Amritsar, literally Pool of Nectar, derives its name from Amrit Sarovar, the holy tank that surrounds the fabulous Golden Temple. First time visitors to Amritsar could be forgiven for the imression that Amritsar is like any other small town in northern India. In one sense, it is - with bustling markets, haphazard traffic, unyielding cattle, crowds and congestion typical of small town India. But Amritsar stands head and shoulders above any other city, its status elevated and sanctified by the presence of the venerable Golden Temple.
Located in the heart of Amritsar, the temple complex is surrounded by a maze of narrow lanes, or katras, that house one of the busiest markets in India. But the Golden Temple is a serene presence, radiating a calm that makes people bow their heads in reverence. The gurudwara, as Sikh temples are called, is the holiest of Sikh shrines. It is not just Sikhs who travel to the Golden Temple to pay homage, the sacred shrine is equally revered by Hindus and people of other faiths who, too, make the pilgrimage to offers prayers at Harmandir Sahib.
There's more to Amritsar than that - amongst other sights is Jallianwala Bagh, site of the gruesome massacre of unarmed Indians by British troops. A major tourist attraction these days is the Indo-Pakistan border crossing at Wagah, just a short distance from Amritsar, with its elaborate change-of-guards drill with a lot of strutting and intimidatory showing off by both sides.
Weekend Getaways From Amritsar:
There are tours running from the Golden Temple complex covering 35 gurudwaras around Amritsar, including those at Gobindwala, Tarn Taran, Baba Bikala, Buddha Sahib, Khadoor Sahib, Damdama Sahib and Chheharta. The bus leaves from the clock tower near the Golden Temple at 8 am and returns around 5 pm. Hari Ke Pattan on the outskirts of the city is a popular picnic spot. Sitting on the confluence of the Beas and Sutlej rivers, it is a bird sanctuary and good spot for angling. The village of Amanat Khan, southwest of Amritsar has an old Mughal 'serai' (rest house) with a tiled gateway. Nearby is a mosque with Persian inscriptions and the tomb of Amanat Khan.
About 28 kms from Amritsar is the border station of Atari and the Wagah checkpost between India and Pakistan. This is the only overland opening between the two countries, which continue to have hostile relations ever since independence in 1947. The checkpost has now become a popular site for tourists, who come to see the change of guards and retreat of troops at sundown. The drill, choreographed with aggressive posturing and sabre-rattling, draws loud cheers from spectators on both sides. Taxis can be hired from Amritsar for the visit.
Best Time To Visit:
The best time to visit Amritsar is between November and March when the weather is very pleasant. Summers get really hot and visitors need to acclimatize themselves to this dry and searing heat.
Getting Around Amritsar:
Rented cars are available and you can book one through a travel agent or your hotel. These are chauffeur driven and self-driven vehicles are not available. Cars are usually rented on a half day or full day charge. Un-metered auto-rickshaws and cycle rickshaws are the most common mode of local transport within the city. Auto-rickshaws can be hired for a full day at Rs. 500, and for half a day at Rs. 300. Taxis are available around the station and near Ritz Hotel. If you wish to travel short distances within the city and don’t mind some exercise, bicycles available from the Hide Market are worth trying out.
The whole of Punjab has a predominance of milk products, and the lassi (buttermilk) at Gyan’s in Amritsar is particularly well known. Sweet rabri made out of layers of thickened cream and sweetened milk is also worth tasting. Other sweets include matthies and pinnies made from gram flour. Amongst the vast array of non-vegetarian fare, the Amritsari Fish is a speciality. It is crumb-fried river fish marinated for a good length of time. Amritsar has plenty of dhabas or roadside eateries which offer inexpensive but tasty hot puris (savoury deep fried pastry breads) and chanas (spicy gram curry). There are also several expensive air-conditioned restaurants, mostly located in the modern part towards north of the railway station. They offer a choice of north Indian, south Indian and Chinese fare.
The Katra Kathian in the bazaar near the Golden Temple is lined with shops selling pickles, murabbas (traditional jams), papad, Warian (crispies made from pulses) and ampapad (dried mango candies). The markets of Amritsar are also renowned for spices and tea trading.
If you are 'doing' north India, Amritsar is a city you should not miss. It's easy to travel there from Delhi by road and by rail. It is easy to navigate through the city; few guides bother you as tourism is not the most important commercial activity there. Ask them in Amritsar, and they will tell you that if for nothing else you must travel there for the roadside chhola-bhaturas.