A couple of weeks back, we were going past Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in Delhi, and our daughter, the Little One or LO, looking out, said, “Someday I want to go there” (the LO says that about every five minutes when she’s in the car; the place in question could range from a park to a temple to a medieval tomb). I looked at the glittering domes of Bangla Sahib and said that if she wanted to see a beautiful gurudwara, she should see the Golden Temple. That got the LO excited (she loves anything golden—she’s loved it ever since she was a tiny tot, barely even walking, but exulting over what she called ‘gongong’). And, there and then, we decided we had to go to Amritsar.
Both my husband and I have, though never together, been to Amritsar. The only thing I remembered of Amritsar was eating a big and rich meal; my husband’s memories of the city were rather more conventional, though still sketchy. For both of us, therefore, this was a chance to see Amritsar properly. As it emerged, since Amritsar has recently added several interesting attractions to its list, there’s even more to see here than we’d first thought.
We stayed at the Golden Sarovar Portico, a small but comfortable hotel that was mercifully close to the airport and to the city. The LO began charming all the staff members almost as soon as she stepped in, and by the time we left, had a bunch of devoted slaves eager to jump to her bidding. She chatted happily with people, she bestowed charming smiles, and reserved all the naughtiness for when she was safely in the room with her parents.
Anyway, on to what we did and what we saw. Our very first evening in Amritsar, we went to see the Partition Museum, housed in the Town Hall, a fine old colonial building which has an impressive façade, with magnificent equestrian statues of Sikh warriors.
The Partition Museum stretches across two floors of one wing of the Town Hall, and begins by introducing visitors to a history of Punjab, followed by a chronological retelling of the events leading up to Partition: political events, movements, communal trouble, the British Raj, and so on. From there, it moves on to the Partition itself, and the effect it had on the myriad aspects of life in India. Of course, the influx of refugees, the broken lives, the hatred and communal trouble, the resettlement—but also other areas of impact that are often overlooked: the fact that the Indian Army had to be split up, that musical gharanas found themselves suddenly having to shift; the impact on cinema, on currency, on sports, even on culture. (One of the most striking things I saw here was a pair of photographs of a post-Partition necklace from Mohenjodaro. Before Partition, the necklace had been a single entity; post-Partition, its beads were divided equally and strung onto two separate strings—one given to India and one kept by Pakistan).
The Partition Museum, in my opinion, is one of the best museums I’ve seen in India. It’s been sensitively and carefully created, and it uses different means of conveying its message. In each gallery, there are artefacts on display—photographs, newspaper cuttings, journals, actual objects that were brought to India by refugees or are otherwise connected with Partition (there are a lot of these, all the way from clothes to jewellery, toys, books, religious objects, currency notes, a charpai, to even the song book of the film Dopatta, Noorjehan’s second film in Pakistan). The text accompanying each is just right: not too much detail, not too little.
There are interviews with those who lived through Partition or were otherwise connected to it: these play in a loop on screens, and you can use headphones to listen in (there are also English subtitles). In the background, each gallery has a sound specific to it: a recitation of Faiz’s poignant Subh-e-Azaadi; Amrita Pritam reciting a poem about Partition; the hooting of a train… and there are other things. A well, like the one down which hundreds of women plunged (or were thrown by their own families) in an attempt to avoid rape. A tent, less than 6’x6’, meant to accommodate two families of refugees.
The LO was, unsurprisingly (she’s just shy of five), unimpressed. We did try to explain to her what Partition was all about, but how much was understood is anybody’s guess. Her father hurried her past the rather more unsettling photos (which anyway were far above her height) and onto other less gory stuff. The one thing that really fascinated the LO was a very tinselly, heavily embellished-with-gota wedding salwar-kurta dating back from 1899, which made its way through Partition. The LO adores glitter.
… and the glitter, really, was the main reason the LO was so keen to go to the Golden Temple. We tried to hurry her up with breakfast the next morning (a Sikh friend had told me that since we would be visiting the Golden Temple on a weekend, we should try and go as early as possible to beat the crowds). But the LO’s leisurely eating meant that we arrived at the Golden Temple around 11 AM, by which time there was quite a crowd at the place.
Originally built in the late 16th century, Harmandir Sahib (or Durbar Sahib, as it’s also known) was destroyed and rebuilt repeatedly; the gold that gives it its popular modern-day name owes itself to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who rebuilt the temple in 1809 in white marble and copper and had the gold plating added in 1830. This is Sikhism’s holiest shrine, and draws an estimated 1,00,000 visitors a day.
