Features

Spotlight on Amritsar: Eat, pray, work

1 Apr 2016 by Neha Gupta Kapoor
Amritsar

India has classified Amritsar as a city in the state of Punjab, but its personality is the reflection of a township. Acres of arable land moves below me as the airplane descends into Amritsar. Buildings aren’t taller than three storeys; the only infrastructural development is two short bridges; the distance between the airport and the Golden Temple holds the key commercial and tourist hubs of Amritsar; and the drive between them is flanked by rice fields on both sides, for the most part. 

My taxi driver shares that he owns a few acres of paddies too. Many locals, just like him, have continued farming on land inherited through generations. 

Rice is one of the oldest industries in Punjab, of which Amritsar is the key producer, especially basmati, a superior grade of rice. “Among all rice producing states, the Amritsar belt yields the highest number — 5,23,000 tonnes — and grade of basmati rice in India. This is because of the conducive environmental condition: it is warm during the day and cold at nights,” says Arvinder Pal Singh, member of the All India Rice Exporters Association, and Managing Director, Lal Qilla, a rice exporting company based in Amritsar. 

In fact, about five years ago when the neighbouring state of Haryana was being recognised for its hybrid seed, it was once again outshone in quality by Punjab. 

Of all the rice produced in the country, Haryana and Punjab have been vying with each other for first position in numbers and quality. India has 2.2 million hectares of basmati acreage, Amritsar has 1.3 million hectares. About 75 per cent of its produce is exported to Saudi Arabia, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Kuwait — and the remaining has a big market in the South Indian states.

Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) reports: “India is the leading exporter of the basmati rice to the global market. The country has exported 37,02,260.12 tonnes of basmati rice to the world worth ₹27,597.87 crores during the year 2014-15.” It has no real competitor for this grain type. As for non-basmati rice, Thailand and India are a close tie for top position. 

No figures are available to tell us how much Amritsar contributes to India’s basmati rice export. But to give you an inkling of the capacity, Lal Qilla’s average export figures alone amount to 80,000 tonnes annually. 

Despite its reigning quality globally, the industry is in a little bit of a crunch. “Basmati is a major crop for our farmers,” Singh says. “Their only other option is non-basmati rice, of which there is already a surplus in India. And so the government is discouraging an increase in its production figures, making basmati their only lucrative option.” Unfortunately, the decline in crude prices is forcing farmers to go back to non-basmati even though it fetches them a lower premium. This is because the new market-determined basmati price hardly allows them to break even. 

There is little the export houses can do to help the farmers as their purchase of the rice crop is solely through auction. “Typically, no rice processing mill owns paddy fields,” Singh says. “The reason is that the kind of production we have per day won’t be fulfilled even with a thousand acres of land. Each hour (a mill) polishes anywhere from 20- to 50 tonnes of rice, and a requirement at that magnitude eliminates the option of contract farming as well.”  

Hopefully, the recently resumed trade with Iran who used to import 25 per cent of India’s production may come as a respite. Trade between the two countries was suspended for a year due to differences in agreements. 

Then again, the industry has its roots dug deep enough such that last year, Singh says, Lal Qilla made a 10 per cent profit from basmati alone. All these factors could mean that demand by export houses could translate into higher auction prices. 

Ironically, though Amritsar is a key rice player on the international market, it consumes the least amount of rice. Punjab’s staple includes other grains such as wheat and varieties of dal, among vegetables and dairy products. 

Walk into any dhaba (street restaurant) and the menu will have items from chickpea masala (chola) to stuffed or buttered flat wheat bread (paratha) to chicken kebabs and fish tikka. During winters, spinach cooked in mustard oil is a delicacy, as is a dessert made from carrot. Food is a big deal in this part of the world. 

Sulakhan Singh, manager of the Golden Temple tells me that just the temple receives more or less 80,000 to 1,00,000 pilgrims a day, and he speculates that 85 per cent are not locals. Ask any of them their agenda to visit the city and they will echo two attractions: Golden Temple and food. 

