Amritsar: Journey Of A People

Amritsar: Journey Of A People
The Harmandir Sahib, also called the Golden Temple, in Amritsar. Credit: / Tingling1

Time stands still in Amritsar androon, or the walled city, home to crumbling but magnificent havelis, spectacular food, and an overall rich legacy

Abhilasha Ojha
January 09 , 2023
08 Min Read

We stare with wonder at the decrepit havelis in the walled city of Amritsar. In one of the busy, noisy by-lanes of the old city, cluttered, congested, and teeming with people, just one look at the havelis, which are roughly 1,000 in number, according to Davinder Singh Chawla, former protocol officer in Punjab Tourism, makes for a meditative experience. 

If a city is defined by its sights, smells, and sounds, then the aromas of chola kulcha in every nook, and the faint strains of gurbani kirtan or devotional hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib, at Harmandir Sahib that fill the air, makes Amritsar a destination worth experiencing. 


Of Faith And Fortune

No surprise, then, a journey of discovery into the old city of Amritsar is also a journey into self-discovery. Upon first glance, these dilapidated havelis appear tortured and wounded but look closely, and every brick in the walls has a story. It's a story of civilisation, a culture, and its rich architecture, of coming together despite all odds and gaining prosperity through the invaluable contribution of all communities. The city is rooted in faith despite being stained by the bloodshed of Jallianwalla Bagh and the partition of India massacres, and other historic uprisings. It is no surprise that even today, the walled city echoes with the stories of grit and determination.

A reflective stillness in the city's character could well resemble the very first sarovar, which was excavated by Guru Ram Das between 1573 and 1577. The serenity of the sarovar, away from the frenetic energy of Amritsar, while we circumabulate it one afternoon, has a calming effect. 

A sunset view of Amritsar. In the foreground is the statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh

For The People, By The People

While the vigour of Amritsar is palpable even today, the city is a prime example of how its people, under the able guidance of the Gurus, contributed to its development, both spiritually and financially. No surprise then that everything in Amritsar is built around faith that – again, quite literally – glistens with over 500 kilograms of gold, work for which happened in the 1760s under the leadership of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. If the king gave the city its gleam by way of gold, the city acquired its wealth and attitude to help and heal through the people who came and settled here. Amritsar, then, is a story of lineages.

We're conversing about these communities while we cross the iconic Batli Hatiyan bazaar, or the market of 32 shops, in a rickshaw that is manoeuvred skilfully through the narrow lanes to avoid cows, stray dogs, and the crowds of people. Here, traders, who Guru Ram Das called in the 1570s, helped develop the city, set up shops, and made this city their own. These included chawalwale, or the rice millers; ghorianwale, or horse traders; lohewale, or the iron merchants; chaawale, or the tea traders; and the tuttianwale, or the water-tap makers. Much later, Amritsar expanded its territory and resources through several jatha/misl, or contingents, including Ahulwalia, Ramgarhia, Kanhiya, and Bhangi, each of whom contributed to the legacy of the city. 

Restore And Revive

Interestingly, at this point, many of the barracks, bungas, forts, and havelis were constructed around the Golden Temple with the vision of strengthening the Sikh army. Some of those barracks are there even today, such as the Qila Ahluwalia, which was initially a military fortress with residences built in the 1760s. The area, though mostly commercial, has restored frescoes, wooden facades, and balconies, courtesy of the restoration undertaken by the National Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY). 

While the restoration of some of the landmark destinations in Amritsar, such as Heritage Street, Qila Gobindgarh, Jallianwala Bagh, Durgiana Temple, and Rambagh Deorhi, among others, is already showing results, the havelis, many of the residents tell us, are neglected. Thankfully, some of these iconic structures are now getting a facelift with the involvement of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). 

Even today, a walk through some of the older parts of the city reveals the finesse of Sikh architecture and the intersecting of the numerous influences from Rajput, Mughal, and British designs. So, it isn't unusual to find cherub statues or western-style motifs guarding a house that reveals Rajasthan-style jharokhas as windows; vintage doors that could well be a throwback to Venice of the time. The labyrinth streets of old Amritsar, burdened by electrical wires from atop and milling crowds on the ground, reveal these unusual gems in the havelis, many over 200 years old. 

Culinary Tunes

The remnants of the past giving our present its relevance are also evident when we have the crisp, hot, mildly fragrant jalebis from the famous Gurdasram Jalebi Walley. This 90-year-old shop is barely six to seven square feet, built around a well over 200 years old. The deep-fried desi pretzel served in biodegradable pattal donna, or leaf bowls, is a legacy of taste, as are the other dishes we have during our two-day stay in Amritsar. Food is a special raag, or tune of Amritsar. Every flip of the kulcha before it goes into the oven boasts of a layakari, or rhythmand every turn of the karchi, or spatula, in the wok gives a heady taal, or beatThe langar, communal kitchen, kadha prashad, or ritualistically blessed food at Harmandir Sahib become the starting aalap, or opening, of raag Amritsari. The lassi, or buttermilk, that washes down the famous maa ki daal, black lentils, or even the Amritsari fish tikka demonstrates the fast taans or quick and extended musical notes. 

There is so much to explore in Amritsar that returning home makes one feel bereft yet full of hope for the next adventure into the city. It's not unusual then to pause and question, "Does the city make us, or do we make a city?" 

The Information

Best time to visit: Winter

How to get there: Amritsar is well-connected to the rest of the country by air, railway, and road routes. 

Top Tips: A walk around the old city of Amritsar can take anywhere between two and a half to four hours. Keep a bottle of water, wear comfortable shoes, and a scarf handy to cover your head, which is mandatory in religious places.  

For more information, check the websiteand here


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