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October 03, 2014

Amritsar: Of Faith And Food

Text by Mala Vaishnav

For all its global fame and tourist lure, Amritsar retains its quintessential small town manner, observes Verve

  • Amritsar
  • Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar
    Jallianwala Bagh
  • Hyatt Amritsar, Amritsar
    Hyatt Amritsar: comfort zone
  • Wagah Border, Amritsar
    Wagah Border: a burst of patriotism
  • Dhaba specials, Amritsar
    Dhaba specials on call

Like most of the holy cities on our country’s map, Amritsar too, is enslaved in a time warp. Though highrises may kiss the sky and Audis may roar across New Age flyovers, the old town areas which seduce visitors with their myths and glory continue to be overwhelmed by congested lanes, jay walking cows, poor lighting and aggressive hustlers who masquerade as rickshaw drivers. But once we are inside the Golden Temple complex we find ourselves stepping into an almost surreal calm in spite of Saturday night fervour. It is 10 p.m. and the Harmandir Sahib is bathed with a golden glow. Just like the postcards, we sigh collectively, as we prep up for Instagram poses.

The nip in the air makes us tighten our grip on our jackets and shawls and the endless green carpeting on the marble floors is balm for the (bare) sole while we circle the banks of the Amrit Sarovar on which stands the gurudwara constructed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. We have decided to sample every bit of the spiritual sanctuary, so post darshan we too push through the crowds to get a magnified view of the Guru Granth Sahib being led to bed with pomp and pageantry to the Akal Takht and later seat ourselves in a row for the basic 24-hour langar, a tradition started by Guru Nanak himself which ensures that no one is turned away hungry.

Amritsar, in any case, is a city that massages the taste buds. While the likes of Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Barista and KFC have muscled their way onto the brand-anointed Lawrence Road and celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor has given an innovative turn to the rogan josh at his restaurant, Yellow Chilli, it is the famed dhabas with their delectable vintage fare that still remain the must-visits. It was here after all that the globally renowned Vikas Khanna began his chole-bhature career before his Michelin-star Junoon became the most stalked eatery in New York City. Kesar da Dhaba outside the Temple lures with its fragrant phirni; Chawla’s on Law Road for the finger-licking cream chicken; and Makhan da Dhaba for the tangy Amritsari fish. At Bharawan da Dhaba near the Town Hall, the kulchas, dals and lassi turn us into somnolent zombies as we totter in the afternoon sun to the historic Jallianwala Bagh.

Following specific instructions from folks back home to bring back aam papad only from the supplier under the peepul tree off Lawrence Road, the strongly aromatic hing from Kulwinder Singh’s Dry Fruit Corner and the Patiala salwars from Ram Di Hatti, we find ourselves getting distracted often enough in our wanderings by exquisitely hand embroidered phulkari stoles, silver mojris and authentic Amritsari masalas, only to be jolted out constantly from our  shopping excesses by the looming spectacle of the strolleys bulging past the airline’s 15-kg handout.

At the Wagah Border, 28 km away, the beating of the retreat ceremony, a tourist lure like none other for both the nations since 1959, we watch a 30-minute extravaganza befitting silver screen presence. The ceremony begins with the blaring of prized patriotic numbers from Bollywood blockbusters while handpicked members of the public dash back and forth with the flag and a clutch of camera-juggling foreigners jiggle and jive to Vande Mataram and Chak de, India-type ditties. The soldiers, decked in fan-shaped headgear kick up their feet to their foreheads and perform mock synchronised confrontations on either side of the iron gates before lowering the respective flags at sunset to the beat of drums. The drama, if any, beyond the gates is difficult to view even from the VIP enclosure.

What we do learn is that there is an entry fee on the other side while for us it is a free free-for-all. (Tip: On the way out, take the rear exit to avoid the jostling, groping and possible stampede).

On the highway back to town, Lahore, less than an hour’s drive away, seems a tempting detour but since that is an impossible ride, we head towards some fiery chaat and hot jalebis before succumbing to an Ayurvedic massage at Hyatt Amritsar, the hotel that spoils you with its ergonomically designed beds, comfort pillows, large bay windows, high-speed Internet and limousines on call. They even weigh your bags before check-out so we know which way the wallet will turn much before we reach the airport!

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