#18: A Weekend in Punjab
Of lip-smacking food, early morning hymns, partition stories, and a farmstay.
I’m not a big fan of temples. Architecture aside, I hate how crowded, dirty, and chaotic they are. Not to mention the transactional nature of prayer, the VIP routes, idols decorated in heavy ornaments, endless rituals involving food offerings, and the idea of an expensive pooja being the only solution to all problems. The pujaris recite shlokas as if they’re reciting multiplication tables, and a place that should’ve otherwise been an intimate space for people to reaffirm their faith and seek comfort feels like a marketplace.
But gurudwaras are different. From the moment you enter, head covered and barefoot, you’re transported to a serene place. The hymns are melodious, the spirit of volunteerism is evident, and the cleanliness is refreshing.
Amritsar, home to the Golden Temple, the preeminent spiritual site of Sikhism, has been on my bucket list for years. I finally made a trip last month - a spontaneous visit with minimal planning, making it an ideal weekend getaway.
Harmandir Sahib: The Golden Abode of God
I’ve seen so many photos and videos of the Harmandir Sahib gurudwara, also known as the Golden Temple, that I’ve always wondered if I’d be as enamored by it in person.
The golden structure glistering in the sun, surrounded by water on all sides, and an outer structure made of white marble: breathtaking!
I went back at different times of the day - early morning, around sunset, and later at night. While it is extremely peaceful (and not so crowded) in the morning and night, sunset time is equally special to witness the sky changing colors and the inflow of people of all ages and backgrounds.
The gurudwara has four entrances that symbolize equality and the Sikh belief that everyone is welcome into their holy place. The complex is square-shaped and contains the Akal Takht, the chief center of the religious authority of Sikhism, a clock tower, the offices of the Gurudwara Committee, a Museum, and a dining hall where langar is served. Over 150,000 people visit the holy shrine every day!
However, as much as I loved the place, I also missed the intimacy of other gurudwaras I’ve visited (such as the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in Delhi) where there’s ample space to sit around the shrine and listen to the live kirtans for hours. One can do this at the Harmandir Sahib as well, but it gets crowded due to limited space within the main shrine. Even then, the Golden Temple has its charm, and I can’t wait to go back.
Memories of Partition
Amritsar has also been a place of interest for me because of the history it has witnessed. In July-August this year, my friend Manmeet organized a series of partition conversations at Khwaabghar, a community library at her home in Gurgaon. About 10-12 of us met to discuss memories of partition, stories passed down from grandparents who witnessed it firsthand, our favorite books and passages about it, and the meaning of home.
Being from the south, my family wasn’t directly affected by the partition, unlike many of my friends’ grandparents who are from the northern belt or migrated from Pakistan. Their stories have always fascinated me and felt more real than what we read in textbooks. Many of them left behind homes, friends, relatives, and businesses - with no idea of what the future held. The only way to cope and move forward with their lives was to suppress those memories and collective trauma and start afresh. For decades, what transpired during that time was not talked about in their homes. But now, when their grandchildren ask them questions about partition - if at all - they’re more open to recalling and sharing snippets of their life back then. Fond memories of neighbors. The clothes they wore when they left. A friend they could not say goodbye to.
There is a fair amount of literature about partition, but it falls short in front of the number of lives it impacted, and the magnitude of stories and memories that have been left unexpressed. It remains the largest mass migration in human history, without as much documentation compared to many other historical events.
One of the places I was eager to visit in Amritsar is the Partition Museum. Conceptualized, curated, and set up by Partition-affected families, it’s the world’s first museum and memorial dedicated to the Partition. It contains objects, documents, oral histories, and more. I could spend several days here, but I only had a few hours.
More such oral histories here.
Not far from the Golden Temple and the Partition Museum is Jallianwala Bagh, where over a thousand people were shot dead by the British in 1919.
