Amritsar, Punjab, September 2017 - Amritsar is the spiritual center of the Sikh religion, a relatively new religion established by Guru Nanak in the late 15th century. The followers of Sikhism believe in a single formless god, the unity of all humankind, and selfless service to others. They are opposed to idol worship, religious ritual, and discrimination on the basis of caste, sex or religion.
Sikh temples are known as gurudwaras, or 'doors to the guru.' The holiest Sikh temple is the Sri Harmandir Sahib of Amritsar, also called the Golden Temple due to its mezmerizing golden hue. Every morning the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, is carried from the administrative seat to the main temple, and every evening it is returned. Devotees meditate on the hymns of the holy book, either through kirtan (rythmic recitation, chanting or singing, often accompanied by music) or by internally repeating the name of God in order to realize his grace.
The city of Amritsar was founded in 1577 by Ram Das, the fourth Sikh guru, on land donated by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who was known for his religious tolerance. The Golden Temple complex was built between 1589 and 1601, and today it includes a maze of subsidiary shrines, a Sikh museum and a communal kitchen or langar. Sikhism has a long tradition of social charity; all Sikh gurudwaras have communal kitchens, some of which can feed 10,000 people a day a simple meal of dal and roti.
Sikhism grew and evolved during a period of increasing religious persecution by India's Mughal rulers. In 1699, Gobind Singh, the tenth and last guru, created within the Sikh community a political and military order called the Khalsa to combat such persecution. Today, all Sikh men initiated in the Khalsa must wear its five symbols: kesh (long hair, covered by a turban or head scarf); kachhera (cotton boxer shorts); kirpan (a small dagger); kangha (a hair comb); and kara (an iron bracelet). The tenth Sikh guru also named the Guru Granth Sahib as his successor, thus terminating the line of human gurus and all of the politics that entails. In this way, the scriptures were established as the Eternal Guru.
Besides the Golden Temple, visitors to Amritsar can roam through Hall Bazaar, where one can find a wide variety of jewelry, clothing and textiles, including Punjabi jutis (shoes), Patiala-style salwar kameez, and phulkari embroidery. Spices, tea and local Punjabi snacks can also be found in the market. Another highlight of a visit to Amritsar is the evening retreat ceremony at Wagah-Attari, the last checkpoint on the Grand Trunk road that connects Agra to Lahore. Each evening the flamboyant guards on either side of the border lower their national flags in unison, a harsh reminder that the Punjab was divided in two in 1947, forever separating friends and families.
For a colorful and animated history of Sikhism, don't miss the Virasat-E-Khalsa in the town of Anandpur Sahib. This magnificent museum was designed by architect Moshe Safdie in 2011, and sits very near Sisganj Sahib Gurudwara and Kesgarh Sahib Gurudwara. The latter was built to commemorate the site where the Khalsa was first formed by the last Sikh guru in 1699.
My home in Amritsar was Ranjit Svaasa, a heritage guesthouse in a quiet residential neighborhood with a lovely rooftop garden. In Anandpur Sahib I was hosted at Anand at the Satluj, a very comfortable farmstay owned by Vikram Singh Sodhi.
En route to Dharamsala from Amritsar through the Kangra Valley - I visited the 160 year-old Wah Tea Estate, which operates its own guesthouse, The Lodge at Wah. I enjoyed beautiful sunsets from the Rakkh Resort, a complex of eco-cottages built into a steep hillside. I had the pleasure of staying at Taragarh Palace in Palampur, where I was welcomed by Yuvraj Vikramaditya Singh, the Crown Prince of Jammu and Kashmir.
Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, September 2017 - The town of Dharamsala sits among dense coniferous forest at the foot of the Dhauladhar mountain range, part of the Lesser Himalayas that overlook the Kangra Valley. Due to its altitude and beautiful scenery, in 1848, the British annexed the entire area from the ruling Katoch dynasty of Kangra to construct a summer hill station. The town and surrounding hills were also viewed as very strategic from a military standpoint. As such, in 1860, the 1st Gurkha Rifles (soldiers of Nepali nationality), known as the "Bravest of the Brave" for their prowess in battle, were moved to Dharamsala from Kangra.
Since 1959, the town of McLeod Ganj in Upper Dharamsala has been home to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso of the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat sect, and of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. Dharamsala is often referred to as Little Lhasa, as it contains numerous institutions dedicated to the preservation of Tibet's cultural heritage, such as the Institute of Tibetan Medicine, the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, and the Norbulingka Institute. It also serves as the political nerve center for tens of thousands of Tibetan Buddhists spread across India.
