Hailing from Chennai, I've seen my share of most South Indian people being addressed as 'Madrasis' or lumped in the broad category of 'South Indians' along with ridiculous notions of us always being draped in lungis (the white ones are veshtis). Similarly, down south, fed on a strict diet of myths about the north, we've envisioned Punjabis as people living amidst yellow mustard fields who burst out in impromptu bouts of bhangra and swill whiskey like there's no tomorrow with a tandoori chicken leg in hand.
Travelling is the only way to dismiss these silly notions and experience the reality behind cliches. My travel bug had been egging me on to explore the north and experience its slightly alien but fascinating culture. One weekend with no plans had me giving in and booking tickets to the land of spiritual devotion, hospitality and creamy butter–Amritsar.
The next step was to look for a hostel that would not only fit in my budget but also help me meet like-minded people who were as bad at Hindi as I was and would still help me explore the best of the city.
GoStops Amritsar caught my eye with its generous splashes of colour. The hostel rooms looked comfy and attractive. They had a home theatre which I hadn't come across anywhere else, a work station, a common room and a terrace with a view of the city.
With everything booked and bags packed, I picked up my copy of Punjabi 101 and boarded the flight to the golden city of Amritsar.
By the time I stumbled off the plane, and into the bright sunshine outside the airport, my GoStops pickup was already there and waiting.
My first impression was the riot of colour everywhere, owing to the various vivid shades of turbans the people were wearing. The streets were clean and I saw a fair share of people standing by roadside stalls enjoying brimming glasses of frothy lassi or chai.
My stay was half a kilometre away from the Golden Temple which was wedged on my two-day itinerary and the heart of the city was accessible from here. Rolling to a stop, I walked into a lively place with people bustling about, groups crouched around board games or tourists heading out with a friendly smile. The young vibe and funky decor made me feel right at home.
I had opted for a four-bed dorm and my dorm-mates walked in as I was unloading my stuff. A hearty round of introductions later, I was chatting easily with Nicole from Holland who was on an Asia tour, James was in town from London to meet up with some old friends and Rupashree from Kolkata, like me, was here to explore Punjab. We headed to the reception and signed up for the Wagah Border ceremony scheduled later in the day.
After scarfing down a plate of Amritsari kulcha, I started walking towards my first stop, Jallianwalla Bagh. The city bustled along at a busy pace as I passed by. Adorned by statues of people dancing in traditional clothing, colonial architecture reminiscent of Mughal and Rajputana glory and tinkling fountains, Amritsar looked like it had earned itself its heritage city status.
I had read about the Jalliwanwala Bagh tragedy in history books but being there made it really sink in. The narrow passage leading in had a stone plaque which said 'this is the place where the bullets were fired from'. Bullet holes from the mindless and brutal massacre were marked on the walls as was the well in which hundreds jumped in to avoid the firing. I muttered a quick prayer at the memorial and started towards the Partition museum.
Amritsar's Partition Museum is the only one of its kind in the world and is housed in the historic and imposing 19th-century Town Hall. Dedicated to the turbulent migration of fourteen million people across India-Pakistan borders, it stands as a reminder of the searing pain and loss that the nations underwent in 1947.
After the two sobering stops, I headed towards a considerably happier culinary experience. Kesar da Dhaba is over 100-years-old and stands unassumingly in a narrow lane. However, for all its simplicity, it boasts of thousands of visitors who throng its doorstep just for a taste of their luscious Dal Makhani.
The waiter recommended a plate of the famous Dal Makhani, Saagwala Paneer and Lachha Paratha and I agreed readily. If you weren't hungry when you arrived, you will be when the smell of ghee assails your senses. The dal is creamy, thick and tantalising, and it isn't hard to see why this place is on everybody's lips.
Wishing I'd worn my stretchy pants instead, I met up with the group at the GoStops hostel preparing to leave for the Wagah Border ceremony.
The Wagah Border ceremony is serious business. The border that divides India and Pakistan on the Grand Trunk Road is known as Wagah and every evening since 1959, there occurs what is called the 'lowering of flags' amidst much pomp and fanfare from the crowds on both sides of the border.
Bollywood patriotic songs blared from loudspeakers as we took our seats and the iron gates between the nations were opened. The ceremony is a show of both rivalry and friendship between the two nations. The atmosphere was festive and we danced to several Bollywood songs with Nicole picking up some desi moves.
We got back to the hostel singing songs and moved to the common room. Our singing must have been infectious because more inmates joined in with a guitar and a tambourine.
As the night deepened outside, we all moved to the home theatre to watch a Bollywood flick, Stree. Somewhere between loud guffawing and Rajkumar Rao courting a ghost, I sunk back on the cushions and fell asleep.