As a political science student in college, much of our syllabus revolved around the Indian Freedom Struggle, and I always imagined that visiting Jallianwala Bagh would be an emotional moment for me. I’ve watched videos from that time, films that recreated the massacre, and read books that described what transpired in detail. But seeing the bullet holes in the walls was different. It was a tangible mark of history. The holes in themselves were not as difficult to see as the footage playing in the galleries showing people climbing up walls in an attempt to escape the bullets, collapsing to the ground like ants, and mounts of bodies piled up on the ground.
The Beating Retreat Ceremony
My next stop was the Wagah Border. Wagah is a village in Pakistan located on the historic Grand Trunk Road between Lahore and Amritsar. It is close to the Radcliffe Line, the boundary demarcation line that was drawn during partition by the British.
Every evening, two hours before sunset, the Attari–Wagah Border Ceremony takes place at the border gate. A beating retreat is conducted by the Pakistan Rangers and the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) at the same time, and for a few minutes, the border gates are open and you can peek into the other side. I couldn’t believe Pakistan was so near, and yet so far.
The beating retreat ceremony felt like an Indo-Pakistan cricket match minus the game. The BSF official MC-ing the ceremony urged the Indian audience to shout ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ as loud as possible to drown out the cheers of the Pakistani audience. I was also told that India is planning to increase the height of our flag so that it’s higher than that of Pakistan. If all of this was meant in a fun, competitive way, it would be fine, but given the underlying tensions between the two countries, it felt ridiculous, petty, and juvenile to me. I was more interested in witnessing the ceremony on the other side of the border and it made me sad that I perhaps never would.
Food for the Soul
No points for guessing that Amritsar is a foodie’s paradise. I had heard countless stories of mouth-watering food from my friends and had a ready list of places to cover. I started with the softest melt-in-your-mouth kulcha at Kulwant’s, followed by garam garam gulab jamun down the lane from there. In the evening, I stepped out for singhara fish at Amar Fish and A-One Kulfa’s famous faluda-kulfi, followed by a delicious non-vegetarian meal at Charming Chicken. While I devoured the butter chicken here, the head chef made me try their malai chicken and I immediately wished I had ordered that instead! The next day, I had an unforgettable langar at the Golden Temple and a glass of lassi at one of the nearby stalls.
A Farmstay of Dreams
The best part of my Punjab trip came in the end. I spent a day at a farmstay in Gurdaspur, an hour and a half away from Amritsar. Surrounded by fields in a quiet part of a village, it was a staycation of dreams. Four mud cottages that opened up to rice farms, delicious home-cooked meals under the trees, a khatiya to rest on, and a tubewell that turned into a plunge pool in the summer - what’s not to love!
My host was a kind and hospitable retired army officer who shared anecdotes about the place, his time in the army, and his family in Canada. One of the caretakers also took me for a village excursion in the evening and we walked nearly 10 km through farms, village homes, and a rice mill. The sunset was gorgeous and my dream of moving to a village someday resurfaced within seconds. Since I was there for just a day, I couldn’t do some of the other activities on offer, like a tractor ride, bullock cart ride, and turban tying, but doing nothing in such a picturesque setting was enough for me.
We often undermine long weekends when it comes to making travel plans, but there’s a lot one can cover in 2-3 days. Places close to home tend to get neglected on account of destinations that are farther away and long weekends are a great time to check them off the bucket list. I am so glad I did.
As I sign out, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite episodes of The Seen and The Unseen podcast featuring Aanchal Malhotra, who talks about material memory and Partition.
Ila you are one of those super generous people who take everyone along in these trips. Enjoyed Amritsar a lot. I know exactly what to do when I'm there. I had been thinking of a village vacation. That problem is solved too. Thank you.
Plus what a timing. To find your newsletter first thing in the morning is very comforting.
One of my favourite pieces of yours. It seemed personal and intimate, and yet, never wavered from the theme of travelling through a state. The details are amazing, as usual.
Bookmarking this. So good.