Tag Archives: Amritsar

Amritsar on the half shell

Tony and I enjoyed Amritsar so much last fall that we decided to share it with our guests. The four of us took the train on April 1 for six hours to the state of Punjab. At the Amritsar train station, a young taxi driver approached us. Sunny gave us a ride to our hotel, and we liked him so much we hired him for our whole visit.

At the recommendation of our school’s travel agent, we stayed at Mrs. Bhandari’s Guesthouse, which featured a pool, outdoor eating area, garden, courtyard with water buffalo and a humble collection of rooms. Liz snapped this shot of our fellow guesthouse residents.

We checked in, grabbed a quick snack, and took off for the Wagah Border-Closing Ceremony at the Pakistan-India border, about 45 minutes out of town.

Just like our last visit, food and drink vendors lined the path approaching the stadium. I loved this papaya seller with his papaya-colored shirt and turban. Theresa got the shot.

Sno-cones made on the spot with the Indian flag colors!

A water boy wisely targeting the men in line. This may be the only place on the planet where the women’s line moves faster!

After passing through VIP security, we took our seats in the Foreigners Gallery and watched the bedlam. A full Bollywood street party was followed by people actually LINING UP to run a short distance with the Indian flag.


Great shot by Theresa:

Eventually the hollering, high-stepping, gate-slamming, foot-stomping, thumb-gesturing, hat-straightening, mustache-twisting, anthem-singing, flag-lowering antics came to a close. I took so many pictures on our last visit. This time I just watched. Check out the Pakistani guard (black beret and shades) who Theresa photographed. You do NOT want to mess with him.

Returning from the border ceremony, Sunny eagerly asked if we knew the story of Ganesha. I did, only because I had heard it at school during India Week. However, Sunny told the tale with such exuberance and joy that I just let him run with it. Here’s the story, fyi. (This is NOT how Sunny told it. His rendition featured generic nouns slapped with unconjugated verbs in an unintelligible but joyous English soup.) From the website religionfacts.com:

Incensed by the refusal of her husband to respect her privacy, to the extent of entering her private chambers even while she was having her bath, Parvati decided to settle matters once and for all. Before going for her bath the next time, she rubbed off the sandalwood paste on her body and out of it created the figure of a young boy. She infused life into the figure and told him he was her son and should guard the entrance while she bathed.
Soon after, Shiva (Lord of destruction and husband of Parvati) came to see Parvati but the young boy blocked his way and would not let him in. Shiva, unaware that this lad was his son, became furious and in great anger fought with this boy whose head got severed from his body in the ensuing battle. Parvati, returning from her bath, saw her headless son and threatened in her rage to destroy the heavens and the earth, so great was her sorrow.
Shiva pacified her and instructed his followers (known as ganas) to bring the head of the first living being they encounter. The first creature they encountered was an elephant. They thus cut off its head and placed it on the body of Parvati’s son and breathed life into him. Thus overjoyed, Parvati embraced her son.

Theresa took this great shot of the dashboard decor in Sunny’s car: Ganesha in a Clam Shell. I love it so much! No, I don’t know why this Hindu elephant god is resting on a mollusk, but there’s no denying that it’s awe inspiring.

Basically re-creating our first Amritsar visit, we took Liz and Theresa to Kesar da Dhaba for dinner. Everyone seemed happy with their food, and the restaurant owner remembered me from November! We bought dinner for Sunny, who tried to have a philosophical discussion with Tony about the Sikh religion.

Liz being a BIG risk taker!

After dinner, Sunny drove us to the Golden Temple. It was not the peaceful oasis we remembered from five months ago! It was a mob scene … a happy, spiritual, family-oriented mob scene, but a mob scene nonetheless. I was trying to take a photo of Tony and Liz in front of the temple when this family crowded in to the shot. Okayyyy.

Another family shoved a baby into Liz’s arms, which she confusedly cuddled until the mother realized its absence and abruptly yanked it back. Craziness! I liked this calm lady who was chilling and enjoying the glowing temple.

The next morning, Liz and Tony ventured back to the temple and the Jalianwallah Bagh Memorial. Apparently, they hung out with this guy.

Theresa and I lazed around the guesthouse, taking photos of the colorful garden.



