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Amritsar was the first stop of our India trip that I’d done very little research or planning for. I think in my mind I was just there to see the Golden Temple – so my expectations for the rest of our time there were low. Fortunately, the girls had done their homework we ended up with a jam packed and varied itinerary for our two days there.
Our first move upon arrival was to hurry to the border with Pakistan for the daily border closing ceremony. Our train had been held up for several hours during the journey but fortunately the hotel manager arranged for a driver to pick us up and gave us 5 minutes throw our bags into the room and hop in the car.
The border closing ceremony is a daily ritual that takes place on the hotly contested border between India and Pakistan, somewhere between Amritsar and the Pakistani city of Lahore – every single day. As with much of my visit to Amritsar, I had very little idea of what to expect. We drifted through the crowds until reaching a ‘tourist’ gate where our passports were checked and we were directed to a small, separate compound nearest to the gate. Here, we had our first glimpse of the hundreds of visitors, two giant and overflowing U-shaped stadiums facing each other from either side of the border.
As the ceremony began, crowds from either side began chanting and waving excitedly across the invisible line that divided the two countries. On the Indian side, the brightly coloured audience sang and danced throughout the ceremony, with strangers linking arms on the stadium floor. Just 50 yards away in Pakistan, every guest wore black and white. It was difficult to hear over the racket in India, but from what I could see (if not hear..) the events looked a lot less noisy and a little more calm.
After the dancing, it was time for the gates to close. As the guards marched in time, I couldn’t help but be reminded of changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace and it seemed strange to see something so familiar in such a greatly different environment and situation. The gates were shut, and the ceremony promptly ended. As we drove back to Amritsar, I realised that being so close to the Pakistan border had left me with something of an itch to visit.
Fortunately, however, plenty more sights in Amritsar quickly turned my attention back to India. Our visit to the Sikh Golden Temple the day after ensured this. We opted to stroll around the temple rather than queue to enter (the heat!) – but I reckon it’s probably best from the outside anyway. Once again (see: Taj Mahal) small children were deposited with us for photos, and once again we agreed for the first few snaps before beginning to feel like characters in Disney World.
But that gold – woah.
We visited the Hindu silver temple afterward, and this lesser known (and subsequently much less crowded) attraction did not disappoint either. It was even kind of relaxing to stroll around – although there were more photo requests – but sometimes it can be fun to reciprocate.
Our last stop in Amritsar was to Jallianwala Bagh, the site of the Amritsar massacre where, in 1919, British soldiers opened fire on unarmed Indian protesters, killing over 300 and wounding over 1000 more. As we walked around the site, it was chilling to see bullet holes in still in the walls, and an ever-burning flame over the well that many protesters jumped into – committing suicide – to avoid the bullets.
Also saddening was my lack of knowledge of the atrocity previous to visiting. In the previous year I had spent time in New Zealand, Australia, Tonga and the Cook Islands – all countries affected by British colonialism – and everywhere that I went, I discovered more and more about our destructive history. In itself, this is a topic too large for this post, but suffice to say that I am continually disappointed by the lack of awareness that we in Britain generally have about the shameful events of our past. It was a wake-up call to arrive at a site like this and discover yet another significant event that had been left out of the history text books.
So after a border closing ceremony, a glimpse of Pakistan, two glimmering temples and a saddening memorial all in two days, we certainly felt like we’d seen a lot in Amritsar. Next stop was McLeod Ganj, up in the Himalayas.