The Norbulingka Institute promotes traditional Tibetan arts, crafts and textiles. The complex includes artist workshops for woodcarving, wood painting, silkscreening, thangka painting, applique, metal sculpture, weaving and tailoring; for a small fee, visitors can work alongside Tibetan students and masters. The Institute also contains a beautiful garden, a gift shop, a library and research facilities, a Buddhist temple, several cafes, and a nicely-appointed guesthouse.
Another must-see destination in Dharamsala is the Church of St.-John-in-the-Wilderness, which contains the tomb of Lord Elgin, the British Viceroy who died here in 1863. After a devastating earthquake struck the Kangra Valley in 1905, the British moved their summer capital to Shimla...the next stop on my journey...
En route from Dharamsala to Shimla - I toured the hamlet of Pragpur, which contains a number of impressive merchant havelis built in the local Himachal style. I was hosted at The Judges Court, an Indo-European country manor house built in 1918 that was the home of Justice Sir Jai Lal, the second Indian to become a member of of the Punjab High Court.
Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, September 2017 - In 1864, the town of Shimla became the official summer capital of the British government in India. Its inspiring mountain scenery and refreshing climate drew British officers of all ranks to work and socialize in a setting that reminded them of home. They were soon followed by eligible ladies and their chaperones in search of marriages, thus the town quickly became known for its busy sporting calendar and glamorous parties.
Shimla was the site of many important political conferences, including the still-contested 1914 Shimla Accord, which concerned the status of Tibet and its borders with China and India. It was also the site of the 1945 Shimla Conference, which was convened to approve (unsuccessfully) the Wavell Plan for Indian self-government. India further signed the Shimla Agreement with Pakistan here in 1972, ending the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 and fostering diplomatic recognition of Bangladesh by Pakistan.
Today Shimla is the largest city in Himachal Pradesh, filled with well-preserved Tudor and Gothic colonial buildings. The steep lanes of the lower bazaar are lined with shops selling sweets and savories, clothing, electronics, toys and other sundries. These narrow lanes climb up to the Ridge, a popular promenade, and the four-mile long Mall. Along the Mall one can find Christ Church, which dates from 1846 and was one of the first churches built in North India. It contains frescoes by Lockwood Kipling, Rudyard's father. Nearby are the timber-framed Post Office and Town Hall, as well as the Gaiety Theater, which opened in 1887 and is still in use for theatrical productions.
The grandest building of Shimla is the Viceregal Lodge, situated at the top of Observatory Hill among acres of manicured gardens. Designed by architect Henry Irwin and completed in 1888 during the tenure of Lord Dufferin, it served as the summer residence of the Viceroy of India. It played host to many a lavish party, as well as critical meetings of major political leaders, including the Shimla Conference of 1945. After independence it was renamed the Rashtrapati Niwas, and in 1965 it was given to the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies.
In 1903, the British innaugurated the Kalka-Shimla railway, now a UNESCO World Heritage site (along with the other Mountain Railways of India). It is a narrow-gauge railway traveling approximately 60 miles through the mountains, with over 800 bridges and 100 tunnels...a miraculous feat of engineering at the time it was opened. You can still enjoy a scenic and hair-raising ride on the railway, which is listed in the Guiness Book of World Records for the steepest rise in altitude per mile of track.
Shimla is home to several top-notch hotels and guesthouses. The Victorian-era Oberoi Cecil features a soaring atrium and a heavenly (heated) indoor pool. Approximately 10 miles east of Shimla one can find the Oberoi Wildflower Hall, the former home of Lord Kitchener, now a luxury hotel and wellness center nestled on 23 acres at 8,000 feet above sea level. Finally, Northeast of the Shimla Mall sits Chapslee, one of the oldest estates in Shimla, built in 1830 and now belonging to Kanwar Ratanjit Singh of the Kapurthala royal family. The house served as Lord Auckland's Secretariat during his tenure as Governor General of the British East India Company. The Shimla Manifesto, in which the government of India announced its intention to restore Shah Shuja to the throne of Afghanistan, was issued at Chapslee in 1838. The house opened for guests in 1976, making it one of the first heritage hotels in India.
A big thank you to Harji Singh and Fahad Syed at TransIndus India for their sponsorship and guidance during my September 2017 treasure hunt. I would also like to thank my guide, Ravish Sharma, for sharing his extensive knowledge of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh.