The holy city of Amritsar was beckoning me for quite some time. I am not a religious person. In fact the only time I remember “The Almighty” is when I am feeling low about things in life. However, there is something about the sights and sounds of Amritsar which tugs at your inner spirituality. I wanted to visit Harmandir Sahib popularly known as the “Golden Temple” in Amritsar. I also needed to get away for a two day break from my routine activities. With this in mind, I decided to plan my two day itinerary for Amritsar.
The last time I visited Amritsar was in the year 2006. At that time I had stayed in one of the accommodations managed by the authorities of Golden Temple. The market area surrounding the temple premises was chaotic, dirty and noisy. The condition of the roads was bad and overall I could not handle the chaos of the city. I was relieved once the trip got over and I was away from Amritsar.
Much has changed in the city since then. The Punjab Government at some point must have woken up and realized that they really needed to do something for the “Holy City”. Amritsar on its own was fetching scores of tourists and pilgrims despite having inadequate facilities to cater to them. The Government opened its coffers and gave a facelift to the entire market area over a two km radius surrounding the Golden Temple. They widened the roads in other areas of the city, started regulating the flow of traffic and also spent huge money to restore other heritage sites in Amritsar. When I visited Amritsar this year in 2018 I could see the visible effects of the transformation the city had undergone.
2018……it took a long time coming but I finally visited Amritsar again after twelve years. Over the last couple of years I had come across various travel blogs and videos on Amritsar. What I read and saw astonished me to no end as this was not the Amritsar that I had experienced. However, curiosity got the better of me when I finally decided to once again visit Amritsar. After researching various trip reports and travel forums (especially tripadvisor.com) I made a relaxed itinerary covering two days. Following are the details of the itinerary:
- Take the early morning bus from Chandigarh (my hometown) and reach Amritsar by 11:30 am. Check in to the hotel by 12 pm. Relax, get ready and leave hotel by 01:30 pm.
- Proceed for lunch to Kesar Dhabha. Have lunch at Kesar Dhabha and then proceed to Partition Museum and Jallianwala Bagh for sightseeing.
- By late afternoon explore market area surrounding Golden Temple. Early evening proceed to Golden Temple and spend the rest of the evening there. Have langar at Golden Temple for dinner.
- Early morning start to the day. Do the “City on Pedals” bicycle tour from 07:30 am to 11:00 am. Return to the hotel to freshen up and relax for a couple of hours.
- In the afternoon, proceed to Maharaja Ranjit Singh Museum. Then visit Lal Mata temple.
- In the evening proceed to Gobindgarh Fort. Spend a couple of hours over there and then proceed to Makhan Chicken Corner for Dinner.
Day 3: Take the bus returning to Chandigarh.
With the itinerary mapped out, I went ahead and booked Volvo bus tickets online from Chandigarh to Amritsar. Since I was travelling alone, I wanted to enjoy this holiday on a budget. So I booked a room in a budget hotel at Rs. 900/- per night in Hotel HK Continental through oyorooms.com.
Well the day finally arrived and out of excitement I woke up an hour earlier than the alarm was set. I caught the early morning Volvo at 06:50 am. The bus journey was a breeze and by 11:15 am I reached Amritsar. I walked down to the hotel as it is hardly a km away from the bus stand. I was quite satisfied with the room offered at the hotel as it was a decent sized room (140 sq. ft.), neat and clean along with an LED television and AC. What more can one expect at Rs. 900/- a night? After settling in, I booked a motorcycle cab through “UBER Moto” to Kesar Dhabha.
Lots has been said and written about this place which is located in the narrow by-lanes of Amritsar. I too wanted to try this place. The only way to reach here is through a cycle rickshaw, auto or a motorcycle taxi (Ubar/ OLA). No cars can enter these narrow lanes. The place although clean is non-descript and without any frills.
I ordered a “Paratha Thali” for myself. The food when it arrived was literally swimming in “Desi Ghee”. It consisted of two parathas, one black lentil fry (dal fry), chickpeas (safed chana), raita (curd with small pakoda) and salad. The food was so rich in butter that my hunger died by just looking it. It turned out to be quite a task to finish the meal. I ordered Thums Up Cola to digest the heavy food.
Being a Sikh-Punjabi, I am used to Punjabi food. This meal was nothing special. It was like any other Punjabi dish although very rich in Ghee. The food tastes okay though and if you want to try Punjabi dishes then this place is worth a shot.
