In the Suburbs of the Sacred

Amritsar is hardly the only holy city in India and any attempt to create a list of all the holy places in India would be undoubtedly long and forgetting a number of places. The city however occupies a special place amongst all the sacred places of India as the holiest site in all of Sikhism. Founded by Guru Ram Das, the fourth in the lineage of ten gurus, with the excavation of a sacred pool. The next Guru went on to build the Sri Harmandir Sahib, what most westerners know as the golden temple, although for most of its history it was not covered in gold which would be added later by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the early 1800s. Since this founding the city has grown to a population of a million people, making it a small city by Indian standards.

Amritsar Gate, the entrance to the city

Amritsar Gate, the entrance to the city

When I planned out my accommodations in Amritsar before I left for India I knew I would be outside of the city proper. I ended up in something very familiar to me, the suburbs. Born and raised in the suburbs and having spent the previous summer measuring suburban houses for my local government, I have spent a good deal of my life in suburbs. The lack of anything interesting masquerading as peace, a conclusion only arrived at when compared to the hustle and bustle of urban life, yet no one thought to replace that bustle with anything meaningful. The rural and urban each side as the space occupies an in-between with a middle to upper-middle class resident in most every home. The suburbs have their universalities.

A quiet suburban street

A quiet suburban street

Although, I am still in India and not everything about the suburb I find myself in is the same as where I am from. Houses here aren’t detached, rather they all abut one another and in each house lives more than just one nuclear family or extended family. In this suburb however, most plots lack a house on them as the land is being held on speculation. Occasionally you can see where two houses have been build next to an empty plot, seemingly waiting for a house be inserted like a missing domino. Every house is required to have a small trough with plants in it. These troughs and the empty plots reveal the fertility of India. Walking around, eggplants, lemons, oranges, guava, okra, curry leaf, basil and green chilis can all be seen growing.

The front of the house in which I stay, the trough contains green chilis, a guava tree and other plants

The front of the house in which I stay, the trough contains green chilis, a guava tree and other plants

A short drive away lies the golden temple. For the tourist or pilgrim their impression of the city becomes immediately shaped by the walk to the temple. At the center of a roundabout stands a statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, beginning a road closed to cars for pedestrians to walk to the temple. Beautiful facades stand on both of the street with shops ready to sell juttis (Punjabi shoes), the 5 Ks of Sikhism (a metal band worn around the wrist, a small sword, a wooden comb and a particular kind of undergarment) except for the uncut hair, vegetarian food (meat is not allowed to be sold there), and other gifts. Statues sit in the middle of the boulevard as you walk to the temple taking in the activity and architecture.

The road to the Golden Temple

The road to the Golden Temple

A statue showing Bhangra, a traditional Punjabi dance

A statue showing Bhangra, a traditional Punjabi dance

Earning its name being covered in 750 kg of gold, the temple makes a striking sight. Milky white architecture surrounds the temple as it sits in the middle of the sacred tank. Many bathe in the pool which is also home to large coy fish so used to being fed you can touch the top of one’s head as it swims up to you. Unless you stare at the beauty of the golden temple, the serenity of the space gets lost in the hustle of people and grandeur of everything surrounding you. At the temple complex you can also go and get langar, a free hot meal provided by the temple. Every Sikh temple serves a free meal but the one at the temple is special as 100,000 people visit the temple each day, all of whom might want a meal. The langar is served every day, is always hot, vegetarian and you will be given as much food as you want. No one goes away hungry even with such a massive enterprise.

Part of the buildings surrounding the Golden Temple

Part of the buildings surrounding the Golden Temple

The Golden Temple

The Golden Temple

Beyond the temple and the boulevard leading to the temple lies the walled city, which grew out from the pool and temple when Amritsar was originally founded and enclosed by a wall. The walled city is the heart of the city holding much of the heritage of the city yet it is dense and treeless, with narrow roads standing in stark contrast to my temporary suburban neighborhood named Garden Enclave. Driving away from the city, the urban fades to suburban. I return to a house with a dog, a kitchen, multiple rooms and plentiful living area. I’m still in India, but I’m back in the suburbs.

Rifle, not sure why she decided to lay in the shower

Rifle, not sure why she decided to lay in the shower

Me and my Airbnb hosts

Me and my Airbnb hosts

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About Chris Olson

Chris is a sophomore planning to major in Political Science and minor in Community Action and Social Change. After graduating he hopes to attend graduate school and earn a PhD in political science to pursue a career in academia. In India he will be conducting independent research on urban planning. Chris plans to examine the master plans of Bangalore and Amritsar and learn what values are motivating planning in the two respective cities and why those motivations are present. From there he will compare those values of each city to understand how and why they may be the same or different, giving greater insight into how urban planning is being conducted in India.

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