Let me just start by saying that some places have the magic to leave the heart FULL of happiness & gratitude. Over the years, I've managed to travel a lot by extending work trips but it's only recently that I have actively started expanding my plans outside work as well. Even though I now have a better understanding of travel than before, there are no hard & fast rules for it. One must have fun! Having said that, there's been a jinx surrounding me & Punjab. I was to shoot at the Golden temple first in 2008 for Indian Idol, in 2011 for India's Got Talent and was supposed to visit with family in 2015. Somehow, none of them worked out. This particular trip almost didn't happen either, with work threatening to hamper the reunion with a school friend in Ludhiana and the long due visit to Amritsar. Now that I finally did make it, I can say with conviction that it was a gorgeous, gorgeous experience, both spiritually & gastronomically. Ride on with me...
My journey to Punjab started like our approach to most exams. Last minute plans were put into action & I first landed at Chandigarh, where my school buddy Kshitij & his wife Mansi picked me up. They make a really cute couple. Ever since I've known them, I've seen them as two grown-up people who haven't let the child in them wither away. And now many years in their marriage & a baby girl later, their bond has only become stronger. As soon as we exited the airport, we saw a group of people distributing biscuits & tea for free (we'd later come to know that these offerings were being made to all & sundry on the occasion of Guru Gobind Singh Jayanti). Thereon, we were off on lush, canal-lined roads all the way to Ludhiana while discussing travel & philosophy, and reminiscing about old times spent there after completing our 12th board exams over a decade ago. I got some sound relationship & marriage advice from them as well (which may come in handy as many friends feel that I have a terrible taste in partners, but that's a story for another time). It was nostalgic to be back in Ludhiana after so many years & to meet the entire family as well as the two new members: tiny tot Krisha & the grunting pug Oreo. We had a very late lunch of Baba ka butter chicken (best ever!), exquisite home-made paneer, rajma-chawal, roti & sewai for dessert. My friend & his mum even joked that I might find a good Punjabi girlfriend during my stay in Punjab. It felt like home, it always has. The only hitch was that this was a very, very short visit; literally just a few hours. I left from Ludhiana with a heavy but merry heart, seeing how much had changed, and how so much was still the same in this lovely family. Until we meet again buddy!
From Ludhiana, I took a train after many years and it felt both awkward as well as familiar. The gentle rocking of the train, loud banters & the aroma of food wafting across the compartment are memories that had faded away. I hadn't slept for over 2 days, and dozed off while reliving those memories. When I woke up, an extremely jovial TC ensured that I got to eat train ka khana; simple & hot fare which, in my opinion, is leagues ahead of the rubbery, gooey, often inedible stuff we get in aeroplanes. With a full belly & some warmth in my cheeks, I stepped out into Amritsar. A quick taxi ride manoeuvreing through extensive construction-debris later, I checked into Le Gold Hotel, named so because of it's insane proximity to the Golden Temple. I met Rachna, my friend & agent and made some new ones in her friends as well. We soon turned in for the night for the bliss that awaited us the next morning.
At 4:30 AM, we stepped into the temple to participate in the bringing in of the Guru Granth Sahib (holy book of the Sikhs) on a palanquin. I can tell you what I saw but can't really put the experience into words. I guess that is something one needs to imbibe for themselves when they visit this shrine. It would not be an exaggeration to say that as ethereal as the Golden Temple looked that morning and that it is a sight to behold as you enter those gates, I was distracted throughout (not hearing much of what my friends were saying, not seeing the gorgeous temple either) by the mellifluous, classically rooted & soul-searching singing of the Gurbani. For those who know the true power of music, this particular recitation was one of the most telling renditions I've ever heard. I had goosebumps and could not help going wah wah every now & then at the impeccable singing. The place was packed despite the biting cold & early hour, and a serene tranquility enveloped everyone. There was peace & calm in the body language & voices of people, as opposed to how loud & often aggressive places of worship can get. I guess the vibe of a place is also made by the people, and the Sikh are a strong & jovial but gentle & caring folk. When there was no space in the inner sanctorum, I sat outside it on comfortable carpets laid out for devotees. The crowd only swelled with time & I feared getting trampled upon by the crowd but I needn't have worried. Everyone was mindful & the world whizzed past me in a calm blur. The still, constant me with eyes shut tight in prayer didn't have to worry about anything. I've rarely felt such inner peace surreal enough for words & I do highly recommend a visit to this beautiful place.
Golden temple is one of only two places of worship that I would willingly go to and spend a lot of time at, the other being Bodh Gaya. In my piece on Varanasi, I'd mentioned why I have an affinity to religious places out of curiosity but not out of faith. Before you brand me an atheist, which I could be, let it be known that my faith in many of these religious institutions is zilch owing to their rampant commercialization and/or hypocrisy & corruption, where Godliness is not measured by your intent but by how heavy your wallet is. Bodh Gaya, and now Golden temple are the only places where these didn't matter. Seva (voluntary service) is all that's asked for at this gurudwara. There is no compromise on the food provided for free, almost everyone is a volunteer and there are always enough to get the job done. For a good hour, all of us volunteers combined collected at least 3000 rotis made via automatic machines, put ghee on them & placed them into big containers for distribution at the langar (the free community kitchen). Our feet were bare in the cold & my hands were sore with handling hot rotis but we had the goodwill of people we hadn't met, a content heart & delicious karha prasad (wheat halwa made in desi ghee) for our efforts. What else could one ask for? And who doesn't remember repeatedly going to the Gurudwara for that delicious, ghee laden prasad? This early morning visit is something that I'll carry with me for the rest of my life.
