An Indian’s Journey Across India
The year 1947 saw the birth of not one nation but two: India and Pakistan. New borders were created where there were none. On our 11th anniversary, we embarked on an epic ride from the westernmost border of India to her easternmost one. In this, the first
AUGUST 1947. AT THE stroke of the midnight hour on the 14th of that month (effectively the 15th), an ancient nation suffering under the burden of British colonial rule for nigh on two centuries was reborn as a new and independent country where plurality would come to be valued and where diversity would become the strength in the years to come. Yet what should have resulted in unalloyed joy came to be tinged with tears and bathed in blood as the full horror of the Partition was unleashed on the masses.
On our 11th anniversary, which also happens to coincide with the month of India’s Independence, we embark on a rare ride from the border that separates India from Pakistan in Wagah to the riverine border between India and Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan), defined by the river Isamoti (Ichhamati). Through the course of this journey we pay homage to the
martyrs of our Freedom Struggle, mourn the senseless loss of lives during the Partition and celebrate the plurality that has come to define Independent India.
Our journey starts at the huge iron gates that have separated India from Pakistan since 1947 at the border outpost in Wagah, just 30 odd kilometres west of the city of Amritsar in Punjab. Standing at the barrier, an awed witness to the famous Exchange of Flags ceremony ( see box for
details of this ceremony) that takes place every evening between the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) and the Pakistan Rangers, it is difficult to imagine the plight of the thousands of families that fled for their lives in both directions along this centuries old Grand Trunk Road that once ran from distant Jessore to Lahore but now stands truncated by the gates of Wagah. A shiny new pillar has been constructed in homage to the 10 lakh souls from undivided Punjab who died in childbirth when the two nations of India and Pakistan were born.
With our back to the gruesome past, we choose to concentrate on the path ahead that has led our variegated people with all our differences to become the world’s largest democracy, an India where unity can only be found in diversity. Given that we were starting off from the Exchange of Flags ceremony, which starts at 6.30 pm every day in summers, we decided to call it a halt at Amritsar. Apart from helping us avoid the dangers of riding in the dark on Indian highways, the halt would also allow us to explore this medieval city founded by Guru Ram Das in AD 1574.
The highlight of Amritsar is, of course, Shree Harmandir Sahib (the Golden Temple). The temple itself, whose construction got under way in 1588, sits in the centre of a holy water tank whence the city gets its name (Amritsar, which literally means ‘the pool of divine nectar’). After parking the
Indian Scout in the safety of the multi-storeyed parking lot at the entrance of the lane leading to the Golden Temple, we walk through a busy bazaar lined with shops selling everything, from the Punjabi kada (steel bracelets) to kirpans (swords) and even fast food. It is hard to imagine that there can be any serenity in a part of the city that seems to be awash with people. Yet, just a few minutes later, walking down the steps of the entrance it is so easy to get immersed in the peace that the temple has offered visitors for over 450 years. The cool slap of water on the sides of the stone steps lining the tank combines with the hum of prayers and devotees’ song to create a surreal ambience of ethereal peace. Quite in sharp contrast to the crazy maze of the bazaar just outside the temple gate.
From the Golden Temple, it’s a hop skip and jump to the hallowed grounds of the Jallianwala Bagh. No trip that pays homage to the Freedom Struggle can ignore this spot. Back in 1919, on 13 April, the festive day of Baisakhi, Brigadier General RE H Dyer’s troops opened fire on a throng of people who were peacefully protesting against the Rowlatt Act of 1919. The site, which had been washed with the blood of over a thousand Indians, is now a public park that houses a memorial. The memorial opens at six o’clock in the morning every day and is a popular site for both tourists and the residents of Amritsar. It’s one of those places that will not fail to sober one’s thoughts, especially thanks to the martyrs’ well, into which 120 men, women and children had jumped to escape British bullets but were drowned, and the bullet holes in the
nearby building that have been preserved as if the bullets had been fired just yesterday.
After an action-packed day that had taken us from the border ceremony of Wagah to the serenity of the Golden Temple and then the sobering memories of martyrs at the Jallianwala Bagh, dinner was the need of the hour. But not just any dinner, for when in Amritsar, you must have authentic Punjabi cuisine and there is no better place to savour the culinary delights of Punjab than at Bharawan da Dhaba at Town Hall. It serves mouth-watering vegetarian Punjabi delicacies such as sarson da saag (spinach in mustard sauce) and makki di roti (unleavened corn bread) and Amritsari
aloo kulcha (a white unleavened bread with potato stuffing).
Early next morning, we get astride the Scout and start our journey eastwards with our eyes set firmly on the first port of call, which happens to be New Delhi. This city of seven cities has its unique place in the history of India’s Struggle for Freedom for it was at the Lal Quila (Red Fort) in Delhi that the mutinying sepoys of the First War of Independence finished their march, on which they had embarked in distant Barrackpore, and proclaimed the old and decrepit Bahadur Shah Zafar the emperor of free Hindustan back in 1857. To this day, the Indian Prime Minister delivers his Independence Day speech from the ramparts of this fort in the walled city of Shahjahanabad in old Delhi. This area is also famous for what it can offer the foodie, for not far from here is Delhi’s famous parathewale galli (the lane of the parathawallas) and the inimitable Karim’s hotel.
Not far from here is Lutyens’ Delhi, the heart of British Delhi and the capital of modern India. It is at Lutyens’ Delhi that the first part of our ride to the Indo-Bangla border comes to an end. No celebration of Independence can be complete, though, without a nod of acknowledgement to the Indian Parliament, a thundering ride from the Rashtrapati Bhavan on Raisina Hill down the arrow-straight Rajpath down to India Gate where the flame of the Amar Jawan Jyoti flickers day and night in silent homage to the memories of the men in uniform who sacrifice their lives so that we may live free.