It is like a Yash Raj movie come to life- the same mansions, the massive ‘sarson ke khet’and the red tractors…the scenario beautifully corresponding with the cliché one has built in their mind’s eye about the city whose name, when translated literally means ‘The pool of the Nectar of Immortality’- Amritsar. Located in the northwestern part of the country in the state of Punjab, the city forms the seat of the Sikh religion and enjoys the added intrigue of being only 32 km away from Lahore, Pakistan.
At first glance, Amritsar could pass off as just another small city in northern India- the narrow lanes, the constant bustle and the countless eateries and street food stalls. But it keeps its treasures locked away. One of the greatest attractions it has to offer is the famous Golden Temple, the religious centre for the Sikhs. Also known as the Harmandir Sahib, the temple is plated with gold and houses the sacred Guru Granth Sahib Ji. Picturesquely surrounded by a small lake, it records more footfalls than the Taj Mahal in a year and is the most favoured destination in the country for NRIs.
As it always is with something that you have high expectations from, you enter the temple premises with a slight breath of apprehension. You wash your feet as tradition requires, in the small bath on the outside and then look up. The temple, quite literally, takes your breath away; you find yourself standing in the same spot for almost fifteen minutes staring at the spectacle before you, wondering how something could be so beautiful. If the temple is visited at night- which is highly recommended- the golden walls reflect in the still water and if you are lucky, you can spot the moon sharing the space, forming a sort of religious connect.
Not taking your eyes off the temple as you begin walking towards it, you notice many people offering what is known as ‘seva’ around you. The premises remain spotless as the Sikhs consider it a privilege to serve at the temple, be it sweeping or washing dirty plates at the ‘langar’ (the traditional sikh prasad). The temple itself is small but stunning, with beautifully painted glass adorning the golden walls and the huge chandelier hanging over the main prayer hall. The haunting lilts of the ‘shabads’ (religious hyms) ring around you, soothing and comforting.
Forming a complete contrast to the serenity of the Golden Temple is the gate closing ritual at Wagah Border. Held twice a day, each at sunrise and sunset, the seemingly menial task is made festive by the 30,000 strong visitors. But don’t let the number of people bog you down…this is an experience that cannot be missed at any cost. As the sun starts dipping, patriotic songs play loudly as the crowd settles down on the amphitheatre-like seating. A few minutes before the clock strikes 6, the Border Security Force marshals march down towards the gate to Pakistan to perform the ceremony as the Pakistan BSF marshals do the same on the other side. There are a few places that make you feel quite so patriotic.
Strangely, Amritsar offers another such place- the Jallianwala Bagh. Infamous for being the very place where General Dyer of the British Government ordered the massacre of almost 1000 Indians who were holding a peaceful rally, the park has been preserved well by the government and hosts a monument built in the memory of those who died, bullet marks on the walls and the well where many jumped to escape the bullets. A visit to the Jallianwala Bagh is a must for all Indians- it makes you pause and think about all those who gave up their lives to give us the freedom we enjoy now.
If there has been a historical overdose, it is suggested that you head out to eat. Nothing can cheer up a person more that good food, especially when Amritasri cuisine takes the concept of heavy food and throws it out of the window. Every dish that you order in the city is generously laden with ghee and butter and everything else that could be fattening. It also makes the food extraordinarily delicious. A specialty of the city is the Amritsari kulcha, which is as large as the plate it is served in and scrumptious. It is advised that this delicacy be enjoyed with the equally famous lassi, which comes in various sized glasses, caters to all tastes and is a truly spiritual experience.
After the stomach has been satisfied, it is time to burn holes into those wallets. As the markets of Amritsar are located mostly in the narrow, meandering lanes of the old city, tourists should hire a rickshaw instead of making an attempt to find their own way around. Amritsar is famous for its ‘fulkari’ duppattas, carpets and for the more adventurous (or those that have decided to convert to Sikhism after a visit to the Golden Temple!), beautifully hand-crafted silver daggers and kirpans. The people are friendly and helpful and are often such skilful salesmen that you find yourself buying things you may not even know the function of.
A convenient five hour drive from the well connected Chandigarh, Amritsar should be visited by road and preferably in the post monsoon months of September to November. Having your own transport can be handy for visiting the Wagah Border which is just a few kilometres away from the main city. Travelling around the city, however, should be done by rickshaws or buses as the roads often form an un-manoeuvrable maze. But visit it you must. There isn’t any other city that can incite so many emotions in just a day.
[Image courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pnp/1631550666/]