A simple Prayer, a dozen Phulkaris and ghee clad Paranthas

Been a bunch of months since my last..cough (first and only) blog piece. This time the fingers itch to write about someplace in India. Time travel takes me to the recent family holiday we had when I got back to India – Amritsar.

So, it was just a one day trip but my third visit to the golden land of Amritsar. We were planning a trip up north since a while and did a Chandigarh-Amritsar-Mussorie (Microsoft Office insists it is Missouri) gig. The spotlight here is on Amritsar and anywhere I go, if Amritsar is on the itinerary, the spotlight will remain on this dusty, divine city.

We as a family hate doing the ‘3N 4D trip with XYZ Tours and Travels’. It has to be our time, our way and no over cramming of all the ‘places to see’ that Google throws up. Added advantage on this trip was that since Dad had a work stint in Himachal Pradesh a few years back, we knew our way around and had a reliable taxi guy to take us around even if it meant he had to come all the way from the Himachal border to pick us up from Chandigarh. Even though it seems impractical, sometimes it’s just the comfort level and camaraderie that matter.  So off we were with Ganeshji – the taxi guy on this short but sublime holiday.

We reached Amritsar on the second night of our journey. It was intended as a day trip but we reached earlier than anticipated which meant we didn’t have hotel bookings. Endless Google searches (I somehow seem to be giving too much coverage to Google. It is a parallel lifeline no doubt). Here let me tell you, the hotels are sorted not just on tariff or grade but also on their proximity to the Golden Temple. We are talking early July and yet we had to struggle to find a decent place. Finally we found one which came in the category of ‘2 kms. from Golden Temple’.

After checking in, we quickly freshened up and got ready to go the Temple. For those unfamiliar with what I am referring to – Harmandir Sahib, popularly known as the Golden Temple, is a prominent religious Shrine of the Sikh community. It garners the name ‘Golden Temple’ as the shrine is covered in real Gold. For me though the temple is golden not just due to the yellow metal but because of the golden glow it brings upon you.

So this wasn’t my first trip to Amritsar or Harmandir Sahib. But everytime I set foot into the Gurudwara, I feel this sudden calm set upon me. Like steam settling on a lid, like clouds shuttering away the scorching sunrays.

Harmandir Sahib is beautiful by the night as much as it is by the day. The shrine sits amidst calm waters, chants are recited in a soothing tone and the shrine is surrounded by white structures wrapping it like cloudy foam. The ambience dips down my stress levels which even a 5-digit de-stress spa package has failed to instil.

Spiritual journeys are subjective. Moving on to a realistic level, what will hit you as soon as you enter the premises of the Gurudwara is that no one is posted at the entrance to frisk you or confiscate your gadgets. I don’t know if this translates to having a superior system that surpasses these routine checks but the fact that you don’t have to go through this process strikes as surprising. The waters are pristine and the Halwa Prasad is hot and yumm. It is nice to see people at every corner serving water to every piligrim like a guest in God’s abode. I hear the langar is also delicious but haven’t had the chance to experience it.

As soon as you step out of the temple, at a walking distance there is the historic ‘Jallianwala Baug’ which housed the brutal killings of innocent lives in the pre-independence era. During my very first visit to Amritsar, I was frankly more excited about visiting this landmark. But when I entered the place it resembled a picnic garden with people lazing around plastic littered all over the place. The only reminiscence of that fateful day is a wall with bullet marks and a small museum. In my personaI opinion, the place should have been maintained in the state it was to remind people of the lives lost instead of making it a merry park. I vowed never to visit the baug again.

There are many other places to visit in the city of holy nectar – temples, museums. Try experiencing the city on a cycle rickshaw. It’s fun and inducts you into the local way of life. Ladies looking to shop for ethnic wear can resort to the local cloth markets. If you want to pick up something very Punjabi go for the Phulkari suits/saris. These are typical of the region. Try to have a local accompany you as many merchants pass of machine embroidered Phulkari as hand-made and charge you a bomb. Don’t be surprised if the shop keeper says, ‘Madamji aap Bombay ke ho? Hum to vahaan customers ko dus-bees hazaar ke suit bhej te hain. Aap payment idhar kar do, hum suit silwake courier kar denge.’ (Madam, you hail from Bombay? We send suits worth Rs.10,000-20,000 to customers there. Make the payment now we will tailor the suit and courier it to you.). Do not fall for this trap. I know people who have been duped. It can be a problem especially if you don’t intend to visit the city again which means claiming a refund can be difficult. Having said that, Amritsar is also filled with sweet and large hearted people. Visit any dry fruit shop and you will be stuffed with an assortment of sorts. The quality of almonds, pistachios, saffron, papads is extremely good and it’s a good idea to pick some to stock at home. Also do visit the chuda bazaar (bangle market). It’s no great shakes but gives you feel of Punjab. All these are in close vicinity of the Golden Temple and you can cover them on foot.

Try and make time for a trip to the Wagah Border which is a 30 minute drive from the main city. On the way, you see beautiful fields of wheat/paddy crops on either sides of the road which makes for a fantastic view for an urban dweller used to seeing just concrete buildings. Try and time your visit to witness the daily drill of guards changing shifts on both sides of the border. It is an event by itself – pumped with energy and patriotism, each side trying to outdo the other. It is done with jest and a sporting spirit with no trace of jingoism.

How can I miss out mentioning food? Food is synonymous to Punjabi Oye! When in Amritsar, eat at the dhabas. Try asking a local and he will immediately whip up the name ‘Bharwan da dhaba’. I found this place to be overhyped. The food is okay and the hygiene levels go to a new level of bad. Instead, I prefer ‘Kesar da dhaba’. It is one of the oldest dhabas in Amritsar and serves some amazing khaana-shaana. It is located in the narrowest street I have ever been on. The place is crammy but when the food arrives all else will seem trivial. The kaddi, the parantha, the phirni – my eyes are rolling backwards in gastronomic nirvaana as I remember what my palate experienced. Caution and Suggestion: Weight Watchers keep the calorie count aside and enjoy the ghee-laden delicacies.

A day or two is sufficient to see the place. I do however wish I could visit the place at leisure, go to the Gurudwara late at night and sit there until the sun rises.

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