Thursday, February 21, 2013

Amritsar Revisited - Wah E Guru


Amritsar.

Without a moment’s hesitation or doubt, my favourite city in India. A place that makes me smile from the moment I step into the aircraft to the time I get back to Mumbai. Oh yes! I like Amritsar. The only other place that induces a constant smile is London. It was our second visit to Amritsar in 2 years to the day. Coincidentally, we were in Amritsar from 18th to 20th February 2011 and here we were in Amritsar on 18th to 20th February 2013. You could read about our last visit here

Sardars are great characters. Like me they seem to smile when they are going to Amritsar. Like me, all the nastiness, anger and irritation disappears when going to Amritsar. The flight from Mumbai to Amritsar was full of happy, bubbly, smiling Sardars and their extremely cute little children. They look absolutely adorable with their little `patkas’ full of the innocent mischief and naughtiness that we see so little of in children nowadays. All of them little eating machines constantly eating without fear or favour and with not a thought for their waistlines – chicken puff, veg puff coffee, nuts, chocolates all consumed with wholehearted joy. To me it seems that Sardars travel in packs, all large [both packs and Sardars] with many mummy’s, daddy’s, betas and betis all shouting, laughing and eating all at the same time. There was however one grim family at the airport, I kid you not, holding `Papaji’ in their lap. `Papaji’ had died and his ashes were in a casket which the family was going to take to presumably immerse. These sad Sardars were thankfully not on our flight to Amritsar but were on their way to a more sober Chandigarh. Phew!

Landing in Amritsar we were booked at the Ista, an absolutely top class hotel. The hotel had not slipped and neither did it show its age despite 2 years since our last visit. It’s really a good hotel with rooms that are as good if not better than the rooms at the Taj Lands End or the President in Mumbai. Point is the rooms probably cost 1/3 as much.

The Ista

The adjoining Mall - Hypercity and Shoppers Stop too!!

Prices! Kingfisher for Rs 150/-

The Hotel is about 20 minutes away from the Golden Temple and there is an elevated expressway straight in. You could go by car/taxi but the problem is that cars are not allowed inside most of the walled city where the Temple is located. We hailed a 4 wheeled rickshaw and asked the driver (i) if he had a mobile phone and (ii) if we could hire him for the day. He said yes to both questions so for a princely sum of Rs 800 per day we had our own Bentley to take us where we wanted. Most importantly, he would be there at night to get us back from dinner in town.

The `Bentley' with Vijay the driver

The walled city is where all the action is in Amritsar. You have almost all the eating places, Jallianwalla Bagh and of course, the majestic Golden Temple. The walled city is rather dirty, chaotic and dusty with small narrow roads in which motorcycles ply at frightening speeds with horns blaring. The cacophony is quite something. We spent lots of time just walking in these bylanes. For some reason Amritsaris do not like to walk. They will hop onto a cycle rickshaw for a distance of even 500 meters. People are almost always friendly and helpful; we asked several policemen who were on duty for directions. Always answered with a smile and some free advice; `take a rickshaw’, `don’t pay more than 20 Rupees’.



Electric carts also available inside the walled city

We did have a list of things that friends wanted us to buy. `Papar’ or `Papad’ as we call it, Almond Oil [don’t ask why people wanted us to buy it], `Kadas’ [the steel bangle that all Sardars have to wear], `Besan Laddus’, natural Pumice Stone and aam papar. The Empress needed new clothes so we [the Royal we] wanted to buy fabric and have Salwar `Suits’ stitched. This would be fun and we set about walking. The best `Papar’ was available at Ujagar Singh Karam Singh. We did eventually find the shop after much asking for directions and we were not only told how to get there but everyone seemed to give the shop their seal of approval. We were obviously heading to the right place. Once we bought the required ‘Papars’ and ‘Aam Papars’ we asked the owner where we could get the Salwar `Suits’ stitched. He was most helpful and sent us to Beauty Collection in Katra Jaimal Singh. Great shop, greater salesmen and much money spent.



I spent my time taking photographs of shop fronts that were so normal in Amritsar but either hilarious to us outsiders or just so caught in a time warp.








People actually use the word `backside'

At one of the places we ate (there were many) we tasted very fresh, young ginger. So, of course we had to buy ginger. One request to our Bentley rikshaw driver to take us to the best sabzi mandi or Farmers Market had us careening off to a distant suburb of Amritsar where we found a large (football field large) open air wholesale vegetable market. Farmers were steaming in carrying their produce on Tractors. The quality and quantity of vegetables was truly staggering and even though we stood out like obvious outsiders, we bought our ginger and headed back to our rikshaw. Right in front of us was a store selling pesticides and seeds. Of course we had to go in. Ten minutes later we left with two packets of seeds (bitter gourd and bottle gourd) and four bunches of saplings (tomato, chilli and brinjal) neatly packed in a damp hessian sack to keep them fresh till we re-potted them in Mumbai. The man at the stall probably thought we were a little strange talking about gamlas (pots) when all his other customers were large Sardar farmers who had fields to sow!




You cannot go to Amritsar and not go to the Golden Temple. We went the last time too. You can read about it here

I am not a `God’ man so you will not get the usual clich├ęs from me – I felt something when I went to the Temple or I felt peace or whatever else that the religious among us feels. The Golden Temple is simply beautiful, its scale, its design its colours are all a joy to the eye. To me it’s much like the Taj Mahal, just very very beautiful. The Sikh community has put a huge amount of effort to keep the Golden Temple in such pristine shape. Of course they have the money, which Temple in India does not? That is not the question. The management of the entire process of visiting the Golden Temple is so well worked out, so well organised and such a pleasure to visit. No security checks, no horrible touts or tourist guides, no beggars, no one asking you for money. Nothing. It’s simply a pleasure to visit the Golden Temple. The well calibrated Bose public address system broadcasting devotional songs being sung live in the Harminder Sahib is a work of art by itself.







These guys were buskers inside the Temple.


You all know about the Guru Ka Langar. It is quite something. We ate there. A simple tasty Daal, a spicy potato vegetable, some rice, Chapatti and Rice Kheer is what we got. Each of these was served hot and was really tasty. No, do not ascribe divinity to this. They cook well here and with care. I walked about after the lunch and took a few photos. No security, no one to question you no one to hassle you.

Greedy guts me - half eaten chapati.

Washing up area


Chapati making



Kheer

Daal 


Why oh why are the Hindu temples not as much of a pleasure.

Well, why do we like Amritsar so much? It’s a cool fun place that reminds me of Europe. A beautiful monument to visit [the Golden Temple], great food, a small compact town with friendly people and a nice hotel to stay at. What more can one want really from a place? Think about it, is there any Indian city that can fulfil these criteria? Goa? No chance boss, you will be ripped by the hotels and flayed by the taxi mafia? Delhi? You must be joking? Bangalore? Chennai? Vizag? I don’t think anything compares.

Go to Amritsar. Spicejet flies directly from Mumbai.I promise you, you will come back happy. You will have eaten well and if you are a `God' man, you will have had your fill of `Him'.

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