A city in the west of the state of Punjab, which is on the north-western edge of India
, bordering Pakistan. Amritsar is the capital of the Sikh religion and their holiest shrine (the Golden Temple) is located here, which is also by far the best-known tourist attraction in Amritsar … and it has its own dark associations too. Other dark sites in this city relate to the British colonial era as well as more recent conflicts and wars.
What there is to see:
The principal and longest-established dark site in Amritsar is related to India
's (or rather Britain
's) colonial dark heritage:
Also in the heart of Amritsar is a new museum that could be a thing for some dark tourists too, at least those with a special interest in the immediate post-WWII
history of the Indian subcontinent: the new Partition Museum
. It's located in the refurbished old Town Hall of Amritsar, a few minutes' walk north of Jallianwala Bagh just beyond the main parking area for the Golden Temple. Since this museum was only to open in its proper form in March 2017, I missed this when I was in Amritsar just three months earlier. So I can't say anything first-hand about it. But if I ever go back, it would be high on my priority list for sure.
The same is true for yet another new museum, the Punjab State War Heroes' Memorial & Museum
, which only partially opened its doors (before actually being finished) late in 2016, so I haven't yet had a chance to see this either. I just spotted it driving past en route to Wagah
. It's a huge complex with open-air displays of tanks and suchlike, as well as a gleaming silver MiG-27 jet fighter plane on a stick outside by the roadside. It's right opposite the also relatively new India Gate monument of Amritsar on the western outskirts of the city where the Grand Trunk Road leads out of town towards the west.
Amritsar's premier main tourism site, the Golden Temple
(described in greater detail below
), could possibly also be seen as a dark-tourism site to a degree. For one thing the temple complex is also home to countless marble plaques commemorating Sikhs who fought in wars (including WW1
), so it also serves as kind of military memorial.
Furthermore, the Golden Temple was also the site of a violent confrontation between a militant religious-extremist Sikh group and the Indian army in 1984. At least 500 people lost their lives in the battle (code-named Operation Blue Star) against the extremists who had occupied the temple. Parts of the buildings also sustained major damage, but this has been repaired in the meantime (parts of the complex were actually completely rebuilt anew) so there are no reminders of this dark episode to be seen at the site today (or at least I didn't notice any, nor did the guide even mention this dark episode). The only reference to it I saw was on a plaque by the temple part that was rebuilt after the damage it sustained in 1984 … but that was in very muddled English I found almost impossible to decode, it just sounded suitably angered.
Needless to say, the military intervention at this 'holy' site was more than controversial amongst Sikhs (including moderate Sikhs) at the time and probably remains so to this day. Immediately after the battle, many Sikh members of the Indian military mutinied or resigned from service.
And only a few months after the battle the then prime minister Indira Gandhi, who had ordered the military operation, was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards.
In response to this assassination, in turn, Sikhs then became the victims of widespread pogroms in late 1984 in which at least 3000 were killed, especially in the capital Delhi
And Sikh extremists were later found to have been responsible for the June 1985 bombing of Air India flight 182 (flying the Toronto-Montreal-London-Delhi route), which killed all 329 on board the jumbo jet (most of them from Canada
), as well as for a co-ordinated bombing attack at Tokyo
(but here the bomb went off before being placed on plane it was intended for).
The Golden Temple was occupied by Sikh extremists again in 1986, and again a police operation drove them out, this time without a similar bloodbath, though.
These days, tensions seem to have calmed down … though you never know, the potential for further friction that could lead to violence yet again hasn't completely gone away …
in the north-western part of the state of Punjab, in the north-western corner of India
, less than 20 miles (30 km) from the border with Pakistan, at Wagah
, and just over 30 miles (53 km) from Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city. In contrast, it's over 250 miles (400 km) to India's capital city Delhi
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: fairly easy by plane or train; needn't be too expensive.
Getting to Amritsar is fairly easy. The city even boasts an airport that has a number of direct international flights, including from Britain
and even Ashgabat
, in addition to countless domestic connections.
From within northern India, trains offer a good alternative. From India's capital city Delhi
it's only ca. 5-7 hours on the Shatabdi Express train (in first class you even get food & drink, included in the ticket price, served at your seat and it's actually quite palatable too!).
Most of the destinations within Amritsar are within walking distance from each other, with the exception of the new Punjab State War Heroes' Memorial & Museum, for which you'll need a taxi or other private transport.
Although Amritsar is – by Indian standards – a relatively small provincial capital city, at just over 1.2 million inhabitants, its infrastructure is quite good and that includes plenty of choices for accommodation in all categories.
As regards food & drink
, Punjabi cuisine is one of the most prized variants of Indian cooking and can be sampled in many a dhaba (roadside restaurant) in Amritsar too. Here, rather than rice, wheat breads such as roti, chapati, naan and paratha dominate. Curries vary widely and are often creamy and typically not as spicy as southern Indian dishes (though the spice levels vary). One of my personal favourite of all Indian dishes is a local speciality: Punjabi kadhi (gram flour balls in a quite liquid yoghurt-y sauce).
