousands of pilgrims that throng the place every day. On festivals and special days, over 100,000 devotees partake of the 'langar' (community kitchen).

As people from all over the country and even abroad visit the place, it is not an easy task to reach the temple. One has to wait in long queues, which however is not very tiring, as there is a lot of people assisting you with water and other requirements. From a young boy, around seven years of age to an old man who should probably be resting at home, many such can be seen volunteering and rendering yeoman service.

As I was astounded on seeing the outside structure of the temple, the feeling was further intensified on reaching the main centre of worship. I was already overwhelmed with the feeling of tranquillity, but I could not just stop admiring the intricate designs in gold that adorned the pillars and walls of the temple.

The sanctum sanctorum is a two-storeyed marble structure built on a 67-square foot platform with gold leaf adorning the outer walls of the structure and the inside also lined up with pure gold. With prayers being offered on all the storeys, the higher you go up taking the winding marble staircase you actually experience a sense of peace and fulfilment. Hence, given the chance, I could stay there for ever feeling so close to the almighty.

Every spiritual place will have some or the other history to narrate and the Golden Temple too has one, which is rather horrid. The shrine was desecrated in 1757 following Ahmed Shah Abdali's invasion.

I also could not miss that part of the temple (Akal Takht) which had been extensively damaged during the Operation Bluestar conducted by the Indian Army in 1984 to flush out armed terrorists that had holed up in the complex.

Then with such a high sense of spirituality and the joy of my small dream coming true, it was time for the other one - to see the Beating Retreat at the Attari-Wagah border.

The border, located 28 km from Amritsar, is a 45-minute drive away. Every evening, at around 6 pm, as the sun sets, the border gates of both the countries are closed for the night after a ceremony conducted by border guards of both sides.

India's Border Security Force (BSF) troopers and the Pakistan Rangers perform a drill cheered by hundreds on the two sides. The crowd on the Indian side is clearly thrice more charged than that on the other side.

The place truly gives you a huge sense of belonging to the country, as patriotic songs play in the background while chants of "Vande Matram" and "Hindustan Zindabad" rent the air as the crowds wave the tricolour.

There is similar fervour on the other side. But what amused me greatly was the stark cultural differences between India and Pakistan. On our side, men and women sat together cheering the troopers, while on the other side there was a division - with men seated on the left and women on the right.

I thought that the ceremony, which has been happening since 1959, was to mark friendly ties, but the bodily gestures and glaring-at-each-other by the border guards seemed rather offensive and gave rise to a different kind of feeling.

"I was very impressed with the way the soldiers (troopers) were marching with so much energy. Nowhere else have I seen such a thing happening between two countries," said Patricia, who had come from Italy on a business tour.

The ceremony ends with the synchronised lowering of flags of the two countries and what was laudable was the intricate sense of timing with which this was performed.

There was then a brusque handshake between the troopers from either side, which to me was done with a sense of anger. The gates were then banged shut, which left me wondering about the the purpose of it all.

How to get there:

* From Delhi: One can either take an AC bus (Rs.800), the Shatabdi Express and other trains, or a 45-minute flight to Guru Ram Dass Jee International Airport.

* Hotel charges range from Rs.850 to Rs.5,000 (per day) depending on the level of accommodation.

* There are also small inns in the vicinity of the Golden Temple.

(Shradha Chettri can be contacted at shradha.c@ians.in)

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