WHY AMRITSAR SHOULD BE ON EVERY BACKPACKER’S TRAVEL LIST
September 5, 2018
Bright orange turbans, long silver swords, a maze of narrow, littered streets filled with aromas of food in the air – Amritsar is like no other place I’ve ever visited.
With the famous Golden Temple, crowded alleys in the old city, checkered history and some of the best food to be sampled, Amritsar is truly synonymous with Punjab.
A LITTLE ABOUT THE CITY
Drawing its name from the Amrit Sarovar, the holy tank that surrounds the magnificent Golden Temple and translating to ‘pool of nectar’ in English, this spiritual city sees a lot of travelers around the year and holds a very special place in India’s psyche. And it is not difficult to see why; the temple complex has an air of calm and serenity about it.
Historically, the city of Amritsar is believed to have been purchased by the Sikh Guru Ram Das around 1570 AD from the villagers of Tung for an amount of 700 INR to plan a settlement as well as dig a tank. This beautiful city has a major historical significance in India’s struggle for independence from British rule in the early 20th century.
While most people visit the city only to take in the awe inspiring Golden Temple and the border ceremony at Wagah, there is no dearth of things to do and see for backpackers like me in Amritsar. Plan a spiritual day visiting myriad places of religious significance. Head to Jallianwala Bagh for some historic rendezvous and pay homage to the people who lost their lives in a massacre that changed India’s freedom movement. Go for a city walk along the streets to understand its life and natives. Obviously, a food trail is a must in Amritsar with plenty of local food items to be explored and tasted.
And for you to experience that splendor, I’ve listed some of the best things to do in Amritsar to soak in the essence of the place.
1) VISIT THE HARMANDIR SAHIB GURUDWARA
Golden Temple is the soul of Amritsar. In the centre of the old town is this famed and truly spectacular architectural marvel – Sikhism’s holiest shrine.
This temple is a two-storeyed marble structure guilded with 750kg of gold and is in the shape of an inverted lotus flower, symbolising purity. The holy texts of the Guru Granth Sahib are recited daily in the sanctum within this temple. The main entrance is through an imposing clock tower and the moment you step in you get a stunning view of the shrine and its reflection in the Amrit Sarovar. In the vast premises of the gurudwara complex you will commonly spot guards positioned with a sword and a tall spear, dressed in long robes, blue turbans, curly toed Punjabi shoes, and a long beard that completes the look.
This magnanimous shrine is almost synonymous to Amritsar and stands in glory and pride of the Sikh community
2) TRAVEL BACK IN TIME AT JALLIANWALA BAGH
Apart from religious significance, Amritsar is also a popular destination when it comes to India’s struggle for freedom from the British rule. Amritsar is one such destination in Punjab where martyrdom and national pride go hand in hand. A clear example of that are the monuments and museums of the city.
Jallianwala Bagh is a poignant memorial to the many lives lost when a British officer and the soldiers under his command opened fire on the peaceful protestors that had gathered here in 1919. The site is a bone-chilling reminder of the deaths of unarmed demonstrators who were massacred by General Dyer on that fateful day, during the pre-independence freedom struggle movement in India. An eternal flame burns here in memoriam. The remnants of brick walls riddled with bullet marks that were fired as demonstrators made every attempt to escape are evidence of that violence.
3) WITNESS THE GLORIOUS PAST OF GOBINDGARH
Originally named as “Bhagian da Qilla”, this mud fortress in the heart of the city was built by Gujjar Singh Bhangi, the local chieftain in 1760. It was later renamed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh after the 10th Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh. Using bricks and lime, this fort was erected to save Harminder Sahib and the city from invasions and hence the moat & gates were built using contemporary military defense structure.
This heritage site has a glorious history of its own, spanning across 257 years. This fort encapsulates the dramatic rise of Punjab, its golden days and then the collapse of the Sikh Kingdom, till India’s independence. Sher – e – Punjab is a 7D show on Maharaja Ranjit Singh, which will transport you to the 19th century in an immersive way.
