Punjab: Returning from Anandpur Sahib and Taking Taxis in Amritsar

Good morning everyone,

After a long day driving and visiting 9 other gurdwaras and the Khalsa Museum, we finally arrived at Anandgarh Fort and Anandpur Sahib.

I have to say that I really enjoyed travelling with my brother and his cousin.  There’s no yelling, no accusing me of some ridiculous thing, no talking gossip about other people.  They are both gentle, relaxed, good people.  It’s just so nice to be around that energy.

The first stop after the Khalsa Museum (visit it!  So worth it!) was Anandgarh Fort.  This is not technically a gurdwara though there is a small gurdwara now inside.  It is a fort.  It’s one of many that was built by our tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh Ji around Anandpur Sahib.

It look similar to a gurdwara on the outside but there are important differences.  Note that the Nishan Sahib is not flying above this place, as it would a gurdwara.  Though the Sikh architecture remains consistent with a gurdwara, there is also the red brick structure which looks more like a fortification than a building designed for prayer and other religious activity.

Note the stairs.  You’ll see more.  If you recall from my last post, after climbing the stairs at Gurdwara Parivar Vichhora, Bhaiji promised that there really was not going to be that many more stairs.  Uh huh…  It wasn’t so much that I minded the stairs but stairs are hard on my right hip and knee so a lot of stairs just really sucks the energy up quickly.  And Anandgarh involves a lot of stairs.

Anyway, we’ll get back to that when we talk about the step well at Anandgarh.  First, the history.  Our ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji was martyred to the cause of religious freedom for Hindus under the Mughal Empire.  At nine years old, our tenth and final living Guru, Guru Gobind Singh Ji, son of Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji, became the Guru of the Sikhs.  At nineteen and then almost continuously until his own death, he was in battle with the hill tribes and with the Mughal Empire, for the very survival of our faith and the Sikhs.

This required that Guruji maintain a sufficiently large army to defend the Sikhs, that he supply that army with horses, weapons and weapons training, and that he build fortified structures.  This was especially true at Anandpur Sahib, where much of the military action took place.  There were six major forts constructed to protect the city.  Keshgarh Sahib, Lohgarh Sahib, Holgarh Sahib, Anandgarh Sahib, Fatehgarh Sahib and Taragarh Sahib.

At Lohgarh, most of the weapons were made.  Though the hill tribes and the Mughals attacked Anandpur Sahib several times, they were hesitant to attack Lohgarh Sahib because they feared that its doors would not be breached.

In 1700 the Mughal and hill tribe forces sent a drunken elephant, clad in armour, to breach the doors of the fort at Lohgarh.  Bhai Bacchitar Singh Ji left the fort to do battle with the elephant, impaling it with a spear and sending the injured animal back to wreak havoc amongst its masters.

Inside the Anandgarh Fort complex is a small gurdwara marking this important structure.  There is also a step well which Guru Gobind Singh Ji had constructed to supply water to the Sikhs manning the fort.  It would have exposed the Sikhs too regularly to the enemy to have to draw water from the nearby river.  A step well is just how it sounds… a series of steps are built down to the source of water, water can be drawn from the well in this way and then carried up the steps to the surface.  In this case, that involved 125 steps.  I can only think that the Sikhs of the time were taller than we are generally.  Based on my experience at Parivar Vichhora and at the step well at Lohgarh Fort, the steps are built both taller and wider than standard stairs, making them that much more difficult to descend and climb.

My camera would not work inside of the step well.  I have no idea why.  I had it set appropriate for the conditions.  It was bizarre.  I finally made it down all those stairs, 125 of them… I was passed by some young Indian boys who giggled at me as they passed and said “How are you?”  I think the question was hypothetical.  They could tell by my red face that I was probably close to having a coronary by that point.  We reached the bottom where Bhai Anoopji and his cousin waited patiently for my arrival.  A man down there was explaining the step well’s history as seva.  Then it was turn around and make the long climb back to the surface.

I’m in much better shape now than when I left Canada but still… 125 oversized steps… up.  There was a teenage boy just in front of me who would stop every 6 or 7 steps, impeding my progress even further.  And Bhai Anoopji was offering “encouragement” of his own… you know… laughing at me.  I don’t recall being so happy that something was over as I was when I arrived at the surface.