(Click on the image above to view more pics of Kesar Dhabha)
Having eaten a heavy lunch, I decided to walk down to Partition museum as it was hardly a km away from Kesar Dhabha. The Partition Museum is located inside the Town hall building. The entry ticket to the museum costs Rs. 10/- for a domestic tourist but much more (Rs. 250/-) for a foreign tourist. I initially thought that this will be a small museum and I will cover the entire place in 15-20 minutes. How wrong was I? The museum although not very big, stores a wealth of information and it took me more than 90 minutes to explore it. I could have easily spent another hour over there. What I saw and observed shook me to my core. I finally came to realize the evil that this partition of India and Pakistan wrecked on our lives and our social fabric.
India was hard done by partition there is no doubt about it. There are various exhibits in the museum which include photographs, newspaper cuttings, old audio clips (i.e. radio announcements during 1945-1948), video clips featuring television interviews and other artifacts to portray a complete and comprehensive picture of that dark period. Going through all the information, I realized that there are no simple answers on why partition happened. Most of us Indians blame Nehru and Jinnah for the partition of our country. We have a tendency to blame politicians for everything including partition. However circumstances on ground are far different from our perception of reality. What cannot be forgiven though is the way the present government of that time absolutely washed its hands off the communal carnage that followed. It is estimated that more than one million people died in these communal riots. People lost everything, their land, money and lives of close family members. They had to start building their life from scratch with negligible Government support. It was a painful period for people at both sdes of the border. Hence i urge my readers to avoid indulging in loose talk whenever we are discussing a sensitive subject such as partition.
We are not allowed to take photographs within the museum. A pity since this information must be shared and showcased to the rest of the world. I also don’t like the fact that they are overcharging a foreign tourist so much. For all Indians, this attraction is a must visit in Amritsar. Go and see for yourself the pain of partition that has been so wonderfully depicted in this museum.
My next stop was Jallianwala Bagh. It is hardly a five minute walk from the Partition Museum. The Jallianwala bagh is a 6 acre public garden which has five gates and is walled from all sides. This garden is infamous for the massacre that took place on 13th April 1919.
On that fateful day, a crowd consisting of mostly civilians including women and children had gathered here despite the imposition of a martial law. These people were here holding a peaceful protest to condemn the arrest and deportation of two national leaders. Within no time the troops of the British Indian Army surrounded the garden, blocked all entries and opened fire on the hapless civilians. The firing continued for ten minutes. It is stated that around 1000 people died and 1500 were left wounded. This brutality shocked and galvanized the entire nation in such a manner that it became a decisive step towards the end of British rule in India.
I knew about the history of Jallianwala Bagh. When I entered the site and started exploring the things I was overcome with emotion. The place is clean, well maintained with washroom facilities and drinking water for the visitors. Throughout the garden there are seats in shaded corners available for people who want to rest. There are different spots marked clearly with notes on the history behind the spots. You will also view the bullet impressions on the wall marked clearly with white squares. There is a small museum within the garden which has newspaper clippings, photographs and articles related to this event. This place is definitely worth a visit if you are in Amritsar.
(Click on the images above to view more pics of Jallianwala Bagh)
Having covered the Partition Museum and Jallianwala Bagh, I was now keen to spend the rest of my afternoon and evening at the Golden Temple Complex. So I arrived at the plaza where I spotted a small board outside. It displayed a notice about four high tech multi-media shows on Sikh faith and religion starting at 4 pm. I got curious and since it was the last show of the day I decided to check it out.
This center is built in the basement of the plaza and is fully air-conditioned. It was a relief to be here after walking for such a long period in the hot sun. The idea of this interpretation center is to brief visitors about Sikh religion and their philosophies. The first gallery gave a narration of the birth of Sikhism and its journey from the First Guru to the Ninth Guru. The second gallery showcases the historical events surrounding Harmandir Sahib. The third gallery gives you a glimpse of the activities within Harmandir Sahib. This gallery also features a 3d model of Harmandir Sahib. The fourth gallery provides holographic and video projections narrating the wisdom of Sikhism. You can also view the detailed architecture of the interiors of Harmandir Sahib.
The four shows were completed in about an hour’s time. I enjoyed my time here as the shows were entertaining, the venue was fully air-conditioned and I got a chance to rest here for some time. Moreover these shows are completely free of cost and I wonder why they don’t charge for it? My only gripe with this place is that the entire narration is in Punjabi without any English subtitle. So a non-Punjabi speaking tourist may not get any value from these shows. However this place is definitely worth a visit especially if you want to escape the heat of Amritsar.
