Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Amritsar Visit 3 - The Glorious Food

The food in Amritsar is fantastic.

You must have seen so many shows, both domestic as well as foreign, singing praises about the food in Amritsar. Let me assure you that they are telling the truth. It is not hype, it is not puffery and it is not an exaggeration. The food is really good. Not only is it good but it is as cheap as chips.

The first meal we had was lunch at Kanha Sweets. I had written about this earlier. We have eaten there in the past. This is located at Lawrence Road. The sweet shop is at the front right on the main road. Alongside the shop is a narrow lane leading to a `dining hall’. As you walk down the lane to the `dining hall’ you pass a garage or a `gala’ where there is a vat of oil in which massive 8 inch diameter Pooris are being fried. These are `Pittie Pooris’ i.e. stuffed, - there is a very thin layer, so thin that you blink and you miss it - of red chilli powder. Kanha Sweets serves only one, Poori, Chole [Garbanzo Beans curry] and a sweet sour potato vegetable in the restaurant. This is served on a compartmentalised `Thaali’. A standard serving is 1 Poori and unlimited servings of Chole and potato vegetable called Launji. Of course you can get additional Poori but, you pay Rs 30 extra. This is served as breakfast until 3 pm. Delicious. As a dessert our friend the Doctor Businesswoman from London requested that we share a `Gajjar Ka Halwa’. A portion was ordered. From what I could see the `Gajjar Ka Halwa’ has no `khoa’ or dried milk in it. There was just sugar and ghee. The `Gajjar Ka Halwa’ was sweet, as expected, and hot. Like most Indian sweets, one dimensional.

After the reasonably heavy and late lunch at Kanha Sweets dinner would have to be lighter. After slaking our thirst at the very pleasant and deserted bar in the Hyatt where we were staying, we headed out to Majitha Road to Makhan Fish & Chicken Corner. We had not been to this before. You must remember that, generally speaking, the area around the Golden Temple is vegetarian. You have to move slightly away from this central area to find non vegetarian food. The three really famous names for non vegetarian food you will read about are Makhan Fish & Chicken Corner, Beera Chicken and Surjeet Food Plaza.

Makhan Fish & Chicken Corner is a two level restaurant. The front has an open kitchen with tables at the back. On the upper level is the family room which is also air conditioned. We went up. A menu was produced and on the table we got the obligatory onion slices, lime, pickle and an odd white sauce. On enquiry I was told it was Mayonnaise. Interesting. Did not touch it. We were unanimous in our decision to order no curries. So we got ourselves a half Chicken Tandoori, and half Chicken Tikka, a fried Amritsari Fish and a Tandoori Fish. To accompany this were 3 rotis and a bowl of Boondi Raita, which HRH The Queen of Kutch is very fond of. Do not ask why. Royalty has its quirks.       


Fried Fish. Note no red colour anywhere

1/2 Tandoori Chicken

1/2 Chicken Tikka

Tandoori Fish Tikka

The food was good beyond belief. Despite the fact that it was a seriously cold night with the temperature hovering at 5C the food came up seriously hot, mouth burning hot. The fish was delicious, moist and covered with a thin batter. The Chicken was even better. This was as good as what we get at the Peshawri at the ITC in Mumbai. This was really good chicken. You will see that despite this being Tandoori Chicken, it does not have the lurid red colour we are so used to. This was seriously good food. And to top it all, it cost us a paltry Rs. 1600/- When you get to Amritsar, you must eat here.

Partly fried fish

The next day lunch was the Guru Ka Langar at the Golden Temple. The food is good. Certainly not restaurant standard, but it is simple, light and tasty and served hot. The food is made with care. The most fascinating was the man wielding an automated water dispenser cart. He was so pleased with my taking photos of his cart that he asked me to take a photo of him.

Post lunch we had a glass of Lassi at Ahuja Milk Bhandar. As I have said earlier, lassi is just 3 ingredients, yogurt, sugar and a dollop of cream. Lassi can be elevated to only a certain extent. But visiting Ahuja Milk Bhandar gave us a chance to buy their Ghee which is good. It has a distinctive aroma that takes me back when I was a child. The Amul and Gowardhan ghees simply do not have this.

