#tripping: Amritsar is a city worth its weight in gold

The Golden City of Amritsar is best known as the prime abode of Adi Granth and the holy city of the Sikhs. Where the Harmandir Sahib with its four doors symbolizes openness towards every faith. And embraces one and all under the serene calm of its golden canopy, in an environment that is nothing short of magical.

Golden Temple at dawn
Just 30 km from the Indo-Pak border in the north-western state of the Punjab, the city is frequented by Punjabis scattered all around the world owing to familial connections and their spiritual relationship with the Golden Temple. But what is interesting is the fact that a growing breed of experimental travelers now have the city on their 'must-visit' list not just to seek spiritual solace, but also to revel in the eclectic cultural mash-up and gastronomic roller coaster ride that the city offers.

Wagah Border
Reaching Amritsar is easy as it is well connected to the major cities via road, air and rail. If you want to experience the beautiful vibrant countryside then take a road trip. Delhi to Amritsar is about an 8 hour drive (give or take an hour depending on how frequently you stop to binge on the dhabas along the way). The roads are excellent in most stretches like the Panipat toll which goes over the city, but one does tend to get stuck near Ludhiana. From there on, it is an effortless drive via Jalandhar.

There are a number of daily flights to the city as well. Its an hour and ten minute flight from Delhi, but add another three hours to your travel time from home to hotel. Another good option is to take the Shatabdi Express, the daily train that covers the distance of 447 km in just 6 hours. It is comfortable, fast and no fuss. Just a word of caution about the meals though; the hygiene standards on board are far from acceptable. The six hour journey however keeps you busy enough with books, music, friends, family and small talk with strangers and you don't really miss the food. And as they say, it is always good to reach Amritsar hungry.

Quite like Delhi, Amritsar is harsh in winter and scorching in summers. From sub zero to 45ºC, you could be caught anywhere in between. Proximity to the hill state of Himachal can sometimes catch one off guard with unusual variations in temperature. So a word of caution - while traveling in spring or fall do carry light woolens for the mornings and evenings, especially when travelling with children.

The city is dotted with star hotels, guest houses, inns and budget hotels with varying degrees of comfort, so you can take your pick. The best place to check in is the Hyatt (earlier known as Ista). That apart, the Holiday Inn and Best Western Merrion at Ranjit Avenue, Ramada at Hall Bazaar and the Country Inn & Suites by Carlson on Queens Road are equally good options. But do keep in mind that you would be out all day exploring the city, therefore it is reasonably unnecessary to splurge on an expensive stay option when you are unlikely to put all their hospitality services to good use.

The city is well spaced out, with open areas and sprawling bunglow style living in most of the newer parts. The old city however remains congested and is reminiscent of the crushing bylanes of Chandni Chowk in Delhi. People are extremely friendly and willing to help, and striking up a conversation with anyone is easy.

Public transport is non existent. The phat phats and rickshaws are the wheels that keep the city on the move. Do go on a free spirited ride in one of them - you will know more about the city in that one trip, than through any other reading material. If you prefer some comfort, the radio cabs are a good option. Call Mega Cabs at +91.183.5151515 for efficient, clean cabs and pleasant drivers. Otherwise, you can always strike up a deal with a local cab guy who will be at your service every day during the trip. Traveling around the city is not really very expensive.

There is much to see in Amritsar and it would be advisable to plan atleast a 3-day trip. One can never have enough of Harmandir Sahib and there always remains a desire to savour the mesmeric experience just one more time. An early morning visit to the Golden Temple is highly recommended. The sight of the golden dome getting soaked in the morning sunlight is breathtaking. One can not but look with awe at the reflection of the gurdwara in the sarovar and gasp at its beauty and grandeur.

After offering prayers, a hot steaming cup of tea or milk awaits you at the community kitchen (langar) which can always be followed by a sumptuous meal. Try and visit the gurdwara one more time in the evening when the premises are lit up. Once again, the view simply leaves you awestruck. Do not forget to carry home the holy communion (prasad) which is available for a small payment near the main entrance of the temple. Since it is difficult to carry back the kara prasad which you consume there, the pindi prasad (lip smackingly tasty dry prasad) packed in pouches is a good option to conveniently carry back home for friends & family.

Other places of interest on the touring list of the city are the Jalianwala Bagh, Durgiani Temple (a beautifully constructed temple dedicated to Lord Krishna that almost looks like a mirror image of the Golden Temple) and a trip to the Wagah border.

