Friday, 8 July 2016

India in Monsoon

It was time to return! I was back in India for my 3rd visit and for the first time in 3 years. It had been far too long. Visa applications were a lot simpler with the E-Visa system, and there were still many flight bargains to be had from the UK. Mine was with Qatar Airways for £420 return from Birmingham – I even managed to get a free upgrade to Business class!  Booking train tickets from the UK however was still as difficult. I had big problems registering with IRTC, and eventually gave up setting up a new account and luckily was able to use an Indian friend’s account to book a train ticket for part of my trip.


I arrived late in the afternoon on the Sunday in fairly good shape thanks to my luxurious journey. It was hot and humid, which I did expect in July, but luckily the Monsoon was yet to arrive.  I was staying at Tourist guest House, situated next to the Grand trunk Road. It was a decent budget hotel, with much needed air conditioning. I took a cycle rickshaw to a local bar, had a few beers and then had an early night, ready to explore Amritsar proper!


I was up fairly early and made my way out on the heat of the early morning sun. I strolled down a side road heading in the general direction of the Golden Temple

my first stop was for Chai for 10 Rupees at a busy junction, and then for breakfast a street food stall just around the corner. It was busy with locals - always a good sign, and was a local dish of curried Chickpeas, served with 3 pieces of a fried, called Punjabi Chole Puri. Excellent and great value at 30 Rupees.

Punjabi Chole Puri

Local Amritsar Mosque

My next stop was at a Sikh temple near the Town Hall, called Gurudwara Shri Santokhsar Sahib.

Sandals off, and head scarf on I went in to explore. It was a quiet temple that was at one end of a big rectangular water pool.  It was a pleasant place to walk around and watch the people carry out their bathing rituals and prayers. Free entry.

Gurudwara Shri Santokhsar Sahib

Gurudwara Shri Santokhsar Sahib

I carried on walking past mosques, temples and general chaos that is typical of India. Unfortunately this whole part of Amritsar resembled a building site which you had to walk straight through. Men were  cutting through concrete and there was lots of activity everywhere. You had to dodge construction traffic as well as the usual tuk tuks and hawkers.  Its all part of a general “beautification” of the main road leading up to the Golden Temple” – or at least this is what the signs told me. 

I was soon at the gardens of Jallianwala Bagh. 

This is a memorial garden at the scene of the massacre of hundreds of unarmed Sikhs at the hands of the colonial British in 1919.  A shameful period in British History. Bushes had been trimmed in the shapes of soldiers aiming rifles at the spots were they shot at the innocent men, women and children. 

It was humbling  having Sikhs approach me – a British man, with a welcoming smile asking for me to pose for photos with them. 

Jallianwala Bagh Gardens

Jallianwala Bagh Memorial Gardens 

I was now just around the corner from the Golden Temple! I bought an Orange headscarf for 20 rupees, deposited my sandals in storage, washed my hands and feet, and then walked through an archway that led to the magnificent Harmandir Sahib – The Golden Temple.  Founded in 1577 by the fourth Sikh guru, Guru Ram Das,  a huge Sikh complex and home to the Sikh holy book  Adi Granth.
There was a stunning Gold building in the middle of a huge square lake.

Bathing rituals 

Men  bathed on the steps leading down to the lake, and washed themselves in the holy water. The water represents the Nectar of Immortality in the Sikh religion.  It was fascinating and calming to watch the men go through their bathing rituals (women also bathe in the water shielded by  female only bathing rooms)

I walked a few circuits of the lake taking in the beautiful  architecture that surrounded it. The complex was very busy, particularly a walkway that led to the Golden building in the centre. 

I found the area that served meals. Visitors and pilgrims alike (without distinction of background) are served free meals throughout the day.

The Harimandir Sahib runs one of the largest free kitchens in the world, serving 100,000 people on average daily.

I was lucky to have some help from a young Sikh visitor  who showed me the way and how the meal was taken.  You are given a steel tray and then led to a huge hall, where you sit down in long lines waiting for men to serve you with Dahl, Chapatti, a milky rice mixture,  plain rice and a Jalebi.  Very good it was too!

After the meal, you take your steel tray down to a big area where hundreds of people volunteered to wash the dishes! It was a huge operation carried out with a smile and great efficiency, ready for the next batch of pilgrims and visitors to eat. There was also another area were the food was prepared again by volunteers.  Men and women sat in groups peeling onions and garlic, and huge vats of Dahl were heated on big Propane burners. 

Volunteers washing up at the Golden Temple

I spent most of the day at the Golden temple taking in the sights and sounds of the stunning building. I felt like a bit of a celebrity as I must have posed for dozens of photos of pilgrims eager to get their picture taken with me for some reason!

After  I saw the sunset over the lake, I headed out and retraced my steps back in the direction of my hotel. I stopped off for  a delicious Special Deluxe Tahli meal (195 Rupees) at a famous veggie restaurant called Bharawan da dhaba.

