Lake of nectar

The holy town of Amritsar is a beautiful blend of religion, culture, food and heritage

Golden Temple, Amritsar

From the air, the Golden Temple seems unprepossessing: a golden dome, surrounded by a shimmering square of water, the whole encapsulated in a white marble boundary. Just one of the buildings in the crowded town centre of Amritsar. But its presence in the town extends far beyond the physical. There are images of it in every shop you go to. Road signs on major roads include the way to the Harmandir Sahib — the name of the temple in Punjabi. And at the airport, the railway station, the bus depots, hopeful cab drivers will offer to take you to the trinity of attractions the city is famous for: “Golden Temple, Jallianwala Bagh, Wagah Border?”

Where god resides

When you actually enter the temple complex, the sheer presence of the shimmering building at the centre takes your breath away. This is the centre of Sikhism today, visited by over a lakh pilgrims every day, but the place expands to accommodate all that come. By the lake, people sit, praying, or watching the fishes in the water, or preparing to take a holy dip. Devotional songs play over the speakers installed around the compound.

On one side, a building houses the ‘Guru ka Langar’, where all visitors get a simple, delicious and filling meal any time of the day. The central shrine itself — decorated with 750 kg of gold donated by Maharaja Ranjit Singh — glitters in sunlight during the day and with strategically placed lights during the night. Volunteers perform ‘seva’ all around the complex, cleaning the pathways, serving water, cleaning plates, managing footwear stalls, all working together to keep their holy place running.

Most visitors come to Amritsar for the temple. However, the town has a lot more to offer in terms of historical, cultural, culinary experiences. Let’s look around.

Just a stone’s throw away from the Golden Temple, Jallianwala Bagh is known to every schoolkid in India as the site of the mass shooting on Baisakhi day by General Dyer. This was the tragic event that destroyed every Indian’s faith in the British intentions and generated mass support for the freedom struggle. The place itself was a private land, but was acquired by an Indian National Congress-backed trust in 1923, and turned into a memorial park. Even today, it retains the emotional impact and horror of the massacre. The moment you enter, through the same narrow passage the British troops used on April 13, 1919, you see a marker saying “People fired at from here.” From that vantage point, the entire area of the park is visible.

Jallianwala Bagh
Jallianwala Bagh 

You shudder to imagine the scene — the bullets flying, the desperation of the assembled people… On one side is the Martyr’s Well, a large open well into which people threw themselves hoping to escape from the firing. Further down are two walls which have retained the bullet marks from the day — the bullets went deep enough to gouge out holes in the brick. And finally, there is the memorial monument itself — a red sandstone ellipse, standing tall and visible from all throughout the park. As one walks out of the park, there is a small museum with pictures and more context around the events of that day. A statue of Udham Singh, the man who eventually killed Dyer, stands just outside the entrance structure.

Border tales

The Wagah border, about 30 km away from Amritsar town, has become a must-see in recent years. This is a gate where trade and visitor traffic flows between India and Pakistan through the day, and there’s a small ‘Beating Retreat’ ceremony every evening around sunset, when the ceremonial iron gates of the border are closed. On the Indian side, tourists start assembling from 3 pm onwards, trying to get a good view of the gate from the stadium-type seating. By sunset, the place is jam-packed, with not even enough space to approach the stands. As the ceremony starts, the chants of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ resound — there’s even a DJ of sorts explaining what is happening at the ceremony. Soldiers on either side perform an elaborate martial ritual with co-ordinated marching and parading. The flags are lowered for the evening. In the audience, the atmosphere is reminiscent of a cricket match.

Memories of the past

The Amritsar Town Hall, at a walking distance from the Golden Temple, now houses one of the better museums in India — the Partition Museum, which was inaugurated as recently as 2017. The exhibits start with a detailed look at the events that led to the Partition of India and Pakistan: the Freedom Struggle, the rise of the Two-nation theory, the process of drawing the Radcliffe Line. Thereafter, the aftermath is explained in detail: the overnight uprooting of millions of people, the riots and slaughter, the painful process of resettlement. The history is explained through an excellent variety of methods: there are the usual posters and text, and video screens with headphones, where first-person accounts of the events play. Sculptures and art installations convey the emotions in each room. 

Another new attraction is the Gobindgarh Fort. This fort was expanded and named by Maharaja Ranjit Singh to repel attackers coming along the Silk Road. It was taken over by the British Army, and later by the Indian Army. Now, again, it is open to the public. It houses two museums — of weapons and of coins, and shows off the architecture of a toshakhana (the gunpowder storage room), besides light and sound shows and theatre featuring films on Sikh history. In the evenings, stage events are organised here — I happened to visit the place during a lively bhangra competition!

Delectable fare

You cannot visit Amritsar and miss the lip-smacking food here. Besides the wholesome meals at the Guru ka Langar, there are several dhabas serving rich Punjabi food — Kesar Da Dhaba, Bharawan Da Dhaba, and Brothers Dhaba among them.

In the mornings, small shops sell Amritsari kulchas — layered, butter-smeared kulcha stuffed with paneer or potato masala. Amritsari lassi is everywhere, usually topped with malai Amritsari fish is a cuisine in itself. And then there are the packed foods to take back home: masalas, aam papads, Punjabi papads and wariyan (added to gravies to give them that special touch).

We aren’t done yet — what about the clothes shopping? Katra Jaimal, near the Town Hall, is the place for the famous phulkari embroidery of Punjab, made into dupattas, kurtis, jackets, and even purses. And there are the soft-leather Punjabi juttis that go with any traditional wear.

The core of the city retains its old-world charm. Whether it’s partaking of a meal at the Guru ka Langar, or bargaining for a beautiful memento in the market, you are received with the famous Punjabi geniality and boisterous spirit. That’s something you will carry back with you, a present from the happy folk of Amritsar.

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