Whispering walls is an infotainment show held every evening post sunset. that projects the stories these seemingly mute walls of Gobindgarh, have to tell of the sweep of history. Shows are in Punjabi as well as an English
4) INDULGE IN FINGER-LICKING GOOD FOOD
No visit to Amritsar is complete without sampling all the food it has to offer, and during our 10 days in the city we set out to do just that, beginning each day with a big glass of Punjabi style lassi, a meal in itself!
Every place in India has a unique food culture; and Amritsar is no different. From the lip-smacking Amritsari fish, which is spicy and tangy to the roadside stalls that sell an inexhaustible list of delicacies, irresistible kulchas, chola-bhaturas, tandoori chicken and fried fish, the city is truly a heaven for the gastronomes. As clichéd as it may sound, the real flavour of Amritsar is not found without reveling in the gastronomical delights directly off the streets of Amritsar.
When it comes to food and culinary extensions, Amritsar has a prolonged and rich heritage and has gained tremendous popularity for its gourmet traditions; especially the dhabas
Plan your meals in Amritsar well.. because you don’t want to be missing any of this delicious stuff this city offers!
5) SATIATE YOUR HUNGER PANGS AT GURU-KA-LANGAR
Guru-Ka-Langar is an enormous dining room in the temple complex where an estimated 100,000 pilgrims come to eat every day after praying at the Golden Temple. The meals are free, simple and comprise of simple & sumptuous servings of dal, rajma (kidney beans) and roti that you receive with your palms open, as a sign of gratitude. This strictly vegetarian food is handed out by temple workers to diners who sit cross-legged on the floor in rows up and down the halls, eating off stainless steel plates and bowls. The dining room is open round the clock, and epitomises the popular Sikh saying that no one in Amritsar ever goes to bed on a hungry stomach.
Catering equally to everyone from paupers to millionaires, it’s a humbling experience and a demonstration of the Sikh principles of hospitality, community service and charity.
6) EXPLORE THE LOCAL MARKETS
Amritsar is highly recommended if you are someone who loves to explore a new place from a firsthand perspective. The city has many flavours that can be best explored and experienced once you hit the roads and narrow alleys. This is a must try thing to do here as a city walk will take you a step closer to the lives and matters of the natives.
Surrounding the temple is the old city, full of crowded by-lanes, where cycles, pedestrians, tourists and vendors jostle for space. The little alleys are tremendous fun to walk around and explore especially if you don’t mind the crowds and noise and enjoy photographing crumbling old buildings, massive doors that would have may once belonged to imposing mansions and carved windows that are barely hanging on. The whole place has the lingering smell of food in the air as carts sizzle with fresh kulchas, parathas, jalebis and other street food.
Amritsar is known for its acclaimed conventional apparels and if you want to shop, look for phulkaris, patialas and Punjabi juttis to add some verve to your wardrobe among other souvenirs such as hand-woven carpets, paintings, jewellery, and fabrics. Phulkari literally means flower work. In its most tradional form it’s a pattern of flowers on plain background. It is a form of folk art by women to celebrate joyous celebration and social cohesion. These were made to pass on within the household to the bride at the time of marriage. Splurge away in the market lanes and get your hands on the most beautiful designs.
7) BEFRIEND THE AMAZING LOCALS
Punjab is famous for many things and the denizens of this hospitable city are often considered to be the most colourful and jolly people one can find. Their zeal for life and their love for celebration of even the most minor things make them a remarkable lot.
Interacting with the locals is one thing you must try in Amritsar. You may not be able to speak their language but you will always find them ready to welcome you with a grand smile. The excitement of the locals is infectious and many of them will be more than happy to tell you all about their religion and customs, and show you around the temple itself, just wander around.
Amritsar truly embodies what Punjab is all about, from its painful histories to the hardworking and gregarious Punjabis and from the rich street food to the langar in all gurdwaras. The city has all the makings of a well-rounded tourist destination with its ancient legends, historical monuments, places of worship, old bazaars, theatre traditions and colourful festivals.
I hope to have helped you in creating the perfect itinerary for your time in Amritsar. Now, all that is left to do is pick a date, book your tickets and get packing!