Backpacking Amritsar. The Golden temple and Wagah border

The Golden Temple, Amritsar, India
The Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

Amritsar for me is one of the brightest memories of our Indian trip. The reason is a combination of different aspects; first of all if you are a traveller backpacking Amritsar is very eary; you can basically live for free, which is always great for the budget. Second, cultural aspect, unique atmosphere and different religion compare to the rest of the country. Third, political aspect, the border between Pakistan and India is nearby so every day you can witness interesting performance at Wagah border point.

Amritsar was right in the beginning of my Indian trip and like for many first-time travellers India was a cultural shock for me. The first day in Delhi I couldn’t eat at all just drank bottled water. I was very worried about getting lice so I was wearing my cap everywhere, even slept in it on the train. As the time passed I got kind of used to it and by the end of our train journey was drinking Indian tea sold right there.

Inside the Harmandir Sahib or the Golden Temple complex, Amritsar
Inside the Harmandir Sahib or the Golden Temple complex, Amritsar

Amritsar – a holy Sikh city

The city is located in Punjab state, near Indian-Pakistani border, in the north-west of the country. Amritsar is a holy city for the Sikhs. Sikhism was founded in the Punjab area in the 16th century by Guru Nanak. It’s monotheistic religion based on Guru Nanak’s teachings. Nowadays there are about 20 million Sikhs in the world, it is the 8th biggest religion.

One of the important virtue for Sikhs is to be a good person and treat everybody equally nevertheless their origin or religion believes. The way to serve God is through helping others individuals and the community in general. It explains a great amount of volunteers helping in the temple complex.

Very peaceful religion in theory nevertheless Sikhs can be quite cruel defending their shrine. They proved it in 1984 by killing Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in revenge for destruction of the Golden temple by army following her order. Actually the story is more complicated but that is what it comes down to.  As for us Sikhs were great, very friendly and helpful, gave free food and accommodation, I’d say very tourist friendly religion.

Hari Mandir (Divine Temple) and the Guru Bridge, Golden Temple, Amritsar
Hari Mandir (Divine Temple) and the Guru Bridge, Golden Temple, Amritsar

The Golden temple of Amritsar

Unlike many historical sacred places that became just tourist attractions the Golden temple is still used as the main worship and pilgrimage place for the Sikhs. The main works on the Golden temple or Harmandir Sahib were completed in 1601 but its works on its decoration continued for a couple of centures.

The Golden temple is a complex of buildings, the main sacred place is Hari Mandir (Divine Temple), a beautiful structure covered with gold in the center of artificial lake. More than 100 kg of gold were used to cover the temple form the outside and inside. The lake around the temple is known as Amrit Sarovar (Pool of Nectar).

The only way of getting to the temple is via the Guru bridge that symbolizes the journey of soul after death. Every day thousands of pilgrims visit Golden temple some as a day visit some stay longer and volunteer there.

In respect of religion everybody inside the complex has to cover his/her head and wear appropriate clothes. You can get scarfs for your head at the entrance.

Local piligrims sleep outside everywhere. Golden Temple, Amritsar
Local piligrims sleep outside everywhere. Golden Temple, Amritsar

Free hostel for tourists at Golden temple. Backpacking Amritsar

The hostel is only for foreigners, Indian people can’t stay there, they sleep in the yard outside on some kind of sleeping pads. Very weird thing you get out of the hostel to go to the toilet and walk past hundreds of sleeping Indians. Don’t expect too much from the hostel, it’s very basic. There are three rooms two small with four beds and one big with ten beds. There are two showers inside and lockers for valuables. Toilets are outside shared with hundreds of other people but non stopped cleaned so looking quite good for India. You can stay in the hostel for free only for three nights after move out or pay some money.

If you want you can give a donation to the hotel. Basically all the complex lives thanks to donations and volunteers.

Free hostel for tourists, Golden Temple, Amritsar
Free hostel for tourists, Golden Temple, Amritsar

Free canteen at the Golden temple

Food is free as well. Canteen is a big two-story building inside the complex, works every day 24 hours. There is no furniture inside, all people sit on the floor, on big carpets. Every feeding session lasts about 20 min. At the entrance you get a tray, cup and spoon. Once you are inside find a spot on the floor, sit and wait. Volunteers come with buckets full of different food, they walk along the rows and put food on trays. They walk past several times so you can ask for more food. Important! You have to finish your food, don’t ask more if you aren’t sure. After 20 min. everybody gets out of the hall, at the exit you leave your dirty dishes.

