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Thursday, 26 April 2007

Amritsar Diary

As our car zipped through the lanes of Amritsar at 11 in the night, I felt a strange familiarity with the city. After sleeping all the way through our journey in the Shatabdi, we were wide awake when we reached.

Our destination, City Heart Hotel came in no time but I was still wondering why does this city seem familiar. In fact, this was my first visit to Punjab ... However, I turned my attention to the place where our hotel was located.

Built amidst a row of shops, our hotel was a small two storey building which could have been easily mistaken for another shop had it not been for the huge banner.

Just adjoining the building was an ICICI ATM along with a shop selling 'punjabi jutti' which was open even at 11.15 in the night! There were people and vehicles still going down the road ... The scene was a far cry from the deserted city that Delhi becomes at this time and they say big cities have an active night life!.

The signs of commercialisation were written bold and clear all over the place. A place which has such a huge slice in the history of the nation and houses one of the most beautiful temples of this country seemed to have kept its pace with the fast moving time. This did not look like the ancient city that we had imagined.

Here, my brain suddenly propped up this answer - this place is like Chandni Chowk of Delhi. Oh yes, the small but well stocked lanes, always buzzing with people was so much like the famous market of Old Delhi. The only difference here was that standing on the road in the wee hours did not make you feel vulnerable to rape or theft at any point.

I again surveyed the city through the thick glass window of my hotel room next morning. At 7 a.m., the lanes had a life and freshness about them. The fruits and vegetable hawkers already seemed to have done good business.

But there was one shop below which caught my eye - bannered Milk Shop, as place was attracting a lot of crowd. The people who came here to have a glass of milk, lassi or any other milk item seemed like localites who were used to this routine of stopping by this shop and then moving ahead for their daily chores.

I saw groups of men and women heading towards the same direction, which I later learnt was the way towards the Golden Temple. Heads covered with their dupattas and pagadis, the kirpans forever hanging across their shoulders, the walk towards the gurudwara also was a daily ritual I presumed.

The first morning

After snacking on butter toast and drinking the milky tea from the hotel, we set out for our city tour. Our hotel, we learnt was very strategically located. While the Jallianwalla Bagh was just a stone throw away, the Golden Temple was at about a 50 meter distance.

The Temple visit (New Year at the Golden Temple), was quite exhausting as the blazing sun ensured that our energies would be sapped out. But when it comes to my husband, the exploring spirit always rules over so we didn't immediately get back to the hotel.

But before we walked towards Jallianwalla Bagh, we had to find a cyber cafe since there was something important to check. Our assumption was wrong and we had no difficulty in finding out a Internet cafe. After paying Rs 20 for ten minutes in the shady place, we walked towards Jallianwalla Bagh.

Memories of 1919

It didn't occur to us that we were visiting the fateful site of Jallianwalla Bagh exactly after 88 years of the massacre. It was April 13, the Baisakhi day when thousands of people had gathered in this park, unaware that for many it would be the last Baisakhi of their lives.

88 years later, the Bagh is a tourist spot. Be it in the peak summer afternoon or the warm evenings, we always found the place crowded. But it was not just the tourists but several localites also who were there for their daily walk.

We started having goosepimples the moment we walked down the narrow passage leading us to the bagh. An engraving in a stone read - People were fired at from here.

Our minds were busy, trying to get a picture of how those unarmed men and women must have struggled to preserve their precious lives. We walked further down and stood at a spot which gave us a good view of the place.

The soil, which was once wet with the blood of many innocent lives is now bed to so many flowering plants. The once barren ground where dead bodies were strewn across is now a lawn for visitors to walk.

It is hard to imagine that this place, now alive with the sounds of children, men and women was once a ground that saw one of the worst massacres.

But the reminders of April 13, 1919 are all over the place. Right at the entrance is a huge board explaining the massacre. Bang opposite it is a narrow passage which serves as an exhibition space.

Showcased here are pictures of some of the people who became the victims of General Dyer's cruelty, who later came to be known as the Butcher of Amritsar.

The narrow passage leads to a small room which houses a huge painting depicting the massacre.

The fountain built at the entrance of the park was attracting a lot of the crowd and also a group of wasps which were buzzing around the pool to keep itself cool.

A walk around the park and we found little boards across the walls reading 'Bullet Mark.' A walk across the Jallianwalla Bagh seemed like reading a chapter from our history books.

Our chapter culminated with a photography session at the shahidi kuan. The martyr's well, from which 120 bodies were taken out is now a spot where people gather and try to peep deep inside the well, as if the bodies will still be there.

The placard on which is written the details of the tragedy has a collage of signatures and messages. We wondered what kind of a show of patriotism was this to spoil the barely preserved historical site?

The houses built on the boundary of the park now have air conditioners to shield them from the scorching heat. As we slowly made out out of the park, I saw a little girl peering through the window of a house bordering the park ...

Culinary tales

We were really excited to taste the famous Punjabi cuisine. So before we headed to the Wagah border (An evening at the Wagah Border), we ordered a heavy lunch. Though the vegetarian paneer and roti were quite tasty, we still have nightmares about the non veg dishes. The uncooked chicken took a toll on my husband's stomach for the next one week!

The one meal we thoroughly enjoyed in the city was the one at the Brother's Dhaba. Thanks to a localite lady, who we bumped into on the street, we were guided to the place.

The tadka dal makhani and the shahi paneer had a typical taste so different from what is made in the restaurants in Delhi. Considering the amount of butter used, the famous Amritsari kulcha is sinful but surely worth the one-time calorie intake.

But it was the lassi which has stayed on to our taste buds till now. The sweet, creamy beverage gave us all the energy that the heat had taken away.

The food might be delicious but we felt quite uncomfortable with the crude serving of the waiters there. After experiencing the warmth of hospitality in Himachal and Rajasthan, this seemed little difficult for us to digest.

Too hot to shop

I sincerely apologize to the compulsive shoppers because I have no inputs to give them about shopping in Amritsar. Though we had heard from someone that the Punjabi juttis are very nice and affordable there, I had absolutely no intention to try chappal after chappal in 40 plus degrees.

The clothes market of the city was a mini version of the Chandni Chowk market. We were told that papars are a speciality of Amritsar and the number of papar shops confirmed it.

Still, we didn't even try to get into any of the shops. Though the sweet shops had nothing different from Delhi, we bought pinni to taste.

So long

Our Amritsar stay ended on the Vishu morning with we getting a taste of the helpful station staff who helped us get a duplicate ticket since we had lost the original one. There was no red tapism and unnecessary delays ... We happily boarded the Shatabdi back home.

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