There I begged my brother.  Please tell me how many more of these I have to climb today?  How many stairs?  Oh maybe just 5 or 10.  Not so many.  Okay good, I thought.  He lied though – probably to ensure that I didn’t have that coronary right there on step 124 and fall back to the bottom of the well.  That would have been bad for the well.

Outside, I took a minute (15 of them actually) to rest my poor leg before continuing into the fort proper.  I took a few pictures of the city from the back wall of the gurdwara when Bhai Anoopji pointed out a flurry of green on the fortified wall below me.  Green parrots (as they are called here or parakeets as they are called in North America) covered every little gap in the wall.  It was amazing!

Inside the fort proper is another small gurdwara, where we payed obeisance to Guru Granth Sahib Ji and examined the original walls of the fort.  It was constructed with very wide but thin brick and mortar, unlike the 3″ brick that we see these days.  It was humbling and stirring to see those bricks through their glass protection.  To imagine Guru Gobind Singh Ji in that room, 300 years ago, directing the manufacture of weapons.  To imagine Bhai Bacchitur Singh Ji grabbing a spear before leaving the fort to do battle with an enemy he could never have imagined he would fight – a drunken elephant.  To imagine the Sikh men and women here, preparing for yet another threat to our existence.  My heart beat a little faster standing in that room, connecting with the memories of those brave Singhs and Kaurs who gathered here.  

Ultimately, after repeated attacks by combined forces, Guru Gobind Singh Ji agreed to leave Anandpur Sahib on the promise that he and the Sikhs would be allowed to leave peacefully.  The Mughals did not keep their promise to allow our Guruji and the Sikhs to leave peacefully.  Instead, a caravan full of garbage (a test by Guru Gobind Singh Ji) was attacked.  Shortly afterward, the Mughals followed as Guruji and the Sikhs left Anandpur Sahib.  They would make a stand at Chamkaur Sahib later.

So that is some of the history of this place.  Unfortunately, we did not have time to visit all of the six forts in the area or the Takht (Kesgarh Takht) this trip.  Maybe next one.

Let’s talk about the fun of taking taxis in Amritsar.  The first problem, hardly anyone here speaks English and my Panjabi is so far only barely passable.  That includes the taxi companies.

The second problem, which is compounded by the first, is the colony system for neighbourhoods in Amritsar (and other Punjabi cities).  If you are staying in Sardar Avenue for example, that is not one street.  It is a series of streets which together make one colony.  The house numbers sometimes make sense and sometimes they don’t.  Some guidance is painted on light standards, at the bottom, in yellow… sometimes.  Most of the time, the driver calls you and asks for directions.  Note where I say my Panjabi is so far only barely passable.

The directions aren’t simple – like “Enter Sardar Avenue at the gate and make your first right…” because houses are built too compacted together and on top of one another.  Instead it goes something like this “find the Eye Care Hospital and turn at the stone gate next to it, continue in that direction until you pass three convenience stores, at the fourth convenience store turn right and then right again and park in front of the second house on the right, the one with the brown gate with a khanda on top.”  In following those directions, keep in mind that a lot is not a house, so you have to skip those.  Yeah, my Panjabi is NOT up to that and their English is definitely not up to that.

So to go anywhere, I have to have someone who can provide directions when the driver calls.  AND I either have to be going to a known landmark or near a known landmark (like the Darbar Sahib) or I have to have someone come with me to provide directions to the place I am going.

Coming back is only slightly easier with some exceptions.  There is a no vehicle zone around Darbar Sahib for about three blocks in any direction.  This means the taxi has to come meet me at least three blocks away, where there are fewer landmarks.  There are no taxis there just waiting to be hailed either – only auto rickshaws and cycle rickshaws, both of which charge ridiculous amounts to get back to where I am staying.

I usually walk about six or seven blocks to Hall Bazaar and then another two blocks through busy, busy Hall Bazaar (taxis will not go in there) to the Hall Bazaar gate or another four blocks through Ram Bagh (another seedier market) to the bus stand entrance, where I can get a rickshaw at a more reasonable cost or where, with luck I can get a taxi to agree to meet me.