For more details on the places we visited, check out my old posts about Amritsar.

On April 2, it was time to head our separate ways. Tony and Liz returned to Delhi and later took a daytrip to Agra. Theresa and I drove to McLeod Ganj, a hill station in the Himalayas and home of the exiled Dalai Lama. That story is coming up next!

Our first train trip in India!

Months ago, Tony and I had seen Amritsar, India, on a travel show and were entranced. We decided to check it out ourselves over the long weekend following Thanksgiving. With four fellow teachers in tow, we boarded the train at the New Delhi station early last Friday morning.

Jan and Tony at the station. (We worked with Jan in Shanghai, and here we are together again at AES!)

Visualizing news footage of Indian trains with passengers pouring out of the windows and piled high with people on the roof, our expectations were low, to say the least. We were pleased to find comfortable seats with plenty of legroom, a bathroom that was clean and stocked with toilet paper and soap, and food service surpassing that of U.S. domestic airlines (which doesn’t say much, I know). We received large bottles of water, tea, cornflakes (with hot milk!), bread with butter and jam, and a hot meal made of something unfamiliar but tasty. Later I learned the prime minister’s wife was onboard, which may explain the impeccable service.

Tony, who usually stuffs his 6-foot frame into tiny airline seats with an outpouring of cranky comments, kept saying, “I LOVE the train. Where else can we go by train?” After six hours, our love for the train was a bit less passionate, but it was certainly much, much better than we had anticipated.

Wagah Border ceremony – Pakistan and India say “good night”

After grumbling about working on Thanksgiving, I happily got home from school that evening and packed a bag for our weekend excursion to Amritsar. Located about 260 miles northwest of Delhi in the state of Punjab, Amritsar is the spiritual center of the Sikh religion. It’s also just a short drive from Wagah, a village that was split in 1947 with the end of British rule. Independence brought Partition, so the eastern half of Wagah went to India, and the western half to Pakistan.

Wagah is now home to the main road border crossing between the two countries and an unusual ceremony that has closed the border each night since 1959. The Border Security Force of India and the Pakistan Rangers engage in a series of choreographed marching, foot-stomping, high-kicking, head-wobbling, thumb-gesturing bravado before lowering the Pakistani and Indian flags in perfect unison, shaking hands and shutting the gates.

Shortly after checking in to our hotel in Amritsar, we hired a taxi to the border. Our driver dropped us off, pointed us in the right direction and told us to meet him at that same spot after the ceremony. We joined the throng on a road lined with vendors selling snacks and souvenirs. At the security checkpoint, we ladies breezed through and watched Tony slowly ebb forward with the sea of men until he finally emerged for his pat-down by a camouflage-clad guard. We passed through another security area set up for VIP foreign passport holders that spat us out at the “Foreigners Gallery.” Among the VIPs were several other teachers from our school!

Crowds on both sides of the border filled the stands, shouting nationalistic slogans and waving the flags for their respective countries. In India, an image of Gandhi overlooked the pre-ceremony revelry that included energetic dancing to Bollywood tunes and cheers of “Hin-du-stan!” Just a few yards away in Pakistan, the country’s first governor-general, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, watched Muslim spectators divided into gender-specific sections, alternately chanting “Pak-i-stan!” and playing Koranic verses.

We couldn’t see the goings-on in Pakistan very well. However, the Indian activities were perplexing enough to keep us riveted. First, two female guards marched dramatically from the staging area to the gate. Next, several guards lined up at a microphone. One at a time, they took a deep breath and then hollered what sounded like, “Goooaalll!” in an apparent competition to stretch it out the longest. Eventually, they all marched (a bit out of sync) to the gate and back, stomped a bit, led the crowd in more cheering and ultimately opened and closed the Indian gate a few times. I assume the Pakistani guards were putting on their own version of the show until they opened their gate. (Note to other countries considering this type of ceremony: The Pakistani gate slides open, which is much more dramatic than the Indian gates, which swing open from the middle.) When both gates were open and the guards had faced off with some clomping and shaking of their pleated headwear, they took the ropes from the flagpoles and simultaneously lowered the Pakistani and Indian flags. Flags folded and carried away, a guard and a ranger exchanged a quick handshake and a smile before slamming the gates for the night.