Special Deluxe Tahli

I was up next day bright and early at 4 am to be taken by Tuk Tuk back to the Golden Temple to catch the sunrise. I arrived in darkness, and was surprised to see it was still very busy with pilgrims. Some were chanting and parading with flags around the lake perimeter. The sunrise was beautiful and people stopped walking to watch the sunrise over the east side of the Temple.

My Tuk Tuk driver then took me onto a Hindu temple, in one of the suburbs. I didn't catch the name of the place - so if anyone know let me know. It was a maze like temple, where you have to follow a specific route through the upper floors. sometimes crouching and you even have to walk through water in what looked like the inside of a cow!
It was beautifully decorated, and the people there were very welcoming, giving me banana and coconut (it was still only 8.00 AM so that was breakfast sorted!

The Mystery Hindu temple!

local bar

I had arranged with the Tuk Tuk driver to pick me up again at 3pm from my hotel to take me to the Pakistan border to watch the daily Wagah border flag lowering ceremony. It took about an hour to drive out to the border and I took my seat in the stands. The heat was now so intense at 45c and I sat in direct sun for over 2 hours watching the parade. 

It was a bizarre spectacle carried out by The Indian Border Force and their Pakistani counterparts the other side of the big Iron gate that separated the 2 countries.  An uneasy peace mostly remains between the 2 countries although there are frequent skirmishes in Kashmir. 

The event is a choreographed march to the beat of an enthusiastic drummer positioned right next to my ear! There is drama and a lot of posturing between the two  sides and a lot of bizarre marching as the event builds up to the lowering of the 2 flags in synchronisation, and the briefest of handshakes  between the 2 sets of guards. 

A fun trip out of Amritsar and good value at 600 rupees which it cost me to hire the Tuk Tuk.

Wagah Border Ceremony



I was due a more chilled day, so I got up around 9.30 AM and took a leisurely walk to the district the other side of the Grand Trunk road. I had another local Punjabi breakfast on the street then spent the rest of the morning poolside at the Country Inns Hotel (I am staying here for 1 night next week)

Punjabi breakfast

The next day I spent the day walking around the side streets of Amritsar, to different bazaars and communities. The people were all so welcoming and kind, offering me Chai and biscuits as I stopped and chatted to them. All happy to let me take their photos, in fact many  insisted on it! 

Delicious Samosa, Pakora and Kachori

Chai time!

The final district I visited was a predominantly Hindu area, close by to the Railway station. It was a charming area with lots of character and I met many lovely people on my way. 

The old man pictured above was in a barn on a busy road. The barn was full of cows and buffalo, I assumed they were not destined for the slaughter house, as I watched people enter the barn  and give them food and say a prayer whilst patting them. They seemed healthy and well looked after, content to spend the day eating.

I visited the Hindu equivalent of the Harmandir Sahib. It was a mini replica of the Golden temple called Shree Durgiana Tirath. It too was a Golden temple in the middle of a square lake. A lot quieter than the sikh equivalent, but worth a visit. 

Hole in the wall to order your food

It was a great area top explore. A group of kids were playing - boys cricket/girls chasing and they were all so happy. A cow wandered around snacking on any left over food he could find, and was more than happy for me to take his photo!

I finished my day off with a few cold Kingfishers, Peanut Masala and Pakora  at Bottoms Up Pub at the Grand Hotel, near the station. My final destination in Amritsar was to Amritsar Junction Railway station  to catch 22.15 express train to Haridwar for the next stage of my India adventure!

The station was typically busy, with commuters and travellers waiting for their onward journey. My train arrived early and in darkness due to a power failure at the station. No drama, I found my carriage and took my berth. Sleeper carriage 5, Upper side berth for my overnight journey.

Sleeper class is my preferred class of travel on the Indian trains. Cheap prices, a great chance to mix with Indian travellers and families, and unrestricted views out of the open windows.

The train departed on time and I slept on and off through the night in reasonable comfort. I was eventually fully awake by 5.30 AM and it was already fully light.

I came down from my upper side nest and sat down on the floor by an open doorway of my carriage for the remainder of my journey, with sweet Chai from the Chai Wallahs who would jump onto the train as it came into the different stations.

View from my Upper side berth

It was great to watch the lush Indian countryside whizz past as the sun rose in the early morning sky.


My train arrived on time, so I gathered my backpack and headed out of the busy station. My hotel was only 5 minutes walk from the station, down a quiet side road. I was glad that I was allowed to check into my room early and take a welcome cool shower. My Hotel krishna Ji  was perfect. Clean, comfortable rooms with decent aircon. 

After breakfast I headed up to the roof terrace for my Indian breakfast and some strong coffee to give me a caffeine boost.

It was now about 09.00 so  I decided it was time to go out to explore Haridwar.

My hotel was only a 5 minute walk to the Ganges, but about 20 minutes to the main Ghats.

I crossed the river and walked along the other side of the Ganges. There were many vendors, small shrines, kids playing some Baba's sitting under trees with their followers. The Baba's (or Sadhu's) are holy people in Hindu culture.


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