Golden Temple aka Harmandir Sahib:
Sri Harmandir Sahib, also known as the Darbar Sahib or Golden Temple is one of the most revered place of worship for Sikhs all over the world. This temple is intended to be a place of worship not only for the Sikhs but for people from all religions all over the world. The four entrances to the Golden Temple symbolize the acceptance of the Sikhs towards all people and their religion. It is estimated that more than 100,000 people visit this temple on a daily basis. The free community kitchen adjoining a huge dining hall proved 24/7 meals (langar) to lakhs of devotees all the year around. Vegetarian food is served here and people eat their meals as equals irrespective of their faith, gender or economic background.
The main temple is built on a 67 ft. platform in the centre of water tank (also known as the Sarovar). It is connected by a bridge which is 202 ft long and 21 ft wide. You will see long queues of patient pilgrims on the bridge waiting to pay their respects at the temple. After arriving at the temple complex, I joined the queue. It took me an hour’s time before I could finally reached temple platform. I saw the temple premises from inside, went on the upper two floors and then departed in half an hour. A quick note to the readers; be prepared to stand in line for 1-1.5 hours whenever you are visiting the temple.
Having paid my respects at the temple, I took a leisurely stroll around the temple complex observing the wonderful architecture. I must say that this temple is incredibly well maintained. The atmosphere of this temple is very spiritual and affects even unreligious people like me. The soothing chants of the “Gurbani” and the devotion of the visitors add to the spiritual atmosphere of the temple. I finally sat down at the banks of the Sarovar and continued to stare at temple watching the changing hues and colors as the evening progressed into night. The view of the Golden Dome in the evening and night is a marvelous sight to behold enhanced by the shimmering waters of the Sarovar.
(Click on the images above to view more pics of The Golden Temple)
Golden Temple Heritage Street:
As mentioned earlier in my blog, I wasn’t impressed with Amritsar when I had visited it years ago. To get to the Golden Temple was quite a task. You would be confronted with drain clogged streets, hawkers, pedestrians, auto and rickshaw pullers, all jostling with each other for space. Add to that the 45°C heat outside; your vacation would get over even before it started. Thankfully, the Punjab government realized that the Holy city was getting a bad name. Astonishingly, they renovated the entire market stretch around the Golden Temple Complex within one year. It is estimated that they spend around Rs. 1000/- crores in refurbishing the street and the markets.
I spent a lot of time walking this stretch. The weather was a little hot in the afternoon and quite pleasant at night. I saw bright new lampposts, water fountains and statues against the backdrop of buildings inspired by Mughal and Rajput architecture. All the buildings sported a pink façade with identical sign boards. A proud statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh stands tall at Phowara Chowk. At the Saraghari Chowk, you will see the statue of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and a mini replica of the parliament. The pathways are lined with various plants and shrubs to give it a green look. In fact, this entire shopping stretch looks reminiscent of some street of an Italian city such as Rome or Florence.
(Click on the images above to view more pics of Golden Temple Heritage Street and Market)
I was feeling quite happy when I finally retired to my hotel. Amritsar was so much better than what I had expected. Looking forward to the next day’s adventure, I welcomed some much needed sleep.
I woke up early morning at 06:00 am and changed quickly. I was participating in a bicycle tour of some heritage sites within the by-lanes of Amritsar. Feeling nervous and excited, I changed into my tracks quickly and called an Uber Moto.
City on Pedals (Bicycle Tour):
The City on Pedals bicycle tour is a great way to explore some forgotten and neglected heritage sites in Amritsar. It gives you an authentic feel and flavor of what the “Holy City” is all about in terms of culture, food, people and so on. The tour starts at 07:30 am and concludes at 11:00 am. During this period, you cover a stretch of 9 km negotiating the main roads and the narrow by-lanes of Amritsar. Along the way, you will view historical monuments, taste local Punjabi food and get to see local markets popular for their crafts and wares.
I reached the designated pick up point by 07:20 am. Since I had not ridden a bicycle for over 20 years, I was really nervous. I met Rishab the owner of this venture. He along with two team members was accompanying me for this tour. Very soon I was saddled with a helmet and safety jacket. With the greatest trepidation I tried my foot at the pedal and immediately my bike was going all over the place. Rishab was patient with me in explaining the controls and soon I found myself pedaling the bike without much difficulty. After riding for some time on the road my confidence got better and I was able to negotiate the bumps and turns that came along the way. Our first stop was the Company Bagh; a sprawling garden which is home to the much neglected summer palace of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Our next stop was the Khair-Ud-Din Mosque which was built in 1876. Despite being such an old mosque and heritage site, it looked a little neglected. We then proceeded to see other sites such as Qila Ahluwalia, Gurudwara Darshan Deori, Gurudwara Saragarhi Sahib and the famous centuries old Banyan Tree known as Baba Bohar.