According to news reports, the confrontational ceremony was toned down starting last year to reflect the desire for better relations between the two neighbors. The vibe on our side was definitely one of pride and giddiness more than anger, but who knows what tensions rippled below the surface and beyond the gate?

I had hoped to pose with the guards following the ceremony but the surge of Indians with the same plan dissuaded me. Instead, I snapped a few shots of the rapturous crowd and made a quick escape.

Here’s a video of our experience at the Wagah border.

Here’s some old BBC footage featuring Michael Palin on the Pakistan side of the gate. Much nicer production quality than mine!

Ironically, Michael Palin also starred in the Monty Python sketch, “The Ministry of Silly Walks,” which I’ll post here just to amuse myself. (Another teacher pointed out the irony!)

Golden Temple – urban oasis

Before leaving New Delhi for our weekend excursion, I had this vision: Our train pulls out of the station, thick air pollution swirling in its wake. We slowly chug-a-chug-chug into the countryside, where the brown haze gradually dissipates and the blue sky bursts into the scene. Green crops sway in the crisp, cool breeze while farmers wave in slow motion.
(Cue the sound of a needle scratching a record.)
Reality check.

Our train DID pull out of the station with thick air pollution swirling in its wake, and that air stuck with us all the way to Amritsar. No blue sky, no green grass, no friendly farmers. Everything was gray and brown and dirty. In Amritsar, we tuktuk’ed to our hotel – HK Clarks Inn, which veiled itself in that all-too-familiar western style designed to fool unsuspecting guests into thinking western-style customer service was on order.

As a traveler, I am often guilty of letting little disappointments condense in a cloud over my head. It’s been a long time since I visited a place like the Golden Temple, which blew that cloud away with a tranquil ethereal breeze.

Checking our shoes at the gate, we walked barefoot for a considerable distance on path covered with a damp woven mat. Before entering the temple, we had to walk through a little pool of water to wash our feet. Although I have serious issues regarding bare moist feet in public places, my OCD went out the window when the temple came into view.

The Golden Temple – Harmandir Sahib – rises up from the Sarovar, a lake considered holy by Sikh pilgrims, who immerse themselves and their children for its auspicious and healing powers. Home to the religion’s holy text, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the temple is the spiritual center for Sikhs but welcoming to everyone. The chaos, pollution, traffic and frustrations outside the complex evaporated, overcome by smiles and spirituality.

Our group strolled clockwise with the other visitors along the white marble parikrama path, pausing frequently to absorb the serenity and appreciate the importance of this place. A mother sat fully dressed, splashing water over her naked toddler and gleefully pointing him in our direction. People knelt at shrines located along the parikrama in honor of Sikh gurus, saints and soldiers. Families sat huddled together, mumbling from prayer books and staring out at the gleaming temple. Men crouched lakeside, scooping water over their torsos and laughing. For some, it seemed a culmination of their life’s dream.

Nancy cropped her photo in the name of decency.

Photo by Katrina.

Another by Katrina.

Photo by Cristi.
Keeping the knife dry

“Please, miss, one snap!” A gentle touch on the arm, a shy gesture pleading for a photo. We must have paused 20 times to pose with other temple-goers. All across India, people are whipping out their mobile phones to share pics of themselves with the foreigners and … oh yeah … the Golden Temple. Within the temple complex, everyone was deeply respectful, though; we never felt overwhelmed by the attention.

This man didn’t speak English, but he gestured at my camera and then at himself. I took the photo and showed it to him. He nodded, smiled and walked away. Beautiful.

Everyone was required to remove their shoes and cover their heads – even men! Tony bought this handkerchief from a vendor outside the temple.

Our posse: Katrina, Nancy, me, Tony, Cristi and Jan

In line to enter the temple building itself, I was amazed at the peace. Nobody pushed or shouted. Everyone waited expectantly, many carrying packets of sweet halvah to present as an offering. Musical scriptures, recited inside the temple from the sacred book, poured out of speakers to create a spiritual soundtrack.

Katrina entering the temple; this shot is from her camera.

