People squeeze through the narrow passage that separates Jallianwala Bagh from the crowded road outside. It is as if someone has shut off the noise, so that you can hear the sounds of a century ago — the clatter of hobnailed boots as Indian soldiers under British Colonel Reginald Dyer fired at unarmed protestors who had gathered here on Baisakhi (April 13, 1919), the cries of the injured and the vociferous condemnation around the globe that rung the death knell for the Empire. The 1,650 rounds killed or wounded over 1,500, and left bore marks on the brick walls, now squared off with white paint. A red sandstone pillar, symbolic of the flame of liberty, is the centrepiece in a memorial designed by American architect Benjamin Polk that opened in 1961. The well, where hundreds jumped in to escape the carnage and drowned, is now dry, filled with coins. Surrounding it is a gallery that marks Amritsar’s place in the freedom struggle. A sculpture of nameless faces and a statue of freedom fighter Udham Singh stand motionless in the noon sun.
Partition — a term too barren to describe an event so saturated in blood, madness and tragedy. Seventy-two years since it fractured a subcontinent, forcing the largest migration in history, it is still incessantly spoken of in Amritsar as a time when things fell apart. Till 2016, the only reminders had been photographs of refugees on the run, and a stone pillar at the Attari-Wagah border. As the distance widens between the extraordinary generation that survived it and one that struggles to understand its place in our history, the first Partition Museum was set up at Town Hall, to document these stories of hardships, heartaches and robust optimism. Set up by The Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust, the letters, clothes, newspapers and refugee cards exhibited here, along with recorded histories, were sourced through word of mouth. Among them is a 19th-Century Guru Granth Sahib which found its way to a lady in Delhi from her former house in Rawalpindi, now occupied by Muslims, and an engraved name board in Lahore, originally from Jalandhar — examples of the audacity of hope.
There was a time when three things in the Punjab could bring the blood to boil — zan, zamin, zar (women, land, gold). Add to that, a fourth — the long wait in queues for fluffy bhatura and pindi chole eaten in the narrow bylanes around the Golden Temple, while dodging bony cows and rickshaws. There’s also the flaky paratha at the century-old Bharawan Da Dhaba, creamy dal makhni at Kesar Da Dhaba and sugared whirls of contentment at Gurdas Ram Jalebiwala, to tick off the list. Catch your breath at Fawwara Chowk, where stands the statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh on a horse, sword raised triumphantly, almost leaping off the engraved marble base. Wind your way through the cobblestoned, remodelled Dharam Singh Market that sells everything from papads and pickles to phulkari. Life-size statues showcase Punjab’s culture — girls do the gidda, turbaned boys dance the bhangra, stick in hand. To catch a real-life version, head to Gobindgarh Fort in the evenings. There, its medieval walls showcase stories of a land and a valorous people that have stood at the crossroads of history.