Along the way, we stopped at various points to enjoy the Amritsar delicacies. I had the “Masala Chai” from the famous Giani Tea Stall. I also ate Puri Chana, Gur ka Halwa and Amritsari Kulcha during the course of the trip. The City on Pedals team seems to have done their homework well in the food department too. The meals were tasty and combined with the 9 km city tour this turned out to be a little tiring but thoroughly exhilarating experience. Hats off to these guys, they’ve come up with a unique and enjoyable way to explore Amritsar. Rishab and his boys go out of their way in making this tour an enriching experience for you. This attraction should be on top of every tourist’s list whenever they are visiting Amritsar.
Click on the images above to view more pics of the City on Pedals Bicycle Tour, Amritsar)
After the tour I returned to my hotel to rest for a couple of hours. I was looking forward to visiting my next stop, the Mata Lal Devi mandir.
Mata Lal Devi Temple:
I can sum up my visit to this temple in one word…..WOW!!! At a first glance, this temple looks like a normal place of worship built in somebody’s house. There are various statues of Indian Gods and Goddesses on the ground floor. You can view it in two minutes. However, don’t be deceived by the appearance. The real journey begins when you take the stairs to the first floor. What follows is a labyrinth of stairs and corridors in a maze like structure which also involves crawling in low ceilinged caves. Along the way, you will see statues, murals, mirror paintings and color stained glass images of virtually all the Indian Gods and Goddesses in existence. You cannot turn back and only move forward. I took one hour to complete the whole journey as I was busy clicking photographs. This place is a delightful visit for tourists. They should come and see for themselves the brilliant outcome of Mata Lal Devi’s resolve (who by the way is also worshipped as a deity here).
(Click on the image above to view more pics of Mata Lal Devi Mandir, Amritsar)
Maharaja Ranjit Singh Museum:
My next stop was Maharaja Ranjit Singh Museum. The cost of the entry ticket is Rs. 10/-. It’s a small museum which gives a brief history of the greatest Sikh ruler of Punjab. It is surrounded by a well maintained garden which has the statues of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. On the ground floor you will view old paintings and life-size statues depicting some important events in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s life. There is a room in which arms, armor, coins and manuscripts of that era are stored. On the first floor, you will get to see life-size 3D statues in a circular room depicting different wars that the Maharaja fought. The effect is that of an all-round panorama. At the background you will hear war-cries and sound of horses’ hooves as a part of sound effects. This museum is nice and worth visiting if you are not falling short of time in Amritsar.
(Click on the image above to view more pics of Maharaja Ranjit Singh Museum, Amritsar)
This was my last stop in Amritsar. I reached here at 05:30 pm in the evening. This place is well known for its two shows; one is “Lion of Punjab” a 7D show of 15 minutes that goes on throughout the day and the other one is “Whispering Walls” a multimedia laser light and sound show which is viewed on the open ground at dark after 07:30 pm. I bought a ticket for Rs. 290 which allowed me to view both the shows. I spent close to three hours in this place. There are two museums inside which have replicas of the weaponry of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s time. Nothing great to see here but it is okay to pass your time. However I was here in the fort for the other attractions. The 7D show was an awesome hair raising experience. The live folk dance and Punjabi Martial Arts were quite entertaining. The light and sound multimedia open ground laser show was spectacular to the say the least. The colonial bungalow sitting in the middle of the garden literally came alive and started talking to us. We were strictly forbidden to take photos or videos. You have to see it to believe it. This attraction should not be missed by any tourist. It is best to visit the fort in the evening when you can view both the shows.
(Click on the image above to view more pics of Fort Gobindgarh, Amritsar)
I had heard a lot about this place so I decided to dine here after completing my trip at Gobindgarh Fort. Took an “Uber Moto” to this place. I was under the impression that “Makhan Chicken Corner” will be some non-descript dhabha serving non-veg food. Turns out that this place is an upscale air-conditioned bar and restaurant. I was pleased with the ambience. Feeling tired and hungry, I immediately ordered a beer, half tandoori chicken and fish-fry as per the server’s recommendation. Tandoori Chicken was okay, nothing special about it. The Fish Fry is really good. It has its own distinct flavor and complements the beer really well. I will recommend this restaurant to tourists who want to enjoy drinks in a decent atmosphere with non-veg food.
