Growing up with tales of the grandeur of Golden Temple, the culinary delights the city boasts of, the goose-bumps people experience at Wagah border, it was a no brainer that I would put Amritsar on my pootle list. The years passed and Facebook feed after feed filled with me envy and a deep desire to visit, but did not spur me to action. From Bangalore, where I live, Amritsar is not near enough to warrant a spontaneous trip and not far enough to justify a planned vacation to. And so it would have continued, except RB messaged one day and asked me to join her there while she traveled on work.
I know RB for nearly three decades now and she insists she taught me all major life skills such as cycling, skating, swimming, reading Three Investigators, playing chess and cackling horrendously in situations that require discreet ladylike giggling. (None barring the last is true and anyhow, I still can’t skate.) Some procrastination (remember river rafting in Bali) and a last minute scramble for tickets later, I found myself in Amritsar, on Diwali night lighting candles at the Golden Temple.
Over two odd days, we took cycle rickshaw rides through the lanes of Amritsar, ate enough butter and ghee to shine like bright beacons, woke up to the snorts of the buffaloes at our farm stay, napped in the shade of the trees at Jallianwala Bagh, ate 5000 calories for every meal and walked with our bellies touching the ground like overweight daschunds, enjoyed the large hearted hospitality of the airbnb family we stayed with, and caught a tiny glimpse of the contradictions that make up Punjab. The deep compassion and spirituality of the Sikhs contrasted with their hedonism, love for food, drink and dance. The youth who sport T-shirts that read “Ek to hum Punjabi, upar se hum cute” (I will not even attempt to translate that!) and the cocaine that is consuming all that is healthy and hopeful. The courage and vulnerability of the farmers that live near the border, who are prepared to flee their homes with little notice. The fact that for all our high stepping and chest thumping at the Wagah border, we exchange sweets over the fence every Diwali.
As our flight took off into the smoke filled fog blanketing North India, the image that I chose to carry with me was Golden Temple as I first saw it, in a sea of thousand candles and oil lamps, each lit with a silent prayer, with a heartfelt wish. Each a little rivulet, running towards its neighbor, different words having the same heart, merging into one rising crescendo of golden light.
Now that we are done with the philosophizing, let’s get down to the brass tacks like when to go, where to stay, and the most important, what to eat?
When to go, and for how long?
- Early winters (or when winters are on their way out) is the best time to visit – chilly enough to eat the sumptuous but coronary inducing food, but not cold enough to freeze your extremities
- Try coinciding your trip with a major festival like Diwali (like we did), Baisakhi, or Lohri
- The usual touristy stuff shall take you two days. I recommend, though, to plan your trip based on the number of meals you want to fit in (read more below)
Where to stay?
- While the city has the usual hotels, my heartfelt two cents is to stay at a farm. You won’t roll in the lap of luxury, but you shall experience some great hospitality, eat granny’s food made fresh from the farm produce, stroll in mist laden fields, and find the perfect place to read
What to eat?
- Remember Phoebe’s elastic maternity pants which Joey appropriates for Thanksgiving? Please carry something similar, because you shall need them. TRUST ME.
- For breakfast, shun those five star buffets with their dry toast and bland idlis. Instead, go to Kulcha land for Amritsari kulchas. Deeply flaky on the exterior with a soft stuffing of potatoes or paneer (or you can have the masala version complete with coriander seeds), with a layer of golden butter atop, these alone are reason enough for you to make a trip to the city. They say the secret to these kulchas is the water of Amritsar. Who are we to argue?
- Have dal makhani at Brothers Dhaba or Kesar Dhaba. Be prepared to wait your turn. These lentils are simmered overnight and served with so much butter that you can see your shiny face reflected in it
- Wash down every meal with a tall glass of lassi. Or my favorite, a dark fizzy Thums up
- When in Punjab, if you don’t eat parathas, the goddess of food will personally hunt you down and laugh raucously at you. The best parathas are homemade, preferably cooked by an old granny. Please be generous with the freshly churned home-made white butter
- Please hunt for an old granny or aunty and beg her to cook for you. We found ours at the airbnb farm we stayed in. I could have smuggled her back in my suitcase
- Evenings are incomplete without some chaat off the street. I had my fix at Jalebiwalah chowk – the most gorgeous golden aloo tikkis followed by jalebis made in desi ghee. Food-tastic!
- If you visit in winter, do eat the sarson da saag and missi roti. We had ours made by our bnb family, one cool foggy evening, but the dhabas would also have some great fare. Did I mention that the rotis were lovingly slathered with homemade white butter?
- For desi ghee sweets, go to Bansal sweets. Treat yourself to, and pack enough for family and friends back home. Our taxi cab driver recommended motichoor laddus, kaju barfi and pateesha. I know the first two, but the last was a delicious surprise. It stays fresh for several days, so that’s what my work colleagues shall be treated to on Monday
- Walking is the best way to explore the lanes in the older parts of the city. Else, opt for a cycle rickshaw. Expect heat, dust and a lot of noise!
- Amritsar does not have Uber, but Ola works well. We had a couple of suspicious fellows showing up though, so be safe, especially at night
- We took a ride on a local bus from the farm into the city. With its diamond patterned red interiors, Punjabi music blaring from loudspeakers, and helpful conductor, the bus was effective, cheap and tremendous fun
What to do/see?
- If it’s only thing you can see, make it the Golden Temple. Time permitting, plan to visit twice, day time and evening. Read up a bit about the temple, before you go, to understand its history, architectural and spiritual significance
- Jallianwala Bagh does not evoke strong feelings like, say, Cellular Jail does. But worth a walk to, it’s close enough to the temple for a combined visit
- Beating retreat at Wagah Border. Unless you are related to the defense personnel and have a special invite, plan to get in early to get the good seats
- Go shopping in the narrow lanes in the heart of the old city. Colorful dupattas with special embroidery, warm woolens, Punjabi juttis or shoes. Everything I bought was edible though, my top buy being ugly green mint digestive tabs. As you can imagine – they were much needed!