If you’ve grown up on Bollywood, chances are that your most immediate association with Punjab is sarson ke khet, an old wrinkled biji and a dramatic homecoming with groovy bhangra beats in the background (with the exception of Udta Punjab, of course). If that’s not it, then I’m presuming butter chicken and a big Patiala peg would be in line. Much like Rajasthan, Punjab is also a land of Rajas and Ranis who left behind grand palaces and forts where each brick has a hidden story to tell for those who care to listen. Delve a bit deeper and you will also find Punjab’s ancient unhealed wounds – from the time it was torn apart during Partition.
Chances are that you haven’t necessarily planned a sole visit to the five river state, (my own visit was by chance) but if you are passing it for a getaway to the hills of Himachal or for any other circumstantial reasons, we recommend a day in Punjab’s beloved city of Amritsar. It was here where I discovered the sublime and yet complex aura of Punjab and if you are looking for a similar experience (without kitschy tour recommendations) in the city, then this day guide is perhaps where you can happily end your travel search.
HG Recommends: Most of this guide stays close to Temple Road in Amritsar, we suggest you plan your stay around that area.
You can go in and around Temple Road by foot or bicycle rickshaws which are easily available.
The Golden Temple
Timings: 3 AM - 10 PM
While we are all up for the ‘unbeaten track’, if there is one thing in Amritsar you absolutely cannot miss, it is its most popular attraction, The Golden Temple. Formally known as the Harmandir Sahib, this gurudwara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most revered spiritual sites for the Sikh community in the world. However, the enigma of the temple is such, that regardless of your religious beliefs and position you will find yourself entranced when there. How? Let’s go inside to found out.
The gurudwara lies at the far end of Amritsar’s Town Hall on Temple Road, which can be easily located (even for the GPS challenged) by following clearly visible signboards. While there will be many rickshaw drivers aggressively competing to take you there, we suggest you take this short fifteen-minute walk on foot. This will allow you to take in the sights and aromas of this small, neatly built town lined with fresh red brick shops and photogenic statues that emanate the many cultural sights of Punjab.
Once you reach one of the four gates – which symbolically represent gateways welcoming men and women from all of India’s major religions, you must handover your footwear to designated counters. This seemingly mundane task is quite a revelation into the diffident beliefs of the Sikh community. The men and women who handover a silver token in exchange for your shoes range from young students to middle-aged professionals rendering their services or seva in the name of the almighty.
A few moments after entering the temple. your senses begin to deliciously fall into a sweet lull. Thoughts, anxieties and motivations of the modern world left to be replaced by the deep serenity and silence surrounding this wonder of India. The Golden Temple, built in the middle of a water tank also referred to as the ‘Tank of Immortality’ is rectangular in shape and is surrounded by the temple’s sprawling complex. The all-consuming beauty of the temple bathed in the hues of dawn (yes, it’s worth fighting the holiday laziness!), the turquoise ripples of the water and the soothing Sikh hymns sung in the background made me lose track of all time. Introspection is a great friend to befriend here and take our advice, don’t put a timer on this one because long after you have left these moments are sure to find a peaceful place in your memory.
- Make sure you are dressed in full-length loose clothing, it’s considered a mark of respect for the holy site and also decides your entry into the temple.
- Both men and women must cover their heads when in the temple premises. You can carry your own scarf or take one which is available outside the temple.
- We also suggest you make your trip to the temple both in the morning and evening to experience the ambience of the space in changing light.
Lunching At The Langar
There are many other smaller shrines to explore in the Golden Temple, but unless you’re religious or just innately inquisitive, we suggest you head towards the langar hall (you can ask anyone on the premises to direct you there), also known as the world’s largest free kitchen.
The vegetarian food here – soft thin rotis, a wholesome sabzi or curry along with freshly cooked rice is an experience not so much for the tastebuds as it is for a lesson of kindness and selflessness, both practiced by the Sikh community. The food is served on simple squeaky clean steel thalis as you sit on a straw mattress with thousands of other people across classes – a treasured experience in community living.
The logistical arrangements for these hot meals are fascinating in their efficiency. Consider one simple fact –– 90% of the working staff consists of volunteers who cook and serve these meals to almost 50,000 people who visit the temple everyday!
Remembering The Partition
Timings: 10 PM - 6 PM
Transit Time - 10-minute walk from the Golden Temple
The museum is housed in a colonial building is particularly apt because Amritsar, which was on the front-lines of Partition, is where hundreds of thousands of refugees found their first solace after fleeing their homes.
Entering the Partition Museum (the first of its kind in the world), you expect to be immediately overwhelmed by tales of trauma. Such is not the case, for you must spend at least a couple of hours at the site before the place can open up its many archived wounds to you.
A three-storey building, the ground floor is dedicated to the telling of history both anecdotal and factual that led to India’s Partition, so if you are well aware of this chronology we suggest you move on to the upstairs sections which hold the documented truths behind the “people’s story” of partition.
