Of border face-offs, Golden Temple and kulchas

Of border face-offs, Golden Temple and kulchas

Travel tale

I remember it all too well. It wasn’t a very long time ago, but the tiny details etched in my memory make it seem like my holiday lapsed just yesterday. And every time I close my eyes and breathe the place’s name, I can feel it. I can feel the cold morning chill and the pulsing heat of the day. The aromatic dhaba experiences, the visual blast of warm colours displaying innumerable textiles and garments at the side of every alley, the sound of busy roads with the religious ting-a-ling of a bell far off in the distance — all of it.

There is something so happy and vibrant and welcoming about Amritsar that Scrooge (character from Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol) would earnestly pack his bags and agree to celebrate his Christmas there.

There I was, with my suitcase and backpack, staring up at a giant house nestling between large white pillars and palm trees. Now don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t Scrooge. But a strange weariness of the journey still managed to creep its way through the holiday spirit. I sneaked a glance at my uncle’s nameplate with an army logo next to the doorway and sighed in reverence. The sight of what was going to be my sanctuary for the next several days, with my uncle, aunt, grandmother, cousins, and their adorable mutt (Simba), washed any disinclination of the travel.

In about an hour, we had all settled into our coolly-conditioned rooms, unpacked, changed, and freshened. Amidst the catching-up with our family members (I definitely recall it being a whole load of gossip) were rounds of delicious peppered chai and sweet Amritsari rusk to top the mood. It was somewhere through the chit-chat that we began to plan out our day and the all-too-idealistic goal of the places we would visit. The discussion didn’t hold very long. Fifteen minutes of the enthusiastic garble led to an army jeep stuffed with eight people, literally of all age and sizes, gearing up to “take on the city”.

One couldn’t possibly call Amritsari food ordinary. Its extravagant appearance with overflowing rus, dahi, masala, toppings, butter, and more isn’t just a visual feast to the eyes, but a satisfaction for anyone’s palate. I remember scarfing down hot kulchas (baked and flattened bread) with dollops of melting butter and chickpea curry, certain that the feast would keep us full for another whole day. Our stomachs were happy, and the waiter even happier. In the flurry to get back to the waiting jeep, we missed out on grabbing handfuls of the saunf and mishri plopped in cute little bowls for the customers on their way out.

The ride to the Golden Temple was a zig-zag though alleyways of brilliant textile stores. Of course, the ladies had to stop the vehicle at every shop we passed. Of course we had to chat with each shopkeeper and share life stories as if we were long lost friends. Of course, we had to go through an array of gorgeous silk and cotton scarves and dupattas, then nitpick on how a thread was peeking out of the perfect cloth lattice or how expensive the deal was. And of course we left the stores empty handed a couple of times, returning to the ever-so-slightly frustrated driver in the jeep. Nevertheless, the market struck us. It reflected Amritsar’s rich material heritage as well as the warmth of the shopkeepers and the people. (I have a sneaky suspicion that the latter was a possible result of my grandmother’s extensive use of unnecessary flattery and wheedling).

By evening, we had roamed Jallianwala Bagh, a public garden commemorating the massacre of innocents by British forces. The site bore gun shots on walls and structures, where thousands of Indian men, women and children were injured and killed without warning under Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer’s orders. It felt chilling to stand right beside the ‘Martyr’s Well’, where people dove to their deaths to escape the shooting. The Bagh in Amritsar is a historical spot and marks one of the darkest events in Indian history; visiting the site inculcated not only a sense of history in me, but also emotions against what had happened at the exact same location almost a century ago.

We ended our day with a serene walk around the Golden Temple. The statuesque golden architecture reflected off the water that surrounded parts of the temple, and we captured hundreds of memories in the illuminating light with our cameras. I still recall admiring how people of all religions were heartily welcomed in the temple. Meals were being provided to everyone, and inequality amongst hierarchies of all sorts was evidently disparaged. The loudspeakers in the distance boomed religious melodies and hymns, and all other sounds were drowned by the strange stillness and peace in the air. I sat at the edge of the water and succumbed to the spiritual feeling, rejuvenating myself after the tiring day.

Amritsar was definitely a colourful adventure. My week-long trip only re-established this. The excitement continued after the first day, through more road-shopping, eating and touring. One day we were all witnessing the Indo-Pak border face-off (a patriotic ceremony displaying the lowering of each country’s flag and a parade-style face-off at Wagah Border), and the next, we were out on the house verandah, soaking in the sun and relishing juicy oranges. My family fun had its own share, with a new round of gossip and stories each day. Not to forget Simba, who would doze off, face near paws, happy with the lullaby noises around him. Me? I returned to Mumbai, a travelled and well-refreshed person after Amritsar.

Like they say, Punjab is nothing you’ve seen before!

As told to Shweta Sharma

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