Frontier spirit: A new flight to Amritsar opens up India's Punjab

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The peace was palpable. Around the temple courtyard pilgrims were reading, praying, and sweeping the gleaming marble. Meanwhile the air was filled with music and chanting, relayed via discreetly placed speakers from the golden inner sanctuary that glowed magnificently through the darkness. It was just after 4.30am at Amritsar's Golden Temple. Here, in accordance with Sikh philosophy, all are welcome – including slightly spaced-out women just arrived from England.

About half an hour later a blast from a great curving horn broke the quiet: the Book, I was told to my bemusement, had awoken.

Considered the supreme spiritual authority of the Sikh religion, Guru Granth Sahib is not simply a holy text, I was informed, it is an entity around which temple life revolves. Every night "the Master", as the tome is touchingly and respectfully called, is carefully taken to its sleeping chamber during a heartfelt ceremony. And every morning it is woken and delivered back to the gilded inner shrine in a similar ritual. Wrapped in silks, it is placed in an ornate palanquin that is carried by a crowd of men jostling for this honour. I watched its progress amid a sea of turbans – ochre, orange, blue, red and more. Then just before daybreak I took my leave of the temple.

I had landed barely a couple of hours earlier, one of the first passengers on BMI's new service from Heathrow to Amritsar in the northern Punjab region. Elsewhere in the world, arriving just after 3am might be a test of endurance as you juggle jetlag and the craving for sleep. But here the timing is perfect: you can head straight to the Golden Temple for an ineffably beautiful introduction to the city.

Go-ahead Amritsar is that thriving mix of old and new that characterises so many Indian cities today. Founded in the 1570s, it presents a combination of bazaars and big shopping malls, tree-lined lanes and wide expressways. I checked into the Ista Amritsar, a stylish property of a contemporary chain that reflects country's modern affluence. The group includes the renowned spa hotel Ananda in the Himalayas and, happily, the Ista Amritsar also offers state-of-the-art treatments. After a couple of hours sleep, a jet-lag massage set me up nicely for an absorbing tour.

First, I wanted to see the Golden Temple in daylight and to take in more of its sublime atmosphere. In particular I was intrigued to visit the kitchen areas. Every day 40,000 or so people are fed here – free. I watched volunteers peeling great mountains of garlic and ginger. I paused by enormous vats of rice and dahl. Then I tried my hand, ineptly, at rolling chapattis while behind me the percussion of washing up echoed from several hundred metal plates and bowls.

Almost adjacent to the temple is Amritsar's most poignant site. Jallianwala Bagh park is now a supremely peaceful memorial garden. Here, on 13 April 1919, soldiers of the British Indian Army opened fire on a gathering of unarmed civilians. It was a tense time and the British authorities had banned demonstrations. Yet the 2,000 or so people who had gathered were celebrating the Sikh festival of Baisakhi. Notoriously, due to the high walls of the park, most were unable to escape. Carnage ensued. Attempting to play down the massacre, the British claimed that about 350 lives were lost. The real figure was probably in excess of 1,500.

A museum in the park charts the tragedy and its repercussions. It was in response to the killings that Gandhi started his acts of civil disobedience. The voices of condemnation included the revered author Rabindranath Tagore who asked to be relieved of his knighthood; and Winston Churchill who described the incident as "an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation".

A day later I set out on the trail of more positive Raj heritage. I was heading for Shimla, a village in the state of Himachal Pradesh that between 1864 and 1939 served as the summer capital of British India. The administration in the then-capital, Calcutta, moved inland and upwards each summer to avoid the stultifying heat. Even after the capital shifted to New Delhi in 1911, the practice endured for a few more decades. It is astonishing to think that one-fifth of the world's population was ruled via the dots and dashes of the telegraph system from this small hill station.

Getting there is an adventure in itself. For the ultimate in glamour, redolent of early 1930s colonial dash, you could take a one-hour journey from Amritsar in a private plane chartered from the Oberoi group, which has three luxury hotels in the Shimla area. Those less flush make an eight- or nine-hour road trip from the city. It's a striking route – firstly through the fertile plains of the Punjab to the unlikely, modernist city of Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier in the 1920s. Here you might opt to stop for a night before twisting up into cool hills coated with Himalayan cedars.

Arriving at Shimla, 2,200m above sea level, you can't but feel dazed. This doesn't seem quite India, but it's certainly not England either. Walk the pedestrian part of the main drag, the Mall, and you'll see a parade of mock-Tudor and neo-Gothic architecture. Mountain views, winding bazaars below and the ubiquitous monkeys add a surreal element.

There's a wealth of accommodation on offer here, but perhaps best of all is a forested retreat just beyond town. Wildflower Hall was once the summer mansion of Lord Kitchener. It became a hotel in 1925 and continued to welcome guests after Independence. But in 1993 it was all but destroyed in a fire. The estate was then acquired by the Oberoi group who rebuilt the hotel as a sumptuous, Raj-style property.

That twist, that concept of colonial heritage recalibrated and celebrated, is one of the most striking aspects of contemporary Shimla, which offers a wonderfully sophisticated take on the past. Indian tourists were thronging the castle-like Viceregal Lodge now the Institute of Advance Study for post-doctorate research. Meanwhile the 124-year-old Gaiety Theatre, beautifully restored over five years and now complete with boxes and revived stucco work, was evidently much in demand for local shows.

On the way back to Amritsar, I took a detour to observe an extraordinary daily event: the evening border-closing ceremony at the India-Pakistan frontier just outside the town of Wagah. Reflecting the eased relations between the two countries, this has become a flamboyant show, mutually choreographed by the border guards of each nation.

Bollywood-style music was blaring as I arrived and was ushered into a grandstand where I was told that a good 10,000 people congregate every night – double on Sundays. Relays races were run, large India flags were waved, the ladies sector left their seats and danced.

Then, amid much cheering, at around 5.30pm the real show began. Splendidly dressed in khaki, white gloves, white spats and red fan-like turbans the enormously tall Indian border guards paraded and stomped. An even taller cheerleader, meanwhile, dressed in whites and looking like a dream tennis coach, whipped up various cries of "Long Live India" while the opposite side rallied with cheerfully opposing calls. The crux of the event was a brief handshake between Indian and Pakistani commanders. Then carefully synchronised flags were lowered and the entertainment ended. It made a glorious finale to my time in north-west India.

Travel essentials: Amritsar

Getting there

* BMI (0844 8484 888; flybmi.com) flies three times a week from Heathrow to Amritsar via Almaty in Kazakhstan.

* One-stop alternatives include Air India via Delhi, Qatar Airways via Doha and Turkmenistan Airlines via Ashgabat.

* The writer travelled with India specialist Greaves Travel (020 7487 9111; greavesindia.com). The company offers an eight-day trip to Amritsar and Shimla from £1,850. The price includes return BMI flights; accommodation at the Ista Amritsar, the Oberoi Wildflower Hall near Shimla, and a night in Chandigarh; transfers and sightseeing including the Wagah border ceremony; and private car with driver for the Shimla leg of the trip.

* Alternatively the Oberoi group's King Air C-90A aircraft can be chartered for the journey to Shimla. It seats up to five passengers and costs Rs55,000 (about £860) per hour (00 98 11 2567 1516; oberoihotels.com).

More information

* British passport-holders require a visa (in.vfsglobal.co.uk).

* India Tourism: 020-7437 3677; incredibleindia.org

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