First stop was the Saragarhi Gurudwara. A gurudwara (Sikh temple) built by the British in honor of the 21 Sikh soldiers who made what military historians consider one the last great stands in military history against 10,000 Afghans in 1897. Every single Sikh soldier died at his post but they staved off an attack against a fort held by the British. The British were able to retake the post in a couple of days. He spoke about the Nihangs as we watched a blue-robed Sikh with a sword enter the Gurudwara. These fearsome warriors formed guerrilla squads of the Sikh empire.
We now made our way through small lanes, too narrow for cars to drive through. We came up to an imposing wooden door and then went through to a quadrangular courtyard surrounded by buildings. This is Qila Ahluwalia, a now-forgotten fort that housed the barracks of Sikh soldiers who guarded the Golden temple. It was just two stories high but has been built upon now and is in a pretty dilapidated condition. The complex contained a well and a stable. Mr. Johar bemoaned the lack of interest of the government authorities in preserving this historic building.
We then walked along as Mr. Johal kept pointing up to intricately carved balconies with faded paintings underneath their canopies. “These are houses of average people but look how much pride they have taken in decorating the houses,” said Mr. Johal. But it was not fueled by hubris. Stopping at a house, he pointed to a pair of Wooden hands that pointed downwards. He explained that this house was taller than the Golden Temple (at its time of construction) and the owner wanted to show that he was still down to earth. I pictured ladies and gentlemen of yore sitting at the balconies, sipping tea and exchanging gupshup with the passersby.
We continued our walk as Mr. Johal kept sharing interesting nuggets of information with us. He pointed out vegetables that we were not familiar with, shared anecdotes about the some of the regulars who greeted him and then suddenly clambered up a dark stairwell to point out a beautiful fresco adorning an alcove. We then made our first stop at Jalebi Chowk where we tasted hot jalebis fresh out of the frying pan. Jalebis can best be described as pretzel shaped dough that is deep fried and then dunked into a vat of sugar syrup. These were not the excessively sweet jalebis that I had eaten in the past. They were light and just sweet and yes, absolutely fresh! The shop we ate jalebis at has been in business since 1956.
We continued on our journey and at the Golden Temple, walked down a flight of steps to the Udasin Ashram Akhara Sangal Wala. We greeted a sadhu who sat in a dimly lit room as we walked past him. Johal explained that this was the first school in Amritsar and was established in 1771. An akhara refers to a place of practice – martial arts or otherwise where a guru teaches students who often live in premises close by. In this case, the akhara was used as a center for religious studies. One has to walk down steps from the street to enter the Akhara. We then stopped at the Chitta Akhara which is over 200 years old. This Akhara is also rich in architectural detail.
We continued our way, through narrow roads until we came upon – Darshani Deori which marked the spot from where the Golden Temple was first visible when entering the city at the time of Guru Arjan Dev and Guru Hargobind (early to mid 17th century). The temple is no longer visible from this spot but gives an idea of how sparsely developed Amritsar was in the past.
We then passed through the “Bartan Bazaar”, or the market for pots and pans. There were vessels of all sizes, some really huge. As we continued, an unusual sight presented itself. A banyan tree seemed to grow out of a temple. This was Baba Bohar. Bohar is Punjabi for the banyan tree and this one, as many others across India are considered sacred. Taking this is into account, buildings have been built around the tree.
We then stopped to eat piping hot pudis (pooris) with Chole and Halwa. These were just samples of course but delicious nevertheless! I must admit that as a cautious traveler, I would normally never eat at places like these. However, Mr. Johal assured us that these places were in business for generations and while they looked untidy, they were safe to eat.
Fortified with our meal, we resumed our walk. We passed Hindu shrines and then entered into the courtyard of Thakurdwara Dariana Mal. Again, this was like stepping back in time. Besides a shrine to Lord Krishna, there are beautiful frescoes and elaborately carved balconies. This structure has received a facelift based on its appearance. A little girl peeped shyly from a balcony above as we looked around. We then stopped by an old haveli built by Raja Tej Singh. It is a mere shadow of its former self and is in a state of neglect. Mr. Johal is obviously well known to the locals and he would stop by occasionally to indulge in some light banter.
We also stopped at an Akhara where men exercised and wrestled. There many such Akharas in the past but have now been replaced by modern gyms. We were told by a local that a wrestling scene for the movie Sikander-E-Azam featuring Prithviraj Kapoor and Premnath was filmed at this specific Akhara.
Next break was at a Kulcha shop with no name. We ate piping hot kulchas fresh from the oven. We sat down and chatted for some time as we devoured seconds. The kulchas were served with chole (chickpea curry). Mr. Johal is quite the raconteur and kept us entertained with his great sense of humor.
We had seen the architecture of Amritsar. We had passed by places of worship. We were introduced to its food and we now made our way through its places of commerce. There are entire streets dedicated to individual trades in some places. However, Mr. Johal pointed out the unique ones which are now dying out. The bugle maker, the maker of dies that are used to press thin sheets of gold or silver. The maker of brass vessels and maces. Tradesmen peering intently as they worked on intricate patterns of gold filigree. Some of these tradesmen are about 80 years old. Masters of their craft, still toiling with pride but with no apprentices to pass their skills to. There are easier ways to earn a living now.
Our culinary experiences were not over though, we stopped for a refreshing glass of lassi and pedas. We then continued past stores selling walnut wood, used to clean teeth. We now had emerged into the world of plastics, nylon and mobile phones. We finished close to the Golden Temple where Mr. Johal answered a few questions about the sad chapter in Indian history- the storming of the Golden Temple by the Indian army. “There were blunders committed on both sides,” he said sadly. We then shook hands and posed for a couple of the now mandatory selfies.
It was 12:30 pm and we had spent a delightful 3.5 hours. We had been given a lovely introduction to the culture and heritage of Amritsar. We had tasted its delicacies and been greeted warmly by its people. I stood out no doubt as a tourist taking pictures of what seemed to be mundane everyday activities. But they were patient and generous with their time. I had originally envisioned a guided tour of all the monuments in Amritsar, but this was a pleasant surprise. We were treated to a glimpse of its rich heritage and its vibrant culture and its memories like these that will stick in my mind for a long time.
Mr. Gurinder Singh Johal can be contacted via his website – AmritsarHeritageWalk.com