Some time last year, I made a resolution to explore more of #IncredibleIndia.
From immersing myself in the Kochi Biennale to an escape to the foothills of the Himalayas, it’s a promise I’ve since been faithful to. My most recent sojourn was to Amritsar, a city steeped in spirituality… not to mention the sensational street-food scene here, famous world-over for its legendary kulchas, chole, lassis and more!
Camped out at the newly-opened Taj Swarna (arguably a destination in its own right), mother and I were determined to make the most of our two-day stay, charting out an action-packed itinerary which covered all the highlights, as well as hidden gems.
You might find this a handy guide if you’re making a trip too… Or you know, it might just tempt you to plan a visit, as Amritsar is definitely one for all bucket lists!
Day 1: A Heritage Walk & Spiritual Journey
As the spiritual centre of Sikh religion, the Golden Temple alone draws millions of tourists each month to Amritsar. As such, the airport is relatively well-connected to the major Indian cities, and to a few international hubs (including Dubai and Birmingham).
A remarkably well-timed Indigo flight from Mumbai dropped us off at 2 p.m., and we were at our hotel within a half hour given the compact nature of the city (Taj Swarna is just a 15 minute drive from the airport).
Quickly freshening up and fortifying ourselves at the hotel’s all-day restaurant (more on which later), we wasted no time in heading out on a Heritage Walk with the tour guide assigned to us by the hotel. Our starting point, the pedestrianised street leading from from Chowk Phowara to Jallianwala Bagh.
A recent beautification project helmed by a Jaipur architect, Anup Bartaria, has completely changed the facade of this part of the city, with dusky pink Kota stone tiles and trellis screens belying the buildings of commercial businesses, traders and markets. It’s striking no doubt, but to us felt a bit like the scene of a film set… Make of that what you will.
There are several imposing sculptures which have been recently installed too, in a nod to the city’s rich culture and warrior history.
Life-sized models (fashioned from black marble) strike poses typical of traditional dances; while a gargantuan statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (the founder of the Sikh empire) wielding a sword, occupies the highest pedestal and is bolstered by the intricate detailing (lower down) of an elephant, war scenes and smaller statues of Sikh generals.
The long stretch led us down to Jallianwala Bagh, the site of a terrible tragedy in 1919 in which thousands of unarmed men, women and children (1579 to be exact) were brutally massacred by British Indian Army Soldiers.
The original bullet holes studding the walls and adjoining buildings can be observed even today, as can the well into which many jumped (and subsequently drowned) whilst trying to save themselves in the attack.
Gone but never forgotten, the innocent victims have been commemorated by the peaceful garden since built on these grounds. No visit to Amritsar is complete without paying one’s respects here, although it has also evolved into something of a local hangout in present day.
Eat. Pray. Love…. Sunset at the Golden Temple
It was then onwards to the Gurudwara complex which is home to Harmandir Sahib, or the Golden Temple – an ethereal structure which seems as though it is floating at the end of a long causeway! Drawing water from the Ravi river, the surrounding pool is thought to be “immortal” or “holy nectar,” and is in fact the root from which Amritsar derives its name.
Having dropped off our slippers in a safekeeping area outside the complex, covered our heads with a scarf and washed our feet, we patiently lined up to enter this main Temple.
The wait gave us time to absorb, admire and appreciate the splendid harmony of Hindu, Islamic and Sikh architecture and the intricate engravings – from the flower and animal motifs decorating the marble-cloaked lower level (designed in the style of the Taj Mahal), to the golden panels glistening all around the length of the second level. The pièce de résistance is the dome on the top, gilded with 750 kg of gold.
Photography is not allowed inside, but that’s just as well as we were able to entirely lose ourselves to the mesmerising energy within the inner sanctum A continuous chant from the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book) set a mellifluent tone, as a sensory rush enveloped us and transcended to a sense of spiritual solitude and peace, despite the throng of devotees around us.
We’d timed our visit in the evening, the pleasantly cool weather amenable to us having a slow wander around the complex and meditating by the water, which slowly lit up as we approached sunset and reflected the glorious golden glow of the Temple.
There’s plenty else to do and see inside the compound as it houses other shrines and monuments, in addition to the Sikh Museum and Ramgarhia Bunga, a fortress buttressed by Islamic-style minarets. And of course, there’s the fact that the Temple operates the largest free kitchen in the world, serving hot meals known as langar, to people of all faiths and walks of life!
For more on the history, tradition or information for planning your visit, I’d definitely recommend scrolling through their official website, here.
Our spiritual journey also led us to another Gurudwara, Shaheedan Sahib built in remembrance of Baba Deep Singh Ji, an old warrior who miraculously fought beheaded, to fulfil his pledge to protect the honour of his Sikh religion.
It truly was a wondrous evening of devotion, divinity and enlightenment in Sikh history.
