Obama to visit Golden Temple, college in Amritsar


Amritsar : When US President Barack Obama lands in India next month, his itinerary will include a visit to the Golden Temple here, the holiest Sikh shrine. This is being seen as a recognition of the importance and influence of the large Sikh community in the US.

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Obama will arrive in this Sikh holy city from Mumbai Nov 7 during his first visit to India after becoming the president. He will visit the Golden Temple and offer prayers at Harmandar Sahib, the sanctum sanctorum.

“Obama will visit the Golden Temple. US embassy officials and security officers have been coming here at regular intervals for weeks. We are cooperating with them,” SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar told IANS.

Details of the areas Obama will visit in the shrine complex, spread over 15 acres, are being worked out. After offering prayers, he is likely to go to the main langar hall, the 24-hour community kitchen where an estimated 100,000 devotees are fed traditional meals on peak days.

“We have started preparations (ahead of the visit). Security has been beefed up in Amritsar district,” Amritsar’s Deputy Commissioner K.S. Pannu told IANS.

“Obama will visit Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) and Khalsa College. But there could be last minute changes. The final plan is yet to be sorted out,” said Pannu.

What is worrying security agencies is that Obama is arriving on a Sunday, which attracts the highest number of devotees. The rush could be even more this time as Diwali falls Nov 5, making it a long weekend holiday till Nov 7.

“So far it has not been decided in which hotel President Obama will have his lunch,” the official added.

Unprecedented security arrangements are being put in place by the US Secret Service along with officials of Indian security agencies, including the Punjab Police and the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), which manages the shrine.

“Since the area around the Darbar Sahib is very crowded, we could direct the shopkeepers and other traders to close their premises for some time. We can also ask people to remain away from certain areas during Obama’s visit,” Pannu added.

Obama’s visit comes close on the heels of one by President Pratibha Patil to the shrine Oct 6.

Regarding security arrangements for Obama’s visit, Makkar said: “Amritsar Police are taking care of security outside the Golden Temple. Inside our premises, we will have our own arrangements in consultation with security officials.”

The SGPC provides a volunteer force inside the shrine while security officials in plainclothes are allowed along with high-security VIP visitors.

The US entourage will land at the Rajasansi airport here, located 25 km from the international border with Pakistan, and then drive into the city.

Makkar said the SGPC would honour the US president at the shrine complex.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited the Golden Temple in November last year. British monarch Queen Elizabeth and her husband Prince Phillip had visited it in October 1997.

The Harmandar Sahib is a two-storeyed marble building that has plates of pure gold on the outer and inner walls, on the roof and dome of the building.

Every visitor to the shrine has to cover his or her head with a cloth and remove shoes before entering the premises.

“It is good such a big leader is visiting the shrine. This shows that Sikhs have an important role to play even at the international level,” Balbir Singh, a shopowner near the shrine, told IANS.

India’s first Sikh Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lived in Amritsar for several years after migrating from Pakistan in 1947.