Amritsar is home to the Harmandir Sahib (commonly known as the Golden Temple), the spiritual and cultural centre for the Sikh religion. This important Sikh shrine attracts more visitors than the Taj Mahal with more than 100,000 visitors on weekdays alone and is the most popular destination for non-resident Indians (NRI) in the whole of India. The city also houses the Akal Takht, the highest seat of earthly authority of the Khalsa, and the committee responsible for the upkeep of Gurdwaras.
The city is situated 220 km northwest of state capital Chandigarh. It is near Pakistan, with the Wagah Border being only 30 km away. The nearest city is Lahore, the second largest city in Pakistan, located 60 km to the west.
The Ramtirth temple situated at Amritsar is believed to be the Ashram site of Maharishi Valmiki, the writer of Ramayana. According to the legend Sita gave birth to Luv and Kush, sons of lord Rama at Ramtirth ashram. Nearby cities to Amritsar, Lahore and Kasoor were said to be founded by Luv and Kush, respectively. During Ashvamedha Yagna by Lord Rama, Luv and Kush captured the ritual horse and tied lord Hanuman to a tree near to today’s Durgiana Temple. During Navratra festivities it is considered to be auspicious to visit that temple and some people dress their little sons as Langoor and pray at temple daily during nine days as gratitude towards fulfilment of their wish.
The main commercial activities of Amritsar include tourism, carpets and fabrics, farm produce, handicrafts, service trades, and light engineering. The city is known for its rich cuisine and culture and for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 under British Rule. Amritsar is home to Central Khalsa Orphanage, which was once home to Udham Singh, a prominent figure in the Indian independence movement. Amritsar has been chosen as one of the heritage cities for HRIDAY – Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana scheme of Government of India.
We have created a bucket list of places where we would like to visit and Amritsar was one of them. It got postponed many times because of non-availability of train tickets and bad road conditions of the 500 km distance from Delhi.
However, this time with the long weekend of 24th – 27th March 2016 due to HOLI and Good Friday, we decided to take the plunge and drive along as the highway has improved considerably with six lane carriageways on most part of the journey. Our original plan was to start on 24th morning around 4:30/ 5:00 am and reach Amritsar by 12:30/ 1:00 pm but Basu’s, our travel partners were reluctant to drive through Haryana on the HOLI day fearing fracas on the way. So they went a day ahead to Ludhiana and stayed overnight at Keys Hotel. We started as planned on 24th morning around 5:30 am with our first destination being Ludhiana to catch up with Basu’s. Contrary to the expectation of chaotic traffic and HOLI hooligans on the road, we found the roads to be traffic smooth and we crossed Murthal around 6:45 am, too early to have Parantha Breakfast!! There were no signs of any one playing HOLI, the festival of colours anywhere on the entire stretch of the NH 1 (NH 44) till we reached Ludhiana city at 9:30 am. The people were playing among themselves not bothering general public.
We wanted to have our breakfast at Rishi Vegetarian Dhaba which had 4/5 rating in Zomato, moreover it was closer to the highway so one need not venture deeper in to the city. But as luck would have it, the place was closed owing to the festival of colour – HOLI. Basu’s suggested that we have our breakfast at the Keys Hotel where they stayed overnight and then we can proceed to Amritsar together. Google Map located the place and the direction thereof but it didn’t know that the municipal corporation of Ludhiana has closed the road only a day before making our 6 km journey to hotel most adventurous through some very narrow lanes, railway tracks and football grounds. The buffet breakfast at the Keys hotel priced at Rs.200/- per person was more than decent with a spread of fresh fruits, juices and lassi, sausages, eggs, puri-sabji besides south Indian spread.
An hour’s break and a strong coffee did wonders to our spirits. Ayush, my son had wished to drive the second leg of the journey so I offered him the car keys but he just smiled and said that the nice breakfast is making him sleepy and got into the back seat comfortably. I checked the route to the highway from the hotel reception and started off for Amritsar.
The Ludhiana-Amritsar highway is nowhere near the highway that we had travelled upto now. The six-lane became four and then two. And then, in the entire route, every few kilometres, there were Langars by the Sikh Community where they were serving Sharbats. This further created massive traffic confusion and chaos. It took us over 3 hours to reach our destination which otherwise would have been completed in two hours.
We checked into Hyatt Amritsar where we had pre-booked our stay. The hotel was nice and comfortable and the staff very courteous too. After freshening up, we decided to visit the famous Kesar da Dhaba for lunch.
In my last visit to Kesar da Dhaba, during the height of insurgency in Punjab, we had a simple and quick dinner of Dal and Tandoori Roti served on the high tables laid out in the lane itself. The place has changed with times, now they have two separate areas for sitting, both air-conditioned and both filled with hungry souls. Basu’s reached the place first and using their charm managed to wriggle out space for six hungry souls. We ordered thalis of different combinations along with lassi and phirni. The food is still very good but the taste of dal that I had many moons ago was somehow missing. The lassi and phirni were one the best that I ever had. I can go back there just for these two only.
After the tummy filling lunch I desperately wanted to take a nap! Remember, I got up at 4 am and had driven over 500 km!! However, we live in a democracy so with majority decision went for shopping of garments that are the speciality in these parts. We also bought pappads, vadis and aam pappad!!!
