Home > Travel & Food > Amritsar

Amritsar

After Chandigarh, we moved on to the holy city of Amritsar. The bus ride from Chandigarh on a Punjab Transport Corporation bus was an experience to remember as the vehicle made its way through rural Punjab. Our first stop on reaching Amritsar was the India-Pakistan border post in Wagah, a drive of about 80km from Amritsar.

The Wagah Border Post, especially the traditional “lowering of the flags” ceremony at sunset is an event worth experiencing. The Indian Border Security Force and the Pakistani Rangers put up a spirited and highly exaggerated display that involved equal measures of stamping, shouting and self-appreciatory preening as they imitate cockerels preparing to fight.

The ceremony began with two female BSF personnel marching up to the Indian border gate. They were joined there by two more personnel after which a marching party lead by a Sikh commander marched out of the BSF chowki. Then began the first of many spirited displays as the guards began an elaborate stamping routine involving raising the right leg almost to eye level and then bringing it crashing back to earth. After a couple of stamps and shouts later, the guards marched one at a time towards the gate. The gates on both sides were momentarily opened which allowed a glimpse of the Pakistani Rangers on the other side. While the Indian soldiers were dressed in khaki uniform, the Rangers wore black Pathan suits.  As the gates closed, the Sikh commander now began an elaborate display that involved a lot of stamping and shouting as he marched up to the gate – I tell you I never saw a better imitation of a cockerel! As he reached the gate, both gates were thrown open again. As one of the BSF personnel moved towards the Indian flag, a Ranger from the other side moved towards the Pakistani flag. Then, like clockwork, both the flags were brought down simultaneously and inch perfect. The flags were neatly folded and as the flag bearers marched back, the gates clattered shut and were sealed for the night.

Now, why do I say this is worth experiencing? First, Wagah, lying on GT Road, is the only road border crossing between the two countries. Sitting on the Indian side and seeing Pakistan on the other really gives one a lot to think of, chief among them of being an Indian. Knowing that a few meters ahead is a place where you may NOT set foot, the full effect of being an Indian dawns on you. While in India, we freely go where we please and hence take our freedom of movement for granted. But it is at this border post that one truly understands the meaning of belonging to a country. Personally, I have never felt more deeply a sense of being Indian. Amongst the aggressive displays of the BSF and the continuous cheers of the crowd, the “Indian”ness really is quite infectious and truly evokes a feeling of national pride and of belonging to the motherland. Let us not, however, lose focus of the fact that although the ceremony gives an outward look of aggression, in truth it requires a lot of co-operation between the soldiers of both sides to pull off successfully day after day.

Gate on the Indian Side of the Wagah Border Post

Gate on the Indian Side of the Wagah Border Post

With the cheers and shouts still ringing clearly in our ears, we returned to Amritsar looking forward to a day that featured one of my personal “must-see” places, the Golden Temple.

We, however, began the day with a visit to Durgiana temple. The temple boasts of being one of the oldest temples in the country and is in essence a mini replica of the more famous Golden Temple complete with a tank.

Durgiana Temple, Amritsar

Durgiana Temple, Amritsar

For me, the highlight of the visit was the tiny lane right next to the temple where food vendors were selling freshly prepared food. The kachoris were sinfully good and I personally feel that it is impossible to have enough of the brilliant Gajar Halwa. The icing on the cake was the lassi which was served in a huge tumbler topped off with a good 2 cms of thick, fresh malai. A decently heavy breakfast inside us and we were ready to walk the by-lanes of Amritsar to reach the Golden Temple that was nearby.

The Golden Temple, or Harmandir Sahib (formal name) is the holiest pilgrimage place of Sikhs across the world. Millions travel every year to make the visit, taking a dip in the holy waters of the tank before praying in the central building that is reached via a causeway.The temple is also of political significance as it is the seat of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee, which is in essence the governing body of Sikhs across the world. It also administers the Harmandir Sahib.

