Home to pastoral landscapes, partition memoirs and warm-hearted locals, Amritsar is a place that must be felt and experienced
It was our first time in the state of Punjab, the wheat bowl of India.
For someone who has witnessed Punjab only through Bollywood films and sassy videos of Punjabi rappers, the sheer mention of “Punjab” is most likely to bring to mind images of sarson ke khet, pagdi-sporting sardarjis, groovy bhangra beats, and depending on whether one is a drinker or a non-drinker, a big Patiala peg or a glass of lassi with a dollop of makkhan.
For the spiritual and religious, it strinkingly creates an image of Amritsar‘s spectacular Golden Temple and the shimmering reflection of its gold-crusted dome in the clear waters of Amrit Sarovar (Pool of Nectar).
However, when in Amritsar, colloquially known as Ambarsar, it’s not enough to meditate at the golden gurudwara and visit the Wagah border to watch the hyper-choreographed retreat ceremony. One must uncover the real essence of the city and its deep-rooted Punjabiyat. That’s where the true journey resides.
Bordering Pakistan, Amritsar is lively, rustic and full of character. Unlike most urbane cities of India, it retains the kothi culture which means the city is free from crammed accommodation and high-rise towers. Instead, what we see is spacious kotis and farm houses with unobstructed views of green fields, as far as the eye can see. A dream for anyone who desires a good mix of sophistication and serenity!
For a taste of Punjabi heritage, we decide to spend a few nights at WelcomHeritageRanjitvilas, a family-owned Punjabi haveli at a quick 10-minute drive from Raja Sansi airpot. Located in a quiet alley, it is built by four family members of Late S. Ranjit Singh Makhni who dreamt of having his grandchildren stay together in an authentic Punjabi farm house.
To add a dose of fun, each room and window is given a name of a family member – Sewa Singh Di Kothi, Gurmukh Singh De Ghar Di Khidki, Jaagir Singh Di Kothi, Nimmo De Ghar Di Khidki among others.
We are staying in Happy Da Kamra – the name is perfectly in line with our emotion at the time!
Characterised by ochre yellow brick architecture, cosy rooms with rugged, wooden furniture and traditional decor elements in earthy colours, the property instantly transports us to rural Punjab.
Simply walking around the retreat lowers our stress levels!
Meals at Ranjitvilas comprise fresh, hearty fare; mainly a spread of local delicacies like sarson ka saag, makki ki roti, paranthas, dal makhni, and warm, comforting desserts like a bowl of warm halwa to finish with.
Nights are made of sitting around a bonfire, while crooning soft Punjabi numbers. It doesn’t take us too long to fathom the fabric of Punjabi society that thrives on hearty food, good humour and warmth and large-heartedness of its people.
Certainly, a trip to Punjab is incomplete without offering prayers at the Golden Temple which is characterised by an atmosphere that is mesmerising, peaceful and humbling, all at once.
After witnessing the entrancing beauty of the holy shrine, we are meandering the revamped, pedestrian-only Heritage Street and some frenetic old-city bazaars surrounding the shrine. These streets, to a great extent, represent the spirit of the city!
There are shops selling everything from famous papar-warian, papads, pickles to phulkari dupattas, Sikh kadas, kirpan and souvenirs like fridge magnets. We discover local culinary legends dishing out fragrant kadha doodh, phirni, buttery kulchas, channa masala and more.
When we delve bit deeper, we find Punjab’s unhealed wounds from 72 years ago, when it was torn apart during Partition. Around every corner are landmarks of the freedom struggle.
Bullet marks preserved at the Jallianwala Bagh where General Dyer had ordered his troops to fire 1,650 rounds of ammunition on unarmed civilians, statue of Udham Singh who killed General Dyer in London, the Partition Museum are all a painful reminder of the struggles of people during the freedom movement. Located in a red-brick, colonial building in the east wing of the Town Hall, the museum houses galleries that narrate tragic stories of the largest human migration across two countries.
We are moved by thoughtful art installations, extracts of fading letters, newspaper clippings, ancient black-and-white photographs and objects that had once crossed the border as memories of loved ones. In every nook is a TV screen showing stories of people directly impacted by the Partition. They speak of the sudden shift from being citizens to refugees, pain that comes from being victims of violence, and the nostalgia for a life left behind. Spending quality time at the museum not only brings alive the gravity of the event but also takes us on a journey from horror to hope.
Located only 50 km from Lahore, Amritsar shares a strange umbilical relationship with the city. At certain locations, we can tune into Pakistani radio stations and even spot Lahori bakeries on Google maps and food delivery apps. Indeed, common history and topography bind the two cities together in ways more than one!
A local points out that Lahore has a Hall Road just like Amritsar has a Hall Bazaar and both sell electric appliances. Amritsar has a Landa Bazaar close to its railway Station, so does Lahore. Both cities have katras or areas that specialise in specific items like jewellery, juttis made by karigars. We wonder why Lahore feels like a different world altogether in spite of being in close proximity to the city, both physically and culturally!
We are looking at spending a few moments of solitutde to balance a sensory overload of sights, sounds and smells! A local friend insists we visit the little-explored Pul Kanjri, located at a distance of 5 km from Wagah Border in the village Dhanoa Kalan (last village on the Indo-Pak border).
At first glance, Pul Kanjri or Pul Moran – a UNESCO heritage site – comes across as a beautiful, historic township. The chowkidar who voluntarily plays our guide highlights that the history of this hidden gem dates back to the life and times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who is believed to have often camped here for rest and leisure, on his way to Lahore. At this site, he was often entertained by Moran, his favourite dancer (kanjri). At that time, there was no bridge across the canal that used to flow through the village and Moran had to cross the canal on horseback. On one of the occasions, it so happened that Moran lost her silver slippers while crossing a canal built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan to carry water to the Shalimar Gardens of Lahore. Disappointed due to her loss, she refused to perform for the Maharaja who immediately requested a bridge (pul) to be built over the canal.
The site now encompasses a ruined baradari, a historic sarovar with a mardana platform and a zenana enclosure, remnants of an old canal, a mosque and a temple. Built in a style recurrent in 19th century, the temple boasts of a striped bulbous double dome, overhanging chaggas, multifoliated arches and brick jaalis. What leaves us amazed is the inside of the temple which is beautifully decorated with mural paintings depicting scenes and sights from Hindu scriptures and the Raj Darbar. While we feel that Pul Kanjri deserves a “star attraction” tag, we are happy that it has managed to stay under the radar. The spot makes for an ideal hideaway for those who like a no-frills picnic in seclusion, far from the tourist crowd.
On our way back through the hamlet, we see wheat and mustard fields on both sides of the narrow road. An old, bearded farmer is trudging towards these fields with his pony in tow. His white salwar-kameez and pink pagdi stand out in the sea of green.
The bucolic scenes look like paintings brought to life and fill us with a sense of delight! We ask ourselves: Is this the Punjab we have been waiting to stumble upon?