A visit to Jalianwala Bagh takes you back in time and leaves you feeling sombre and introspective. You almost feel a lump in the throat when you look down into the martyr's well and a tear escapes the eye. Unfortunately, the place is not well managed and the sight of people posing in front of the memorial and the guides and cabbies hounding you at the entrance leave you flustered and irritable. The museum inside the complex also leaves a lot to be desired. This place certainly needs a makeover.

Jallianwala Bagh
A visit to Wagah border is a must when in Amritsar. But make sure you include a week day in your itinerary to ensure that you get there in peace, away from the maddening weekend crowd. Even better, if you can arrange for VIP/ vehicle passes, that would allow your vehicle to get in, guarantee you a place to sit and an unobstructed view of the ceremony. Knowing someone influential would certainly help. The fervour with which the BSF carries out the retreat ceremony is quite commendable. One can also enjoy a cross border meal at Sarhad, a restaurant at the Attari border that specializes in cuisine from Amritsar and Lahore.

St. Paul's Church
Among the lesser known places in Amritsar that are worth visiting is the St. Paul's Church situated at Court Road. Built in 1852, it is one of the oldest churches of the diocese in Amritsar. Even after so many years, it stands tall and majestic with its extraordinarily beautiful architecture and lush greenery.

Stuffed kulchas at Kulwant Singh Kulchian Wale
Amritsar is a city that is living, pulsating with soul stirring and invigorating aromas around you. It is truly a foodie's paradise. Every street, nook & corner of the city has a dhaba rolling out mouth watering kulchas drenched in butter (in my opinion the city consumes as much butter as the rest of the country), served with chhole and tangy onion salad. At times, it is difficult to make a choice but the ones that are highly recommended are Bhai Kulwant Singh Kulchian Wale outside Harmandir Sahib, Suchha da Kulcha at Maqbool Road, Purani Chungi and Kulcha Land at Ranjeet Avenue. Wash it down with a glass of ‘makhkhan te pede di lassi’ at Gian Chand Lassi Wale at Gagarmal Road, Katra Sher Singh or Ahuja ki Kesar wali lassi near Hindu College.

Amritsar is a vegan's paradise. The undisputed king of the great Amritsari breakfast is Kanhya Lal Harbhajan Singh with his poori, aloo & chane combo. The unique sweet-sour aloo sabzi here is quite distinct from anything you would have had before. Lunch at Kesar da Dhaba is a ritual, who dishes out pure, fresh and delicious food for the soul. Their black lentil daal, shahi paneer and missi roti are to die for. They also do a thick creamy lassi sprinkled with pista that can leave you inebriated in the end. Another place that impresses massively is Bharawan da Dhaba at Town Hall that has been around since 1912.

Poori, aloo & chane at Kanhya Lal Harbhajan Singh
If you have a Delhi non-vegetarian palate, you may be disappointed by the over hyped but limited touristy options in Amritsar. While the most recommended non vegetarian fare can be found along the Majitha Road/ Lawrence Road area at Makhan Fish, Beera Chicken and Surjit Food Plaza; they are at best decently average. In fact, some of them are well past their expiry date and seem to be surviving only on past glory. A better option was Pappi di Hatti (a.k.a. Pappi's Chicken or Pappi's Tandoori Magic) at Green Avenue, who dished out some fabulous kebab & tandoori chicken for us on a platter. But to be honest, you will be way happier if you stick to the vegan in Amritsar.

'Makhkhan te pede di lassi'. Work in progress at Gian Chand Lassi Wale
The local markets are quite delightful out here. The footwear shops have an interesting collection of jootis with bright embroidery and sequin work. Some even sell Pakistani jootis with subtle gold and silver thread work. (Pro tip: Ask for the ones with a camel skin inner sole as they are more comfortable and do not hurt the feet). Do not hesitate to bargain, it's fun and they enjoy it too. And if you do not wish to go into the narrow lanes of the old bazaar, then the market outside the Golden Temple is a good option for buying stuff like jootis, patiala salwars and phulkari (traditional embroidery from Punjab) dupattas. While in the old city, do pick up some urad daal wadiyan, papad, imli, dried & candied amla (gooseberry), imli kulfi and imli laddoos. Always works.

Amritsar is a city you can never have enough of. There are layers that you discover with each visit - even when you visit the same places again and again. Generous and heartwarmingly hospitable, there is a magnetic charm and allure to the city that draws you towards it. Visit once, and you would be a slave for life.

Guest article by travel & lifestyle contributor Simmi Sarma. All images captured on Google Nexus 5
#tripping: Amritsar is a city worth its weight in gold #tripping: Amritsar is a city worth its weight in gold Reviewed by Sanjay Sarma on Sunday, April 13, 2014 Rating: 5
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