Golden Temple of Amritsar and Jallianwala Massacre site

AMRITSAR – July 16, 2012

I hooked up with two other solo travellers in Amritsar, both women, one from Copenhagen and one from Sao Paulo, Brazil, and we decided to hire a cab and go see a few of the sights in the area.  The last stop was a night visit to the holiest of Sikh shrines, the Golden Temple.  As we entered the enormous temple facility, our jaws dropped at the magnificence of the setting and, in the middle of it all, the extraordinary Temple itself, said to be plated with over 1600 lbs of pure gold.  Here is what we saw as we walked in:

The original building was completed around 1605 and rebuilt in the mid-1700s.  In 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi approved the military storming of the Temple to arrest a group of Sikh extremists holed up inside.  As a result of this perceived sacrilege, she was assassinated less than six months later by her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation.  Here’s a brief video and a few more photos of this amazing site:

1919 British Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh -  In an act Winston Churchill then called “monstrous”, the British military commander in Amritsar, wanting to punish 15,000 peaceful Indian protesters who had gathered in a large market square in violation of British orders, brought 50 British Army riflemen into Jallianwala Square and sealed off all exits.  With no warning, he ordered the soldiers to start shooting and did not stop until they were nearly out of ammunition.  At least 400 people died on the spot with many jumping into a large well to escape the bullets, only to be suffocated inside.  More than 1100 others were wounded.

If you saw the 1984 movie Gandhi, you may recall that horrific scene which was filmed in accordance with eyewitness accounts.  The entire Jallianwala market has been maintained as sacred ground ever since.  Here are some photos of Jallianwala, including the “Martyrs’ Well” and bulletholes marked with white tape on the side of the only remaining original building.  It was a somber visit:

 The Hindu “Silver Temple”  -  Amritsar is the Punjabi homeland of the Sikh population in India.  While the Sikhs have their Golden Temple, the Hindu minority also has a holy shrine, informally known as the “Silver Temple”.

It’s an odd place, laid out to resemble a silver-lined cave, referencing one of the tales from the Ramayana, the ancient Hindu religious epic.  Hindu iconography is certainly strange to Western eyes, but wandering around inside this shimmering “cave” is quite an experience.  Here are a few photos from inside the Silver Temple:



Morning Ride through Chamba Valley (N.W. India)

CHAMBA – July 12, 2012

I left Dalhousie, one of the old British colonial hill stations, about 6 a.m. in order to avoid traffic on the narrow and precarious mountain roads.  I figured it would be about a four-hour ride to my next destination, Chamba, the seat of the ancient princely state of the same name, founded around 920 A.D.

One of the surprising things about India is that it was never “India” as we know it today until the British came in the 1820’s and gradually forged the entire subcontinent into one subjugated entity through sheer force of arms and will.  Prior to that, India was a mind-boggling hodge-podge of tiny fiefdoms and petty kingdoms, sometimes as many as 200-300 at any one time.  Many of these “kingdoms” consisted of a single village, like the ancient Greek city-states, without the democracy.

Each of the kingdoms was headed by a raja (“ruler”), who inherited his throne.  If a raja was able to expand his turf through military success or treaty alliances with his neighbors, he might become a maharaja (“great ruler”).  All these rajas and maharajas were constantly squabbling and fighting with each other over cows, wives, religion, perceived slights, greed and whatnot, and at times the whole scheme must have resembled a huge protection racket.  (“Hey Bob, I know you like living here in sunny Nasruddin, but you know Raja Steve over the hill has been talking tough lately.  I’d be glad to protect you and your loved ones but I’ll need a couple of your sons for my army and oh, by the way, why don’t you go ahead and drop off a couple hundred sacks of your delicious lentils at my place, say, by the end of the month?”)

Except for about 300 years of enlightened Mughal (Muslim) rule, this all went on for nearly a thousand years before the British came in and slapped everyone silly.  That this country even functions, given the panoply of ethnicities, languages (16 official), religions and histories, is a real testament to the patience and forbearance of those who live here.

The morning ride took me along a ridge-line giving me some spectacular views of a mist-shrouded Chamba Valley and its many tea and rice plantations.  Here’s a brief slide show from that great ride:





Scenic Ride to Dharamsala


I had stopped along a mountain road to take some photos of the Kangra Valley when I saw this fellow (above) walking briskly up the road in my direction.  He was barefoot, carrying a staff, and I think he was either a gaddi, a nomadic shepherd of northwestern India, or a sadhu, an itinerant holy man.  His eyes were coal-black and fierce and he radiated intensity.  He reminded me of Grigori Rasputin.  I couldn’t resist stopping him and asking with hand signals if I could photograph him.  I don’t think he ever understood me, but I just took the photo and bowed deeply in gratitude.


This is the residence of the Dalai Lama, who has lived here in Dharamsala in exile since fleeing the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959.  When I approached the well-armed military sentry at the gate, I asked if Mr. Lama might be in.  I was told he was in Ladakh until August and could I come back then.  I handed the guard my phone number and gave him the thumb-in-the-ear, pinky-over-the-mouth “Have him call me” signal.  So far I haven’t heard back.  Makes me wonder whatever happened to common courtesy.


This is one of the market streets in Upper Dharamsala, just up the road from the Dalai Lama’s residence.  As you know, cows are considered sacred throughout India and they pretty much wander where and when they please.  I was standing in front of a food stall the other day, eyeing some tasty momos, when I felt a rude thump on my backside.  I turned around indignantly and was about to yell “Hey, what gives?” when this enormous, four-legged furry guy with showoff-y horns lumbered by, acting like he owned the place.  I think it was a huge mistake letting the cows know how “sacred” they are.  Now they just bully pedestrians and chuckle under their mangy breath.


Every afternoon, Buddhist monks from the Namgyal Gompa, the temple adjacent to the Dalai Lama’s residence, gather in small groups in the courtyard to debate arcane points of Buddhist philosophy like Socrates in the Gymnasium.  These discussions get quite animated, their arguments punctuated with great flourish, a stamp of the foot or a theatrical clap of the hands.  Here, watch them in action:


Here’s a brief slide show of the ride to Dharamsala: