Easy Trip: A History Lesson in Amritsar, Punjab

Visiting Sri Harmandir Sahib, colloquially known as the Golden Temple, at dawn is a life-affirming experience
Photographer: Hashim Badani

WORDS: FABIOLA MONTEIRO
PHOTOGRAPHS: HASHIM BADANI

GREAT FROM: New Delhi, Mumbai
GREAT FOR: Culture vultures and foodies

It’s not often that getting out of bed at the crack of dawn is a good thing, but this is one sunrise you’ll be glad you woke up for. In under two minutes, the sky transforms from a pretty, light pink to a blend of fiery yellow and orange. It bathes the Golden Temple in brilliant hues, and you understand what attracts millions of people to this shrine.

For some, it’s a chance to pay homage, but, for others, it’s an opportunity to enter a bubble of powerful vibes. While the temple is worth visiting at any time of day, at dawn – as crowded a time as any – you get to watch the first rays of the sun glint off the temple’s shining metal. (Fun fact: about 900kg of gold covers the temple). You’ll notice that the temple is much smaller than you imagined from the pictures you’ve seen. And yet, it holds you in thrall.

Ideal for a weekend getaway, this Punjabi city offers tremendous insight into events that took place during the Partition. History textbooks come alive when you see the eye-catching white sculpture on the road to the Golden Temple outside Jallianwala Bagh. This memorial to the martyrs, who jumped into a well to escape the British firing, is a skin-crawling reminder of the massacre that happened here. If you can ignore the hedges manicured into shapes of soldiers in action, you should venture in – to get a sense of scale to all that you’ve learned and read about the massacre. For a more poignant understanding of the Partition, head to the brand-new partly-open Partition Museum, which is slated to open this August. You can read heartwarming letters between friends who were separated by the Partition, and watch footage of wrinkled faces recalling their tales of beginning again. In a glass case, you’ll see a phulkari coat and a leather briefcase – mementos of a young Pakistani couple who were separated during the Partition, but who, ultimately, found each other again in a refugee camp in Amritsar.

It’s hard to escape India’s staggering colonial history here – much of the tourism in this city is tied to the Partition, but it would be a sin to skip the local food. Spend a morning eating your way across Amritsar. The aptly-named Kulcha Land dishes out kulchas slathered with butter. The regular kulcha, stuffed with potato, is excellent, but the other varieties – Amritsari, paneer, masala – are worth trying as well. Do also stop at Kanha Sweets, a local favourite, which serves puris the size of your face, with a sweet-and-sour aloo bhaji and masala-smacked chhole. Wash it all down with a glass of malai-topped lassi. When you visit the temple, make a detour to Gurdas Ram Jalebi Wale for piping-hot jalebis. The icing on the cake is that you’ll come back, after all that exploring, to the luxurious Taj Swarna, Amritsar.

Spacious rooms, comfy beds, sinful spa sessions and top-notch service are all a given, but the real sweet spot is the food at the hotel’s restaurants. Don’t miss the chhole at the Grand Trunk Road restaurant.

Amritsar has changed a lot recently. The buildings along the corridor from the Fountain Chowk that leads up to the Golden Temple have a new sandstone facade. There’s a slow movement to turn the spotlight on Amritsar’s pre-colonial history. But that’s okay, because Amritsar is no newbie to change – it’s a sturdy city that powers on. You’ll see.

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