Punjabi Exploits

Back in June, we had a Fulbright Pre-Departure Orientation in D.C. and I shared a room with Amanda, a PhD student at Ohio State who is currently based in Chennai. We ended up really hitting it off and keeping in touch and for the week after Christmas, she invited me up to Punjab, to spend time with her family and in-laws. (Amanda’s husband Davinder is Punjabi) I have been dreaming of visiting the Golden Temple for years—and also love Punjabi food—so I gladly took her up on her offer and ended up spending the week with Amanda’s family and Gita, a Professor of South Asian history who is on a Fulbright in Pondicherry.

I came to Punjab expecting a scene out of DDLJ—and I was not disappointed. The mustard fields, the warm extended families, the variety of mouth-watering sweets—all my preconceived stereotypes held absolutely true.

Our first night was spent in Gajju Gaji, a small village not too far from Amritsar. When Amanda said we’d be spending a night in the village, I was prepared for an outdoor latrine and sleeping in a cabin-like situation. However, it turned out that the village house was actually a 6-bedroom mansion with sweeping views of the captivating landscape. Despite having a bit of a cold, I loved our day there: we ate wood-stove fried pakora with freshly-picked radish, chewed on sugarcane straight from the family’s fields and walked through acres of cultivated lands—the reason for Punjab’s prosperity.


After a late lunch, we moved on to Gurdaspur, where Amanda’s in-laws reside—and our home base for the rest of the week. Gurdaspur is a mid-sized city where we were able to rest a bit—and spend an afternoon at the local market. I got some juthi (Punjabi-style ballet flats) and we ate some amazing gol gappa—street food in Kolkata is top-notch but these gol gappa were truly something else.


The next day was the highlight of our trip: a day in Amritsar. We first went to the Golden Temple and spent several hours admiring the heavenly space. It’s hard to imagine such a spiritual space under attack—but one can still see some bullet holes leftover from Indira Gandhi’s Operation Blue Star in 1986. Because of Amanda’s insistence, we were able to cut the queue and go right up to the main sanctum. The scene inside was spectacular: the walls are gold-plated, inlayed and ornamented, and have verses from the Guru Granth Sahib (the holy book of the Sikhs). Despite my relative lack of exposure to Sikhism I was deeply moved by the temple; once inside, I could feel the power of the kirtan and the spirituality of the place. After langar—the free meal provided to all devotees at the Temple—we decided to split up and Amanda, Gita and I went to Jallianwalah Bagh.


You might know that Amritsar is not only the holy city of Sikhs, but has played an important role in India’s modern history as well. Less than a century ago, British commander Dyer massacred thousands of Punjabis who were celebrating a local festival, Baisakhi. This event, which took place in 1919 at Jallianwalah Bagh, is seen as a catalyst for India’s freedom movement. While the event was a gruesome one, I was shocked at the current status of Jallianwalah Bagh: the space functions as a pleasure garden where tourists stroll through and take selfies. There is a small museum devoted to the freedom fighters of Amritsar, as well a cordoned off space for the Martyr’s Well—where hundreds of innocent Punjabis jumped to their death to avoid being shot by the British troops—but the contrast between the historical space and its modern manifestation was a bit unnerving. I did feel lucky at having visited the space with Gita—she helped bring that period of history to life for Amanda and me.


We then headed to Wagah Border with Amanda’s father-in-law. I was excited to see the demarcating fence between India and Pakistan but once I got there, I felt more contemplative than patriotic. After all, both sides share the same history and the same people—borders are so arbitrary and the many lives lost in the name of nationalism is depressing to think about.


I also was a bit bummed at being so close to Lahore—a beautiful city with a rich architectural history—and not being able to visit. Lahore and Amritsar are just 30 miles apart—but there is virtually no way to directly travel between the two cities by road: a solitary bus runs across the border daily. While I complained about not being able to visit Lahore (Amanda and Gita said that they would highly discourage me from travelling to Pakistan)—I realized that maybe I could visit somewhere else high on my to-travel-to list: Chandigarh.
(Our day in Amritsar was also New Year’s Eve but after such an eventful day, I ended up falling asleep far before midnight.) The next morning, Gita and I woke up and decided to make an impromptu trip to Chandigarh, the joint capital of Punjab and Haryana. Chandigarh is the first planned city in modern India and is internationally renowned for its livability and urban design. We caught a bus from Gurdaspur and made our hotel arrangements and day plans on the way. The bus ride took around 5 hours so once we arrived it was early evening; we went out for dinner and then settled into our place. Our hotel—Icon—was a luxurious place, but I was most thankful to simply use a shower after months of bathing with a bucket.
The next morning, we woke up early and headed to the Capitol Complex. Designed by innovative Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, the Capitol Complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a wonderful example of Modern Art. Because our tour was so small (two architects, Gita and myself), we were able to go inside some of the buildings too! Studying about a structure and later seeing it in the flesh can sometimes be a bit disappointing but I actually liked Le Corbusier’s designs better after seeing them up close. I also hadn’t realized that Le Corbusier managed to incorporate a great deal of Indian symbolism and themes into what is considered a very secular structure.


After finishing up our tour, we headed to Nek Chand’s Rock Garden. I read about the Rock Garden about a year ago when the Economist printed an obituary for Nek Chand, a visionary in sustainable and reusable art. The Rock Garden is a special place—everything has been created from scavenged materials and the results are astounding: from human and animal figurines to remarkable playgrounds and waterfalls too.


After grabbing lunch (pizza!) at a café, we headed to the bus station to journey back to Gurdaspur. Gita and I couldn’t stop talking about how much we loved Chandigarh: the green spaces, the roundabouts, the air quality, and the sector-plan of the city. I am interested in urban planning and loved seeing such a successful thoughtful city—especially after living in Kolkata, a city that I love but have to admit could use some help in the planning department.
We spent our last night back in Gurdaspur with the family and all got ready to head out the next morning—I journeyed back to Kolkata (a journey made excruciatingly long due to a spout of delayed flights) and spent the next day at Rachna’s house as I prepped for my move to Santiniketan.
All in all, I loved Punjab: the food, the sights, and the company. I am so thankful to Amanda and her family for hosting me and inviting me into their lives.

Also: if you have time, I highly recommend traveling by bus in India! All reservations can be made online, the coaches are clean and spacious, and there are (in my experience) far fewer delays along the way.

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