The Punjab vies with Bengal as the most significant historical region of the Indian Subcontinent. Located on the north-western frontier of Indian civilisation, Punjab is a melting pot of Hindu, Sikh, Afghan, Persian, Mughal and British cultural influences. Its 150 million native speakers are now spread across two countries. I visited the cities of Chandigarh and Amritsar, the only destinations of touristic notoriety in the Indian Punjab. Just like Canberra and Brasilia, Chandigarh is a planned capital city created for political reasons and designed by one of the twentieth century’s most prominent architects. I briefly studied the work of the Swiss genius Le Corbusier at university, so I was quite eager to stop briefly in Chandigarh en route to the Himalayas. After two and half weeks in the Himalayas, I returned to Punjab by travelling to Amritsar, the homeland of the Sikhs and antithesis of Chandigarh. Amritsar reminded me of Cairo: a city I was eager to leave as soon as I arrived. Yet like Cairo, Amritsar provided not one, not two, but three WOW factor travel experiences and the more I reflect on it, the more I consider my time there as one of my highlights ever of travelling.
When independence from the British Empire was achieved in 1948, the Raj was divided along sectarian lines to create India and Pakistan (which included Bangladesh until 1971); stymying the desires of the father of Indian sovereignty, Mahatma Gandhi, for a unified nation. Punjab was split in half, with the predominately Hindu and Sikh eastern portion incorporated into India and the Muslim western portion joining Pakistan. Tragically, half a million people were killed in the chaotic aftermath of Partition as people abandoned their homes and attempted to flee to which ever newly created countries they belonged to religiously. While millions of Muslims still live in Indian Punjab, Pakistani Punjab is now almost totally devoid of Hindus and Sikhs. The two largest Punjabi cities, Amritsar and Lahore, are only fifty kilometres apart but are now located on opposite sides of an international border.
Without a doubt one of the weirdest spectacles I have ever witnessed is the elaborate ceremony that occurs at the Attari – Wagah Border. Every evening, India and Pakistan’s border guards attempt to prance more bombastically than their opposing numbers, a tradition dreamed up inexplicably during the seven decade existence of the border crossing. About thirty minutes prior to sunset, dozens of guards on both sides march to the border gates, fashioning whimsical millinery that make them resemble peacocks more so than military personnel. The gates are momentarily opened to allow for a single peacock from either nation to enter no-man’s land (5 metres length) and shake hands, which commences the ceremony. The peacocks then strut to and fro from the border gates in synchronised and overly gesticulated strides as they attempt to lift their feet higher than their heads. I suppose its preferable for these two nuclear-armed arch-enemies to compete in this nonsense rather than who can create the largest mushroom cloud. The ceremony concludes when the national flags are drawn down from their masts in no-man’s land, a procedure which they obviously over-complicate and dramatise. The event is a matter of national pride and the atmosphere is very similar to a cricket match. On either side of the border, grandstands accommodate thousands of patriots and tourists eager to attend this unique performance. Flags, souvenir T-shirts and face painting in the national colours abound in the crowds. Before the ceremony commenced, legions of Indian women gathered in the open space below the grandstands to dance to Bollywood music, while women on the Pakistani side sat restrained in their seats. On both sides of the border, announcers attempt to rev up their respective audiences by inciting chants analogous to “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! … Oi, Oi, Oi!” For what its worth, I think Pakistan won the day: the architecture and landscaping of their half of the “arena” was much more refined, their uniforms more stylish and, most importantly, their peacocks managed to lift their legs slightly higher than the Indians.
After Partition, Indian Punjab was further split into two states, Haryana and Punjab. Curiously, the two states share Chandigarh as their capital, yet the city belongs to neither (Chandigarh is instead considered a “Union Territory” administrated directly by the federal government). Chandigarh is completely incompatible with any pre-conceived notions about what constitutes an Indian city. The urban layout of Chandigarh is a vast grid, with each of its rectangular sectors designed to be self-containing. Most of the commercial activity occurs in Sectors 17 and 22, which are mostly pedestrianised and pleasant to amble through (for anyone who has travelled to the Subcontinent, the thought of an Indian city being “pleasant” to amble through is really quite shocking). The buildings in these sectors are vestiges of Le Corbusier’s 1950s vision for Chandigarh and his obsession with reinforced concrete. Le Corbusier was particularly renowned for celebrating and exposing the use of reinforced concrete in his buildings, rather than hiding it as the forgotten (although critical) structural material. His architecture is a more aesthetic version of Brutalism, a style that originated in Great Britain and graces Melbourne in the form of the commission flats. The buildings in these areas are so similar in design and evocative of horizontality that they appear to form singular, winding structures rather independent edifices. The buildings have gradually decayed over their lifespans as vegetation has taken root, giving them an intriguing tropical twist to counteract the sterility. Chandigarh’s most iconic structures are the government buildings; huge, monolithic and sculptural, they occupy a vast, lifeless space save only for the dozens of eagles soaring overhead. While aimlessly meandering through Sector 17, I encountered an “only in India” sight. Two rows of at least 50 desks were positioned on the side paths, with people writing legal documents using typewriters. My surprise at witnessing this antiquated practice was matched by their surprise at me photographing their work.
