NORTH AND CENTRAL INDIA

AMRITSAR

Amritsar means the pool of the nectar which makes you immortal. Amrit is actually a Sanskrit word and Amritsar derives its name from Amrit Sarovar, the holy pool that surrounds the Golden Temple. It’s a city in the north of India and closest city to Pakistan-around 30 kilometers from Lahore.

It’s the home to the youngest religion on earth- Sikhism and gets more visitors in a year than Taj Mahal!!! It’s also the cultural and political hub of the state of Punjab.

Our seamless flight took 50 minutes to reach Amritsar from Delhi. It was a bright summer morning. At the airport, we took a full day taxi for sightseeing for INR 1500 only. Our Driver, Mandeep took us to our hotel first where we freshened up and had breakfast.

Country Inns and Suits by Carlson is a four star hotel and you can get good deals online. Ista Amritsar is one of the five star hotels along with Ranjit’s Swaasa which is a boutique hotel. There are loads of three star and budget hotels to suit everybody’s need. Golden temple offers free dormitories or 3-bed rooms (behind the temple) to travellers and pilgrims alike where a minimum of INR 50-100 is expected as a donation.  Respect their culture by not smoking and drinking in the temple complex. Put your donations in the donation box and do not give it to the guards at the entrance.

My discovery of this vibrant city started with some shopping!!! Phulkaari is a form of embroidery from the state of Punjab in India and certain parts of Pakistan which literally means “flower making”. Brightly colored shawls to sarees to head scarves to salwar-kameez of phulkaari can be found in Hall Bazar and Kapra market. Hand-embroidered ones would be more expensive and are still very much in demand for festivals and other joyous occasions. Bargain your heart out, especially in Kapra market as it’s a whole-sale market for clothes.

My mother picked up some Wadiya (Spicy snacks made out of a mixture of pulses and spices) and Poppadum’s- a speciality of this city. I picked up a few pairs of colorful juttiyans (shoes) with embroidery and sequence work done on it.

A narrow passage leads to Jallianwala bagh (garden) where innocent unarmed defenseless Indians were killed on 13th April 1919 which also happens to be one of the biggest Sikh festival. On the right (after entering that narrow lane), there is an eternal flame burning in the name of those who gave their lives in the freedom struggle of India against the British rule. Some of the walls in this garden have been restored and preserved with the bullet marks still intact for the rest of the world to see the inhumane act of General Dyers who gave orders to shoot at men, women and children without giving any warning to disperse (around 15,000-20,000 people from distant places had gathered to celebrate Baisakhi- a Sikh festival). The then British Raj quoted 379 deaths and 1,100 people injured but the Indian National Congress counts were 1,500 injured and 1,000 deaths.

On the left, is Martyr’s well where around 120 people jumped into it to escape the incessant firing. On my way out, I spent a somber moment in a small museum- reading the cuttings of different newspapers and speeches of the freedom fighters- Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Saiffudin Kitchlew, Satya Pal and others. There is also a print-out of the meeting held in House of Lords, London about this incident (they feared that this would lead to more riots and religious divide). Reading a clipping of what Dyer had to say in his defense during the inquiry of the massacre (Hunter Commission) – “It was my moral duty to keep firing until the crowd dispersed, and that a little firing would do no good” bought a feeling of disgust and sadness. What moral grounds was he talking about??!!! I headed to the Wagah border with a heavy heart and wet eyes.

We reached Wagah border around 0500 pm for a 1830 change of guard’s and parade (one needs to be there at least 2 hours before this time as it can get extremely crowded). I was overwhelmed to see a crowd of 25,000-30,000 Indians waiting to get in. Around 15,000-20,000 people had already gone in!!! Pakistan is only 1 kilometer from this check post of Border Security Force of India.

It was a show of capitalism and westernization by Indians!!! To build up the momentum, patriotic songs were played one after the other and people with Indian flags were made to run from one end of the road to the border gate (yes, there were a lot of volunteers for it) around 0600 pm. People were singing these songs loudly and were repeating words like- “Vande Matram and Bharat Mata Ki Jai”. At the same time, I could see a small crowd of my neighbors on the other side, sitting quietly or should I say not very vocal. I wondered if we Indians are a group of emotional fools??!!! There is a separate section to house foreigners in the sitting area.

The pomp and glory of the change of the guard’s drill started around 0630pm with female Border Security Officers to start the march on the Indian side. The emotions were high with non-stop slogans and songs being played on both the sides. Looking at the people on the other side of the border (Pakistan), I saw no difference between the people between the two sides of the border. Their dressing sense was the same and they also speak the same language-Punjabi!!! So, why fight over a piece of land which will be left behind here on earth when we all die??!!!

