Location: Taj Swarna, Besant Avenue, Amritsar, Punjab 143001
To visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar is to stretch all the senses. If you can let go, it will be one of your deepest experiences in India. Known by Sikh devotees as Harmandir Sahib (Abode of God), this is their most revered gurdwara (door to the guru/teacher, sacred space). Rising from the Amrit Sarovar (the sacred pool), which is surrounded by sacred buildings, the complex is suffused in water-reflected light, a tranquil informality, and the democratic philosophy of a comparatively new world religion.
Pilgrims stream in all day, most staying several hours. They may take a dip, eat or help out at the Langar (communal kitchen), sing sacred poems and songs, or just sit and chat at ease, waterside. Most will spend time reading aloud or to themselves from copies of the Guru Granth Sahib placed around the lake and in some of the buildings - this is the central holy scripture completed in 1604, a copy installed here the same year, its text mostly written by six Sikh gurus but partly by Hindu Bhakti saints and even a Sufi saint.
To benefit most from this harmonious experience, it is worth the effort to coincide (respectfully wearing a head cover) with the two key ceremonies, joining pilgrims along the causeway to the golden sanctum: evening sukhasan, when pilgrims chant as the Guru Granth Sahib is carried from there to the Akal Takht for the night; and early morning prakash when chanting pilgrims (usually fewer than at night) process it out again to the sanctum.
You might think that’s it for Amritsar. Far from it. Near the Golden temple, Jallianwala Bagh is the square that witnessed the unprovoked massacre of Indian people by the British on Baisakhi (spring) festival, 13 April in 1919. Steps away, find the exemplary Partition Museum opened in 2017, and in the old city lanes seek out phulkari embroidery and great dhabas ((cafes). Two more remarkable Amritsar experiences: multi-hall Durgina temple (don’t miss Hanuman hall), and attending the sunset Changing of Guard and Beating Retreat ceremony at the Wagah Border with Pakistan (passport required). Keeping to the Sikh vibe, outings could be to sacred Tarn Taran Sahib founded by the 5th Guru in 1590, and to abandoned Pul Kanjri built by the Sikhs greatest ruler, Ranjit Singh. For something crazy, vast Khalsa College (completed 1911-12) designed by Ram Singh (who did Governor’s House in Shimla). Meanwhile, remember to book your wellbeing top-ups at Taj Swarna’s lavish Jiva Spa.
Must-do wellness experience: Exploring the Golden Temple slowly slowly
Taj Swarna buzz phrase: Those home recipe treatments at Jiva Spa - great!
Ideas for unpacking your kind of slow-down wellness at Taj Swarna Amritsar
Love those Punjabi roadside dhabas across India? This is their fountainhead. Groups of friends even drive the 278 miles up from Delhi for lunch. Be sure to experience Amritsar kulcha, butter chicken, creamy dal fry, palak paneer, stuffed parathas .... Read mouth-watering reviews online, then make your choice of dhaba, then find it.
Re-live India's history. It took 70 years and plenty of courage, diplomacy and sensitivity to create a museum about Partition. In 2017 it opened in Amritsar's handsome restored Town Hall. More than 100 videos of oral histories - from musicians to housewives to politicians - together with photographs and documents recount the tragic stories of violence, loss, insecurity, migration and survival out of which India and Pakistan were born.
Dress up in the Punjab's embroidery , phulkari (flower work). Distinct and easy to recognise, its parallel darn stitches in vibrant- coloured silks on coarse cotton cloth are worked by women in abstract flower and geometric designs. Seek out a phulkari store in the old city, buy a snazzy waistcoat and brighten up that white shirt and beige slacks!
Almost all Amritsar's tourists are pilgrim Sikhs. Be among the few who visit the rambling Durgiana temple tended by Hindus. Hidden behind the brash 1920s Sikh-style mandir in its lake, find the more interesting older halls including a corridor lined with outsized 3-D images of Durga in all her roles.
Enjoy a party - Durgiana temple gives the best in town. They celebrate Krishna's birth, Radha-Krishna and Diwali with gusto. But the climax is Langur Mela during the 10-day Dussehra festival. Devoted to Hanuman, Rama's monkey assistant, groups from all over town plus villages near and far come in full costume with their own bands to dance all night long.
Episode 24: Chonor House, Dharamshala
It really is time to start planning your Unpacking Wellness experience for 2022!
How shall we want to travel?
We are emerging into a more cautious world, one where we perhaps want to move more slowly, be in control of our interaction with other people, avoid crowds, be outside as much as possible. I am here to help you achieve this in the Himalaya, on the Deccan Plateau, along the coast, in forests, desert and villages.
If you have not traveled with me in a group before ....
Please know that we experience great sights in the best possible way, with lots of add-on encounters and visits to off-beat places. We meet conservationists, curators, craftsmen and musicians, we walk with naturalists, we cook with local chefs. In sum, we imbibe the essence of each area thanks to my four decades of studying and visiting India - and making great friends who I share with you.
For private travel ....
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