Harmandir Sahib, Amritsar

Harmandir Sahib, Amritsar

Reaching the temple is simple since everybody in the city knows Harmandir Sahib (obviously!). A subterranean area is used for storing footwear for the devotees. Just outside the gates are people serving drinking water to devotees. The custom is simple, take a bowl, drink as much as you wish and then place the used bowl towards the side where it will be picked up and cleaned by a volunteer (or sevak). If you need more water pick a fresh bowl. You are not supposed to ask for refills. As one enters the temple, one is expected to cover the head. The temple provides scarves free of charge to all devotees who may not be prepared for this so you shouldn’t fall for the touts who would insist you buy a scarf a mile away from the temple since “you won’t get one when you reach there”. Rest assured the temple authorities have made adequate arrangements for these things. Also, DO NOT try to sneak in with socks on because the security will promptly send you back from the door itself. No footwear extends to socks too. You must truly be barefeet! So heads covered and feet uncovered, we proceeded inside the temple complex. Just before the gate is the customary water sluice that allows devotees to wash their feet prior to entering the temple precincts. Passing through the gate, the first sight is of the Temple itself across the waters of the tank (Amrit Sarovar, from which the name of the city of Amritsar is derived). As you move in a clockwise direction towards the entry point of the causeway, it is a good opportunity to admire the central structure from all sides. All along the edges of the tank are religious relics such as age old trees and plaques with a story behind each of them. Devotees take holy dips all around the edges of the tank. The SGPC has provided iron chains tethered to the edges which the devotees may hold on to while taking a dip. Separate sheltered areas have also been made for female devotees who may not be comfortable with taking a dip publicly in the open. Just before you reach the causeway, to your left is a 3-storey building which is the Sri Akal Takhat. It is the seat of the powers that be in Sikhism as well as where the Guru Granth Sahib is placed for the night. Just before the causeway, also, is the place from where you may obtain kadha prashad. This is obtained by paying any amount of money you feel appropriate. There is no concept of rate.

The causeway that connects to the main temple is divided into two unequal parts (no clue why).

Basically the “way in” is divided into two unequal parts to allow the devotees to enter the central temple from two different sides of the temple. One path allows you to have ‘Darshan’ from the front side with the “Granth Sahib” at a greater distance and the other from the other side at a relatively lesser distance. It is also better from the perspective of managing the exhilirating number of devotees visiting the temple each day. The way out is single and unified but can be used as a way in for old age/less abled people who may not be able to stand in the queue for a long time. So it is socially and ethically correct as well. (Contributed by Nirbhai Chadha)

You will invariably be in a queue to enter the temple so be prepared to spend some time here. Photography is prohibited once inside the main temple but you may have your fill of photographs while on the causeway. The line moves along at a steady pace though and we took about 30 minutes to reach the temple entrance. As you proceed inside the temple, it does seem to transport you to another dimension. The insides of the temple echo with recitations of the Guru Granth Sahib while devotees stream in and out continuously. The first floor of the temple houses the Sheesh Mahal where the Akhand Paath(Unbroken Reading – of the Guru Granth Sahib) is conducted. You leave from a back door and out onto the causeway to head back to the second attraction of the visit – the free meal or langar. The langar occupies a significant place in all Gurudwaras but none so much as the Harmandir Sahib. The kitchens of the temple serve hot simple food consisting of chapatis, rice, daal, curry, vegetables in the traditional “sit on the ground, as much as you can eat” format. Food is typically served in steel utensils. Volunteers come along with buckets that contain daal, curry and vegetable. The volunteer with the chapatis is, however, the most peculiar. He comes along proclaiming “parshada” distributing the chapatis from a wicker basket. The custom is to indicate the number of chapatis required and then cup the hands at which the sevak will drop the requested chapatis into your outstretched hands. While to the uninitiated this may appear rude and outright derogatory as an action of “throwing” food, it is actually his attempt to not touch your hands. The key to this lies in his procalmation – “parshada“. As you know, prashad is to be maintained as pure and so he can’t allow you to touch it with your hands as you eat. Oh and before I forget, if you don’t want something, like daal, vegetable or even chapatis, you are expected to fold your hands and refuse more of it. It is said that though the food is simple you will always get up feeling full and satisfied, no matter how much or less you may have eaten. And after only two chapatis and a little rajma I promise I felt as though I had eaten at a feast.

