Travelling Through India’s Punjab Region

The first day of my tour of the Punjab and Ragasthan got off to a bad start. I had hired a car and driver and used a tour agency to book hotels along the way. The plan was to leave New Delhi at 7am to get an early start on the 7-8 hour journey to Amritsar in the northwestern part of Punjab, just 30 km from the Pakistan border.  I wanted to visit the Golden Temple, first established in the 16th century and the holiest site in the Sikh religion and I wanted to see it at sundown just for the experience.  I had first heard about the temple in the mid 1980’s when I was a radio news announcer and had read about an attack the Indian army had made on the temple during one of the holiest Sikh holidays in 1984 to try to arrest a suspected terrorist holed up inside, killing hundreds of pilgrims.  A few months two of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her in retaliation for the attack. So when I planned my trip to India it was high on my list of must see places.  I woke up at 6am, packed up my gear, got ready and was in the lobby at 7am waiting for my pre-arranged ride.  He finally arrived at 7:45 offering an apology.  We headed back to his office in a car that did not appear to be the vehicle promised.  There was no seatbelt in the backseat so I would have to sit in the front the entire way.  As it turned out we were going back to the office to pick up another car.  But when we arrived and transferred all of my gear we discovered the previous driver had left the gas gauge on empty, well bone dry is more like it.  My driver, Ram had to fill the tank with emergency gas he had in the back seat in a couple of plastic soda bottles.  The car still wouldn’t start so he had to push it, while someone else from the office worked the ignition and accelerator to get the gas flowing.  The car belched out some black smoke and sputtered back to life.  We finally were able to hit the road… at 8:30am.  As we drove toward the highway out of the city we pulled over in traffic and stopped.  At almost every stop light in New Delhi you are approached by beggars, sometimes a dishevelled woman dressed in dirty rags pleading with her eyes and gestures for money to eat, others are children, one playing a bongo drum while a younger child, sometimes a young boy with his face painted to look like a man with a moustache and beard, playing a drum or turning cartwheels in traffic.  This time two relatively well dressed women wearing saris, approached the car, one clapping her hands rhythmically.  As she reached the car window she exchanged a few words with the driver who then handed her some money.  When she peered into the window I though her face seemed rather masculine and she had a deeper voice, sounding like an Indian drag queen.  It turns out I was right on the money.  When we pulled away I asked Ram why he had given the woman the cash, and he said ‘not man, woman’.  Turns out she is a Hijra, a transvestite/transexual and the money was like an offering for good luck. Hijras are a part of Indian culture but are violently discriminated against and often victims of vicious attacks.  However they occasionally perform ceremonies at weddings and the birth of boys to bring good luck and fertility.  Many people are afraid to refuse to give them money when asked, for fear of being cursed with bad luck, which is why my driver handed over the cash at the start to ensure we would have a safe journey. We finally hit the highway and I started seeing Indian life outside the big city for the first time.  It was similar to the landscape in some of the other countries I had already visited, more poverty, more industry and more agricultural life.  There are also numerous roadside stands selling everything from soda pop, water, and snacks to trinkets and jewelry.  We stopped at one very small stall near a toll both, my driver got out and I did the same to get some fresh air, and there were two boys in their early teens and an older man sitting around the stall.  They ignored me for a moment until one of the boys noticed my nose ring and started pointing at me and laughing. I wasn’t surprised, it was the same reaction I’d been getting since I arrived in India 3 days earlier.  I was first in line at the customs counter when the agent slowly looked up at me. He suddenly got a shocked look on his face and at that point two other agents came over to him and they had a few words and started laughing, glancing at me the whole time.  I knew what they were referring to and that they were laughing at me.  Other times people would literally stop dead in their tracks and stare open mouthed at my face.  At first it felt like I had two heads but an earlier tour guide had told me that nose rings are for women and while younger teens are getting their ears, chins and eyebrows pierced, they wouldn’t get their nose done. I decided to just laugh it off, which is what I did on this day too.  We continued our journey, stopping for lunch at a roadside hotel café in Punjab where a table of teenage boys wearing crimson turbans and blazers were glancing at me and giggling.  Outside the city this was becoming even more of an issue and I started to feel self-conscious.  As we drove on we hit a stretch of massive road construction, a widening of the highway, so we would have to use the service road the rest of the way to Amritsar.  When we were about 100km from the holy city the sun started to get lower on the horizon and my heart was sinking just as fast.  I wouldn’t be able to see the temple at sundown.  I had arranged a fairly quick trip to Punjab and Amritsar and the state of Ragasthan so there was no room for flexibility.  With the sun close to setting we hit the Amritsar city limits passing through the final toll both.  I told the driver I had hoped to visit the temple at sundown so he said, ‘okay we go there first.’ As we sped through the bustling city we finally hit the old district and traffic was jammed with pedestrians everywhere, most Sikhs in their traditional dress.  As we squeezed through traffic the sky was getting darker and the sun was no longer visible.  Despite best efforts, I realized this probably wasn’t going to happen.  Finally we reached the temple site and pulled into the parking lot, my driver gave me instructions ‘wear something on your head’ so I grabbed my baseball cap, ‘and no shoes’.  He also gave me details on how to get to the entrance and I shot out of the car like a bullet, running through the crowd to get there before the last light was gone.  I handed my boots over at the drop-off and ran barefoot to the entrance where I washed my feet in the pools of ‘holy’ water and then walked through the tunnel to the main temple courtyard.  I had to be careful though, the marble floors were wet from the feet of thousands of pilgrims and tourists that day, so they were as slippery as sheer ice.  As I came down the steps and the tunnel, there before me was the Golden Temple, in the middle of a large pool of water.  The temple itself is beautiful and with the last light of day still illuminating it, the gold gilding (750kg of pure gold) simply glowed.  There are also giant carp swimming near the edge of the pond as some devotees stepped into the water, washing their faces with the holy water.  I sat own on the edge, took a bunch of photos and then sat back, revelling in the experience.  While children played, their parents and grandparents bowed down in reverence, putting their faces to the marble floor.  It was a very special moment.  I planned to return the next day to go inside, without my camera, but for now I was satisfied, I had seen the temple at sundown.

