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Visit Amritsar, India

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Visit Amritsar, India

The Golden Temple, lively Punjabi bazaars and the elaborate Wagah border ceremony in the holiest of Sikh cities

Guru Amar Das, a founding Sikh leader, chose the small village of Amritsar as the location of a holy shrine in the late 16th century. Since then, it has bloomed into one of the Punjab’s largest cities. Set between the summer capital of the British Raj, Shimla, and the Pakistani city of Lahore, Amritsar has stood fast through colonial occupation, religious dissent and the partition of India and Pakistan.

The Golden Temple

Amritsar Golden TempleThe Taj Mahal might have become India’s best-known sight, but we’d argue that Amritsar’s Golden Temple is a worthy rival. It marks Amritsar as the holiest city for Sikhs, attracting thousands of pilgrims each year. It’s worth visiting just to see the shrine illuminated at night, when it seems to float in the sarovar (water tank) that surrounds it.

The Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh scripture) is displayed within the shrine, surrounded by floral offerings and so much gilding that the room seems to glow. You’ll hear rhythmic chanting as worshippers walk around the chamber in a clockwise direction (non-Sikhs are welcome too). Each evening, the holy book is paraded in front of jostling crowds before being put to bed in an elaborate ceremony.

The temple is part of a larger complex that includes a research institute, library and museum commemorating those killed during Operation Blue Star in 1984. You’ll see pilgrims bathing in the water, which is believed to have healing properties. And, there’s a huge kitchen run by volunteers (anyone is welcome to help roll chapattis, serve food or wash up), who encourage all visitors, regardless of race or religion, to sit down and eat together in the dining hall.

Away from the temple

A short walk from the temple is Amritsar’s old city, a red-walled labyrinth of Hindu temples and carved wooden doors that lead to courtyards strung with washing. The bazaar sells rows of red bangles, reams of bright sari fabric and shiny rows of metal cookware. You can also walk around Jallianwala Bagh, a public garden with a memorial to more than 1,000 Punjabis who were killed in 1919 when a troop of British soldiers opened fire on them as they held a nationalist gathering.

A soldier from the Indian Border Security Force at Wagah, AmritsarAfter the partition between India and Pakistan in 1947, Amritsar sat just 28 km (17 miles) from the border. The town of Wagah became a border post, and over the following years the daily closure of the border has turned into an elaborate ceremony. Tiered seating on each side gives you a vantage from where you can cheer on the guards of both nationalities as they perform a series of manoeuvres that look more like dance performances than army drills.

Once the parading is over, both countries’ flags are painstakingly lowered in tandem, there’s a brief handshake between soldiers, and the iron gates are locked. If you’d like to learn more about the separation of India and Pakistan, the Partition Museum opened in Amritsar in 2016 with a collection of photographs and interviews from those who were affected.

Amritsar has a well-connected airport with flights to Delhi, from where you can catch your international flights. It works well as a starting point for exploring the western foothills of the Himalaya, including Shimla and Dharamsala.

The best time to visit Amritsar

Amritsar is at its best from October to March, when the weather stays relatively warm, although temperatures can dip from mid-December to January. From April onward, temperatures begin to rise and can hit 40 C (104 F), and the monsoon rains tend to arrive around July. If you’re happy with a little humidity, the temperatures have begun to cool by September at a time that represents good value for travel.

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Suggested Amritsar itinerary

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Accommodation choices for Amritsar

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Ideas for experiencing Amritsar

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