Sikhism, Buddhism & many other religions teach you not to indulge in gluttony, but that's one thing that we could not adhere to, not when you're in Punjab! We further treated ourselves to some amazing grub at Kanha sweets. While the choley were undoubtedly amongst the best I've had and the pooris soft, hot & light, it was the sweet aloo sabzi that intrigued me the most with its tangy-sweet combination of flavours. This wonderful lunch was topped off, obviously, with the malai wali lassi and gud (jaggery) ka halwa. The jovial family next to us, who were on a homecoming trip challenged us not to fall asleep after this heavy meal and told us that Drinking & Driving has a different meaning in Punjab, with lassi inducing merry drowsiness in many :)
|The best poori in town|
|Don't drink and drive just got a new meaning ;)|
Early evening took us to the Attari-Wagah border for the ceremony between rangers from India & Pakistan. The scene at the border was both overwhelming & exciting. I'm not the jingoistic type, so I can only compare the atmosphere to that of a ginormous music concert; crowds going ballistic, every patriotic song ever composed playing over the public announcement system and hordes of locals & foreigners dancing to these tunes, chants of Bharat Mata Ki Jai, Vande Mataram, Hindustan Zindabad reverberating through the sky. And even though the Indian side was loud, on this particular day we were outnumbered by the Pakistani tourists on the other side. The only thing I could make out from that side was chants of Jiyo Jiyo Pakistan & some indistinct music. Being in the VIP section gave us the best view in the house & we were closest to the border gates. Conversely, we were far away from the rest of the maddening populace, and for once I kind of regret that because such surging sentiments are best experienced in a crowd. However, the cherry on the cake is the actual ceremony: the lowering of the flags or the Beating Retreat. The drill commences with the blowing of horns, characterised by what I could only describe as speed-marching on steroids (stomp, stomp, stomp!) set to the beats of drums, impossibly vertically delivered kung-fu kicks, elaborately choreographed manoeuvres that symbolise the rivalry as well as the brotherhood & coooperation between the two nations. There is so much attitude oozing out of their every move and the raub-e-tashan, demeanor & fitness of the BSF Jawaans is intense and sure to set your heart racing with adrenaline, pride & patriotism (and apparently this was a toned down version of what used to be pre-2010)! I just couldn't help wondering what a torture it must be on their knees to repeatedly stomp the ground in those boots though!
|This bit, I missed. Image courtesy hastenteufel.name/blog|
|Image courtesy vodkatrain.com|
|Image courtesy indiatimes.in|
|The two flags are lowered simultaneously. Image courtesy indianoverseas.com|
|The Indian flag is brought back with full honors. Image courtesy hastenteuful.name/blog|
Once the ceremony was over and the rangers retreated, there was an obvious rush to click photographs at the border & BSF 102 point. The BSF 102 point is a curious spot on the Indo-Pak border. Shorn of the massive gates that separate the two countries, here you can come face to face with your Pakistani counterparts. Of course, everyone is there only for a photo-op and the rangers & jawans ensure that. But take them away and all you'd be left with is a black chain (denoting the Pakistani border), a yellow chain ( the Indian border), the No-Man's land between the chains, bemused & reticent people on both sides and lush green fields on three sides, albeit cordoned off by electric fences. It was surreal as well as awkward, as folks from both countries just looked at each other without as much as a smile or a wave of the hand. Perhaps the mood was wary owing to the recent Pathankot attacks. This reverie was broken by a smiling Pakistani man who wanted to click a picture of one of my friends, which she obliged him with, and he returned the favour by posing for her as well. It was a cute moment, with not a word having been exchanged and the message conveyed only through a smile & sign-language across the border.
|Thank you Papaji Jaspal Ji (extreme right) for making our visit a smooth & memorable one. And thank you photographer Raman for this perspective from No Man's Land|
|Insaan tum bhi ho, insaan hum bhi hain.|
|Pakistan Zindabad. Hindustan Zindabad. INSAANIYAT ZINDABAD. Mazhab nahi sikhata aapas mein bair rakhna|
|Every step for peace will always be met with many to thwart it. And yet, that step must be taken. For humanity, for the future.|
On our return to the city, the ladies stopped to sample a variety of eatables. I bought achari mathri which I know my friends will love. In fact, traveling with these 4 women made me shop for things I otherwise wouldn't even have thought of: paapad, dry fruits, mathri (they even said so & were obviously better judges of the quality & price of the same than I). Unfortunately we had sampled so much that by the time we got to our dinner of mutton & fish at Makhan and chicken at Beera, we had surprisingly encountered "Food fatigue." A long night of conversations ranging from Bermuda Triangle to Astral travel to Yoga to Peru, Egypt, mental sanity ensued, notwithstanding the extreme fatigue that ran us down before we finally turned in for the night.
The next morning was reserved for some amazing Amritsari Kulcha at Balwant ke kulchay: Aloo, Gobhi, Paneer, Dal and a mix of all that's called the 4-Mix Kulcha. Before I made an early move back to Mumbai, I knew I had to make one more visit to the Golden Temple. A quick, peaceful visit later & with some more karha prasad, I headed to the congested Amritsar airport with a heart full of love. And as luck would have it, I finally did see the Punjabi kudi my friend & his mom had told me to keep a lookout for. Tall, beautiful, deep sexy voice, long lustrous black hair and so, so angry that I didn't have the courage to go say hi. Well, I guess you can't have everything ;)
PS: I have sourced some of the photographs of the ceremony at Wagah border off the internet. Thank you to the original contributors for these amazing pictures which speak a thousand words.
|INDIAN, and proud!|