Menu is always the same every day and every meal; sweet rice porridge, chapati, dal (think lentil soup), curry, boiled rice. Food is good and not really spicy. We ate there three times a day for three days and never had any stomach problem. The organization of the feeding process is amazing, fast and very efficient. They serve 10 000 meals per day average! Impressive, isn’t it?

If you want you can leave donations, there is a big metal box where you can put some money. Nobody ever asked us or insisted it’s up to you to give or not.

free canteen, Golden Temple, Amritsar
Alya eating lunch at free canteen, Golden Temple, Amritsar

Volunteers at the canteen

All people working there are volunteers, they do everything; cook, serve, clean and wash. Anybody can be a volunteer we wanted to try as well but when we saw the kitchen we changed our minds. Everything was soo fast, trays flying from basin to dryer, huge pots boiling, onions peeling, tons of chapatis jumping on frying pans. We thought instead of help we’d bring a chaos to this perfect place!

canteen, Golden Temple
Volunteers helping to wash dishes at the canteen, Golden Temple

Border ceremony Wagah

Getting to Wagah

Small place called Wagah 45 min. drive from the Golden temple, at the border between India and Pakistan and famous for its border closing ceremony. We got there by taxi there was no public transport your options are tuk tuk or taxi. We were four so taxi worked out quite cheap per person. Of course always bargain in India, specially with taxi drivers.

The ceremony starts depending on the sunset time, around 4:30 pm in winters and 5:30 pm in summers. Go to Wagah at least two hours before the ceremony, first, to get better seats and second to have time to go through security control, there are several and it takes time. Don’t take big bags or backpacks they won’t let you go through with it. There are some lockers outside the border territory but I wouldn’t like to leave my stuff in a locker in the middle of nowhere in India.

There are separate for tourists try not to sit on the bottom rows otherwise you’ll have to watch backs of some viewers who arrive late. Before the ceremony starts there is some kind of interactive activities to warm up public a bit. First we watched a female running competition with Indian flag (only for Indian ladies), followed by dancing. It looked like a real Bollywood movie locals dressed in their colorful sarees, Indian music and traditional dancing. Real show!

Let the show start!

The main program starts after. Officers from both sides Indian and Pakistani, dressed in almost the same uniform, just different colors start shouting something looking towards the enemy side of the border. After one by one they start marching towards the gate that separates two countries but not a normal walking, they throw their legs like gymnasts all the way up to their heads! The ceremony lasts only 10 min. but definitely not to miss if in Amritsar.

On Pakistani side there was none but Indian was full, both Indians and foreigners watching the performance. I felt a bit sorry for Pakistani guys there were trying as hard as Indians and nobody was watching them.

Border closing ceremony, Wagah, Amritsar
Border closing ceremony, Wagah, Amritsar


How to get to Amritsar

For us  the easiest and fastest way of travelling in India was by trains. For more details and tips on Indian trains check our Indian train travel guide.

We got to Amritsar by night sleeper train (non AC) from Delhi. AC wasn’t necessary because of opened windows it was quite cold inside so we had to climb in our sleeping bags.

Campbell and me both got top bunks (third level) which was great, felt safer. Campbell helped me to drag all my luggage (two backpacks) on the bunk, it was quite spacious so I could easy fit everything there.

Our train arrived at Amritsar in the morning and we were immediately “attacked” by taxi drivers offering a ride to the temple. But we knew about a free bus and went straight to the bus stop. When a bus arrived we somehow manage to squeeze in there and after 15 min. arrived at the Golden temple gate.

Once there you can try to find the free hostel for tourists or just walk around the complex with your backpacks and after 5-10 min. someone will notice you and escort there. At least it happened with us. A tall Sikh with a huge beard and a sword came to us and asked if we need accommodation.

After Amritsar we went to the Himalayas area and visited some interesting and beautiful places there.

Golden Temple, Amritsar
The Golden Temple at night time is stunning!

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