The kitchens and eating areas are serviced by kar sevaks (volunteers) who do everything from cutting vegetables and cooking food to collecting and cleaning dirty utensils after people are done eating. The kitchens serve food 24 hours a day serving nearly 70,000-75,000 devotees daily. On weekends and festivals, these numbers climb to over a lac. Tea is also served round the clock and devotees drink them out of steel bowls freely available in the eating area.

One of the volunteers at the temple took us on a trip around the kitchens to see the entire food preparation process. Everywhere we saw, devotees were sitting or standing in rows, cheerfully working. While some shelled peas or diced potatoes, others were kneading dough while some more were preparing chapatis or the daal. The daal “pits” have the capacity to cook over 100 kgs of daal at the same time. While many people manually cooked the chapatis, there were also three fully automatic chapatti machines. One machine had a capacity of 15,000 chapatis an hour while the other two were smaller, each preparing 1,500 chapatis per hour. Kneaded dough was put in at one end and then the machine extruded, cut, flattened and cooked the dough into chapatis that were collected by volunteers at the other end in huge wicker baskets. The kitchen uses up approximately 150 LPG cylinders a day.

The video below was taken by Maa. I have only uploaded it toYouTube and from there put it into this post.

The Harmandir Sahib is an epitome to all that the Sikh faith believes in. There is no bar on who may or may not enter the temple. All are welcome. The meals are given free to one and all and no matter your status everybody sits on the floor and eats food prepared in a common kitchen. The entire experience is in itself a very beautiful one as we see the Golden Temple provide food for body and soul to anyone who needs it.

Within walking distance of the Harmandir Sahib is the Jalianwala Bagh. This place is of historical significance due to the events of 1919 when General Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on a gathering of civilians assembled in the park. While Indian versions claim that the people were unarmed and gathered in peaceful proceedings, British accounts obviously differ stating that some people were “armed terrorists” who had first opened fire in retaliation to which General Dyer ordered his troops to open fire. I will steer clear of this controversy by not commenting on it. Whatever may have been the circumstances, the civilian casualties were tremendous. While official figures at the time placed the number at about 400, unofficial estimates are closer to 1500. Thousands of people had stampeded when the firing broke out and since the only exit was blocked off by the firing squad, they ran pell mell away from the direct line of fire. A lot of people were mowed down by bullets while many more jumped into a well in panic. Even as we entered the premises, the tiny alley which has been preserved ever since is quite scary and will surely give a claustrophobic person the heebies jeebies! The well has now been walled and cordoned off and visitors may only see it through wire mesh. The walls of the adjoining houses, etc. have been preserved as is and the bullet holes on them have been clearly marked out. In the centre of the garden where the massacre took place, a memorial has been erected. Towards a side, an Amar Jyoti has also been set up. Overall, however, the significance of the place is reduced by locals having converted the garden to a picnic spot with couples languishing on the green grass and kids running around screaming.

Bullet Holes, Jalianwala Bagh, Amritsar

Bullet Holes, Jalianwala Bagh, Amritsar

Very near Jalianwala Bagh is the Pravaa da Dhaba (which mean Brother’s Dhaba). It is a pure vegetarian eatery but the food is awesome to say the least. And good value for money too. For only Rs. 90, the place served us with two lachha parathas, a bowl of paneer curry, a bowl of maa ki daal, and a gulab jamun. And all cooked in pure desi ghee. A huge serving (enough for 2-3 persons, or 1 me 😉 ) of sarson ka saag cost Rs. 80. The only issue here is the waiting time you spend for an empty table. The place is choc-a-bloc with patrons at almost all times of the day and so finding a place to sit sure is a problem but you will not regret it, ever! Just alongside Pravaa da Dhaba, a lane goes towards an area called Katra Ahluwalia. The area is famous for chaat and hot jalebis. While I could not get my paws on any of the much famed chaat, I did manage to attack the jalebis. And they were pure bliss – searingly hot, cooked in desi ghee and submerged in the thickest, sweetest syrup possible. And for Rs. 10 you are given 4-6 pieces so not too expensive either!

