Punjab is a fascinating state filled with incredibly friendly people, striking architecture and incredible food. It is an area that should not be missed but isn’t visited by many western tourists, so we were more obvious to the friendly locals.
Punjab state is in the northwest corner of India. It is where the Sikh religion began in the 1500s. 90% of all Sikhs in the world live in Punjab, and the second highest amount live in Canada. There are many immigrants from India living in Canada, and 35% of those are Sikh, mostly from Punjab. We felt very welcome in Punjab. As soon as people heard we were from Canada they would smile and mention at least one relative that lives in various cities across the Canada. One of our taxi drivers stopped on the side of the road so we could video chat with his mom! He said she would have been mad if he met Canadians and she didn’t get to speak with us.
The most important and most impressive Sikh Gurdwara (temple) is in Amritsar, Punjab. Set in the middle of a large pool of holy water (Sarovar), the Golden Temple (Sri Harimandir Sahib) is a glittering marvel reflecting off the surface of the water. The building is covered in gold paint with a shiny domed roof. There is a long causeway leading to it that is always full of devotees lining up to worship. Inside the temple are 2 floors, each with a simple design. There’s a marble floor, a desk covered in fabric with the Sikh scripture (Guru Garanth Sahib) on top. People walk around the table, some stopping to pray. There is a ceremony each morning and evening when the book is brought to and taken from the temple. Around the outside of the pool is a marble pathway surrounded by white Indo-Mughal style buildings. The buildings house other temples, prayer rooms and a large dining room that feed thousands a day for free. The complex was originally built in 1577 but had to be rebuilt in the 1980s after it was destroyed by the Indian army when they were arresting a militant leader that was receiving sanctuary inside.
Hundreds of pilgrims come to the temple each day. Many spend the whole day and night in various parts of the complex reading their prayer books; bathing in the holy water; talking with friends; or sleeping on the marble floors.
The Hindu Temple Durgiana Temple (Silver Temple) is a less impressive replica of the Golden Temple. When we went it was very quiet with few visitors.
Amritsar is 30km from the Pakistani border. Each evening at sundown they have an entertaining border closing ceremony. Thousands of spectators cheer and dance while waiting for the show to start. Once the rooster-hatted border guards march into the arena, the crowd goes wild. It felt like a sporting event. The soldiers put on an entertaining show by goose-stepping their way to the border gates. Their kicks were so high, some almost kicked themselves in the forehead. Once there they display their strength and power by flexing their muscles. The hilarious show goes on for about 25 minutes with both sides competing to be the manliest. The Pakistanis do the same on their side but with much less fanfare. The large crowd on the Indian side is loud and having fun while the Pakistani side is small and reserved.
At the end of this Monty Python style skit both sides lower their flags and close the border for the night.
For the hilarious video click below.
On our way to the border closing ceremony we stopped at the bizarre Mata Lal Devi Temple. The temple is a maze of long hallways, small rooms and fake caves. It’s filled with odd statues in wild colours with mirrored walls. It’s like being in a house of mirrors at a fair.
Amritsar also has several beautiful buildings built in the Indo-Saracenic and colonial architectural styles. Our favourites were Khalsa College and the Partition Museum.
The city of Chandigarh is the capital of Punjab and Haryana states. It was established in the 1950s and was a planned city. It feels very artificial as you drive down wide, clean boulevards with roundabouts at intersections, all set in a grid system. But get into the communities and the organization is gone. Instead it is Indian chaos with a maze of streets without any logical numbering or naming. There is an interesting art exhibit in Chandigarh. In the 1950s, local artist, Nek Chand, began secretly making art out of garbage, stones and discarded items from the buildings that were demolished to make the new Chandigarh. Eventually the local government found out about it and instead of destroying it, they created a large park to display his art. It is now a huge 10-hectare Rock Garden with over 2000 sculptures of everything from walls and waterfalls to monkeys and people.
Outside of Chandigarh in Anandpur Sahib, is the 2nd most important Sikh Gurdwara, Kesgarh Sahib. It is a stark white building with a domed roof sanctum set on a small hill above town. Beside the temple is the old, red Anandpur Fort. From the grounds you can see many other gurdwaras with their characteristic domed roofs.
Patiala was once the capital city of another Sikh state and has many old palaces and forts from this time. Unfortunately, many have gone into disrepair, but you can still imagine their grandeur from earlier days. Qila Mubarak Fort is a large brick fort in the Rajasthani style.
Sheesh Mahal was once a private retreat, but now the artificial lake is empty, and the building is in poor condition.
Shahi Samadhan has several white marble cenotaphs and the tomb of Baba Ala Singh, the founding ruler of Patiala.
Traveling in Punjab is definitely easier than in the Himalayas, but we still had a few surprises.
The food in Punjab was delicious. We had spicy masala served with either mushrooms, potatoes or paneer (cheese); toasted cumin seeded jeera rice and potatoes; and a new favourite, flavorful paneer bhurji which is crumbled cheese in curry spices. We ate very well during our time in Punjab. Even McDonald’s has a McSpicy Paneer burger!
Coming up next: Trekking in Himachal Pradesh
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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