14 Apr 2023

Amritsar Celebrates

At the heart of the Sikh world is the serene and splendid Golden Temple, in the ‘spiritual nectar’ filled city of Amritsar. The beauty of the Golden Temple lies in its all-embracing spirit that welcomes all devotees regardless of caste, creed or race – and this is wonderfully symbolised by its four doors which remain open to the sanctum of the Harmandir Sahib, where one may pay one’s respects to the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book.

The wonderment of this spiritual largesse is reflected in the massive langar, the free community kitchen which feeds thousands of visitors each day; it lies in the approach that all men are equal when it comes to doing ‘kar seva’ or free community service, whether you are a beggar or a king, because even the humblest of tasks, like manning the shoe rack, is considered an act of gathering merit.

The Punjabi spirit of largesse when it comes to hospitality has been as well documented as is the bravery and the martial adeptness of the soldiers. An unmissable experience of a fabulous showcase of these qualities is the celebration of Hola Mohalla.

The Hola Mohalla festival finds its roots in the 17th century with the 10th Sikh Guru Gobind Singh’s creation of the military avatar of his Khalsa Panth, represented by the Nihang Dal. These ‘Holy Warriors’ or “Dare Devils’ were rigorously trained to take on the might of the Mughals and warring hill rajahs to protect the Sikh faith and its gurudwaras, the community and its lands.

It was on the day after the spring festival of Holi that he had his soldiers gathered together at the sacred city of Anandpur Sahib, to indulge in mock battles and showcase their military prowess in using arms and equestrian and other soldierly skills.

The Golden Temple witnesses some truly moving moments during the 3-day festivities. Thousands of pilgrims descend on the city to pay their respects at the shrine, where a lavish procession of the palki carrying the Granth Sahib, crosses the causeway over the holy sarovar between Harmandir Sahib, the sanctum – to the Akal Takht, the temporal hub.

If you want to do a deep dive into the Hola Mohalla festivities head for Anandpur Sahib, where you will watch entranced how the semi-nomadic Nihangs, Guru Gobind Singh’s elaborately dressed ‘Holy Warriors’ keep alive their martial legacy, dating back to the 1700s. Self-sacrifice, valour and a spiritual legacy were the driving force behind their legend as keepers of the faith.

If luck comes your way you might even chance upon a Nihang Camp on your way to Anandpur Sahib and witness the astonishing practice sessions being carried out before the actual event. A warrior’s skills as a horseman were considered as equally important as being adept at using weapons. Watching these fearless warriors reveal their expertise at simultaneously riding two horses, bareback riding, tent pegging, archery, gatka etc will blow you away. As will their elaborate dress code. You cannot miss those humongous, towering blue dumalas (double layered turbans), sometimes weighing up to 85 kg; these are embellished with steel and iron miniatures of their weapons and the Sikh's coat of arms, or Khalsa Crest. Waving their traditional blue standards and riding bareback on their high-stepping horses these ‘Holy Warriors’ are quite a sight to behold.

On 13th/14th April Amritsar welcomes the Sikh New Year (Baisakhi) in all its exuberant moods. It marks the first wheat harvest of the season and has always been celebrated with great vigour by the farming community of Punjab. Baisakhi was also the auspicious day when Guru Gobind Singh founded the Khalsa order in 1699. The outpouring of devotional activities, prayers, ritual purification dips in the sarovar, fireworks and celebratory dance performances of gidda and bhangra coalesces into a fabulous extravaganza welcoming the new year. The carnival air is heightened by lavish sampling of the robust culinary delights of Punjab at the Guru ka Langar, or the many eateries across town–and shopping for local handicrafts in Amritsar’s heritage bazaars.

Amritsar offers the visitor an astonishing range of thrilling cultural experiences any time of the year– but when its festival time it has a very distinctive vibe which is a totally unmissable treat.

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