Once again after consuming our share of intoxicants we headed out to dinner. Dinner that night was at the legendary Kesar Da Dhabha. This is in the area around the Golden Temple. There are no cars or auto rickshaws allowed into this area. The simplest way to reach it is go by car to the Lohgarh Gate and walk along the narrow path. This is quite simple. It is a 6 -9 minute walk. By the time we got to Kesar Da Dhabha it was about 8.45. The place was flying. The owner called a waiter entrusted us to him and we were whisked off to the dining room across the main restaurant. Soon a table got free and we were seated. Unfortunately there was no Sarson Ka Saag [Mustard Greens], it was sold out. We set about ordering. The Daal Fry which is the signature dish, Baingan Ka Bharta [a sort of curried Imam Biyaldi], Shahi Paneer [Cottage Cheese], Mixed Vegtable and a Palak vegetable [Spinach]. We also got 3 different breads, Lacha Paratha, Alu Paratha and Amritsari Kulcha. Dessert was a Firni. The food was simply outstanding. We wolfed it down. We ate so greedily that I did not take a photo of the Palak that we ordered. The only mildly disappointing dish was the Paneer. This is something I remember from our last meal there too. For some reason, despite the fact that Paneer is their local food, the Paneer at Kesar Da Dhabha is underwhelming. The quality of the food here is simply stupendous. All of us were most impressed by the Baingan Ka Bharta. This was exceptional. It does feel silly writing superlative after superlative when describing the food. It was that good. Oh yes. Tips are allowed!!!

Baingan Bharta

Shahi Paneer

The fanous Daal Fry at Kesar Da Dhabha

Mixed Vegetable


The next day was our flight back. The flight was at 2.20 in the afternoon. That gave us time for our last meal. A sort of brunch at Kulcha Land. They have 3 types – Amritsari, Masala and Aloo. The Kulchas are cooked in a Tandoor and not on a pan. Thus they taste different from what we normally have. The Kulchas are served with Chole which is complementary. Once again, I am amazed at the quality of the food. Having tucked into this we were ready for our flight back.

In conclusion, you must visit Amritsar. An ideal length is 2 nights, but if you want to visit the Wagah border and experience the travesty there I suggest 3 nights. As far as food is concerned, Makhan Fish & Chicken Corner and Kesar Da Dhabha are un-missable. You have to eat there. Then you have the other usual suspects, all excellent:

Surjeet Food Plaza
Kanha Sweets
Beera Chicken
Gurudas Ram Jalebiwalla
Ahuja Lassi

Friday, January 16, 2015

Jallianwala Bagh Amritsar - The continuing tragedy

Our friend the Doctor Businesswoman from London was going to be in India for work. We had spoken glowingly of the wonders of Amritsar. So, a plan was made that we all go and visit Amritsar. This was to be our third visit to Amritsar in 4 years.

Of course you can read about the food and the Golden Temple in other posts.

This post is about the tragedy and the continuing tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh.

We had not visited Jallianwala Bagh on our previous visits.

Of course you know about the horror and slaughter that unfolded at Jallianwala Bagh. Jallianwala Bagh is a large 7 acre public garden enclosed on all sides by walls, very close to the Golden Temple. There are 4 very narrow passages providing entry into the garden. These are the only way to enter and exit the garden. The garden has a well inside.

The passage is really narrow.

On 13th April 1919 it was Baisakhi. Baisakhi has great religious significance for the Sikhs. Not only is it the day of the Harvest festival, but, it is the day that the 10th Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh laid down the foundation of the Khalsa. It is the day of celebration for those accepting the five Ks of Sikhism - Keski (cloth to cover hair), a Kangha (small wooden comb), a Kara (steel or iron bracelet), a Kaccha (undergarment) and a Kirpan (short dagger).

A crowd had gathered at Jallianwala Bagh to protest against the arrest of two leaders. Remember this was the time when India was a British Dominion. There was a curfew imposed in Amritsar that day but this fact was not well known. So, technically the crowd was in breach of the curfew. Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer had stationed his men at the entrance to the garden. The other entrances were blocked. Without any provocation General Dyer ordered the army to fire on the crowd for ten minutes, directing their bullets largely towards the few open gates through which people were trying to run out. The figures released by the British government were 370 dead and 1200 wounded.

This event was one that shook India as one of unspeakable brutality and cruelty. Many historians believe that this one event galvanised the freedom movement. This gives you some idea of how important this was. Naturally, Jallianwala Bagh is a place that has a tragic history. A trust was founded in 1920 to build a memorial at the site after a resolution was passed by the Indian National Congress. In 1923, the trust purchased land for the project i.e. nationalised Jallianwala Bagh. A memorial, designed by American architect Benjamin Polk, was built on the site and inaugurated by President of India Rajendra Prasad on 13 April 1961, in the presence of Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders. A flame was later added to the site.

The bullet marks remain on the walls and adjoining buildings to this day. The well into which many people jumped and drowned attempting to save themselves from the bullets is also a protected monument inside the park.