Having deposited our shoes at the designated shoe rooms, we walked through a shallow pool of water (the LO made a huge fuss about it being cold) and then down a flight of steps to the large sacred pool that surrounds the central shrine (there are many other buildings all around, some being administrative ones, others shrines or of other religious importance). The koi in the sacred pool—the ‘amrit sarovar’—fascinated the LO no end. We were perhaps lucky that it was winter; if it was summer, our water baby would very likely have wanted to plunge in and swim with the koi.
It was time then to stand in the queue for darshan—and after five minutes of standing in the general line, we realized this was probably going to be a very long wait. A passing gentleman suggested I get into the ladies’ line, right next to the general one: that was shorter. My husband said he’d go around and look at some of the other buildings, so I could go with the LO. The LO and I duly shifted to the ladies’ line.
Alas, this got very crowded. I soon found myself and the LO caught—crowd ahead of us, crowd behind us, and no way of getting out. The LO, tiny as she is, would have got trapped down there between everybody’s knees, and carrying her for who knows how long would’ve been impossible. So I phoned my husband, summoned him, and handed the LO to him over the gleaming brass railing.
Then, while he took her off, I spent the next hour and a half in the queue. It was an ordeal, since I hate crowds, and I got pushed and shoved so much that by the end of it, I was counting every step and praying the line would move faster.
That said, it was beautiful. No photos are allowed at the main shrine, but the gateway that leads to it is a beautiful one, all gold leaf, sparkling chandelier and fine inlay work on the walls.
This inlay is also repeated on the outer walls of the main shrine and reminded me of the inlay you see at the Taj Mahal, though here at Harmandir Sahib there are quirky little additions you won’t find at the Taj: in two panels, at the base of the vase of flowers, I saw a little loin-cloth clad ascetic sitting with crossed legs!
I was inside the shrine for a very brief while before I scurried back to my family, grabbing some kada parsad on the way (I’d heard a lot about it, and yes, it’s delicious). The LO, I discovered when I reached her (she was sitting with my husband and listening to a kirtan outside the Akal Takht, where the Guru Granth Sahib is kept) was heartbroken at not having been able to go see the ‘Golden Temple’, and had been sobbing much of the time I’d been away. We tried convincing her that the entire complex is the Golden Temple, and when that did not succeed, I tried to tell her how traumatic standing in the line had been. While that quietened her down a bit, it did make her tell just about everybody she met (on returning home) that Mama had been pushed and shoved so much she’d got bruised all over.
Our next stop was the Jallianwallah Bagh next door. Since this is a park, complete with massive old trees, flower beds, and lawns, the LO (who loves nature) was happy. My husband gave her a brief idea of why the Jallianwallah Bagh is important, but I doubt it made any impact. While she chased butterflies, we looked at the old walls, pockmarked with bullet-holes…
… and the Martyrs’ Well, down which dozens of people plummeted in an attempt to escape the bullets. This is enclosed by a sturdy wire mesh, but if you peer down into the depths, you can see the gleam of hundreds of coins thrown down over the almost-a-century since 1919.
The LO enjoyed our stroll through the district, and especially past some very vibrant life-size sculptures of dancers.
Little did we know then that we were to encounter the real version later that evening. Because, having discovered that Qila Gobindgarh (once Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s fort, till recently occupied by the Army and now restored and opened to the public) is open till 10 PM, we decided to visit Gobindgarh in the evening. Gobindgarh, when you enter, looks every inch the formidable fortress, complete with a now-dry moat…
A gate named after Ranjit Singh’s general, Nalwa (my husband had to remind me of ‘Rang hara Hari Singh Nalwe se’ for me to make the connection)…
And past murals, statues, and more. Inside, some of the important buildings of the fort have been not just restored, but repurposed to keep them alive. Dyer’s Bungalow (an imposing building that reminded me somewhat of a snail shell) which today houses the Arms Museum—lots of swords, daggers, shields and pieces of armour here) is one. The Toshakhana (Powder Magazine) is another; while it has a small coin museum—including a replica of the Koh-i-Noor, once in Ranjit Singh’s possession—what really appealed to me was the background information about the Toshakhana.
There’s a detailed description of how powder magazines were designed—with ventilation shafts, well away from densely inhabited areas, and with lightning conductors. (Interestingly, when I returned from this trip and mentioned these details to my father, who was in the IPS before he retired, he remembered how, in Madhya Pradesh during the 60s and 70s, one important task that an SP was required to do during inspections of magazines was to check lightning conductors to ensure they functioned perfectly).
Anyway, back to Gobindgarh: having seen the Arms Museum, the Coins Gallery and the Pagdee Museum (a small but interesting insight into turbans and their styles), we went to the large lawn in front of Dyer’s Bungalow. Here, on a stage, a group of dancers was performing—first gidda (the LO showed us a few tentative matkas and jhatkas) and then bhangra (the LO really swung into action here).
