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Tucked away in the extreme north of India is the small city of Amritsar. Despite being home to more than a million people, Amritsar is not known for fabulous restaurants or nightlife: people travelling to Amritsar are searching for a more spiritual experience.
Amritsar is the spiritual and cultural heart of the Sikh religion, which has roughly 30 million followers worldwide. This faith is reflected in the day-to-day life of the city: for example, nearly all the restaurants in Amritsar are vegetarian.
The city's name means 'pool of nectar', which pays tribute to Amritsar's most famous attraction, The Golden Temple. This magnificent structure is a pilgrimage site for Sikhs, but welcomes visitors of all faiths. The dormitories nearby offer free food and accommodation to all who enter. Aside from the Golden Temple, there are other attractions in Amritsar well worth visiting, including the Jallianwala Bagh Gardens, the Mata Hindu Cave Temple, and the museum at the Summer Palace of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
Amritsar's location makes it a great base to explore the north of India. A popular and fun excursion is to see the ceremonial inter-army march-off at the daily closing of the India-Pakistan border. Travellers armed with visas can explore further into the Pakistani city of Lahore.
Considered one of the most beautiful temples in the world - and the veritable heart of the Sikh religion - it's no wonder that tourists come from all over the globe to see the Golden Temple of Amritsar. Situated in the middle of a sacred lake fed by an underground spring, the golden structure is a unique blend of Hindu and Muslim architectural styles. Within the temple is the Adi Grantha, the sacred scripture of the Sikhs, displayed on a jewel-studded platform.
Visitors to the Golden Temple can enjoy the serene and spiritual atmosphere, with the sound of Sikh hymns accompanied by flutes, drums and stringed instruments. Next to the lake are the enormous pilgrims' dormitories; and at the gate is the information desk, where helpful and friendly staff will answer your questions and provide free pamphlets on the temple and Sikh religion.
The best time to visit the Golden Temple of Amritsar is actually at night, when the Palki Sahib ceremony takes place. Dozens of devotees act as a human conveyor belt to carry the Granth Sahib (a shrine containing the Adi Grantha) from the main shrine to the sanctum, where it is kept until the opening ceremony the following morning. Visitors may participate in the ceremony, taking their turn to shoulder the weight of the enormous shrine.
Visitors to the Golden Temple should be respectful of the Sikh culture. Smoking and alcohol is forbidden throughout the complex, and visitors must remove their shoes. Heads must be covered at all times - for those who forget, vendors will sell bandanas near the temple. Alternatively, it is possible to borrow a head covering from the pile kept at the entrance.
The state of Himachal Pradesh's largest hill station, Dharamsala, is a gorgeous and deeply spiritual place. With a large Tibetan population, the community centres around the teachings and activities of Tenzin Gyatso - the 14th and current Dalai Lama - who resides in Dharamsala for large portions of the year. Cool, alpine Dharamsala has been attracting hordes of tourists for years. Some are drawn by its staunch and inspiring Buddhist culture; others by the meditation, yoga, reiki and cooking classes on offer in the area known as McLeod Ganj; and yet others simply come to enjoy its considerable natural beauty. Hikers will be overawed by the trails available to them to explore - the pick of the bunch being the walk up to the summit of Triund, from where explorers can enjoy fine views of the snow-capped Himalayas in the distance. Dharamsala is a popular tourist haunt that has somehow managed to keep itself unspoiled and retain its traditional outlook and charm; visitors to India who find themselves overwhelmed by the smoggy, frenetic cities of the plain, should retreat to Dharamsala for some rest and rejuvenation. For anybody interested in Buddhism, this attraction is a must.
Jallianwala Bagh is a sombre historical attraction; it is the site of the April 13, 1919 Amritsar massacre, when hundreds of innocents were gunned down by British troops. Thousands of men, women and children had gathered peacefully in the Jallianwala Bagh garden to celebrate the festival of Vaisakhi, but, as public gatherings were illegal at the time, the British decided to make an example of them: between 379 and 1,000 people were killed, and more than 1,000 wounded in this tragedy. The Martyr's Well, which can still be seen at the site today, was a death trap because many tried to leap into it to escape the bullets - 120 bodies were pulled out of the well. The massacre was a turning point for British colonial rule in India and, ultimately, a step towards the country's independence.
The site is now a quiet and peaceful memorial garden and museum. The monument to the slain was built in 1961. The bullet holes on the walls and buildings surrounding the park are still clearly visible and serve as a harrowing reminder of the mass murder. Jallianwala Bagh is a moving and interesting addition to the itinerary of anybody exploring Amritsar that has an interest in history. It is located conveniently close to the Golden Temple.
Amritsar is the spiritual and cultural centre of the Sikh religion. It is not surprising then that the main attractions of Amritsar are the temples, and that visitors come primarily to experience the spiritual potency of the city. The Golden Temple is considered one of the most beautiful places of worship in the world, and it is one of India's top tourist attractions. Other wonderful temples in Amritsar popular with tourists include Harmandir Sahib (best visited at sunrise) and the Durgiana Temple. The political seat of the Sikhs, Akal Takht, is also a lovely and moving place to visit.
Aside from the inspiringly friendly and humble people, probably the best attraction a city can have, Amritsar is famous in the history books for being the site of the terrible Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919. This tragedy is memorialised at the original site of the massacre, in the Jallianwala Bagh Garden, and is an interesting attraction to add to your itinerary in this holy city in order to gain some historical perspective, particularly as the people killed were gathered to worship at a religious festival.
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