weekend away - Amritsar

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Few cities on the Indian subcontinent are often defined by the presence of a single building. But then the Golden Temple in Amritsar in the state of Punjab is no ordinary construction. Adorned with 750kg of solid gold, the ‘Harmandir Sahib’ is the spiritual centre for the entire Sikh religion. Perhaps only outdone in splendour by Agra’s Taj Mahal, the architecture is a distinct mixture of Hindu and Islamic design.

There is more to Amritsar than its centrepiece. Its location as the gateway between the Middle East and South Asia has given the city a rich and varied history.

Archaeological evidence suggests the region was initially under the Greek influence of Alexander in 326 BC, and then the Maurya and Gupta empires. But it was not until 1577 when the Sikh Guru Ram Das laid the foundation for the existing city by building the Amrit Sarovar (the ‘pool of nectar’) that gives the city its name.

The sacred lake is located next to the Golden Temple where tens of thousands of pilgrims still come to bathe each day. The following centuries saw a series of invasions by the Afghans and Mughals – something that strongly influenced the design of the old walled city. The narrow zigzag streets built in the 17th and 18th centuries used a style of town planning known as ‘katras’ – designed to provide a natural defence system during attacks on the city. Still standing today, each katra has its own unique personality – home to communities of craftsmen and a thriving labyrinth of market stalls.
 

East of the old city lies another reminder of the city’s brutal past: the Jallianwala Bagh. It was here in 1919 that 20,000 Indians held a peaceful demonstration protesting the Rowlatt Act, a draconian law that allowed the British colonisers the right to imprison Indians without trial. Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered his soldiers to fire indiscriminately at the crowd, killing hundreds. Still visible are bullet holes from the massacre – that lasted for 10 to 15 minutes – as is the ‘martyrs’ well’ into which 120 people jumped to their deaths in a vain attempt to escape the murderous onslaught.

Another must-see is Ram Bagh in the north of the city – the summer palace of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the revered one-eyed ruler who captured much of Kashmir and Pakistan. The colourful gardens are thought to be the best in the Punjab region, with an intricate network of streams, fountains, and rare coniferous and herbaceous plants. The house is a museum featuring an extensive display of weapons and paintings depicting life in ancient Punjab.

Nearby is the Mata temple, a network of caves dedicated to the memory of the 20th century female saint Lal Devi. The complex is a popular pilgrimage spot for women wanting to conceive. Wading through the obstacle course of waterways, 5ft-high tunnels and spiral staircases are part of the experience.



WHERE TO STAY

If you want to combine luxury with proximity to all of Amritsar’s main sites, the newly built Ista Hotel is the best place to stay. The 248 elegantly designed rooms offer panoramic views of the historic city, as well as lovingly attended gardens and an Ayurvedic spa to help you unwind after a day exploring this fascinating city.

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