So great was this tragedy that despite the passage of almost 100 years India has repeatedly asked the British for apologies, and, the British have made several attempts to actually apologise for this. Of course they have never done so. General Dyer was severely censured for his actions. On 14 October 1997, Queen Elizabeth II visited Jallianwala Bagh and paid her respects with a 30‑second moment of silence. During the visit, she wore a dress of a colour described as pink apricot or saffron, which was of religious significance to the Sikhs. She removed her shoes while visiting the monument and laid a wreath at the monument. In February 2013 David Cameron the British Prime Minister visited the Jallianwala Bagh and made a statement stating that the massacre was a "deeply shameful event" in British history but stopped short of a full apology.

All this shows that Jallianwala Bagh massacre is still of great significance.

With this sombre, gloomy and depressing history in the back of our minds and having regard to the diplomatic importance given to the garden we thought that we would be visiting something that would stun us.

Stun us it did, the only problem was that Jallianwala Bagh had been reduced to a national shame, a farce and place of zero importance to the hordes visiting it. All of us were truly shocked. All of us were disgusted. These are times when I question what is the real impact of the cliché `India Story’. The India Story has empowered our masses in ways hitherto unimaginable. They have mobile phones, mobile phones have cameras. People wear the most fashionable clothes, sport the trendiest accessories like sun shades and wear the newest sneakers. But, do they have the slightest idea of good behaviour, decorum and sense of decency? No they do not. The whole of Jallianwala Bagh was full of louts taking selfies and other behaving like they were out on a picnic. And what a shame that was.

Fine, you may say that my idea of behaviour is not the same as theirs. I am willing to grant you that. But what about the Jallianwala Bagh itself, the Monument and the environs. Tragic, shambles and disaster are the words that I can use to describe Jallianwala Bagh. There is no idea of conservation; there is no concept of sanctity of the history, nothing, absolutely nothing.

In the centre of Jallianwala Bagh is the Memorial. Surrounding the Memorial is a water body. The tragedy was that there was no water in the water body. Is there a shortage of water in Amritsar? Obviously not. Barely 300 meters away is the Golden Temple with its Amrit Sarovar or pool of Holy Water. Just outside the main entrance to the Golden Temple is a water fountain that was in full flow. But, in Jallianwala Bagh the fountains were dry. Obviously no one cares. Who knows, the pump was not working, pipes corroded, PWD asking for tenders for repairs? I have no clue. The flame that was added was not burning. Is that itself not an insult?

The Memorial. The people are standing in the dry water body taking photographs.

You know that thousands of bullets were fired by General Dyer’s troops. Many hit the structures and walls in Jallianwala Bagh. Instead of just putting up a plaque near the wall explaining the bullet marks, our keepers of the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial have painted, yes painted, white squares around each bullet mark to show us blind, ignoramus what the hole in the wall is. I mean really! Is there not even a smallest concept of conservation?

If all this was not enough, in the gardens, we had topiary of soldiers firing their guns. Some soldiers were standing, some in prone position and some down on one knee. This was to my mind the worst insult to what happened at Jallianwala Bagh. Are we a nation of sick people? Is this what was shown to David Cameron when he visited in 2013. I was shocked.

The pathetic tasteless topiary soldiers

In the preceding paragraphs I had mentioned the well in Jallianwala Bagh. This well has a very sad story. When the firing started, people, to escape the bullets jumped into the well and perished. It is said that 120 bodies were pulled out of the well. Today the well has been covered with mesh fencing of the kind you see as a road divider. Be that as it may. The well is along one of the walls of Jallianwala Bagh. On the other side of the wall are residential buildings with windows overlooking this well. I would not be able to sleep knowing that my bedroom overlooked this well. But that is India. That is the India Story. We will not buy a flat overlooking a graveyard but a flat overlooking a well with such history is fine.

The Martyrs Well with the high rise adjoining

I believe I have written enough.   

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Amritsar - The Palkhi Sahib procession

This post is written by HRH the Queen of Kutch.

This was our third visit to Amritsar in 4 years. A record of sorts as I don’t believe we have visited any other city as often, except of course for London.

With us on this trip was our high flying Doctor Businesswoman friend from London. Amritsar was cold. Proper cold. London cold. For the 2.5 days we were there, the temperature ranged between 3 degrees in the dead of the night to 8 degrees around noon. There was no sun to be seen at all for our entire stay and all of Amritsar played hide and seek behind a curtain of fog. Perfect weather for all the delicious Amritsar food we ate, but not really conducive to the 4.00am outing planned by Doctor Businesswoman.