Lowering of both the flags around sunset, security forces shook hands and it was time to go after an hour. We then headed to the golden temple. A quiet and introspective time, sitting on the steps of the pool and facing the brightly lit Harmandir Sahib (golden temple) under the moonlight.

It took us more than half an hour standing in the crowd to enter the temple the next morning. We offered our prayers and were politely told to move to make way for the next group of people. In the temple, the holy book (Adi Granth Sahib) is recited loudly. Make sure your head is covered with a scarf or bandana throughout your time in the temple complex or you might be curtly told to do so by almost anyone!!! The view from the 1st floor of Harmandir Sahib is exquisite. The central Sikh Museum on 1st floor (take a right after entering the main entrance called Darshan Deori) is worth visiting and tells you about the history of Sikhism. Free books about Sikhism are available too. The history of Sikhs (3 volumes) by Khuswant Singh gives you detailed information about anything related to Sikh history or Sikh people.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh Panorama is located in Ram Bagh park and houses huge paintings depicting the life of this last king of Punjab- Maharaja  Ranjit Singh. One of the largest then known diamonds, the “koh-i-noor” was last in possession of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (in 1813) before it was taken to London and is increasing the beauty of British Crown Jewels museum. I was awestruck by the 360 degrees view of the various wars fought by Ranjit Singh (located on 1st floor of the museum). Mata temple and Durgiana temple are two of the main Hindu temples in this city.

Our train journey back to Delhi on Shatabdi Express took six hours and we were fed non-stop by the employees of Indian Railways, literally non-stop with tea/coffee to a glass of juice to pre-dinner soup to a full course dinner!!!

NEW DELHI

Dilli dilwalo ki” is a Hindi idiom which means “Delhi is of the big hearted/ daring”!! Delhi is at the heart & soul of Incredible India. You would see two distinct worlds merging- the Old Delhi with small crowded by-lanes, crumbling havelis and mosques to the grand & spacious tree-lined avenues of New Delhi, which is the seat to the world’s biggest democracy.

You will find it all here- the ancient monuments, enchanting religious architecture, fascinating national & art museums, bustling markets and sumptuous eating places. Delhi has been the political hub of India for centuries. The Pandavas of Mahabharata called it Indraprasta around 1400 BC.; then it was the Mogul Empire followed by the British Raj, and since 1947 the independent India, with government buildings and embassies, have called it home.

Best time to visit Delhi is from October to March as summers can touch 45’C and winters can be a chilly 2- 4’C. Due to its huge size, one can easily spend 3- 5 days exploring Delhi, and the city is still expanding! Plan your trip well as distance between two locations in Delhi can be as far as 50 kilometers apart and you might spend 2-4 hours on road, especially if you’re stuck in traffic.

An entire day can be spent in central Delhi. The Birla temple and Bangla Sahib Gurudwara are introductions to Hinduism and Sikhism for you. Enjoy the chanting, prayers and prasad (food offered to Gods is distributed as blessings to people visiting these temples). India gate is a 42 meter high monument and has an eternal flame burning in the name of 90,000 soldiers who lost their lives in World War I and Afghan war. Onto the other end of this boulevard, laden with lush green lawns and ponds, is Rastrapati Bhavan- the official residence of the President of India. Whenever my brother would pass by this building, he would jokingly comment- Pratibha (the then President of India; the name keeps changing for my brother as the Presidents change) has called me for a cup of tea in the evening. Inclusive of the north block & south block, this grand area is also called as Lutyens Delhi as he designed this part of New Delhi.

The parliament House is in the vicinity too, but special permit needs to be obtained to enter it. The National Museum is worth visiting as it has artifacts from one of the oldest civilizations on this planet- the Indus Valley civilization. National Museum for Modern Art in Jaipur House is around 2 kilometers from here. There are loads of other museums in this area, but you might like to pick a few. Auto-rickshaw or taxi can be an easy way to commute.