Day 2: Of Phulkaris, Dhabas and Patriotism
Having slept the best we have in a long while, mother and I indulged in a luxuriously long and lazy (not to mention decadent!) breakfast at the hotel the next morning before driving into the old part of the city – a walled-off section with twelve separate entrances!
Each corner and narrow lane was teeming with activity and trade, with rickshaws, motorbikes and MPVs jostling for right of way. It was all a tad overwhelming so we were glad for the reassuring presence of our affable guide, relying on his local insights to venture off the beaten path in our search of spices to carry back home!
“I have too many shoes”… Said no girl ever!
Amritsar’s textile market is one of the mainstays of its economy, with the city renowned for its embroidered phulkari fabrics, distinctive patiala suits and juttis (traditional handcrafted footwear).
Having originally planned to purchase just the one token dupatta, we soon found ourselves seated cross-legged on the floor of a wholesaler’s shop in Hall Bazaar, as the shopkeeper Deepak bhai, offered us thanda (an all-encompassing term for cold drinks) and unravelled roll after roll of fabrics for our perusal, each prettier than the last. A spot of bargaining ensued, and we walked out with our wardrobes padded up with six new outfits – two of which were stitched by the shop’s in-house tailor to our measurements, and delivered to our hotel that very evening!
Of course, we couldn’t resist walking across the jutti store opposite too, coming away with matching pairs of Punjabi-style slippers.
If there were ever a time and place to learn a lesson in salesmanship…
Amritsar is what Amritsar eats
Our shopping spree also spanned spices and other specialties to carry home with us, such as aloo papad (potato poppadums) and makana (lotus seeds).
Short of carrying back towering tiffins of Amritsar’s celebrated chole (a finger lickingly-good chickpea curry), we settled on the next best thing. Just about a kilo of homemade chana masala from Vaishno Bhojan Bhandar, a humble eatery in Katra Jaimal Singh Market, tracing its roots back to 1957!
In fact we found it near-impossible to walk down the narrow streets without falling prey to the intoxicating aroma of spices emanating from the iconic dhabas lining each side. That the state of Punjab is a predominantly agriculture-based economy, combined with the inherently happy-go-lucky culture reflects prominently in the local carb-heavy diet which is intensely rich in ghee (clarified butter), malai (the milkfat or cream floating on the top of milk) and butter…
The result is boldly lascivious, at once a comfort and lift to one’s spirits, rejoicing in all that fatty glory!
Signature specialties to be unabashedly enjoyed particularly include stuffed kulchas (a crisp yet flaky leavened bread baked in a tandoor) with chole; frothy lassis sporting a heavy layer of malai on their surface; phirni and kheer (a sweet and creamy rice-based pudding) and so the list goes on.
Must-visit spots include the all-vegetarian Kesar da Dhaba; Gian di Lassi; Kulcha Land; Brother’s Dhaba; Kanha Sweets and A One Kulfa to name but a few. I found this Condé Nast guide particularly helpful for singling out top picks.
Whilst we followed the foodie trail to these aforementioned street-side stops, I have to confess that the majority of our main meals were actually had within Taj Swarna itself, which has mastered the authenticity of local flavours and textures, executing each dish with both flair and finesse. Most importantly, each of our meals at the hotel’s main restaurant, the Grand Trunk, succeeded in hitting the same soul-satisfying spot that is characteristic of Amritsari food; and of course, it goes without saying that the underlying preparation here was incomparably more hygienic too.
For more on our luxuriously comfortable stay at Taj Swarna, do have a read of my full review, here.
Pomp, grandeur, friendship and rivalry
Last but not least, we made sure to visit the Wagah-Attari border to witness the lowering of the flags ceremony – a daily military practice jointly carried out by the Border Security Forces of India and Pakistan.
Setting out from our hotel well in time, we enjoyed a scenic drive past the lush green fields of the countryside, arriving in time to experience the pre-ceremony revelry which kicked off with nationalistic songs belted out from loudspeakers, before the females in the audience were invited down to join in the gaiety. Oh to have been born with those Punjabi dancing genes.
Before long, the official show had commenced – the guards marching with elaborate and over-the-top movements which include wide strides and kicks so high! Each side took it in turns to engage in an exaggerated display of showmanship and prowess, representative of both the friendship and tense rivalry between the two nations… It culminated with a dramatically precise handshake, before the flags were lowered and the border gates closed for the day.
Surrounded by thousands cheering Indians, we too were caught up in the patriotic fervour – the short but memorable evening leaving a strong and lasting impression of national pride.
History and heritage. Culture and civics. Devotion and divinity. And all that wistfully delicious food, diets and detox be damned…
Our 48 hours in Amritsar turned out to be both an enriching and incredibly exhilerating experience!
For more on where we stayed, do have a read of my detailed review of the newly-opened Taj Swarna.