Home > India > Punjab – turbans and tandoori naans

Punjab – turbans and tandoori naans

A Sikh holy man

The large state nestling between the dizzy mountains of Kashmir and the home counties of the capital of the country is known for turban wearing affable people, mass agriculture, textiles and the tandoor. It’s home to the largest population of Sikhs as well as the world’s most

important Sikh temple – the Golden Temple.

The majority of the state lies between the western city of Amritsar, the closest major city to Pakistan; and the easterly Chandigarh, the modern planned metropolis and capital of the twin states of Punjab and Haryana. The in between cities of Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Ambala are themselves big cities. But it’s Amritsar and Chandigarh which tend to swallow up the swathes of internal as well as external tourists. And for good reason.

Amritsar attracts pilgrims and tourists from all across the world. Over the last century, thousands of Sikh families left their native Punjab in droves and found homes in English speaking countries across the world. Toronto boasts the largest Sikh community outside of Punjab and India. Back in Punjab, a large number of tourists are NRI – Indians living abroad – but you see a good smattering of Western tourists as well.

An illustration of the massacre at Jalianwala Bagh

Amritsar feels like a well-to-do city with good hotels, restaurants and plenty of sites to see. A visit to the Golden Temple is a must and one morning we set off with our trusted tuk-tuk driver to see it. A half kilometre before the temple you pass Jalianwala Bagh. Having studied some Indian history I remembered it for the massacre that took place in 1919 and stopped to take a look. One April at a beautiful spring morning a number of peaceful protesters gathered at this park in the centre of Amritsar asking for the Independence of the nation. 50 British soldiers opened fire and subsequently killed a very large number of these people. The bullet holes have not been filled in, nor the deep water well  – into which many people jumped to flee from the shower of bullets and subsequently died.

The Golden Temple

A few minutes away from Jalianwala Bagh, a stately looking white building stands out for it’s size, architecture style and colour. This is a grand surround for the Golden Temple and keeps the suspense going for a little longer. Before entering the pristine white building, you must take your shoes off and store them in a large building called the shoe house which is like a very large cloak room except it has thousands of cubby holes. Everyone, including men, must cover their head before entering.

Just outside the white building, at the bottom of the steps is along shallow moat in which a stream water is flowing. It’s purpose is to remove any bit of dirt on your feet before you enter the holy ground. Stepping through the cool water in the heat of the midday sun is every bit as pleasant as climbing the marble steps up to the porticoed entrance. As you climb up The Golden Temple inside looks like it’s rising out of the water. The lake around it called Amrit Sarovar – literally the Lake of Elixir – is where the city gets it’s name. The vast area all built of white marble looks like a picture and with the golden dome made of real gold almost floating on the green water of the lake is a sight to behold. Even with a thousand people moving around the complex, you feel the peace emanate from every corner.

Indo-Pak Border ceremony

About 25 ams west of Amritsar is a land border entry between India and Pakistan. Called Wagah Border it lies mid distance between Amritsar in India and Lahore in Pakistan. The border features on many a tourist’s destination list not to cross over into another country but to watch the closing of the border ceremony at sundown. IN fact it has become so popular that both sides have introduced amphitheatre like seating to cater for the visitors who come every day. The day we went, there were approximately 3,000 visitors on the Indian side. Because it was Ramadan, or perhaps because it is not as popular in Pakistan, their side had around 200 people separated by gender.

Separated by a gate and a few soldiers on each side carrying weapons, the Indians and the Pakistanis can clearly see each other and wave. Large speakers blare out patriotic songs on each side and people wave flags. On the Indian side, women queued to be able to run with the Indian flag all the way up to the border and back again. This competitiveness continued when the soldiers on each side started to march. This wasn’t the usual marching. It was toe touching forehead, with a hell of a lot of attitude and aggression kind of marching. A little later, there was a competition between which soldier can sing a note the longest on each side of the border.

Lassi - yoghurt drink is the speciality of Punjab

I found the whole experience strange and also a little sad. In the end, we have more in common than not. The Indians and Pakistanis have a similar culture, eat the same food, wear similar clothes, speak similar language. At the border there was a feeling of oneupmanship which came across as childish. Either way, it was fun to watch the ceremony and soldiers make a fool of themselves!

But Amritsar is also about food. We ate some of the best Tandoori food in Amritsar including Amritsari fish which is a local river fish marinated in delicate spices and cooked in the tandoor. It was fleshy and soft and melted in the mouth. We drank the best lassi (yoghurt and sugar drink) topped with a spoonful of real cream and we even tried some street food. Amritsar is famous for it’s cholle kulche – Spiced chick peas served with a bread which is stuffed with potato and cooked in a tandoor.

Not wanting to leave the great food, we ended up staying four nights in Amritsar but managed to tear ourselves away and onto Chandigarh via Ambala, a small city where we spent an unremarkable night.

Chandigarhis a paradox in my eyes in terms of it’s purpose as a tourist destination. As a child I had heard much about the city, mainly good things. It’s a modern, clean, planned city which is famous for two things – architecture and being the only city which serves as a capital for two

Strange sculptures at Rock Garden

separate states due to it’s location on the border of each. In terms of architecture, unless you are interested in a planned city or the French architect Le Corbusier, then you are probably here to see Nek Chand’s Rock Garden. It’s a large outdoor space, maze like, which is covered in broken glass, broken tiles and anything else broken he could find. The materials are used in an interesting way to create a fantastical space. A fun way to spend a couple of hours but not life-changing. Although we spent three nights here, enjoyed food and walked around a little, I personally found the city lacking in any soul. Perhaps planed cities are like that because they don;t evolve.

Sure it’s a great place to raise your kids with: excellent schools and academic institutions around; clean spaces and strangely devoid of any poverty and I saw no beggars anywhere which is odd for an Indian city; dotted with gardens and all streets lined with trees etc but it feels no different to say Milton Keynes.

All in all, we had a great time exploring Punjab, talking to the friendly locals, eating some fabulous food and seeing the very different aspects of the state reflected in it’s different cities.

  1. August 31, 2011 at 13:11

    Try to visit some other cities like Patiala, Ludhiana, Jallandhar and this lovely village Sanghol (near Chandigarh) for some more cultural and historic places to see and enjoy.

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