This was the last day of my visit to Amritsar. Returned to the hotel to get some much needed sleep and caught my pre-booked Volvo to Chandigarh the next day.
Other Places to Visit in Amritsar:
While planning my trip to Amritsar, there were a couple of places to visit in Amritsar that I missed due to oversight and lack of planning. One such place is Durgiana Mandir. This is a Hindu Temple modeled on the same lines of “Harmandir Sahib”. The 700 year old temple sits in the middle of a water body connected by a bridge. Inside the temple there are shrines of Hindu Gods and Goddesses.
The other place that I missed in Amritsar is “Sadda Pind”. It’s a resort which is themed as a Punjabi village. It showcases the day to day lives and activities in a Punjabi village. This place is like a living museum spread over 12 acres of land. There are a lot of shows and activities to keep adults and kids busy throughout the day. It is similar to Chokhi Dhani in Jaipur which showcases Rajasthani culture. The lunch and dinner is included in the ticket price for the day package.
Retreating Ceremony at Wagah Border:
Lot of tourists especially Indians like to visit Wagah Border close to Amritsar. As I have already been here, I would like to share my experience. I’ve mentioned earlier in my article that I had visited Amritsar in the year 2006. At that time I was traveling to Amritsar with my dad and driver in our own car. My dad wanted to visit Wagah Border and I had no clue what it was all about. We reached the place and found hundreds of people queued up at the gates. Foreigners are lucky, their queues are shorter and they have a separate entry point. When the gates opened we had to walk for one km amid security checks at various intervals before we reached our seats. The layout of the seats is a little absurd; they look more like stepping platforms and they are lined in such a way that you can hardly see the view on the other side of the border. You will find people rushing and jostling with each other in order to grab the best seats for the view, but here is a fact check ….there is hardly any view. All I could see was the happenings at the Indian side of the border and I had to strain my neck to the left over other peoples’ heads to actually catch a glimpse of the happenings at the Pakistani side.
Now let us come to the ceremony. It involves lowering of the national flags by both India and Pakistan every evening before sunset. It involves a lot of pomp and show and theatrics are added to stir the patriotic fervor in people. First they will start playing loud patriotic Hindi songs and the crowd starts dancing and cheering loudly at the songs. Then you will view some people running towards the border gate with Indian flag in hand. After some time the flag march starts in which the BSF soldiers take several laps to the border gate and back. The body language is over exaggerated, passive aggressive and the legs are thrust upward in such a manner that it almost parallel to the chin. You will view the same behavior of Pakistani rangers if you manage to see the other side of the border. During all this time, a BSF guard was constantly egging us to shout patriotic slogans. He kept on telling us to shout louder, more and more, so much more that we drown out the shouts of the Pakistan residents. I saw the crowd getting whipped up in a shouting frenzy supposedly in their patriotic zeal to outdo the Pakistanis.
To be honest, I was not impressed with what I saw. It is exactly the kind of jingoism that can be avoided. Unbelievably, the choreographed attempt in a highly charged atmosphere happens daily. With due respect to everybody’s emotions, this chest thumping xenophobia to show Pakistan there place is not really patriotism. You can love your country without deriding the citizens of the other country. I would be much happier if the flag lowering ceremony becomes a quiet affair without any tourists. The aggressive attitude displayed by visitors on both sides of the border does nothing to ease the ages old conflict between both countries.
There are far more ways to spend your quality time and much better places to visit in Amritsar. This is not one of them. Avoid.
Transportation in Amritsar:
Amritsar has a good access to public transport. It is fairly easy to get a taxi, auto or a cycle rickshaw at any hour of the day. Since it’s a tourist city, the charges can be high and you would need to negotiate every time when you hire an auto or a rickshaw. However, for a single tourist the best way to commute in Amritsar is through Uber Moto or Ola Moto. These are motorcycle cabs in which you are riding pillion behind the rider. Not only are the effective in negotiating the narrow and overcrowded by-lanes of Amritsar but they are safe and quick as well. The best part is that you don’t need to haggle for price and its very cheap; Rs. 15/- upto 3 km and Rs. 25/- utpo 5 km. I covered all the tourist spots in the city over two days and paid a princely sum of Rs. 150/- for all the trips. If you are travelling with family then you can consider UBER/OLA cabs but they will not be able to enter the narrow lanes of Amritsar.
Amritsar has definitely grown as a tourist destination by leaps and bounds. It gives a good insight of Punjabi culture and traditions. The Golden Temple and the Partition museum alone are the reasons why one should visit the holy city. Take a chance and explore this place. You will not be disappointed.