Modern India’s best highway, the NH1, is a section of the Grand Trunk (GT) Road.
Modern India’s best highway, the NH1, is a section of the Grand Trunk (GT) Road.In the 16th century, when it was built, the GT Road was lined with villages, countless sarais and golden fields of mustard stretching far into the horizon. Its 21st-century avatar is a well-manicured blacktop snaking through dusty towns, lined with innumerable dhabas and tall eucalyptuses that block your view of the mustard meadows. Yet the odd Mughal Kos Minar (milestone) and the aroma of bread being baked in the quintessential tandoor, still greet travellers to the Punjab plains nearly 500 years later. The last major stop this side of the Wagah Border is Amritsar – the most sacred city in Punjab.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
As the GT Road eases into the urban sprawl of Amritsar, the first tell-tale sign is a rapid build-up of traffic. Amritsar is far less pleasing to the eye than it used to be. The streets have been washed in blood a dozen times over since the fourth Guru, Ram Dass, first established a temple on a 500-bigha site surrounding an ancient tank in 1577. Added to the scars of these ransackings are poor modern construction aesthetics. But, instead of picture-postcard locales, Amritsar offers atmosphere. The magic here is in the aroma of the tandoor that fills the air as you shop; in the rich blues and saffrons of faith; in the range of traditional wares, from well-crafted kirpans and colourful pictures of the 10 gurus and their gurudwaras to tangy aam papad and spicy mango pickle.
The biggest attraction in Amritsar is, of course, Harmandir Sahib, more popularly known as the Golden Temple. Amritsar evolved around the Golden Temple, attending upon the vast hordes of pilgrims who flocked to it, and still do. The city is, in fact, named after the tank by which Guru Ram Dass cited his headquarters.
Even the staunchest of atheists are unlikely to forget the moment they first lay eyes on the shimmering temple in the midst of the sarovar (holy tank) Amritsar, or Lake of Nectar. Wash your feet here and climb up the marble steps.
The Harmandir Sahib complex consists of two large shrines and many smaller subsidiary shrines. All are set around a large tank, full of fish and pilgrims taking a dip. The complex is a sea of white marble, trimmed with eye-catching features picked out in gold leaf and fine stone inlay. The airwaves are dominated by the sweet sounds of gurbani, the Sikh hymns. Memorial stones dot the complex, most bearing mute testimony to the Sikhs’ glorious military tradition.
The Swarna Mandir is the gold-plated sanctum on an artificial island in the sarovar. Connected to the shores of the tank by a bridge, it is unusually lower than its surroundings. About 100m away, inside the same compound, is the Akal Takht (the Eternal Throne). This too is a gold-plated structure, with a basement and five floors. It has a fine museum and a hall where the Sarbat Khalsa meet to discuss matters pertaining to the Panth or community.
Pilgrims walk around the parikrama (the wide corridor that surrounds the tank) and the Harmandir, paying their respects at the various subsidiary shrines first. Finally, they do obeisance before the Akal Takht and queue up in orderly rows to enter the inner shrine.
The complex has been completely destroyed on several occasions and rebuilt with loving attention to detail each time. After a ransacking by the Afghans, it was rebuilt with the addition of gold plating in the early 19th century by Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
The complex is open almost 24 hours, from around 2.00am to about midnight. It offers a truly spectacular son-et-lumiére experience under the floodlights in the evening and is equally stunning in the hours just before and after dawn.
This small clearing inside the old city is lined on every side by buildings outside a high, unbroken wall. It is all too easy to miss the single entrance to the spot where the British committed the savage, unprovoked atrocity forever mourned in history books. On 13 April, 1919, a crowd filed through this same narrow alley to hear a nationalist speech or two. But Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer decided to break up the assembly. He blocked the alley with armoured cars and ordered his troops to open fire on the peaceful, unarmed crowd. Over 300 people, including children, died; close to 1,000 were injured.
Jallianwala Bagh was then a mere open wasteland with a well (which was choked with massacred bodies as many sought escape in its depths). Now it’s a landscaped garden with a museum run by the Jallianwala Bagh Trust. The well has been bricked up, trees planted where the corpses lay. There are two memorials, one a large teardrop-shaped sculpture and the other an eternal flame.
WHERE TO STAY & EAT
Amritsar offers hotel accommodaion ranging from the absolute basic to the upmarket. At the lowest rung are the serai accommodations at the gurudwaras and the budget hotels.
Amongst the city’s top hotels, housed in a beautiful 250-year-old haveli, is WelcomHeritage’s Ranjit’s Svassa (Tel: 0183-2566618; Tariff: ₹8,000–24,500), an Ayurvedic spa hotel with great organic food. Hyatt (Tel: 2871234; Tariff: On request) is a trendy, luxurious option with all the amenities – dining facilities, a spa and swimming pool. Mrs Bhandari’s Guest House (Telefax: 2222390; Tariff: ₹2,200–2,800), in the Cantonment, has 16 rooms on a lodging-only basis, but meals can be arranged on request.
Suss out the delights of Amritsar’s legendary street food at Bharwan Da Dhaba in Town Hall Bazaar, Kesar Da Dhaba near Bazaar Passian and Kundan Dhaba opposite Gandhi Gate. The food is delicious and cheap. The Amritsari fish preparations at Katra Sher Singh and Surjit Chicken House are a delight for meat lovers.
Wagah Border (29km)
There is always a noisy crowd for the 26-minute presenting of arms ceremony each sunset at this checkpoint on the border with Pakistan. India’s BSF and Pakistan’s Rangers vie for applause and try to outdo each other in goose-stepping and aggressive bearing. Some find it patriotic and some unbearably macho. Plenty of patriotic Bollywood songs and dancing spectators accompany the ritual.
On special occasions, such as the night of 14 August, when the midnight hour marks the end of Pakistan’s independence celebrations and the start of India’s, there are peace vigils. At such times, depending on the state of relations between the neighbours, groups from both sides are allowed to meet in the no-man’s land.
When to go October to March
Tourist Information Centre, Outer Gate Railway Station, Amritsar, Tel: 0183-2402452
Punjab Tourism, Punjab Bhawan, Copernicus Marg, New Delhi. Tel: 011-23384943, W punjabtourism.gov.in
STD code 0183
Air Sri Guru Ramdasji International Airport, Amritsar is connected to Delhi. Taxi to the city costs around ₹600
Rail Amritsar Station is connected to Delhi by the Swarna Shatabdi, Shan-e- Punjab, Golden Temple Mail, etc. There is excellent connectivity with Kolkata and Mumbai as well
Road A comfortable drive down the historic Grand Trunk Road (NH1), which links Delhi to Amritsar (447km/ 8–10hrs) via Panipat, Ambala, Ludhiana and Jalandhar Bus Regular services from ISBT Kashmere Gate
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