That night, Jan, Cristi and I revisited the temple. We were surprised to see hundreds of people clearly set up to spend the night. Some leaned against the walls; others sprawled out in the open space, covered with blankets too thin to compensate for the cold marble. We nearly stepped on one sleeping pilgrim who picked an unfortunate spot near the donation window. Although I prefer a warm bed, I understood the appeal of dozing in the glow of the beautifully illuminated temple.

Before heading back to the hotel, we popped in to the “langar,” where thousands of people each day gather for a free sanctified vegetarian meal cooked and served by volunteers. This New York Times article has a wonderful description of the temple and its community kitchen.

The guy on the left was passing out plates. I really wanted to eat here, but we ran out of time.

A blurry shot of people eating at the langar.

Back outside the temple, it’s chaos as usual.

Unwanted Adulation Mars Memorial Visit

On April 13, 1919, thousands of people gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh, a garden down the street from the Golden Temple in Amritsar, for a religious celebration amidst a buzz of political restlessness. In the weeks preceding this day, tensions had escalated between British imperial authorities and activists for Indian independence. A series of protests and riots rocked Punjab, and rumors circulated that a revolt was planned for later that spring. To quell the uprisings, British governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, declared martial law, which included a ban on public gatherings. When word of the crowd in Jallianwala Bagh reached Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, he marched British and Gurkha troops into the garden and ordered them to open fire. His armored cars with mounted machine guns were too wide for the enclosure gate or he would have used those, too, he later admitted. Official figures put the death count at 379 with almost 1,200 injured, but other sources say close to 1,000 people were killed. More than 100 died by leaping into a well to escape gunfire.

The garden now stands as a memorial to the massacre, so we stopped by to check it out. Entering the garden, we could envision people 92 years ago chatting under the trees and lounging by the stone wall, never suspecting the imminent ambush. Just as we were feeling appropriately somber, just as Jan was reading the story of the massacre from a guide book, we experienced a completely different kind of attack.

“On April 13, thousands of people gathered at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919. An hour after the meeting had started at 4:30,” Jan read, slowly raising her head from the book, “they were attacked by a wild mob of women in saris!” I looked around at the encroaching photo-seeking fans. We laughed but honestly couldn’t escape. Lucky for me, Jan created a diversion with her sing-song voice: “Well, hellllooooo. Oh, don’t you just look so beautiful! Well, I don’t know what you’re saying, but you’re absolutely adorable.” And so on. I slipped away and stared in shock at the group engulfing her. We had warned her not to make eye contact! We had tried to teach her the art of kind rejection, but there she was, trapped. I wish I could say that I parted the crowd and staged a daring rescue, but I am ashamed to admit I bolted for safety without a backward glance. Well, I looked back long enough to snap this picture.

I didn’t get far, however. Another group of smiling Indian tourists accosted me, rattling off Hindi louder and louder to help me understand. Finally, an English speaker asked where I was from, and I heard, “No British, American!” For once, being an American was an asset. It was far worse to be British in this emotional place. The group moved in closer. One lady embraced me, stroking my face and resting her head on my shoulder. She and her entire extended family insisted on cuddling and posing for phone photos, which took ages and left me a bit traumatized.

Finally, I was released to walk about the garden. But freedom was short-lived. Every time, I lifted my eyes from the ground, somebody was desperately bobbing around trying to catch my glance. Unlike the gentle snapshot requests at the Golden Temple, the memorial paparazzi were brutal. Although amusing, the attention really did keep us from fully experiencing the memorial and its displays. Next time, we’ll have to wear disguises.

Notice the girl taking a picture of me taking a picture of the memorial. ALL of my photos at the memorial have that common feature.

Can’t you hear their moms? “Go stand by the tall white man!”

These school kids were dying to bust out of that line and chat with us, but a nun with a stern face kept them in check.

Amritsar by Rickshaw

After being mauled at the massacre memorial, we needed time to decompress. How do Brad and Angelina handle it? Exiting the Jallianwala Bagh, we hired a few bicycle rickshaw drivers to take us to lunch. I was looking forward to dining at a restaurant recommended by the brother of my colleague, Shafali. He visits Amritsar frequently and raves about this place. The rickshaw drivers merged into the busy traffic, and off we went.

After darting through alleys, zipping around corners, and pedaling up and down a highway overpass (well, technically, we got off and walked for that part), the rickshaws pulled up to our destination. Closed.