Time required: The inner city sights could be done in a single day but you'd need an additional day to get to the more outlying sites and the Wagah border as well.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
If you take the Grand Trunk Road westwards from the edge of Amritsar, there's a popular, and by now firmly established excursion destination that has a unique dark twist: Wagah
, the land border
crossing point between arch-enemies India
and Pakistan, where flamboyantly dressed soldiers on both sides perform an elaborately choreographed, in fact hilariously exaggerated, 'border closing ceremony' every evening, which is full of patriotic fanfare and ritualized displays of aggression/rivalry. It has to be seen to be believed. Unique in the world.
India's capital city Delhi
is also within relatively easy reach from Amritsar, both by train or plane (see above
For places further afield see under India
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The No. 1 sight in Amritsar, and the prime reason for the large majority of visitors for coming here, is the famous Golden Temple. It's the holy of holies for Sikhs, who come in their droves as pilgrims, but it's also a top tourist attraction, not quite as universally famous as the Taj Mahal in Agra, but not that far behind. And I must say, I found it even more impressive than the Taj.
The core of the site is the actual Golden Temple, whose official name is Harmandir Sahib, 'the abode of God' in Punjabi. This two-storey shrine sits on an artificial island within a large 'tank', an artificial lake. The two-storey temple is indeed clad in gold and contains holy scriptures, guarded by Sikh dignitaries and musicians (piped to outside loudspeakers too).
This golden shrine can also be visited by non-Sikh non-pilgrims (no photography allowed, though), just like the rest of the complex. It's part of Sikhism that the Temple is open to everybody, regardless of religion. The only concession non-Sikhs must also make to is to cover their heads (and generally dress 'decently' – no shorts!) and take off their shoes and socks while in the complex (there are lockers by the entrance).
Pilgrims also take “holy dips” in the waters of the artificial lake that surrounds the Golden Temple. There are various other shrines and religious parts – but also something that makes this site a world-record breaker: the “Langar”, the free kitchen, which is by far the largest in the world.
Hundreds of volunteers work in the communal kitchens preparing free meals for thousands of pilgrims every day, year-round. The food consists of simple dhal and chapatis and is served in large halls where pilgrims squat on the floor. It is all financed through donations.
Observing the work in the kitchen complex is mesmerizing! Groups of women making chapatis by hand the traditional way, while chapati machines support them. Huddles of old men peeling garlic and peas. Huge vats of veg boiling on gas flames being stirred. Elegantly dressed nobleman Sikhs collecting the used dishes. And rows upon rows of volunteers doing the washing-up in large metal troughs. It's amazing how all the logistics work so smoothly. Despite the masses of people and all the work going on, the atmosphere is calm and reverential. I'm not normally so easily impressed by religious customs, but witnessing all this was an exception. I found it absolutely fascinating.
Walking around outside in the open-air parts of the temple complex also offers exceptional people watching … but if you are a white westerner, you'll be the target of even more people watching. Given the selfie craze these days you'll also frequently be stopped by locals who want to have their picture taken with you. Best just go with the flow and smile …
The Golden Temple of the Sikhs also has a Hindi counterpart, as it were, namely in the Durgiana Temple, which actually looks a bit similar to its more famous cousin in that it also involves (partial) gold plating as well as a square artificial lake as the temple's setting and with access to the temple being provided by a foot bridge.
- Amritsar 01 - Golden Temple
- Amritsar 02 - Sikh holy of holies
- Amritsar 03 - lots of gold
- Amritsar 04 - gold fish too
- Amritsar 05 - holy dip
- Amritsar 06 - war memorial plaques
- Amritsar 07 - this one is about the Kashmir conflict
- Amritsar 08 - re-built
- Amritsar 09 - Sikh dagger
- Amritsar 10 - super-turban
- Amritsar 11 - free water
- Amritsar 12 - free music
- Amritsar 13 - free meal
- Amritsar 14 - volunteers working together in the kitchen
- Amritsar 15 - collective work
- Amritsar 16 - making chapatis
- Amritsar 17 - big vats
- Amritsar 18 - cook at work
- Amritsar 19 - collecting the washing up
- Amritsar 20 - collective washing up
- Amritsar 21 - piles of clean dishes
- Amritsar 22 - collection of donations
- Amritsar 23 - not a massacre, just tired pilgrims
- Amritsar 24 - downtown
- Amritsar 25 - new monument
- Amritsar 26 - happy monument
- Amritsar 27 - Old Town
- Amritsar 28 - narrow streets and lots of cables
- Amritsar 29 - new gleaming shopping mall
- Amritsar 30 - tourist transport
- Amritsar 31 - traffic
- Amritsar 32 - MiG on a stick
- Amritsar 33 - Punjabi food
- Amritsar 34 - train meal