Here is where you will find photographs of lost-loved ones cover walls with personal stories inscribed below, objects that travelled the border lie nonchalantly as tokens of the beloved homes (on the other side) which was once resided by the refugees who donated these objects to the Museum.
I found it particularly intriguing (and even heartbreaking!) to learn how with the drawing of the border, the country’s young jawans suddenly found their colleagues now on the other side of the enemy line! Historical artefacts including necklaces and sculptures from the Indus Valley Civilization “broken into halves” for the two Nations after Partition along with stories of great artists like Noor-Jehan, the twin Nightingale of undivided India with Lata Mangeshkar are ironic tales in the cultural division of a nation.
Timings - 10 AM - 10 PM
Recently undergone renovation and restoration, the Gobindgarh Fort in the city is a fuss-free way to spend an evening. The fort which has a vibrant royal history of nearly 250 years is now a beautiful sprawling heritage site.
One of the many interactive shows, exhibits and programmes hosted there as an effort to pay homage to Punjab’s history and culture was Kanda Boldiyan Ne or Whispering Walls – a 3D light show on the story of Gobindgarh Fort. If you are already making presumptions on it being one of low quality technology (like I did), don’t, because it’s quite an immersive experience. Against the backdrop of the original façade of the fort a multimedia sound and light show (laser lights, computer animation and projection mapping technologies) sweeps you into the legend of the Fort –– its Kings, its battles, its grief and happiness all narrated by the seemingly mute walls of the Fort itself. A short but still engaging the show which lasts for half and hour takes place twice everyday after sunset in English, Hindi and Punjabi.
Tickets are available at the Fort.
Please Note: This traveller is vegetarian!
If you thought we expected you fill your stomachs on only heritage and culture, don’t worry, we don’t belong to that breed of cruelty. The way to relishing the butter-dipped creamy soul food of Amritsar resides in Brother’s Da Dhaba at Amritsar’s town hall on Temple Road. Sticking to traditional North-Indian food, I ordered the ‘special thali’ (among the various options), which came with two gigantic plain kulchas, two bowls of sabzi or curries and a generous helping of kali dal. A prior note of caution, if you are eating this meal by yourself (like I did) you must be motivated to satisfy the heart, long after the stomach has signalled its resignation.
Having said that, the kulchas, simmering in butter had been roasted to perfection –– utter softness under a crispy crust. They were accompanied by two bowls of sabzi-paneer and chole chana which dunked in oil and seared in garam masalas and garnished with roasted garlic tasted very much like the closest desi heaven I had been to during my own lifetime. Crispy papad, freshly chopped onions, green chutneys and in-house pickles are also served in abundance with your meal to fulfil all those desi culinary particularities! Other similar kulcha recommendations include Kesar Da Dhabha and Pehelwan Kulcha at Laxmanser Chowk.
Satisfying The Sweet-Tooth
After a rather immensely satisfying burp from my meal, I walked, or rather waddled around the town hall in search for some dessert, for I don’t believe in disregarding the sweet-tooth.
A tall glass of plain sweet lassi at Ahuja Milk Bhandar, near Hindu College recommended by a local, became my newfound treasure. The lassi, which is served in a simple steel glass is deliciously refreshing with a perfect consistency that stays away from being a thick creamy mixture often found in Mumbai. They also have a kesar lassi for those of you who fancy saffron essence. However, if your appetite is humble as compared to a bear, I suggest you treat the lassi as a meal in itself.
From jalebis to kulfis, Amritsar specialises in a range of sweet treats, and eating your way through them all in a single day at a risk of an immensely high sugar rush was not what I was willing to take. So I settled on Rana Fruit Cream at Lohagad (again a special local suggestion) as my next and final stop for the day’s dessert. A shabby looking open-air establishment with rickety wooden chairs and tables, Rana’s fruit cream makes up for all it lacks in aesthetics. A cup filled with dollops of fresh sweetened cream that resembles fluffy white clouds with a rich mix of dry fruits was a simple yet delectable finish to the day.
While my personal guide ends here, this small yet culturally bustling city has much to explore. If you are a keen history buff or interested in religion, then places like War Memorial or Ram Tirtha Complex are also some major attractions. The Wagah Border tour where you get to experience the joint parade between Indian and Pakistan soldiers at the Punjab-Pakistan border is also widely popular amongst those who visit Amritsar. However, having attended it myself, I recommend you choose this half-day activity which also requires prior ticket bookings if you have time on your hand and are a particularly patriotic soul.
As for souvenirs and some shopping tips, stick to the Town Hall if you are short on time, for it houses everything from Punjabi masalas to phulkari dupattas that you might want to pick up. I do personally recommend buying a pair of juttis if you are keen on Indian shoes, they have quite an eclectic collection.
To say the least, Amritsar with its quintessential small-town charm, offering stories of love, loss and immense kindness and vibrant culinary culture – all for the soul, is one of the most memorable travel experiences the country has to offer.
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