The next morning when we arrived at the temple I had to check my boots again, walk barefoot to the entrance and then wash my feet in the ‘holy’ water. This time a guard at the entrance told me I would have to wear a headscarf, no ball cap, so I had to pull one out of the public bin and put it on, wondering how many other people had worn the same scarf.  I took a few more photos before stashing my camera in order to go inside the temple.  I got in line among the devotees and we made a very slow procession along the bridge walkway, some singing along with the prayers being broadcast from inside.  As we reached the entrance the Sikh men and women would bow down and kiss the marble step over the threshold. Inside was a small roped off area where the musicians would play musical instruments and sing the prayers that were being sent out over speakers throughout the temple site.  I wasn’t getting as many strange looks from people this time.  They were more concerned with their prayers.  It only took a couple of minutes to move around the structure, elaborately decorated inside and out in brilliant gold.  Satisfied with my visit, I collected my boots and walked to the nearby old market that sold everything from food and saris to Sikh Kirpans. It’s a maze of narrow streets and alleys with many shops still closed at 11am.  I saw silver bangles in several shops so I stepped inside one to ask the price.  I was told 100rs (about $5 – so I knew they couldn’t be real silver), I said no and started to walk away when he called out “10rs”… sold!  As I walked through the alleys I had to dodge motorcycles, carts and rickshaws all vying for the same narrow space as pedestrians.  As one rickshaw passed me, the bolt from his back wheel hit me in the calf giving me a superficial scrape but reminded me to beware.  I saw one particularly frail looking beggar leaning against a lamp pole so I took out 45rs (about a buck) and gave it to him in exchange for a photo.  I then made my way back to the car for the 5-6 hour drive to Chandigarh,  the capital of the Punjab state .  It was laid out and designed in the 1950’s by renowned Swiss architect Le Corbusier as a ‘modernist utopia’. It is orderly with one square kilometer neighbourhoods laid out in a grid pattern, each with their own shops, schools and places of worship.  It is also cleaner than other Indian cities I’ve visited, with green trees and shrubs lining wide boulevards and traffic circles throughout the city,  a welcome respite from the mayhem and dusty streets of Delhi and Amritsar.  My only complaint, the city could use more streetlights.  When we arrived there was a torrential rainstorm and we had to drive through the city looking for my hotel in pitch blackness. It was almost impossible to see people crossing the street in front of us.  A modern city should be well lit for safety and security.  The highlight for me is the visit to the Nek Chand Fantasy Garden, one of India’s most visited tourist attractions after the Taj Mahal.  It was created by Nek Chand, an immigrant from Pakistan in the 1950’s who designed and built an elaborate theme park using recycled junk mixed with rocks, gardens and waterfalls to create a masterpiece.  When he arrived in Chandigarh, the city was still being constructed, but he was appalled at the materials that were being wasted, so he hauled much of it back to his home and recycled it into tens of thousands of sculptural artworks.  His creations weren’t discovered for more than a dozen years when a work crew stumbled on the site.  The local government saw the uniqueness of it and decided to give him a team of workers to finish the project.   As you wander through the grounds, you are amazed at what he had done with old scraps of construction material, and his own imagination.  There are figurines everywhere, some made of mosaic tiles and some made of scraps of wire.  If you like mosaics you will love this place.  It is covered in mosaics of all kinds and it’s like a maze, you take one wrong turn and you hit a dead end, so it’s an adventure as well. Sometimes you feel like Gulliver with everything built for little people (make sure you duck going through the doorways) and then you suddenly walk into a passageway where you are dwarfed by the massive rock walls.  It is definitely one of the most interesting theme parks I have ever visited and a little gem in southern Punjab that you wouldn’t expect to find.

Nek Shand Fantasy Garden Photo Gallery

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2 Responses to “Travelling Through India’s Punjab Region”

  1. Betty Sleeth
    March 8 at 10:17 am #

    Your travels through India continue to fascinate me!

    • Darren
      March 8 at 10:52 am #

      thanks Betty. I’m already planning my next adventures. I still have another two months here! so stay tuned…

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