You can head to Connaught Place (CP) for lunch, and it’s shopper’s paradise too. The inner & outer circle of CP is full of shops and restaurants. You’ll find Jantar Mantar in CP, one of the oldest astronomical observatories on earth. Janpath is a street which has an open market and small shops and is one of the best places to pick up your souvenirs. Bargain your heart out to get the best deals here. One of my favorite places to shop for artifacts is cottage emporium on the same street. Each state/province of the country has a separate emporium (e.g., Punjab emporium, Kerala emporium) in Delhi and you can spend 2- 4 hours relishing the diversity of India in these emporiums. Hanuman temple, a Hindu temple, is opposite these emporiums. Palika Bazar is an underground market and is a tourist’s delight. Khan Market, Sarojini Nagar Market, Karol Bagh Market and Rajouri Nagar Market are some of the other open markets, where the locals go.

An early morning walk in the well-manicured Lodi garden can be refreshing. You’ll find some ornate tombs and structures within this garden. Qutub Minar is the world’s tallest free-standing brick minaret with intricate carvings, and it was started by Qutb-ud-din-Aibak in 13th century. Do not forget to check out the 22 feet high Iron Pillar, which is one of the world’s metallurgical curiosities as it has withstood corrosion in open air for more than 1600 years!! The authorities claim that it was made around 912 BC by Chandragupta Vikramaditya.

Lotus temple of Baha’i faith allows people of different faiths to pray/meditate under one roof. The museum in this complex opens up ones heart and mind to humanity. Barack Obama, on his India trip, made sure that he visits the Humayun’s Tomb, which was inspirational in the making of Taj Mahal. Around 2 kilometers from here is Nizamuddin Dargah (shrine) of the famous Sufi saint- Nizamuddin Auliya.

Dilli-Haat gives you the feel of a traditional village market, where you can find authentic native handicrafts and other ethnic products from different parts of the country. There are around 25 food stalls from different states/ provinces of India too. If I’m there, it’s a must for me to have momos and fruit beer from Sikkim stall. You can also try the Maharashtrian Pooranpoli (sweetened Indian bread) or kahwa (coffee) from Jammu stall.

Old Delhi can be best explored on foot or on cycle-rickshaws. Jama Masjid is the largest mosque in India, and it was completed in 1658. You can go on top of the minarets, and get a bird’s eye view of Delhi from there. One of the oldest wholesale market called Chandani Chowk is very close to this mosque. If you get excited about the idea of tasting local street food- try the kebabs at Karims, the chole-Bhaturae (chickpeas curry & deep-fried Indian bread) & chaat (spicy Indian snacks) in an alley called parathaewali gali.

Red fort, a UNESCO’s world heritage site, was made by Shah Jahan in 1639. You can easily spend 2-3 hours exploring the Diwan-i-Aam, Diwan-i-Khaas, Rang Mahal, Moti Mahal, Moti Masjid and Hayat-Baksh Bagh. Lahore gate leads to Chatta Chowk, which is a covered street bazar. Not to miss is the sound & light show in the evening- it takes you through the mystical journey of this city- from ancient times to present Delhi.

One of the most recent grand architecture is Akshardham Temple complex, built in 2005; it is the largest Hindu temple in the world. Half a day (preferably evening) can be spent in immersing yourself in the 20,000 sculptures, 234 finely carved pillars and huge domes made in pink sandstone and marble. There are three exhibition halls, IMAX theatre and a musical fountain. I was thrilled to take the boat-ride in Sanskruti Vihar, which took me through India’s 10,000 years of glorious heritage in 12 minutes.

Raj Ghat is the memorial place for the father of the nation- Mahatma Gandhi; other leaders buried here are Jawaharlal Nehru and other freedom fighters of India. Some other places to visit are ISKON temple, Safdarjung’s tomb, Purana Qila, Chattarpur temple, Sishgunj Gurudwara, Cathedral Church of Redemption, Dolls Museum, Gandhi National Museum, Rail Museum, National Science center, Sai Baba temple, National Zoological Park and St. James Church.

North Indian food is synonymous with Tandoori chicken and tandoori roti, and it’s omnipresent in Delhi. From the finest restaurants like the Bukhara’s in ITC’s Maurya’s Sheraton hotel to the road side eating joints called dhabas offer specialized Mughlai and Frontier cuisines.

The usual words of caution for any tourist is to take care of belongings and to stay away from people insisting to offer help without being asked is applicable for Delhi too. Females should be extra cautious when venturing out in dimly lit and secluded places, especially at night.

“City of Djinns” by William Dalrymple and “Delhi” by Khushwant Singh are suggested readings about this city. I hope that you’ll have a great time exploring one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on earth like Damascus and Varanasi. Feel the spirit of the entire country in the capital of India- Delhi!

SOUTH INDIA

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NORTH-EAST INDIA

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WEST INDIA

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