After some hectic domestic engagements in July, my wife and I thought of taking a short break away from Delhi. We considered many nearby destinations. Inclement weather and reports of rivers breaking their banks, landslides, et al ruled out a trip to the hills. Finally, we decided to visit Chandigarh and Amritsar, which were easily accessible and where rains had not disrupted the life. More importantly, here was an opportunity to visit the Golden Temple and the “first planned city of India”, neither of which we had had an opportunity to visit so far.
The Shatabdi Express train, which leaves New Delhi early in the morning was a good choice. The interiors were nice, the seats comfortable and except for a leaking tap the toilets were clean.
This indeed is a great improvement over our past experiences of train journeys across India. The breakfast too was good and quite adequate for the journey. I only wished that they served a somewhat better quality tea as, although the tea bag was of a popular brand, the brew tasted horrible.
A trip out of one’s sanctuary (in Delhi or wherever else) is an eye-opener in many ways. For one, we tend to compare the new place with our usual habitat. As we came out of the railway station at Chandigarh we were greeted by the familiar crowd of taxi and auto rickshaw drivers. The wooden cabin with an upside down board proclaiming it to be the “pre-paid taxi/auto booth” was empty, with no taxi or auto anywhere near it. ‘We are not too far from New Delhi’s Paharganj’, I thought. We did however manage to get an auto rickshaw which agreed to take us to our hotel at a price which appeared reasonable. The fare meter fitted to the dash board, our driver explained, was not in use. I was happy to find at least something similar to Delhi here, besides the chaos at the railway station. What little of the city I saw over the next two days proved me wrong.
Admitting that both in terms of area and population Chandigarh is much smaller than Delhi, I found that in the matter of cleanliness and civic sense Chandigarh was better than many other Indian cities. Our modest hotel was located in the vicinity of three markets which we walked around. My experience of markets in Delhi was totally different from what I saw in Chandigarh. In our very own neighbourhood market in Delhi taking one’s car inside and extricating it from there is nothing short of a nightmare. Common sense dictates that in a narrow space, vehicles should be either parked on one side, or at least not exactly opposite to each other. But then, we are not particularly well known for applying our common sense, especially when the outcome might benefit others. In contrast, markets in Chandigarh have ample parking space and the city is even making some money by charging parking fees, which also discourages the tendency to park one’s vehicles in the market throughout the day.
The ubiquitious “Agarwal Sweets” are there too but they have not been allowed to usurp the corridors of the markets to set up chullas to fry jalebis or pakoras. This is quite unlike Delhi markets where customers have to find their way through the maze of jalebi and samosa makers, fruit vendors and tailors, mehendi wallahs and watch repairers. Bereft of such amusements, life in Chandigarh may for some appear to be a little dull but we enjoyed the respite from Delhi’s din and ruckus.
We of course visited the usual tourist spots, viz the Rock Garden and the Shukna lake and took part in a guided tour of the aesthetically planned High Court, Assembly and Secretariat buildings of the city. The Rock Garden is indeed captivating and is a testimony to man’s creativity which can turn trash into works of art. I failed to guess, however, as to why the ticket windows at the Rock Garden are so small and low that one can barely see the fingers of the persons behind them.
The nearby Shukna Lake was charming where we spent some time gazing at the placid waters while a gentle breeze caressed us after a day’s exposure to the sun. We were set to start for Amritsar early next morning, and hence returned to our hotel for dinner and rest.
Amritsar, being a holy place and a historical city, obviously cannot be compared to either New Delhi or Chandigarh. It was drizzling when we arrived there and little pools of of water were everywhere. When the rain stopped, the lack of any footpath and the mud and slush made it impossible to walk even a short distance. It seemed that Amritsar had no faith in a sewerage system. By afternoon, however, the clouds dispersed, the sun was out and it was time to discover the city.
Under the arches of the old gates of Amritsar flows a never ending procession of men, women and children. Most of them are walking towards the centre of attraction, the Golden Temple. The roads here are narrow and dotted on either side with shops selling everything from ceremonial kirpans and swords to delectable lassi and a variety of other delicacies. The area surrounding the temple is being given a face-lift, and all the work is going on at the same time. The air was thick with dust resulting from the cutting, grinding and curving of stones by hundreds of workmen.
Inside the Golden Temple compound it was a different world. The beautiful lake reflected the grand temple with its glittering golden dome. Thousands of devotees walked in a silent procession for “darshan” amidst the soothing tune of mellifluous kirtan. As the sun’s last rays painted the sky in a hue that nature’s palate alone can produce, the entire temple complex became even more serene and beautiful.
A trip to Amritsar is not complete without a visit to the famous site of Jallianwala Bagh which is a memorial to the brutal massacre of peaceful protesters by British troops on 13 April 1919 in which, even official reports say, nearly 400 people were killed.
The ‘bagh’ is well laid out with an “eternal flame’, a martyrs’ column, some walls bearing bullet marks, a well into which many had jumped to escape the bullets, and a small museum to tell the visitors the story of Jallianwala Bagh.
It was good to see many visitors taking a round of the memorial. However, how many of them were actually aware of what Jallianwala Bag was about is a moot question. The museum provides rather sketchy information from which it is difficult for a lay man to reconstruct the history. There does not appear to be any attempt to make the display interesting and attractive. Some of structures within the memorial compound are, however, serving one purpose – that of a nice resting place for pilgrims and vagabonds.
As against Jallianwala Bagh, the nationalistic brouhaha at the nearby Wagah border draws more people. One reason is of course that the evening function at the border is visually much more attractive than the dull and dimly lit interiors of a museum or a memorial to the martyrdom of a few hundred people. Furthermore, paying homage to the martyrs at the Bagh hardly gives one any opportunity to exhibit one’s love for the motherland.
We did visit the border and were allowed up to the gate. However, the actual number of viewers to the ceremony was restricted to a few hundreds due to the ongoing construction. We thus lost the golden opportunity to make a full-throated public display of our patriotism. For the likes of us there was a giant screen on which to witness the event. We thought it would be better to avoid the scorching afternoon sun and beat a retreat to spend some more time at the Golden Temple instead.
We had heard a lot about fish and chicken delicacies of Amritsar and did try some from a well known eatery. It was good, maybe very good, but wasn’t anything that was really “special”. In comparison, we found the vegetarian food at some simple no-frills restaurants, both in Chandigarh and Amritsar to be delicious. Taste changes with age, for sure.
We returned to Delhi on a rainy afternoon and had a great trouble in locating our taxi at New Delhi Railway station. Cabs of Ola, Uber and other such companies were not allowed entry by auto rickshaw drivers. We had to walk out of the station in order to get ours. The driver told us that the strikers “are armed with injection needles and are puncturing our tyres if we enter the railway station”, leaving us in no doubt that we were indeed back to Delhi.