See the Golden Temple in a new light

Feb 16, 2016Travel shoot

The famous and unique Golden Temple in Amritsar is a sight to behold. Its more than 500 years old and is a central religious place of the Sikhs. In the early nineteenth century, Maharaja Ranjit Singh covered the upper floors of the gurdwara with gold, which gives it its distinctive appearance and its English name.

After umpteen trips to Punjab, this time I finally managed to visit the beautiful Golden Temple. This place should be on everybody’s visit-once-in-a-lifetime bucket list. Along with a bunch of relatives, we rented one of the ubiquitous Tempo Travelers (TT) and did a day trip to Amritsar. I had a single minded purpose on this trip: to take photographs of the Golden Temple. A famous man once said, the only reason I travel is to see how a place looks like in photographs. So I had all my gear and my purpose and I had no interest in any other touristy place in Amritsar except this.

On a side note, TTs are everywhere. I’m sure when the first set of visitors reach the moon or Mars or fricking Pluto-the-planet-that-was, there will be a tourist chap there holding a board for a “Luxury A/C audio video coach” aka the disgustingly cramped fancily named, tempo traveler. I did a trip with family from Imphal to Ukhrul, and I shall leave the gentle reader to guess what was used on that trip as well.

We started out in the morning, a bit late, and reached Amritsar by 11:30 or so. This was in peak winter, just before the new year and unbelievably the place was a furnace. Intensely sunny and hot and the area around the Temple was very crowded. Seems the road to the Golden Temple was under major repairs, with everything dug up. So there was a traffic jam and a route of a few minutes took us half an hour. Hells bells, all the way from Bangalore traffic jams to get stuck in another traffic way on the north border of India. Wah ji.

We parked, and then walked about a KM to the Temple complex. Imagine a sea of visitors and hawkers along with cycle rickshaws, auto ricks, two wheelers, and cars all vying for space on the roads, climbing over each other to get a toehold. What chaos. Add to that the noise of all the vehicles, road repair, honks, shop keepers loudly encouraging people to come in. Whew. Its an experience that I may not want to repeat, but I’m sure this is the state in most touristy places around the world.

After reaching the complex we submitted our shoes at the shoe counter. Wearing shoes inside the entire complex is not permitted, and a free service is provided to keep shoes for visitors. Its quite safe to leave shoes there.

One needs to cover one’s hair before entering the complex. There’s free handkerchiefs provided that can be used and returned on the way out. (Again as a sidenote, these same head coverings provided free are sold by jokers outside; dont be a chump and buy from them). Then one needs to walk through a shallow pool of water to cleanse the feet before entering the main Temple premises. I kind of missed the point of walking through the pool and tried to circumvent it. Alas, I was immediately detected by an eagle-eyed guard with a spear. No he didnt strike me dead, but I did have to turn around and walk in through the pool.

Once inside, some steps lead down to the sarovar (pool) around the Temple and its a sight to behold! It was a beautiful sunny day, with the most perfect blue sky and reflections in the cool waters, and the noon day sun glinting off all that gold. Just an incredible riot of gold on blue.

There were people sitting everywhere around the sarovar on mats, some were bathing and many were queuing up to enter inside the Golden Temple premises. It takes about an hour to wait in line and go through to the inside of the gurdwara.

We walked around the temple once. Did I mention that it was really WARM? By this time I was chafing to be left alone and get to making some photos. My relatives wanted to queue up to enter the gurdwara and that was the perfect time for me to ditch them and go solo. So for the next hour I was left to my own devices and had a whale of a time photographing from every angle.

One of the most famous sarovar (pool) is a moat like structure completely surrounding the Golden Temple, Guruwara Harmandir Sahib, in Amritsar India. Excavation of the sarovar was begun by Guru Raam Das the fourth spiritual master of the Sikhs. It is believed that bathing in the sacred pool of Guru Raam Das washes away all ones sins.

An hour later I rejoined the main party, just as they were coming out. Good timing. We went off in search of lunch; the famous langar. I had visions of some amazing food being served and I was really quite hungry. All the places at the Golden Temple are staffed by volunteers, rich and poor, who take no money and give their services readily. Volunteers cut vegetables, cook, serve, clean the plates. Man the water booths, clean the temple premises repeatedly during the day, etc. After collecting the plate and bowl etc, we sat cross-legged on mats to receive the food. Which turned out to be a disappointment. Seems only dal and roti is served there.

It was getting late in the afternoon by now and the main party wanted to visit some other places including the Wagah border. We spent some time at the Jaliawalla Bagh, and then they went off in the TT leaving me once again to my own devices. I bumbled around the main thoroughfare for a bit waiting for evening, and then happily headed back to the Temple for part 2 of my visit: to photography the Golden Temple during golden hour.

Back through the same routine of dropping off my shoes, etc, this time like a pro.

As I reached the stairs, I think I saw one of the most amazing views of this lifetime. Voila! Sometimes in photography, everything aligns for an instant, and magic is created.

Then it was time for golden hour, the time after dusk when we get the most amazing colours of the sky and the light is quite perfect. And of course, one needs a tripod for long exposures when its getting dark. And of course I had lugged one all the way from Bangalore. And of course, I happily took it out, set it up, set up my camera to start taking photos, when… of course, I was accosted by one of the guards. Seems written permission is needed for tripod photography. Oh, what a bummer. Well one does not argue with a man with a spear. The guy was really sweet and polite and pointed me towards one of the rooms. So I packed up and went to the room mentioned, they sent me off to the main office outside the gurdwara. This was getting a bit out of hand, but I raced there since the light was fading. Met some guys there but they were kind of unhelpful; said the office was closed and I would have to come back the next day. I went back to see what I could salvage of the light.

I tried a few photos hand-held, but those didn’t come out well. Long exposures and hand-held makes a poor cocktail, or so said another wise man. A brain-wave later I realized that I could keep my camera on the ground and still the perspective would be perfect to capture what I wanted; and even without the tripod being used! I spent the next couple of hours there, walking around, sitting on the sarovar edge from time to time, and taking long exposure photos to put together these next few images. (BTW, all the images are HDR.)


The time that I spent in the late evening there was really peaceful. This is probably the best time to visit. The Golden Temple is all lit up. The place is less crowded, and its like an oasis of calm away from the hustle bustle. I would strongly recommend to do the visit in the night, rather than the day. And as always, if you are a photographer, go alone. Great work comes from solitude.