Guest post by PUJYA PRIYADARSHNI, travel writer
If what you do first on a trip sets the tone for the rest of the journey, then ours was a bugle call to the gastronomical adventure we were about to embark upon! Like most travelers to Amritsar, our trip was driven by pious intentions and was made rather spontaneously for the weekend. Planned around the timings of the Amritsar Shatabdi from Delhi, it gave us just about 24 hours in the holy city.
Typical to all modern travelers in a hurry, one perused through various travelogues to identify things to do and places to eat. My simple list comprised of the Golden Temple, Jallianwala Bagh, Heritage Walk and the newly unveiled Partition Museum. Of course, one had done this itinerary before, except for the Museum. However, this trip was different for I was accompanied by a friend who was a visiting local (having spent numerous summer vacations in the city in her childhood). Truly, a destination transforms itself when seen through the eyes of a local (or somewhat of a local, in my case).
As the we disembarked from the Shatabdi in the afternoon, we headed straight for lunch at Bharawan Da Dhaba. As we rolled down the windows of our vehicle, my instinct was to compare the air quality between Amritsar and Delhi, while my friend casually commented, “You can smell the ghee in the air of this city!”. While I didn’t quite understand her statement then, as the trip progressed I began to realize the true essence of it.
For lunch, one gorged on paneer and onion kulchas along with chana, dal and lassi. In Punjab, a meal is perhaps incomplete without Lassi as an accompaniment for it is a constant on most menus. Exhausted not from the journey as much as the arduous eating, an after-meal siesta became an imperative, especially us frail hearted souls used to counting calories in our busy Delhi lives.
In the evening just before sunset, one headed to the Golden Temple. Having returned to Amritsar after a long time, one was pleasantly surprised by the splendid development of the Heirtage Walk in the temple complex, including the Jallianwala Bagh and Partition Museum. With the main walkway a pedestrian’s paradise, the small shops have been streamlined under a common red stone façade that gives the entire complex a colonial-era feel. With installations of Bhangra and Gidda and shops selling Juttis, Wadis, Papads and clothes (including stitching within an hour), one also finds a McDonald’s and Café Coffee Day. The entire area breathes a new life compared to one’s memory.
As one descended down the stairs and caught the first sight of the majestic Golden Temple, one is simultaneously taken over by the sensation of energy and beauty. Bustling with pilgrims, tourists and the curious alike, the temple is like a floating jewel in the middle of the water body that surrounds it. As the sun set and the night fell, the lighting is a sight to behold. If the rays of the crimson evening sun had lit up the place in a golden-reddish light, the night lighting creates the atmosphere of the golden jewel being surrounded by diamonds as the light bouncing off the surrounding white structures. After the Darshan, one sat by the water body, watching the multi-colored fish, savoring the Kada Prasad and taking in the tranquility with the bhajans playing in the backdrop. The sense of peace, despite the hustle-bustle, is rejuvenating.
On the way back, we strolled through the Heritage Walk again and peaked into the colorful shops and chatted with the enthusiastic shopkeepers. Our next stop, my friend announced was Beera Chicken Corner for dinner. Though on the other end of town, it was definitely worth the wait. As the Amritsari Fish pakodas flowed, one overheard another table of tourists complain about the butter chicken not being what they expected. A word of caution: the butter chicken here is rather different and not the conventional tomato and butter gravy that we spoilt Delhites are used to. So, stick to the tikkas which are more local and authentic.
As one was beginning to experience the limits to the elasticity of one’s own stomach and the insatiability of one’s mind, we decided to go looking for dessert. The driver and my friend immediately concurred that we would head to Lawerence Road for the famous ‘Jalebi-wala’. While neither of them could give me a formal name, they both seemed to agree. There at 10 pm in the night we found ourselves gorging on Jalebis and melt-in-the-mouth Gulab Jamuns from this street vendor with no name but unimaginable recognition.
Next morning, as the clock kept ticking for the return journey, food continued to be our focus. One had not had such an elaborate breakfast (the fancy hotel buffets are no match) as the one at Kanha Sweets at Lawerence Road. A small shop, it is a favorite among the locals, who flock to it for the set thali which includes chola, Kalonji (a slightly sweet potato dish) and puris. Of course, lassi goes without saying. At the end, do order the ‘Gur ka Kada’ which is local sweet delicacy made of jaggery. No wonder people of all age groups and social backgrounds line up outside this small shop to savor what they say is a hallmark of taste and consistency.
With the breakfast still stuck somewhere in our food pipes, we headed to the Temple complex once again for the Jallianwala Bagh and the Partition Museum. At the Bagh, the new memorial stands tall ahead of the old well and bullet-marked walls of the complex. However, as the Heritage Walk had raised one’s expectations, the hall that commemorated the leaders and martyrs of the event was a letdown. Poorly lit, it unimaginatively portrays images and write-ups that do not do justice to the martyrs and unsung heroes of the incident. It could definitely do with a make-over similar to the area around it, especially with 2019 set to mark the centenary year of the Jallianwala Bagh incident.
The last tourist spot was the Partition Museum which has been unveiled only recently. With a token entry of Rupees 10 for Indian Nationals, the museum is a hidden treasure in Amritsar. It traces the colonial history of modern India, including the partition itself and the aftermath, both intended and unintended. While certain exhibitions will leave you with goosebumps and a sense of despondency at the unfortunate turn of events in history, it ends on a note of hope. The last exhibition narrates the stories of the victims of partition and how they have flourished and become successful examples for generations to come and include the czars of MDH spices and Hero Cycle.
In Amritsar, every exertion ultimately yields tasty food. After the museum, we climbed onto the battery-operated rickshaws and headed to Kesar Da Dhaba in the old city. Speeding through the small lanes and uneven roads, one arrived at the Dhaba that merges into the old decrepit buildings except for its bright green doors. Here, while we could still feel our breakfast, we found ourselves diving into the Parantha Thalis, paneer dishes and finally, Phirni!
If I look back at the trip, each meal is a highlight with the intermittent outing a blur. Indeed, the air of Amritsar (or should I take the liberty of generalizing for Punjab, I wonder) has a distinct flavor. You can feel the ghee and sugar dissolved in it and by the end it permeates your body and soul. While most trips are a detox for the mind, try Amritsar to shock your system and reinvigorate the taste buds that have been dampened by standardized and cosmopolitan tastes.
Could this be the new mantra for rejuvenation? Well, Amritsar will give you ample food for thought…