Amritsar is a fascinating mix of history and holiness. Add a dash of flavoursome food and you get a concoction that’s a must-experience. As Air India resumes direct flights between Amritsar and Birmingham, Aarti Kapur Singh takes us on a guided trip of the city
I was roaming aimlessly, one narrow bylane taking me to another, when an engraved wooden doorway caught my eye. Towering over the neighbouring houses, crowded in by ATMs and busy sweetmeat shops, it was adorned by an exquisitely carved door frame. Though it had lost some of its beauty, engraved panels erased by time, nothing could take away its grandeur. And it wasn’t alone. As I walked down the lane, avoiding two-wheelers and cycles whizzing past, I marvelled at many such remnants. I could have been walking down history. That’s the charm of Amritsar. This bustling city lets you relive the past at every step, mesmerising you with a charming concoction of history, spirituality and gastronomic delights. Amritsar is as much a soulful experience as it is a sensory one.
It was mid-morning and the city was buzzing. I had stepped out after a dawn visit to the spectacular Golden Temple – the most sacred of Sikh shrines and the most popular landmark in the city – and was wandering around the old market area, letting the mystery of the old winding bylanes guide me: a right turn to closely look at a line of bright phulkariembroidered dupattas, a sharp left to add to my stock of Punjabi juttis (traditional footwear) and another left to marvel at how a pigeonhole shop could stock mountains of colourful papads, spices, wadiyan (dried pulse nuggets) and dry fruits.
One of the oldest and largest cities in north India, Amritsar, in Punjab, is an ocean of heritage – in its temples, markets, dhabas and its people. “Vasdi saghan apaar anoop Ramdaspur” (Ramdaspur is prosperous, thickly populated and incomparably beautiful) – that is how the city of Ramdaspur, now known as Amritsar, is described in the Guru Granth Sahib.
The recent facelift that the city has got is another reason to visit Amritsar. The façades of several buildings on the street surrounding the Golden Temple have been recreated in a uniform architectural theme, which imparts to them a grand look in keeping with the 400-year-old city.
Tryst with history
In the socio-political history of India, Amritsar is important. It was in this city that the British Army massacred innocents, providing an inadvertent shot in the arm to India’s freedom struggle. A visit to Jallianwala Bagh, where the shoot-out happened a century ago (in 1919), is a must. The bullet marks on the brick walls moved me to tears. Visit the palace of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the great warrior hero, and be amazed by its grandeur, even though it is a fraction of what it used to be in its heyday.
Another imposing draw in the vicinity is a permanent museum dedicated to the Partition of India in 1947. Yadgare- Taqseem, or Memories of Partition, that opened in 2017, is an effort to document and commemorate the lives of people and institutions affected by the Partition. Home to a collection of documents, oral histories and memorabilia commemorating one of the largest migrations in history, as well as an invaluable archive for scholars and academics, the museum commemorates the Partition and the sacrifices made by people on both sides of the border. Situated at the newly renovated Heritage Street, the museum is one of many structures that render what was once an ordinary street into a grand walkway. In fact, the one-kilometre stretch feels like a walk through an open museum. Bright lamp-posts illuminating white shop façades, buildings with Mughal and Rajput-inspired domes and jharokhas, LED lights illuminating the angles and crevices, and just the right number of people on the street make it appear like a magical land, where history and heritage meet technology.
End your day with the amazing lowering of flags ceremony at the Attari-Wagah border that separates India and Pakistan’s geographical boundaries. While most return to the city after the evening parade is over, I took a detour to stop by at the quaint Attari railway station.
For most tourists, the Golden Temple represents everything Amritsar has to offer. If you are inclined to indulge in sewa (community service), offer your services at the langar (community meal) at Harmandir Sahib, as the gurdwara is also known. All gurdwaras have community kitchens, wherein anybody who wishes to serve can join in. Besides the annual beeline that travellers and believers make for the Golden Temple, the Lal Devi Mata Temple is another famous landmark in the city. You have to wade through ankle-deep water to reach the shrine, and low tunnels and caves are the trademark of the arduous route that leads to it. Another lesser-known spot, the Durgiana Temple, is situated near the Amritsar railway station.
If you are in Amritsar and do not savour its famed street food, it would certainly be a loss. From Amritsari kulcha and dal makhani to chhole bhature and makhan machhi, the choices are lip-smackingly varied. Just remember to end your meal with a tall glass of lassi. While everyone has his or her own list of favourites from the city’s legendary dhabas, Kesar Da Dhaba, Bharawan Da Dhaba and Gurudas Ram Jalebiwala are not to be missed. And remember, the dhabas around the Golden Temple serve only vegetarian fare.
The author is a senior journalist and the views expressed in this article are her own