Dozens of villages were destroyed in the 1950s in order to construct Chandigarh. Scrap materials from these villages, ranging from concrete and smashed tiles to broken bangles and tyres, were used by a local transport official to create a secret garden on a vacated block of land. For two decades, Nek Chand worked on his masterpiece obsessively at night to avoid prying eyes. Eventually though, city officials recognised the worth of his endeavours and the Nek Chand Rock Garden has since become Chandigarh’s premium tourist attraction. It is actually a series of rock gardens, each of different dimensions and themes. They feature mosaic floors, cascading fountains and, most notably, thousands of sculptures ingeniously crafted from rubble.
Chandigarh’s modernity, logical layout, relative cleanliness and orderly traffic are juxtaposed by the dusty, congested and Old World vibes of Amritsar. The city is actually rather new, founded in 1577 with the establishment of Sikhism’s holiest site: the Golden Temple. Yet the tangle of impossibly narrow bazaars and lanes that fan out from the Golden Temple (virtually unnavigable without the aid of Google Maps), the fleets of cycle-rickshaws and the decaying edifices are suggestive of the city’s timelessness. The congestion in the old city is absolutely ridiculous, yet local motorcyclists insist on speeding through with reckless abandon. When traffic is brought to a standstill, pedestrians are also unable to move because side pavements are virtually non-existent in India. Consequently, exploring the old city is both exhausting and rather dangerous, but worth enduring for the ethereal Golden Temple.
Sikhism was founded in the sixteenth century in Punjab as a reaction against Hinduism’s caste-system and the encroaching military threat of Islam from the west. Sikhs are monotheistic, believe in universal equality and reject knowing the absolute truth. Punjab is the homeland of the Sikhs and Amritsar is their unofficial capital. Consequently, the city is awash with bright colours from the women’s magnificent saris and the men’s turbans.
The Golden Temple is the most extraordinary religious site I have ever been to; a vast complex constantly open and constantly crowded with tens of thousands of devotees (24/7). The Pool of Nectar is the primary focus of the site with the glittering Golden Temple, built with 750kg of the precious metal, at its centre. The Temple contains the Sikh holy book and priests and and musicians maintaining a continuous chant that permeates the entire site. Devotees and some very committed tourists queue for up to four hours to entire the inner sanctum (certainly not me – that was too long to forego a meal in India’s unofficial capital of food!). Visitors to the site circumambulate the Pool of Nectar, creating a continuous and reflected stream of colour. I spent hours just sitting on the white marble floors surrounding the Pool, watching the remarkable flow of humanity pass by. Many of the devotees bath in the holy waters, while at sunset they light candles on the Pool’s edges. The Sikhs are renowned for their hospitality and every Sikh temple features a Community Kitchen. At the Golden Temple, 200,000 people can be served each day for FREE in what is surely one of the world’s greatest logistical efforts. Batches of thousands of people carrying their silverware enter a large hall and are seated in long rows on the ground. Rapidly, dhal, vegetable curry, rice, chapati and sweets are slopped onto the plates and the diners dig in. After twenty minutes, everyone rushes out to allow for the next batch of people to enter. The silverware is then washed by volunteers in an industrial-sized facility: it has to be seen to be believed. Perhaps if the Catholic Church provided traditional, home-cooked meals to the congregation rather than cardboard and the privilege of watching greedy old priests swigging all the red wine, their halls would not be so embarrassingly empty.
Many of India’s most iconic dishes originate from the Punjab: tandoori meats, chicken tikka, butter chicken, naan, dal makhani, chana masala (chickpea curry), paneer butter masala, palak paneer (paneer and spinach curry), malai kofta, aloo gobhi (potato and cauliflower curry) and lassis are just some examples. A typical Punjabi thali consists of dal makhani (intoxicatingly rich stew made from black lentils and chickpeas and cooked with cream and butter), rajma (red kidney bean curry cooked with cream and butter), paneer butter masala (paneer cooked in a spicy tomato sauce with butter), a mixed vegetable curry (loaded with butter), chapati with butter, raita (yoghurt with diced vegetables) and rice. Perhaps you can notice a common ingredient?! Almost everything in Punjab is cooked in copious amounts of butter or ghee and consequently it rivals Hungarian as the unhealthiest cuisine I have encountered (despite its predominantly vegetarian composition). I joined a brilliant walking food tour from my hostel in Amritsar of the city’s famed hole-in-the-wall institutions, sampling sixteen dishes. We started with the city’s traditional breakfast of kulcha: a flat, crispy bread stuffed with cheese, vegetables and spices, smothered in butter (or as our guide liked to refer to it cryptically as “delicious”) and served with chana masala and tamarind chutney. Next stop, we gorged on jalebi (deep fried rings of batter soaked in sugar syrup) and gulab jamun (dense, milk-solid balls soaked in sugar syrup. We progressed to a corner shop whipping out paneer bhurji, which is paneer scrambled with an obscene amount of butter, tomato, onion and spices and served with bread and mint sauce. For lunch, we ate at Amritsar’s most famous restaurant, a century-old traditional curry house. We had dal fry (lentils swimming in ghee), palak paneer (paneer with a buttery, spicy pureed spinach gravy), flaky bread and kefir, a milk rice pudding flavoured with pistachos. But the overwhelming highlight of the tour were the lassis. Amritsar is famous throughout India for its lassis, which are unadultered by the sacrilegious (to Punjabis) addition of fruit. Lassis in Amristar are unbelievably rich and creamy made only from curd and either sugar or salt and topped with a scoop of soft cheese and a slice of butter. Once you have drunk Amritsari lassis (I was drinking up to three a day), you’re view of the world’s most delicious beverage changes forever. A proper WOW factor culinary experience.
I can’t be bothered writing a menial conclusion so…
That’s all for now,