To the different people of North India, Amritsar means different things. The man on the street of UP might turn vague and say – that is where the Golden Temple is, right? A bong (Bengali) from Kolkata might react in his pseudo-philosophical tone Shonar mondir while a gujjar/jat from Rajasthan/ Haryana might look at you and wonder… suna hai… sone ka mandir, sach hai kya? (heard there is a temple of gold, is it true?)
So whether you have seen it or not, you have definitely heard of it and about it. All said and done, Amritsar means the Golden Temple to the rest of India. Amritsar is a shortened form of Amrit sarovar or the “lake of nectar”. The city is built around the temple which can trace its origins to the 16th century.
For a Sikh , it is the most venerable of Holies, it is their Mecca because the original Guru Granth sahib – the holy Book of the Sikh Community – is lodged there and sikhs from all over the world come to get a glimpse of it and go away feeling blessed. The Adi Granth, compiled by Guru Arjan Dev, rests on a throne beneath a jewel-encrusted canopy. Priests conduct continuous recitation of verses from the holy book in three-hour shifts. Do take a little time off to eat at the guru ka langar, a tradition of community eating that is prevalent in all gurdwaras across the world. If you can’t, then make sure you get a generous helping of the fabulously rich and aromatic karha parshad – it is delightful and will stay in your mind as long as your memory of this place does.
The Golden temple is quite the most beautiful of sights, but then Amritsar, with its hundreds of years of history behind it, has a lot more to it than just that.
About 400 yards away from the temple is the infamous Jallianwalla Bagh where on April 13, 1919, British troops led by General Dyer fired upon a group of assembled people, including women and children. It is a moment of solemn nostalgia as we take a look at the bullet marks on the walls and inside the enclosed well where scores of people fled to escape the bullets!
The old city around the temple is worth a peep for its ambience which has remained unchanged in the last 400 years. The bazaars along narrow alleys remind you of other old city markets like Chandni Chowk of Old Delhi and Charminar of Hyderabad – the noises, the smells assail you and you may either want to savor more of it or just run away from it all! I picked up a pair of the softest Punjabi jootis one can imagine for a paltry Rs 500.
The Ram Bagh Garden has a museum housed in the palace built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. A red sandstone entrance makes a majestic statement. Inside is an interesting bathing tank constructed by a French General.
While in Amritsar, do buy some beautiful embroidered phulkari pieces to take home. Phulkari was originally done by the rural Punjabi women who made beautiful linen as part of their wedding trousseau. And all of it used to be done by hand. Now machines have come in and you can get exquisite pieces for making the traditional salwar kameez sets.
Also, if the papads and wadis and shukkar are your kind of food, do take some home so that you can recall and relish the flavors of the city. And please don’t forget to savour the tandoori chicken, chicken tikka, Amritsari macchi and the mah ki daal – after all, this is where it all started!
Do ensure that a trip to a dhaba is on your itinerary – it is a treat to sit on a charpoy and enjoy the hot rotis and the mouth watering dishes, under an open sky.
The border and Beating of the Retreat
If you have come this far then a trip to Wagah is imperative. Wagah was the village in undivided India through which the infamous Radcliffe Line was drawn so that a new country could be carved out. Part of it went to Pakistan and part to India. Now almost the whole village is lost in the ubiquitous “border”. The name is all that is left.
“The Beating of the Retreat” is a spectacle that attracts a very large number of visitors on both sides of the border. The BSF soldiers like the Pakistani Rangers, are all very tall – all above six feet. The guys who are selected to take part in this delightfully choreographed show of muscle power and aggression, are but little boys at heart. After the grand spectacle was over, I asked one soldier his height, he shyly admitted that he was 6’3” tall. And the height of the turban turra (the fan) was approximately 8 to 10 inches – so we were looking up at someone who topped off at almost seven feet! There was a lot of muscle flexing, punching in the air, stomping on the ground and the impossible task of touching the tip of the boot to the turban. In a quiet corner some of us tried lifting a leg as high as it could go – waist high is the best we could manage, with a lot of ‘ouch’ and ‘oohs’ thrown in!
So how long does it take before one can actually reach the turban? One tall good looking BSF officer tells me that it takes a minimum of one year before one can actually touch the turban with one’s foot!
The dog squad is doing its duty, sniffing out bombs – well fed and well groomed Alsatians following their handlers all around the seating area.
A recent addition to the parade are the women officers who appear like miniatures in front of the men. The gates are open while the parade goes on. Finally the flags come down in a slow ceremonial drum roll, while patriotic songs play on the loudspeakers – Hindi films on our side and Pakistani films on the other. With loud calls of Bharat Mata ki Jai and Pakistan Zindabad, the show comes to an end. The gates close once again.