Both attractions are enclosed within the old city gates, best accessible on foot. The lanes are narrow, leaving little room for any vehicle to pass without the fear of bumping into one or more of the many pedestrians. Footpaths, if that’s what they were meant to be, are crowded with dhabas, grocery stores and shops selling sundry items — traditional Indian garb and shawls. 

I’m surprised when Piara Lal Seth, General Secretary, Shawl Club (India) Amritsar and owner, Apollo Shawls tells me, “Amritsar’s contribution to India’s annual ₹1,000 crore turnover from shawl exports is ₹600 crore. The rest is from Ludhiana.” The industry is relatively new — its growth began just before the India-Pakistan Partition. Cloth from Amritsar used to be embroidered in Jammu & Kashmir. During Partition when Pakistani refugees took shelter in Amritsar, they worked as skilled labourers, spreading their knowledge to locals. 

Today, the city has 600 looms producing a total of 90,000 shawls daily. These are expensive items. On the consumer market, a semi-woollen stole can fetch ₹3,500 and a shawl can sell for ₹5,000. Costs for pure wool shawls are nearly double. 

When touring Seth’s factory, his grandson, Amit Seth tells me that many fashion brands outsource their production to Amritsar for stoles. This is done indirectly through trading houses. “Each fashion house has strict guidelines, most of which aren’t practical. For example, child labour is inevitable in India, especially in a small city like Amritsar. If a tea-stall owner’s son helps him out after school by serving us tea, the fashion house will raise an alarm accusing us of child labour. It doesn’t make sense.” He names a few brands, none of which I’m allowed to divulge. However, logos on shawls in the factory telltale whom they’re for. 

The industry isn’t entirely dependent on exports as domestic sales to Jammu & Kashmir amongst other Indian states from Amritsar and Ludhiana, Seth estimates, are close to ₹2,000 crore. 

And because of shawls, Omika Mehra Kohli, Chief Operating Officer, RMBAY says there is a thriving ancillary market for yarn. “No doubt Amritsar’s shawls have boosted our sales in the domestic market. Our local yarn sales are primarily to shawl manufacturers, who weave shawls of different qualities, thereby obtaining a varied product range.”  

Further, both these industries — rice and shawls — have nudged Amritsar towards becoming a MICE city. Hotels want to focus on MICE segments because “why would anyone want to stay in Amritsar for more than a night,” says Vivek Sharma, General Manager, Hyatt Amritsar. “For leisure, people visit the Golden Temple, Wagah border, which is 25km from here, and eat two local meals before they leave. You don’t need more than 24-hours for this.” 

As for MICE groups, they have the resources to accommodate 200 people, and have generated ₹6 crore from MICE alone last year. “We receive many delegates because of the rice and textile industry here,” Sharma adds as he guides me to their business centre that is equipped with printer and computer sets for free use, and two boardrooms for six and ten people. “City excursion, specialist MICE manager, and banquet facilities are made available to delegates.” 

It’s never just any other visit — not to Amritsar. An experience with its spiritual side, a walk through its hardworking establishments, and a shameless tryst with food in all its forms — Amritsar emerges as the trinity of taste, work and faith. 

GETTING AROUND

Ola Cabs are available in the city, but they aren’t the best bet. It is safest to book a private taxi if you need to travel through the day. 

WHERE TO EAT 

Giani Tea Stall 

It’s a humble set-up — a hole in the wall, but popular nonetheless. Locals end their morning walks at this tea shop with a nice hot cuppa and a samosa or butter and toast. Be prepared for butter lathered on the crispy toast as in Amritsar no amount of accompanying cream is ever enough. Open daily 7am to 11pm; tel: +91 183 2550123; Opposite Jallianwala Bagh, Near Golden Temple, Town Hall. 