The trip to Amritsar touched on many significant factors. The Wagah Border Post reinforced the feeling of being an Indian. Harmandir Sahib was a spiritual experience and an understanding of another religion and their beliefs. Jalianwala Bagh connected me to what our country was pre-Independence and made me thankful for being born in a free India. It also, however, saddened me to see the degradation of a national monument into a picnic spot.

Amritsar was all in all a great experience. The place had a congenial atmosphere like most temple cities in the country. People are very friendly and the food is simply too good. I would recommend a visit to anyone who is within sneaking distance of the city.

That is all from me for now but do check back for the post on Kolkata which will be coming up shortly.

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  1. Nirbhai
    4 March 2011 at 15:39 IST

    Excellent write up Sid. Makes me nostalgic.

    “”The causeway that connects to the main temple is divided into two unequal parts (no clue why).”””

    I would be honoured to provide the clarification on this. Basically the “way in” is divided into two unequal parts to allow the devotees to enter the central temple from two different sides of the temple. One path allows you to have ‘Darshan’ from the front side with the “Granth Sahib” at a greater distance and the other from the other side at a relatively lesser distance. It is also better from the perspective of managing the exhilirating number of devotees visiting the temple each day. The way out is single and unified but can be used as a way in for old age/ less abled people who may not be able to stand in the queue for a long time. So it is socially and ethically correct as well.

    Feel free to include the same in the main blog if you wish.

    Regards,
    Nirbhai Chadha

    • 4 March 2011 at 15:41 IST

      Thanks for the comment Nirbhai. And also for the explanation. Included it in the post too.

  2. delhizen
    4 March 2011 at 18:25 IST

    That’s a very elaborative and descriptive post on yr trip to Wagha & Amritsar…. and now I am craving for some hot hot jalebis!

    • 4 March 2011 at 18:44 IST

      Thanks delhizen! Travelling (to see new places) and food are two of my favs… And the amritsar trip, though short, provided for both in ample quantity 🙂

  3. 5 March 2011 at 16:49 IST

    That was an exhaustive post. I could feel your pride, joy and serenity through it all. More pics would have made it a good travel post, thought.

    when is your mom getting her blog? 🙂

    • 6 March 2011 at 00:49 IST

      I find too many pics interfere with my writing style.. so I keep pics to a bare minimum. Next post on Kolkata, in fact, would have no pics at all, partly because I had only my mobile phone camera around me most of the time and partly because the important/best photos of the trip are uploaded on my flickr account.
      And if all goes well, Maa should have her blog by this weekend 🙂 will post you the link as soon as its done.

      • 8 March 2011 at 13:50 IST

        Your mom just told me that she had got a blog and I found my way there. No links nothing! aren’t I a regular sleuth? I am ever so glad that she has taken the plunge. she is a great writer and has a very different prospective on issues. Congrats on creating it for her. I posted her first comments too.

        • 8 March 2011 at 14:13 IST

          I’ll remember to tell her how to moderate/allow all comments! 😉
          Btw shouldn’t it be perspective and not prospective?

  4. Maa
    6 March 2011 at 01:25 IST

    An exhaustive, but indeed a good post.
    I agree with you, the sanctity of Jalianwalan Bagh is destroyed by picnic lovers. How I wish, instead of the government enforcements, we would on our own be more sensitive and respectful to the place.

    • 6 March 2011 at 01:34 IST

      Wait for the post on Kolkata. We (all of us) have got into a habit of taking these places for granted. We treat them with utter disregard and disrespect. Till we are taught to own all these places we will NEVER respect them or maintain them.

  5. anil sirpaul
    6 March 2011 at 14:33 IST

    keep it up boy

  6. 3 April 2011 at 12:10 IST

    maa ki daal nahi mere sher ‘maah ki daal’ 🙂

    • 3 April 2011 at 12:48 IST

      Hari well it should honestly be माँ की दाल
      Its very difficult to put that accurately in English

  7. Pratibha Singh
    29 July 2011 at 18:24 IST

    where is the post on kolkata? Time for one on Bangalore too.

    • 29 July 2011 at 18:44 IST

      Well doesn’t Chennai deserve a post before those two? 🙂

  8. 4 June 2012 at 16:34 IST

    I love this blog site layout . How was it made!? Its really nice!

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