Amritsar’s town hall was no more like I remembered it. The cluttered lanes had given way to a spacious arcade with a uniform architecture with open brick walls which were new, but transported you to a time bygone. Standing at the centre of the town hall with The Golden Temple on one side and Jallianwala Bagh on the other , there are memories sweet and bitter that engulf you and before you realise it, you become a part of the history that the land has witnessed. At this point, the best you can do is to soak it all in instead of shrugging it off.
I wanted to explore Amritsar through food and through stories of its every day people. We made our first stop at the legendary Bharawaan da Dhaba run by Mr Subhash Vij and his family since 1912. Mr Vij, a third generation owner of the eatery has been running it since the last 43 years. I asked Mr Vij what draws people to his eatery from far away lands and how have they managed to retain the same fame and quality for over a century, and he said, “ann ka nasha toh sabko hai.”
“With every generation the food preferences change and newer stuff becomes available in the markets and it is natural for people to deviate towards it and try something new. But what will never change for us is the feeling of returning to your roots. We will always seek comfort and we will always seek “apna khaana” at the end of the day. That is what is the secret to our success,” he went on to explain what he meant by that statement. We tried some of the most delicious dishes at his dhaba – from the creamy dal makhani (without cream), the paneer makhani to the assorted kulchas.
While everyone insisted that we visit Jalianwalah Bagh after the meal, I was quite against the idea. I had visited that place three years ago and what I saw left me really disturbed and furious and that feeling didn’t leave me for the longest time. The gruesome killings of the past and the disrespect for a place like that by the Indian tourists, is no short of killing what it stands for. Posing romantically with your spouse/partner next to the well where hundreds jumped to their death isn’t really an ideal thing to do! When will we as tourists learn to respect and learn about our heritage? This made me skip visiting that place, and in my eyes that is how I can pay homage t it, by not tarnishing the memories attached to it.
While walking to The Golden Temple, we stopped at few shops to pick up the Amritsari wadiyaan and papad. I noticed the various shops selling phulkari dupattas and wanted to check them out, when my Bua informed me how all of it is machine-made and rarely anyone sells handmade phulkari now. She explained to me the difference between phulkari and bagh. Simple and sparsely-embroidered dupattas and shawls, made for everyday use, are called Phulkaris, whereas garments that cover the entire body, made for special and ceremonial occasions like weddings and birth of a child with fully covered fabric is called bagh (garden) and scattered work on the fabric is called adha bagh (half garden).
She went on to tell me the story of my great grandmother who used to do this embroidery at home while nestled in the verandah with other ladies of the family. These embroideries were done by the women for their family members only, making it purely a domestic art which not only satisfied their inner urge for creation but brought colour into day-to-day lives. Phulkari was an essential part of a girl’s wedding trousseau. While listening to all of this, I realised that one of the golden-threaded baghs made by my great grandmother is preserved at my place too, and I never realised how intricate and dear it is to our family.
“Phulkari became a language of the women, decorative and beautiful, and every stitch appeared on the fabric as a rendition of that private dialect.”
― Aanchal Malhotra,
Walking through those narrow dark corridors that open up to The Golden Temple was the most beautiful conclusion that I could have asked for, for my Punjab trip. It was like walking through darkness and then finally seeing in front of your eyes what you sought. The beauty in the simplicity of that place cannot be expressed through words…it can only be felt.
All these years I spent in the darkness of where I came from, who I am, have now culminated into this journey which I have embarked on. This is now bigger than me and my questions…this is now about us. About all of us who want to understand ourselves better and preserve our heritage. There is a long road ahead, and I have only just begun.
*This marks the end of the Punjab Series for the blog. More coming soon in another format
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