After shopping, we decided to visit Jallianwala Bagh to pay homage to the martyrs.
Jallianwala Bagh is a public garden and houses a memorial of national importance, established in 1951 by the Government of India, to commemorate the massacre of peaceful celebrators including unarmed women and children by British occupying forces, on the occasion of the Punjabi New Year on April 13, 1919. Official sources identified 379 fatalities and estimated about 1100 wounded, however, Civil Surgeon Dr. Smith indicated that there were 1526 casualties. The true figures of fatalities are unknown, but are likely to be many times higher than the official figure of 379. The 6.5-acre garden site of the massacre is located in the vicinity of Golden Temple complex. The memorial is managed by the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Trust, which was established as per the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Act passed by the Government of India in 1951.
We were there in the evening of a holiday and it was crowded with both tourists as well as locals who thronged the garden with family and friends. The elderly people who were aware of the significance of the place were in a sombre mood while the kids were playing in the lawns with abandon not knowing the harrowing tales of April 13, 1919!! We saw the Well where hundreds of people had jumped to their deaths trying to avoid the bullets. We saw the bullet marks on the walls and for a moment could visualise the helplessness of the victims on that fateful day. In my thoughts, I prayed for the departed and am sure the others did too.
We wanted to visit the Golden Temple too but were dissuaded by the crowd that thronged the street going towards the temple and came back to the hotel. Later in the evening, Deepika along with Basu’s went to Golden Temple in the coach service provided by the hotel. Ayush and I decided for a pre-dinner nap.
Next day we had planned for the visit to the Atari-Wagah Border to witness the Parade. Santanu Basu had informed me earlier that we need to have a Pass to watch the Parade at Wagah Border and I had requested my classmate from school Gr. Captain S Choudhury who had recently opted for retirement from the services. His contact in Amritsar called me up and confirmed that our name has been sent and it is confirmed. I asked him by what time we should reach the border to which he was not certain and said by 5-5:30 pm. This was a grave blunder the gentleman committed as we took it literally and started around 3:30 pm for the 40 km journey not knowing the rush that would greet us as we get closer to the point.
The system of giving out Passes has been discontinued by the BSF/ Army and instead they take out a list every day at 3 pm with the names of the visitors (VIP) who gets to sit and watch the parade from close quarters. My name (+5) as Gr. Captain from Air Force (Huh!!) was listed as Number 1 in the list but ironically, we could not reach the spot on time!!! There were thousands of people on foot and hundreds of cars that kept trying to gate crash but the sentinels of BSF were very firm and closed the gate at 4:30 pm. I tried reasoning with them but those guys only follow orders. The senior person there was sympathetic to me but said he cannot help me as there were five more check points ahead and all of them have been shut for the day. He also informed that the Parade is between 5 – 5:30 pm every day. We had no option but to leave very dejected.
To get out of our disappointment of Wagah, we decided to have some nice non-vegetarian authentic Punjabi food. My nephew sent us few options and we decided to go for Makhan Fish & Chicken Corner at Majitha Road, Amritsar. The place was full and there was a sizeable population waiting to get in at the first opportunity. Deepika and Sangeeta used their charm and managed to find us a table after a short waiting time. As suggested by Babai, my foodie nephew, we tried their signature dishes Amritsari Fish Tikka and Tandoori Chicken along with Butter Paneer, Dal and assorted bread. The fish and the chicken were fresh and no doubt one the best preparations we ever had, the vegetarian Paneer and Dal were average though. In my opinion, the place is “visit again variety” for their signature dishes.
In the morning, before our misadventure of Wagah, we went to the Golden Temple. The place was teeming with people even on a working day and there were thousands of people lined up to go inside Harmandir Sahib. Not being very religious, I declined to get into the queue and paid my respects from the outside only. We did the Parikrama of the Sarovar and saw the Akal Takht, picked up packed Prashad of Pinni and clicked photos for memory.
One thing that struck me was the cleanliness of the temple complex; all around Kar Sewaks with brooms are cleaning away even smallest specks of dust. However, once you come out of the temple into the streets of Amritsar, it is dirt everywhere. I wonder why these Kar Sewaks can’t extend their noble services to the whole city of Amritsar and make it an example of real Sewa!!
On the last day, before starting for Delhi, Deepika and Basu’s again went to the Golden Temple for one last darshan at 7:30 am promising to return for the breakfast. Ayush and I took our baths and then packed our bags and were ready for breakfast and checkout before noon. We were in for some real waiting as the Golden Temple team made their appearance around 11:30 am, well past the breakfast hour at the hotel. We checked out from the hotel and went to the Alpha One Mall next to the hotel for a quick brunch before setting off for Delhi. The Bharawan or the Brothers Dhaba has an outlet there and we decided to try it out. I ordered Amritsari Kulcha Thali and Lassi. The Thali consisted of 2 Amritsari Kulchas plus a bowl of Chana, both tasted very good but the Lassi was quite disappointing specially after experiencing the Kesar’s offering. Others gave the rating of average for whatever dishes they had ordered. There was happy hour for beer but we avoided it keeping in mind the long drive ahead of us.
The return journey was without any events except getting into a massive traffic jam some 50 km from Amritsar where we got stuck for good one and a half hours. We reached home around 11 pm to the warm welcome of Rolf Adenauer Bhattacharya.