This situation has left me in a bit of a pickle until recently.  I found a car company that is not only much cheaper than the taxi companies but a) it’s rates are set by a computer system using GPS AND b) the dispatchers speak English.  It means I have to call the dispatcher when the driver calls for directions (or have someone with me).  Also, sometimes, they take the booking but forget to dispatch a vehicle, so I have to call back to be sure… but it has become a life saver.

I also found a very reliable, safe driver at a decent cost for road trips but first I have to pay for his fuel from Ludhiana where he lives.  About 2000 rupees right off the top but he saves me several thousand rupees in fees over the road trip, he’s very nice, very safe, reliable, and doesn’t speak a word of English either (at least he pretends he doesn’t).  He does laugh though and tell me to stop with the English because I’ll never learn Panjabi that way.  Bwahahaha.  Good point, I guess.

On road trips, you need to know about the costs.  You negotiate a daily rate which covers the drivers’ time, his lodging and fuel.  On top of that, you must pay either a daily rate for food or provide him with meals.  You also pay tolls (there are a lot of toll roads in Punjab), parking and any other fees that arise from use of the vehicle (i.e. overnight parking fees at his lodging).  For every three nights that the driver is with me on the road, I also spring for a room for him, where he can have a hot shower and a good bed to sleep in (you want a well rested driver, trust me).  Otherwise, they stay in crew rooms at hotels, in mandirs or gurdwaras or mosques (depending on their own faith), or sometimes in dormatories made specially for tourist drivers and truck drivers.

You also need to be careful about tour drivers.  Just this week a Japanese student, studying in Calcutta escaped after a three week ordeal where she was held captive and gang raped for three weeks in a house.  She had hired a driver to take her to Bhodgaya, a Buddhist pilgrimage site.  Instead, four of his friends met them there and her ordeal began, until she escaped and managed to get to authorities.

There are also stories of tourists being robbed or being charged excessive fees which were not otherwise part of the agreement.

Also recently, a woman in Delhi was raped by a man who drove for an online taxi company operated out of the States.  They had done exactly 0 background checks on the driver, who was a repeat sex offender.

To be clear, given the population of India, and the number of tour drivers and tourists, these incidents are still pretty rare but they happen and India generally is more dangerous than most places in Canada, so you need to do your research and be careful.  

Carry a cell phone, know the emergency numbers in the areas you are visiting and generally where to find the police.  It is illegal in India for police not to take and investigate a complaint of rape now, after the Delhi bus case last year.  Also, if it seems like a bargain basement kind of price you’re being offered, or you’re being offered a tour on the street… probably it is not at all a good idea.  If you don’t feel 100% safe, don’t go.  It’s just not worth it if your gut instinct ends up being right.

My drivers have all been recommended or they came from tour companies associated with reputable hotels – people with reputations to maintain.  I don’t go anywhere but the Darbar Sahib at night either, so I don’t have to look for a driver at night.  Auto- and cycle-rickshaws are a little different in that they are so easy to escape from if the driver starts going down some wrong alleyway or other dark spot but you still want to be careful with them.

So that brings me to my slightly amusing auto-rickshaw story.  Recently, I was in Ludhiana with the host unit, little sister and her cousin.  We took an auto-rickshaw from one relative’s home to another.  About halfway through the trip, a pair of women got on the rickshaw with a baby (they are kind of like buses in that they will pick up passengers unless you pay them a premium for a private ride).  The two women had betel stained lips and were chewing betel when they got in.  This is a big no-no for Sikhs.  The host unit told the women to cover their mouths with their scarves, which got her nothing more than a strange look.  Anyhow, one sat next to me with the infant and the other across from me.  Then … suddenly, a hand on my leg moving ever so lightly.  Now maybe the first time the woman across from me was just adjusting her shawl but not the second or third time.  Nope.  She was trying to feel for the pocket of my jacket.  It’s a good thing that is NOT where I keep my rupees.  Bwahahaha.  Good luck sneaking your way into my bra or my other hiding spots lady.  Good luck to you.

The third time, I met her hand with mine and gave it a painful squeeze and a look that said, “don’t make me make this a whole thing, k?”  She seemed to get that and jumped off of the auto at the next possible chance.

Seriously, the nerve.

We’ll talk some more about beggars and thieves later in another post.  For now, I’m going off to watch an Indian soap-opera (she calls it a serial) with the host unit.  They are hilarious and not because they mean to be.

Until next time,
Peace and love all,
– Himmatpreet

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