Chawlas 2  

They have been around forever and pride themselves in their namesake chicken gravy. It’s a recipe that none have been able to recreate to perfection. The helpings are huge, so if you’re three big eaters, one gravy dish and a starter should be enough. Maybe avoid the black dal — tasty, but only those who are inured to copious of amounts of cream daily can stomach it. Open daily 11am to 11pm; tel: +91 183 2226341; 14A, Lawrence Road. 

Surjit Food Plaza 

Visit this place for their tandoori chicken. Service is quick. Order a butter or garlic naan to go with the chicken, but that’s only if you’re craving carbs. Open daily 11am to 11pm; tel: +91 183 3294334; Shop 4, Nehru Shopping Complex, Lawrence Road, White Avenue. 

Kulcha Land 

This is where you visit for authentic chola and kulcha. Visitors phone a day in advance to get plates of these packed to take home. Don’t expect a posh restaurant — it is literally a set of tables and chairs under a tall tree. Open daily 9am to 5pm; tel: +91 183 5050552; Opposite M.K Hotel, District Shopping Centre, Ranjit Avenue. 

WHERE TO SHOP 

Raunak Punjabi Jutti for juttis or traditional shoes. They’re embellished with stones, embroidery and mirror on bright colours or tanned leather. 

Apollo Shawls for stoles and shawls. You’re made to sit on a mattress on which different colours and embroideries are unfolded around you. 

Ram Lubhaya and Sons for aam papad. These are sticky sheets of flavoured jelly made from various fruits. You buy them by the kilo. Next to him sits a man who sells masalas to mix in boiled chickpeas so you can take Amritsar’s taste back with you. 

  • Shop No A-1, Arya Samaj Mandir Building, Lawrence Road; tel: +91 183 2425467 

WHAT TO SEE 

Golden Temple 

Everybody, irrespective of cast, creed or race is welcome here. The temple was established in 1570, on a land site purchased for the purpose of excavating a holy tank. It is from here that the township of Amritsar originated. 

The dome of the temple that is built in the middle of the holy tank, accessible by a bridge, is moulded from real gold, as are the carvings within. The marble walls have detailed floral etches in red, blue and green. Inside is the Guru Granth Sahib — the holy book of the Sikhs. Every day the book is opened to an unspecified page from where a “life lesson” is read. 

The reverence for the Golden Temple is such that each day it receives donations close to ₹20,00,000. This money is used towards the maintenance of accommodation on the premises for the poor, cleanliness drives in and around the area, and for the langar. Langar is the free communal kitchen where volunteers cook meals for thousands each day. You don’t have to be less-fortunate to enjoy this food. Everybody is welcome to eat. 

The temple is open to visitors round the clock. 

There is also a Central Sikh Museum that holds everything that is related to Sikhism: paintings, pencil sketches, musical instruments, ancient manuscripts and coins in addition to a library. Open daily 12am to 6pm and 10pm to 12am. 

goldentempleamritsar.org 

Jallianwala Bagh 

On April 13, 1919, men, women and children gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh to peacefully celebrate Baisakhi, a Sikh festival. At the time, the then British brigadier in charge had sanctioned orders against public assemblies. Raged at the news of the religious gathering, his soldiers fired at the civilians, killing 379 innocent people including women and children. Bullet marks on the walls are visible to date. 

The government has built a memorial here in 1951. Small snippets of information on the event are displayed at three different areas in the park. 

Entry is free; open daily 6:30am to 7:30pm; Golden Temple Road

Wagah Border 

About 28km from Amritsar, is the Wagah Border between India and Pakistan. Every evening at 5pm a procession takes place where Indian soldiers and Pakistani soldiers march in a short parade that ends in a flag lowering festival. Thousands gather on each side of the gate to cheer their nation. 

This is the only official opening between the two countries through which trade practices take place. It is best to request your hotel or travel agent two weeks in advance to organise tickets to the parade. 

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