How to Eat, Pray and Live in Amritsar

Amritsar's technicolour bazaars and dhabas selling kulchas are a feast for the senses. Here's a 48-hour guide to the storied city.  
How to Eat, Pray and Live in Amritsar 6
The charged ceremony at Wagah Border is a major draw for travellers to Amritsar. Photo by: Narinder Nanu/Contributor/AFP/Getty Images

Day 1

9 a.m. Kulchas at Kulcha Land

The kulcha, a flat round bread made of maida and usually stuffed with vegetables, is a local speciality. Kulcha Land at Ranjit Avenue is run by the fourth generation of kulchamakers, and offers hot plates of kulchas with chhole and tangy onion chutney. Their Amritsari kulcha is filled with a mixture of spiced potato and onion. The kulcha must be crunchy on top and slathered with a generous portion of butter. Wash this down with a glass of lassi, breathe gently for a few minutes and totter off to begin your day.

 

11 a.m. Tall Tales at the market

Phulkaris. Photo by: Rajesh Ramakrishnan

Phulkaris. Photo by: Rajesh Ramakrishnan

Head to the city’s main shopping area, the Katra Jaimal Singh Market, and be dazzled by the variety of small shops selling clothes, pickles, shoes, snacks and things which you don’t need but suddenly seem like must-haves. Wander into shops like Raja Phulkari, where Lucky Singh tells you about the day Raveena Tandon walked into his shop. Dither over gorgeous phulkari suits and saris. If you are lucky, you’ll find lovely material for a Patiala suit. The canny salesman will convince you to get it stitched. He will summon a tailor for measurements and the salwar kameez will be delivered to your hotel that night. Succumb to temptation again at another shop and buy chiffon phulkari dupattas.

Stop for mathri—a crispy, deep-fried snack, on the street. Step into a shop selling ‘papar warian.’ Score some mango or red chilli pickles, packets of papad and waris—deep-fried balls of lentil paste which can be used in a variety of dishes. See a jooti shop selling the handcrafted shoes and dart into it just to see. End up buying a multicoloured phulkari jooti as a souvenir.

 

1 p.m. Lunch at Kesar da Dhaba

Head to the famous Kesar da Dhaba located in a nondescript side street near the Telephone Exchange. It has been serving authentic Punjabi vegetarian meals since 1916. Order gobi parathas accompanied by their famous dal makhani, boondi raita, pickle and chhole. For dessert, have a dish of sweet firni—saffron-flavoured rice pudding served in an earthen bowl.

Savour meals at Kesar da Dhaba. Photo by: Jeremy Woodhouse/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Savour meals at Kesar da Dhaba. Photo by: Jeremy Woodhouse/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Eat puri-bhaji at street stalls. Photo by: Rajesh Ramakrishnan

Eat puri-bhaji at street stalls. Photo by: Rajesh Ramakrishnan

 

3.30 p.m. Different sides of Wagah Border

Drive about 30 kilometres from Amritsar to the border for the flag-lowering ceremony performed by India and Pakistan. Arrive by 3.30 p.m. for the ceremony that starts around 4.30 p.m. General seating is free and on a first-come-first-served basis. VIP passes for seats closer to the border gates must be picked up in advance at the BSF post in Khasa by showing proof of identification.

As you wait, amuse yourself by chanting Vande Mataram and humming patriotic numbers from Bollywood movies blared over the loudspeaker. Try to listen to similar songs from across the border. Join in the cheering of the soldiers from the Border Security Force wearing red turbans that flare up like a rooster’s crest. First, a pair of female soldiers swiftly march to the gates from either side. Then, the Indian soldiers goose-step across to the gate and shake their fists at the Pakistani soldiers in their black uniforms who shake and kick with equal ferocity. Marvel at this bizarre and bold display of patriotic machismo by soldiers from both nations.

 

Day 2

8 a.m. Breakfast of the streets

Head to the renovated Golden Temple Complex. At the beginning of the road near the Town Hall, discover a sweet shop near the Longa Wali Devi Ji Mandir which serves a tantalising array of pure ghee sweets and plates of hot puris, chhole and tangy potato curry, all for Rs20. Ask for a dollop of halva and wash it down with lassi.

 

10 a.m. at The Golden Temple

Soak in the serenity of the Golden Temple. Photo by: Urvashi Makwana

Soak in the serenity of the Golden Temple. Photo by: Urvashi Makwana

It is time to feed the soul. The Har-mandir Sahib is set amidst the Sarovar pool whose waters lap gently against the marble steps. Volunteers sweep the floors and offer water to the devotees as you soak in the serenity that pervades the temple despite the crowds. Get in the queue that leads to the sanctum. Listen to the gurbani, the soulful yet energising hymns, and be slowly propelled by the crowds. As you near the inner sanctum, gently lower your forehead to the ground and pray in front of the holy book. The grand floral carvings on the walls, the plush rugs and gleaming lights make you feel that you are in a truly mystical place. As you exit, accept a spoon of the sacred offering, the kadha prasad, glistening with ghee and goodness.

Head to the Langar Hall—the world’s largest free kitchen. Over 80,000 people eat here every day; it’s a way of being a part of something grand and experiencing an egalitarian atmosphere. All the cooks, cleaners and servers are volunteers who offer service or seva. Take a steel plate, spoon and bowl, sit on the ground with other devotees and savour the simple roti, dal and rice kheer. Give thanks for all the blessings in your life.

 

3 p.m. Sites sombre and hopeful

Jalianwala Bagh was the site of the horrific massacre of innocent peaceful protestors by General Dyer in 1919. Now it is filled with tourists taking selfies. Walk through the garden and see the brick red memorial monument shaped like a long tear drop. Notice the walls with bullet marks now enclosed in a white square and realise that a monstrous tragedy occurred in that same spot. Peer into the deep dark well into people more than a hundred people jumped to escape the bullets. Make a note to look up your history book. Spend the afternoon at the Partition Museum, located in in the Town Hall a few yards away. Browse poignant exhibits, and watch refugees relate their experiences on the TV screens.

Visit Jalianwala Bagh for a reality check. Photo by: Dinodia Photo/Dinodia Photo Library

Visit Jalianwala Bagh for a reality check. Photo by: Dinodia Photo/Dinodia Photo Library

Take home some papad. Photo by: Rajesh Ramakrishnan

Take home some papad. Photo by: Rajesh Ramakrishnan

 

7 p.m. Bite of history

After the emotional journey of the day, it is time to get back to basics. Head to Bharawan da Dhaba near Town Hall, which opened in 1912. It offers Chinese and Continental food, but it is best to stick to local Punjabi delicacies. Order the winter specialty sarson da saag with makai roti. Wash it off with the last lassi of the trip. Leave Amritsar with a full heart, a full stomach and an overflowing suitcase.

  • Nirupama Subramanian is a columnist and author of two novels, "Keep The Change" and "Intermission". She has also won the Commonwealth Short Story Competition prize in 2006 for her short fiction.

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