“We can take you to Crystal Restaurant,” said our driver.
“Sure,” said Tony. “Why not?”
“Why not? Why NOT? Well, maybe because he is a RICKSHAW DRIVER,” I said to Tony as we hit the road again. “Are we really taking restaurant recommendations from a rickshaw driver?”
“I bet he’s taking us to his favorite place,” said Tony, who obviously hadn’t thought it through.
“Yeah, I bet the Crystal Restaurant is a popular hangout for the rickshaw crowd,” I muttered. Still, it was an adventure. For the second time, we hiked up the hill to the highway overpass and reboarded the rickshaw for another wild ride.

The Crystal Restaurant turned out to be a typical packaged-tour eatery with a thick menu catering to the culinary preferences of various nationalities. Katrina snapped this shot.

After lunch, we asked our drivers to take us back up and over the highway to the Durgiana Mandir, a Hindu temple that was lovely but a bit anti-climactic compared to the Golden Temple.

You can ring my be-e-ell, ring my bell! (Nancy’s photo)

Returning to our rickshaws, we decided to head back to the hotel. That involved another trek up and over the highway, but at the end of our journey, we all agreed this impromptu tour was a highlight of our Amritsar visit.

Katrina was terrified, but Nancy kept her calm.

Jan and Cristi.

Tony and me (from Jan).

A beggar lady outside Crystal Restaurant.

Walking up the hill to the overpass for the jillionth time.

The rickshaw drivers pushed their vehicles up to the top.

As you may recall from our first Indian rickshaw ride, it is not easy to get good photos! Here are a few I like.

Kesar Da Dhaba

I came to Amritsar with only one restaurant recommendation: Kesar Da Dhaba. It came from the brother of my colleague, Shafali. When I searched for it online, I discovered it was tripadvisor‘s number one restaurant in town! I didn’t get a good look at the place when the rickshaw brought us here for lunch (only to find it was closed), but I knew not to get my expectations too high.

Our taxi parked a short distance away, and the driver got out to help us find the restaurant. We meandered through some alleys and eventually found it. At around 6:30 p.m., we were the only ones there. In most countries, that would be a red flag, but Indians eat dinner well after our bedtime.

The decor could be described as “prison minimalist” with a Coke poster to liven up the joint. We sat in concrete booths with gray marble tables and cluelessly perused the menu. The waiter appeared and cheerfully addressed us in Hindi. We ordered water, which he seemed to understand.

Then we experienced a classic ESL moment: Oftentimes, teachers present English learners with a choice, “Do you want to use crayons or colored pencils?” and the kids respond, “Yes.” You can’t help but giggle. Unless you’re the one saying “yes.” So the waiter said, “Blah blah blah” with one hand extended, followed by “blah blah blah” with his other hand extended. And we said, “Yes!” Then he shook his head (oh boy, been there, done that) and repeated the “blah blah blahs” with the hand gestures, to which we repeated, “Yes!” Finally, he laughed, wandered away and returned with two bottles of water – one cold and one at room temperature. Oh, right!

The confusion continued. We had no idea what to order. So I pointed to the menu, made a thumbs-up gesture (please don’t let that be offensive in India), rubbed my tummy and smacked my lips, pointed at the waiter and then shrugged my shoulders, which is obviously the international message: “What’s good here?” Somehow it all worked out. Our meal – parantha thali (which kind of translates to “delicious flat bread with a few small servings of other things on a round tray”) – featured bowls of dal (fried lentils), channa masala (spicy/sweet chickpeas), raita (thick yogurt with cucumber) and the most delicious butter nan bread I’ve ever tasted.

We asked for more bread, and a young boy delivered it, picking up each newly fried piece and crunching it in his bare hands.

Dessert was an almond custard called firni. Pretty and scrumptious!

Cristi and I were members of the Clean Plate Club!

There’s very little on this planet that I won’t eat, and I don’t have a lot of hang-ups when it comes to hygiene or western standards at restaurants. That said, I am SO glad we visited the kitchen AFTER dinner. It was open to the street, and the cooks sat cross-legged on the counter.
Katrina took this one.

Here are a couple shots from our walk back to the taxi.