Compared to the temperature outside, the coach of Shatabdi we were traveling in seemed heavenly. Toasty, actually. We had a packed itinerary ahead of us. Golden temple, Wagah Border and local gourmet adventures were on our minds. For a change, I was the guide. Satya knew nothing about Amritsar, had never been there and had developed mostly romantic notions of a sleepy laid-back town, thanks to the movies. Sweeping fields of mustard, men with colorful turbans on cycles, whole lots of street side dhabas was his idea of Amritsar so one can hardly blame him that his first view of the city was not quite as he expected. Concrete, blaring horns, crowded streets and the usual hustle bustle of a big town greeted us on arrival.
True to Army hospitality, we were offered tea and warm water at the station itself just before we embarked on our short ride to the cantonment. A lazy afternoon sun had people sitting out on their charpoys, enjoying the warmth. After a quick lunch of sumptuous chola bhatura, we left for Wagah border. It is important to leave well in time to get good seats. On an average, over a 1000 people attend this ceremony, traveling from all parts of India. It is also the route of the Delhi – Karachi bus. The security cover is heavy, with three checkpoints in between.
On the other side, men and women sat in separate aisles. If one ever wants to get a fair idea of black n white versus colour, this would be a good place. While the men adorned mostly white kurta pyjamas with black coats, the ladies were sporting suits in almost every colour imaginable. Then the ceremony began. I had already been forewarned that it was a little loud and ostentatious, a little over the top and to an extent it is so. But to me, given that I can find no fault with Defence ceremonies, it was the pride with which they executed the ceremony that overshadowed the drama. Yes, something more solemn would have been better, but even this is ok. Just before the show began; soldiers on both sides were exchanging words and laughing about. The show of bravado and strength was only an act put up for an audience. Despite the unbelievable leg raises, and twirling of moustaches, really there seemed no signs of hostility!
True to my reflexology, I was most intrigued by the condition of the spine, torso and leg muscles of the soldiers who were walking with chests tearing out in front of them, at uncomfortably fast speed, with hands raised skywards and the legs..Each time the fellow would raise his leg, I would think, ” ah, his back’s got to hurt. The posture is not right. He is bending his spine backward to do the raise….” and so on and so forth. Occasionally, I would whisper my observations to Satya who wondered if I was losing my head! At the end of it all, everyone would want to get clicked with these 6 feet tall, broad fellows in their resplendent uniforms. The men were only too happy to oblige. This was their moment of acknowledgement, of a job well done, of showing their countrymen what they did each day. It would however, be nice, if instead of both side shouting slogans of ‘ bharat mata/pakistan zindabaad’, if we all cheered collectively. If we could all raise our voices together rather than against each other. That maybe a beginning.
The Golden Temple
Next day, we headed for the Golden Temple. I was in no mood to see the Jallianwala Bagh, having visited it on my last trip. It was heartbreaking. Despite the notices and the requests for maintaining silence, people went about playing cricket, enjoying picnics and rendering their love around bullet marks on the walls.
There is an amazing silence I love about the Golden Temple. Scores of pilgrims, and yet there is no noise..Almost like you are allowed to be with yourself. I sat mesmerised watching the temple’s reflection in the water. Golden, just like rays of the morning sun. The ground felt cool beneath my feet. The sparkling white of the marble was clean like a mirror and you could see deep into the water.
Men stood in waist deep water, with hands folded, staring at the Temple, praying. In faith, there is always hope. It is the magic of prayer. To know that here is always someone listening and though he may not always give me what I ask for, he certainly gives me what I need. . In one corner, a pair of musicians sang verses from the holy book to a captive audience. On the other, a man carefully wrapped the saffron cloth on the flagpole as he was lifted a 100 feet off the ground. In an organised stream, we all went into the main shrine, no rush. No pushing, no shoving. I took my time without being asked to move on. By now, my stomach had begun making catcalls. It was time to eat. The langar hall (community kitchen) at the temple is functional 24hours. Devotees volunteer to chop, peel vegetables, cook meals, wash utensils, serve food through the day and keep the food coming for countless pilgrims who visit the shrine everyday. Someone is always around to offer second servings, someone is always around to take your plates, someone is always around with a smile to welcome you or to bid farewell. There is a deep sense of collective. Everyone seems happy, content in doing what they are doing.
Finally, it was time to go. We still had to go around the bazaars before heading back to catch our train.
Off we went, entering one of the bylanes close to the temple. Shop upon shop was adorned with all kinds of marriage accessories. Bangles, sehras, pagris, garlands, jewellery.. the works. The lanes were squeezed and an approaching rickshaw meant you better take off skyward, literally to avoid a collision. Recognised as tourists, we were lured by most shopkeepers to buy a few original ‘amritsari’ specialties. Next was the ‘bartan’ lane. And finally, the cloth market. As we were told, this is amongst the largest cloth markets in India, with cloth going all over the country. It was believable, given that we saw every variety and colour of cloth in the market. Being early hours in the day, buyers hadn’t quite made an appearance yet. Sellers were making most of the lull by catching 40 winks, only gazing when someone stopped directly in front of the shop. Bright and colourful with glitter, glass work, embroidered or dyed-everything could be found.
To complete our gastronomical adventure, we headed to ‘ Prahwan da dhaba’, literally meaning ‘ the brothers eating joint’. Recommended by atleast 5/6 locals as the original eating place in Amritsar, this dhaba had now converted itself into a proper restaurant. On my earlier trip, we had tried out the famous ‘ kesar da dhaba’ which I had found disappointing. We indulged in some kulcha and chana, lassi followed by Phirni. My verdict, the place has limited choice and the food is good. Nothing exceptional. In my experience, local roadside dhabas all across Punjab offer some of the best food I have eaten. Tandoor paranthas with white butter, piping hot dal and chicken, sarson ka saag….It may have been a seller once upon a time, but now they seem to be catering more to the local taste, having introduced chinese and south Indian dishes on the menu. Largely disappointing. The phirni was exceptional and at Rs.10/- a must have. I regretted not having contacted any of my couchsurfing mates in Amritsar. But this invasion of Chinese and south Indian food isn’t unique to Amritsar. Everywhere I travel, even in the hills, it is almost impossible to come by authentic state cuisine. The maggis, momos and dosas have taken over, killing the local dishes almost completely.
It was time to head back. Our trip was over. It is unlikely that I will be in Amritsar sometime soon again. There is much to see and only so much time.