Amritsar, where scarves are everywhere

Amritsar, the sikh pilgrimage city of Punjab famous for its golden temple, is also a scarf heaven. Wherever you look, impossible not to see a scarf. Wrapped around the sikh’s head as turbans,

flowing on women’s shoulders as dupattas, hanging in front of shop’s windows or piled up on a street vendor’s cart. Amritsar isalso  the textile trade capital of Northern India, where there is a  thriving industrial production of fabric.  It is lso a must go to destination for all first time visitors of North India anybody in the textile business, looking for alternatives for outsourcing in China. 

 

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The turban

This is the mandatory scarf-like garment Sikh men wrap around their head and uncut hair. It is made of cotton and varied thickness and softness. It is so long that it doesn’t measure in cm but in meters, the smallest being around 3 meters, going up to 7 meters or more for the very large ones. Width is always one meter. The longer it is, the larger and taller it will be on the head. A Sikh wearing a bigger and taller turban is imposing himself symbolically to other religious as a Sikh.

 

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Historically, the turban was worn by the Sikhs in defiance to Muslims, who also wear turbans.  Nowadays big turban is a way to exhibits proudly their allegiance to Sikhism, also a sign of inner strength, either religious or physical, as it makes one taller and more visible. Colors have no meaning aside a fashion preference or to match the shirt they are wearing.

 

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Dupattas

This is the scarf-like garment part of most indian woman’s garb. These are worn like in the reverse way of shawls; it is wrapped over the chest with the two extremities thrown over the shoulder and flowing freely in the back. Dupatta is primarily a modesty accessory, to conceal the shape of the breast, but has become a fashion accessory. They are worn in matching colors, with the sari as well as with the modern clothes urban women wear.

  

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There are so many dupattas wholesalers in Amritsar, they are easy to spot with the explicit sign board and all the displays.  Some models dupattas can be used as scarves, but many are too heavy with synthetic materials or too gaudy in style for western standards. Look for light cotton dupattas, without glitters and pompoms. They can make great scarves and will usually be quite cheap.

 

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Modal scarves

Amritsar is famous for its modal scarves. Modal is a fine variety of viscose, also known as rayon, a man made natural fiber synthesized out of cellulose. It used to be associated with cheap prices and looks. But it is not the case anymore, and Punjab’s textile industries have developed the fine art of recreating the texture and looks of silk, extra fine cotton and even cashmere. These fine modal scarves are what to look for in Amritsar. Some of the cheaper variety will be sold for a few hundred rupees, but some have such an intricate and fine weave that they can be much more expensive.

 

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Modal is very comfortable and fresh, and the scarves can be beautiful. They tend to wrinkle very easily and proper washing and care must be taken to keep their looks. For a bargain souvenir gift with a high wow factor, modal scarves are a great idea. The cheaper ones are useful for casual summer fashion wear as they are fresh and cheap, so no worry about extra care.

 

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Shopping around the temple

There are not many foreigner oriented souvenir shops in Amritsar old city. It makes souvenir shopping a bit more a challenge if looking for a standard variety souvenir shop, but also much more fun as the findings are more exciting and authentic. Shopping for scarves, but also everything else that is fabric related, is the thing to do in Amritsar. There are many shops and stalls around the temple, mainly off Temple Road. They sell religious paraphernalia, cheap dupattas. Textiles, shoes, all kind of street food, and of course modal scarves. Just behind the temple you find street carts selling dupattas for as low as 30 or 50 rupees (1$ca).

 

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Real pashmina for only 4$

I hope you get the sarcasm of my subtitle! There are many scarf shop retailers in the shopping mall just in front of the temple’s main entrance. But the shopkeepers there most likely don’t know about modal and will be selling these as pashminas or pure silk. If you express some doubt about the 200 rupee viscose hanging outside n the front, the shop keeper will eagerly get out the “real’’ and “authentic” pashminas (eg fine modal with wooly texture and nice designs) These will retail for 400 or much much more if you opt for the Kani designs, but the price will never be even close to the true authentic handmade pieces.

 

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Shastri Bazaar

If you are an adventurous tourist with nerves of steel, or a dealer, this is the place to shop. It is the textile gathering area for all wholesalers in the Punjab garment industry. And the place to shop for unique designs in modal as the wholesalers expose their new production and designs. No retail shops here, but an infinity of stalls and holes in the walls selling dupattas, wool  shawls with machine made embroidery and modal scarves.

 

Old city of Amritsar map

 

The main streets are only the surface. Enter any narrow alleyways and you will find more shops and wholesaler’s “offices”. Usually those who have a storefront are wholesalers who buy from dispatchers, who themselves get the stock from the factories warehouse. Those most visible are middlemen and do not own a factory despite what they will say. Finding the true warehouses and dispatchers can be tricky. They are hidden behind alleyways, deep inside the walls with no outside visible signs and will more likely not sell to retail shoppers.

 

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Wholesalers with storefronts will sell to the occasional tourist, as they like to sell samples and always hope for a big contract with foreigh countries. If a scarf interest you, ask the price. They will invariably ask how many you want, in a kind of intimidating way.  Just say you need one. Price will be higher by a few rupees, but nothing like the prices in tourist shops. Most scarves are not displayed so you need to literally find your way through tunnels of materials.

 

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Dealers in Shastri market deal mainly with Indian businessmen and are not so eager to interact with. They will either ignore you, say they don't speak English, and if you are a western woman they can be rude, this area is for "serious" businessMEN only. Not garment shopping. If this sounds too unnerving, go back to the shops around the temple and buy your scarves there.

 

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And finally, a word on eating

Impossible to write about Amritsar without talking about food. An absolute must is to have at least one communal meal at the Golden Temple Guru Ka Langar. It is free for all, food is great despite being prepared in the largest kitchenware I have ever seen. Otherwise, food in Amritsar is great everywhere as Punjabi is famous around the world for the best vegetarian cooking.  For a quicky, if you are in the temple area go to the cafeteria style version of Bharawan Da Dhaba Brothers. Easy to reach, facing the McDonald on temple road, on second floor, top of Dominos. Hygienic, mouth watering punjabi food. If you are close to Shastri Market, go to the famous Khesar Da Dhaba. An other cafeteria style eatery. It is in all the guide books./p>

 

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My personal recommendation for traveling here

As a first time visitor to India, fly here instead of chaotic Delhi or intimidating Mumbai. You will feel fully in India here. There are now flights from Doha making it possible to fly directly into Amritsar from North America or Europe. Amritsar is a large city, but the old city is self-contained and easy to visit because of its size and your hotel will be within its walls or close to Hall gate in the north if you want something more upscale. The magic peace of the Golden temple is in drastic contrast with the old city streets, with its bustling hyper-energized colorful atmosphere.

 

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