An Escape to Chandigarh and Amritsar

After some hectic domestic engagements in July 2016, 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 till then.

The Shatabdi Express train, which left New Delhi early in the morning was a good choice. The interiors were nice, the seats comfortable and, but for a leaking tap, the toilets were clean.

This indeed was 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 had served a somewhat better-quality tea as, although the tea bag was of a popular brand, the brew tasted horrible.

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 that appeared reasonable.

The fare meter fitted to the dashboard, our driver informed us, was not in use. I was happy to find so many similarities to Delhi, besides the chaos at the railway station that is a unique feature of any big Indian city having a railway connection.  

What little of Chandigarh 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.

A road in Chandigarh

My experience of markets in Delhi was totally different from what I saw in Chandigarh. In our very own neighbourhood market in Delhi, driving 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 any event not exactly opposite to each other.  But then, we the people of India are not particularly well known for applying our common sense, especially when the outcome might benefit others.

In contrast, I found markets in Chandigarh had ample parking space and the city was even making some money by charging parking fees, which also discouraged the tendency to park one’s vehicles in the market throughout the day.

The ubiquitous “Agarwal Sweets” were there too but they were not allowed to usurp the corridors of the markets to set up gas stoves to fry jalebis or pakoras. This was quite unlike Delhi markets where we had to find our 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 might appear to be a little dull for some Delhites, but we enjoyed the respite from the capital’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 and very modern looking High Court, Assembly and Secretariat buildings of the city.  They are quite unlike similar edifices in other Indian cities.

At the Rock Garden

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 barred pigeon holes.

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.


Sukhna Lake

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 at the station.  The rain had created small puddles of water were everywhere.  The lack of any footpath, and the mud and slush made it difficult to walk even a short distance.  It seemed that like Delhi, Amritsar too had little faith in a sewerage system that worked.  

With some difficulty, we reached our hotel, which was just 100 metres from the Rail Station. The word “Grand” appended to its name was a bit misplaced given its rather rundown condition.  However, the wooden staircase, marbled corridors and high ceilings indeed spoke of past grandeur.  The room was freshly painted and furnished.  We also found that we could walk up to the terrace above for a walk and also for a fine view of the Rail Station across the road.

By the afternoon the clouds dispersed, the sun was out and it was time for us to discover the city.  Under the arches of the old gates of Amritsar passed a never-ending stream of men, women and children. Most of them were walking towards the centre of attraction, the Golden Temple. The roads were 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 was being given a face-lift, and all the work was 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.

At the Golden Temple

Inside the compound of the Golden Temple, it was altogether a different world. The beautiful lake reflected the grand temple with its glittering golden dome and spires. Thousands of devotees walked in a silent procession for darshan. The soft and mellifluous tune of kirtan soothed the ears.   As the sun’s last rays painted the sky in a hue that nature’s pallet alone can produce, the entire temple complex acquired a glow that was serene and beautiful.

We had our darshan (looking at and bowing before the Guru Granth Sahib – the Holy Book of the Sikhs), parikrama (circumambulation)and ‘prasad’ (sanctified food)and spent some time sitting in front of the lake in silence.  The ‘Guru Ka Langar’ at this holiest shrine of the Sikhs never stops feeding the devotees and visitors.  A band of devotees work as volunteers in various departments of the Langar – from making the food, distributing it to thousands and, washing the used utensils.

We collected our plates, spoons and bowls, sat down alongside hundreds of others, were served hot chapatis, dal, sabzi and halwa.  After eating, we deposited the utensils back to a place where a number of volunteers were busy washing, wiping and keeping them clean and ready for the next batch. 

The next morning, we went to a Durga temple and had another visit to the Golden Temple.  We also went around a crowded textile market located in one of the serpentine lanes which spread like tentacles in all directions, with the Golden Temple at the centre.

It was apparent that trade was thriving and most shops were full of potential customers. 

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 unofficial estimate of the dead is way above the official figure. 

The Memorial Column at Jallianwala Bagh

We entered the place through a narrow lane, which opened into a squarish bagh (garden).   We found the garden well laid out.   An “eternal flame’ was burning in front of a simple Martyrs’ Column standing on a green lawn.  There were walls bearing bullet marks and a well into which many had jumped in a futile attempt to escape the bullets.  Near the exit there was a small museum to tell the visitors the story of Jallianwala Bagh.

The place was austere, sombre and unusually silent in the midst of all the din just outside its periphery.  It felt like we were back to the day when perhaps the most horrible massacre of unarmed, non-violent people was committed by General Dyer and his troops.  Blocking off the only exit from the square, the General ordered firing “till the last bullet” on the people who had gathered there to protest against the arrest of a prominent leader under a draconian law. Immediately after the incident, a gag order was placed on reporting the massacre and a curfew was imposed in the city. 

The very austerity and solemnity of the place, what with those bullet-ridden walls, the well and the martyrs column,  was an eloquent testimony to the barbarity of the colonial masters who claimed to be civilized human beings.  Jallianwala Bagh, as it were, was standing there telling the world, “We have not forgotten”! 

Bullet marks on the wall

It was good to see many visitors taking a round of the memorial in silence.  Most of them seemed to be quite moved by what they saw.   However, the dimly lit museum provided rather sketchy information from which it would be difficult for a layman to reconstruct the history or appreciate the importance of Jallianwala Bagh in the annals of India’s freedom struggle.  There did not appear to be an attempt to make the displays interesting and attractive, or at least visible by placing some focusing lights. 

My wife and I discussed how in European countries they make a big and attractive display of matters of far less historical importance than Jallianwala Bagh.  We found the square itself was quite fine, but the museum was an utter disappointment. 

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 and is like a huge fair.  Furthermore, paying homage to the martyrs at the Bagh hardly gives one an 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 hundred due to some 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 evening sun, and beat a quick retreat to spend some more time at the Golden Temple instead.

We had heard a lot about the fish and chicken delicacies of Amritsar and did try some from well-known eateries on the famous food street of Amritsar. The fare was good, maybe very good, but wasn’t anything that was really something to go wild about.  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 great trouble locating our cabbie at New Delhi Railway station.  Three-wheeler drivers were not allowing cabs of Ola, Uber and other such companies into the lot meant for them in the station complex.   We had to walk out of the station in order to get ours. Our driver said, “the strikers, armed with injection needles, are puncturing our tyres if we enter the railway station”.  That left us in no doubt that we were indeed back to Delhi.  

Photo credit:

Sukhna Lake: Internet

Rest : Author

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