While none of us are particularly religious, we have been to the Harmandir Sahib or Golden Temple several times on each visit to Amritsar and marvelled at the calm, peace and tranquillity of the Temple complex. But on none of our previous visits have we been motivated enough to wake up for the 4.00am daily Palkhi Sahib procession. This time though with a little persuasion from the Doctor Businesswoman we decided we would wake at 3.30 and make our way to the Temple to witness the procession.

After an extremely pleasant evening that began with a few civilised drinks at the lovely Hyatt Lounge Bar and wound up at the superb Maakhan Dhabba we set our phone alarms for 3.30am and snuggled into bed. 3.30 came faster than it should and by five minutes before 4am, all three of us were assembled in the hotel lobby ready to venture out into the cold. The Hyatt where we were staying kindly provides a shuttle service to and from the temple for the daily morning ceremony and I believe on some days they need to arrange as many as three mini busses to ferry all the residents who want to witness the ceremony. On this cold winter’s day though, we were the only three people brave enough to venture out in the cold. Bundled up in our jackets and mufflers, we boarded the bus and set off in the foggy dark.

At the entrance to the Golden Temple we removed our shoes/boots and handed them over the volunteers before skittering across the cold marble onto the long rough coir mats. The little water trough you need to wash your feet in before you enter the temple was not as cold as I thought it would be and within a few moments we were at the top of the steps that lead down to the Harmandir Sahib.

That first moment we saw the beautifully lit temple shining like gold in the dark pre dawn light through the veils of fog will stay etched in my memory for a long long time. It was a breathtakingly beautiful sight. Oddly at that time, a few lines of Shakespeare sprang into my head....the barge she sat in like a burnished throne, burned on the water, the poop was beaten gold....Yes, these lines were used to describe Cleopatra as she sailed down the Nile in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, but something about the Harmandir Sahib shimmering on in the water brought these lines to my head. (I do hope I am not being blasphemous!!). The water in the Sarovar was still and clear and the lit temple was clearly reflected in its shimmering depths.

Descending the stairs we headed left to circumambulate the Harmandir Sahib and were silenced by a sense of absolute peace. There were a few people around, but the cold I believe had kept away all but the most devout and determined. By the time we reached the entrance to the Temple though, there were signs of life and activity.

Right across from the Harmandir Sahib is the Akal Takth. The Akal Takth which literally translates as ‘the throne of the timeless one’ is one of the five seats of power of the Sikh religion. Late every evening, the Holy book of the Sikhs, The Guru Granth Sahib is taken in a procession from the Harmandir Sahib to a special room in the Akal Takht where it is kept for the night. Early the next morning, there is a procession to bring the Book back from the Akal Takth to the Harmandir. This procession is called the Palkhi Sahib and it is believed to be a huge blessing to witness the procession or better still to offer your shoulder to carry the Palkhi (palanquin). Having said that, only men are allowed to offer their shoulder, so the Doctor Businesswoman and I had to be satisfied with bearing witness to the procession.

The Akal Takht

Again, since there were only a few dozen people around, we had no difficulty finding a good vantage point and stood behind the fencing watching all the preparations. Stonethrower went far forward to try and get some decent photographs. 

The Palkhi was first brought out and readied. Rose Water was liberally sprayed, Marigold Garlands arranged and the beautiful silk cushions were placed inside. Then the Palkhi was carried to the foot of the stairs from where the Guru Granth Sahib would emerge. Then at precisely 5am, the head priest of the Harimandir descended the stairs from the Akal Takth with the Guru Granth Sahib on a cushion on his head. It’s all very solemn and sober till suddenly the deep resonating sound of a Nagara drum and a trumpet fill the air and the Holy Book is placed in a the Palkhi and carried to the Harmandir. At this stage there was a fair amount of shoving and pushing as many worshippers jostle for the honour of carrying the Palkhi. If this is how it is on a day when there must have been no more that 50 people, I cannot begin to imagine how it is when the place is packed to capacity. Again, we were fortunate it was such a cold day as we had a clear view of the procession which passed less than a foot from where we were standing.

The procession solemnly moved across the plaza, through the Darshani Deorhi (main entrance), and along the causeway, stopping when it reached the main door of the Harimandir. The head priest then lifts the Guru Granth Sahib out of the Palkhi, places it on a silk cushion on his head and enters the holy shrine.

Procession done, we headed back to our Hotel and tucked our frozen toes back into bed to grab a few hours’ sleep.

A fabulous experience, not for the honour or the blessing of the procession but for the tranquillity and the magic of beautifully lit Harmandir burning upon the water....