What I'd forgotten amidst the unrestrained revelry last night was that we had all decided to get up at the crack of dawn to attend the prayer ceremony at the Golden Temple. My dorm mates all but hauled me up and out of the door and when we arrived to see the magnificent sight of the gilded shrine, I was thankful that they had.
The soothing strains of the holy scripture induced in us a trance-like state and we fell silent. The tank of water that surrounds the temple is said to have miraculous healing properties. We went to the kitchens to offer seva or service and we were soon happily chatting with the locals and washing utensils and kneading dough for rotis.
A simple vegetarian meal is served to all here, free of cost. Cross-legged, we received steaming mounds of rice and rajma and a side of vegetables and dug in enthusiastically. The simplicity of the meal and the warmth with which we were served must have added flavour because it was one of the most delicious meals I had ever tasted. Everyone sits together here to eat–an example of the Sikh spirit of charity, service and hospitality. I understood why they say that nobody in Amritsar ever goes to sleep at night hungry.
I took a few moments to inspect the intricate craftsmanship of precious gems in patterns of flowers and animals. My jaw dropped to the floor when I was told that the golden dome was built out of 750 kilos of pure gold.
The group and I split up since I wanted to indulge in some materialism at the bazaars. I took a tuk-tuk to the Hall Bazaar where you can find everything you could possibly want or need. I was admiring the number of shops with their dazzling array of wares when I felt someone tug at my sleeve. I turned around to find the tuk-tuk owner holding up my bag. I realised that in my hurry to get to the bazaar, I'd left behind a bag containing my digital camera and some money. He had spotted the bag and had come back to return it to me. I was so grateful that I offered money as a token of thanks. He refused the money with a big smile and disappeared into the crowd.
With my throat choked up for some reason, I walked around looking at the variety of beautiful pashmina shawls, flimsy scarfs, fine silver jewellery and embroidered jootis. Now I had gotten along this far with my GoStops bunch using a small amount of Hindi but as I walked along the vendors would yell out something that sounds like 'ree penne!' repeatedly while looking at me and then waving their hand at their merchandise with a flourish. I wasn't sure what they meant but I assumed it meant come check out our goods, so I did.
Bargaining, you'll find, is a tad more difficult when you're not familiar with much Punjabi except 'kakey' so I stuck to chanting out prices while pointing at things. After several comical exchanges during which I shouted out numbers and the vendor assured me of the quality of goods by shouting out 'top quality', 'won't find anywhere', I had bought a sizable amount of things which I felt very proud of.
When I lugged my loot back to the hostel, James' friends had come to take us all out to sample the amazing street food available in the city and I was rearing to get my hands on their tandoori chicken whose repute had reached far and wide.
First stop was at Makhan Fish which, I was told, serves legendary fried and oven-baked fish delicacies. We were led to a shaded terrace and within minutes, steaming plates of fried fish slid to a stop in front of us.
We strolled down to yet another famed eatery, Bharawan Da Dhaba which is pronounced as 'Pra-waan da Dhaba'. Thriving since 1912, this place has been dishing out sumptuous platters of dal, chana and kulcha. I hadn't thought it was possible but watching locals dive in with infectious enthusiasm helped my appetite and I dove in with gusto.
The phirni here is served in small clay pots and we were sternly told that this is a must-eat. Making fun of my 'small' appetite, we were dragged to Gurdas Ram which is so famous for its sugary-sweet jalebis that Jalebiwala Chowk got named after it. Ignoring my protesting stomach, I took a bite and syrupy goodness filled my mouth. I had to loosen several buttons on my pants to accommodate my burgeoning belly.
Now the Golden Temple is a charming sight at all hours during the day but it looks especially spectacular at night, lit up and shining with its golden dome. We sat on the cool marble walkway and fed the fish in the tank which glistened as they leapt in the silvery water. The strains of song from the shrine mingled with the balmy breeze to create a sublime experience.
An hour or two later, we reached the hostel and headed upstairs to the terrace which called out to us invitingly. The city lay spread out and twinkling in front of our eyes. To round up a true Punjabi experience, a bonfire was lit and we all pitched in with bits of bhangra. With sparkling conversation and smiling faces of newfound friends around, a feeling of contentment stole over me.
With people as sweet and warm as the chashni of their jalebis, the city of Amritsar embraces all who come here and make them feel like they belong. I was apprehensive about my first trip here with no friends and little Hindi but love and generosity transcend all barriers language or race and I was leaving with bags of memories and more friends than I had imagined making. The city will send you back home with a full heart and fuller stomach.
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