This was followed by a performance of the Punjabi martial art, gatka, for which—because of all the swinging swords, daggers, and shooting flames—the audience was requested to move back and sit beyond the lawns, something the LO didn’t like, though she did seem impressed by the performance itself.
After this, there was a sound and light show, projected on to the façade of Dyer’s Bungalow. Since my husband is Punjabi and I can pretty much follow the language, we opted to attend the 7 PM Punjabi version of the show (it’s earlier than the English version, which is held at 7.45). A good show, all CGI, but intelligently done and incorporating the contours of Dyer’s Bungalow in a creative way. This one is all about the history of Gobindgarh and Amritsar.
The last show at Gobindgarh was ‘Sher-e-Punjab’, a 7D biography of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. A 15-minute animated feature, this one was preceded by instructions handed over along with a pair of 3D glasses each: Don’t get out of your seat during the show, hold on tight to the grip bars attached to each seat, and if you start feeling scared, just take off the 3D glasses. What was coming? I was a bit worried for the LO—she couldn’t even reach the grip bars, so we had to secure her by pinning her down to her seat with one arm each on either side. And we told her again and again: tell us if you’re scared. Take off the glasses if you’re scared.
What came was quite a ride—literally. Ranjit Singh and his armies galloped their horses and our seats bounced and shook in unison. It rained on the troops, their enemies waded through streams—and we had water squirted in our faces. Arrows flew, and the whoosh and whish of puffs of air blew on our faces. The LO loved it, every single minute of it. She came away not having learnt too much about Ranjit Singh except that his father died when he was a boy and that he himself lost one eye to illness when he was seven—but she adored it. She wanted to go back for the English show too (the one we watched was the Punjabi one, which does have English subtitles).
The next day, our last in Amritsar, the LO was treated to more of Ranjit Singh. We went to visit the Maharaja Ranjit Singh Panorama, which consists of various paintings and dioramas about Ranjit Singh’s life—the dioramas, in particular, were beautifully executed and detailed, probably the finest I’ve seen in India.
Upstairs, there’s the Panorama itself—a viewing deck surrounded by a 300° (or so) representation of the major battles fought by Ranjit Singh, painted on the circular walls of the Panorama Hall, and in the form of life-size mannequins closer to the viewing deck. There are figures of men, horses, cannon—all of it creating a pretty realistic impression of war (which is heightened by the background noise, a constant din of cannonfire, shouting men, screaming horses and more—which, because it’s playing in a loop, becomes deafening after a while).
After the Panorama, we went off to explore the nearby area of Ram Bagh. Ram Bagh was where Ranjit Singh had his summer palace: it’s currently surrounded by scaffolding and so was off-limits, but there are several other buildings, pavilions and the like, scattered around nearby which we had fun searching out.
The area is rather dusty and neglected, but with lots of trees with their accompanying birds and squirrels and insects, so much fun was had by the LO (and, I must admit, by her parents; we’re all a nature-loving family).
Finally, we visited the Christchurch Cathedral.
No, this isn’t a tourist attraction, but I had hoped it would close the loop for a family connection with Amritsar. Way back in 1946, my mother, then about the age the LO is now—a little short of five—went to live in Amritsar because her father, my Nana, who worked as a sound recordist with HMV, had been posted to Lahore. My Nana’s uncle, Sharat Chandra Banerji, was then Bishop of Amritsar—the first Indian to hold that post—and Nana and his family stayed with them at the Bishop’s house. My mother has very vivid memories of that period, especially of the Partition (as Christians, the Banerjis were in no danger themselves, but they saw a lot of violence all around them, and eventually had to leave Amritsar for Calcutta on a train so jam-packed with refugees that my Nana had to climb in and out through the window to get water for his children).
We went to Christchurch in the hope that as the cathedral it might have some plaque or other memory of Sharat Chandra Banerji. That proved a fruitless trip, since service was in progress. We had a flight to catch, too, so couldn’t afford to wait on to explore the church once service was over. It’s an old church, though, so there’s a chance my ancestor did preach here.
So that was our Amritsar trip. It was much more interesting than I’d hoped it would be, there was lots of history I hadn’t known about, and the Partition Museum was a revelation.
And of course, this being Amritsar and pretty much known to be a foodie’s paradise, we managed to fit in a couple of excellent meals. A thali (with some fabulous lachha paratha and dal makhani) and some sarson da saag te makki di roti at Bharawan da Dhaba:
And Makhan Chicken and Fish’s superlative fried fish.
We’re already thinking of when we can return, because there’s Kesar da Dhaba and Manchanda and Mahajan still to be tried. And some juttis and phulkari to be bought. Plus, the LO is insistent that she wants to see the Golden Temple; I’ve not been forgiven for going off without her.