A selfie today defines the great Indian family vacation. As uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, grandpas and grandmas throng to get that perfect shot, what lies forgotten is the purpose of the trip; the historical and cultural soul of the city visited frivolously hidden in the backdrop of those pouts and smiling faces. I remember a few family trips that I took as a child. Since I did not own a camera taking pictures was never a priority, but ‘observing’ was. ‘Observe the things that the city offers you’, my Dadaji would remind me in the train, ‘observe the people, the way they live, the monuments, the markets and then write something about it.’ What followed was a keen inquiry of the city and its people, a skill that was to come in handy years later during my field visits.
Years after my parents’ seamless settlement into a retired life in Pune, we planned a holiday again, perhaps to touch base with our North Indian traditions, that we were gradually consigning to oblivion. The precursor to the holiday was a splendid wedding after which our continued family visits would take us to parts of Punjab and Lucknow. Before we boarded our flight to Delhi, I dutifully remembered my Dadaji’s counsel.
But what was I to observe this time? I had explored Delhi’s history as part of my doctoral research and had intellectually pursued Wazir Ali, Saadat Ali and Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow. The Punjab, therefore, stood ready for discernment. All that was needed now was a keen eye and Rajmohan Gandhi’s ‘Punjab’.
In my academic and leisured readings of history, the Punjab always appeared as a gateway that led to many epoch making events in Indian history. From Alexander to the Ghaznis and Ghoris, from Timur to the Mongols and the Mughals, everyone made stormy forays into the Punjab, with some only plundering and looting this rich fertile land and some marching ahead victorious and establishing powerful empires.
Gateways are galore even in Amritsar. Leading to congested alleys and bustling bazaars, these old gates around the city have been standing tall since the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Punjab’s glorious Sikh ruler. A walk in the walled city of Amritsar takes one to spiritual enlightenment at the Harmandir Sahib and gets sombre when you reach yet another gateway to history – the Jallianwala Bagh.
Making my way through the crowded albeit ‘historic lane’ at the Jallianwala Bagh, the red brick walls take me back to undivided Punjab when Akbar divided this land into a series of ‘doabs’, a tract of land lying between two rivers. Therefore, between the Chenab and Jhelum rivers lay the Chaj doab, the rivers Chenab and Ravi watered the Rachna doab, the Bari doab prospered within the region of the Beas and Ravi while the Bist doab was situated between the confluent rivers of Beas and Sutlej. The mighty Sindh Sagar doab was the land between the Indus (Sindhu) and Jhelum. Each of these doab demonstrated a distinctive culture, soaked in the rivers that watered them.
As tourists bask in the winter sun at the Jallianwala Bagh, I think of the Mughals’ long-standing political tenure in the Punjab with Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb leaving behind stable and sometimes tumultuous legacies. The Mughal sway over the Punjab lasted until Maharaja Ranjit Singh procured supremacy. Losing his left eye to small pox as an infant, Ranjit Singh displayed valour as a child when he fought his first battle at age 10. In the years to come he founded a robust Sikh empire with its capital at Lahore.
My intent strolls at the Jallianwala Bagh also reveal that the garden once belonged to Bhai Hamit Singh Jallawalia “ a vakil of Raja Jaswant Singh of Nabha, at the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.” Situated in a narrow crooked lane, the bagh was once surrounded by the back walls of residential structures and was a mere dumping ground. Nevertheless, this rather dilapidated garden became the venue for a peaceful meeting on 13th April 1919, called in the wake of the unrest caused by the Rowlatt Act and the consequent arrests of many popular leaders like Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Kitchlew.
I turn around and once again look at the historic lane, from where General Reginald Dyer and his heavily armed forces made their way into the bagh. My wanderings take me to Devon, a small English county to which Dyer’s family traced their origins. Arriving in India in the 1820s, the family was known to have started India’s first brewery at Kasauli. Of the Dyers, Reginald was born to Edward and Mary Dyer and served in the British Indian Army. Following the disturbances in the Punjab in 1919, General Dyer arrived at Amritsar from the Jullundhar cantonment to take over the civil administration that was beginning to collapse under its Deputy Commissioner, Miles Irving.
Recollecting the historical facts of General Dyer and the year 1919, I observe the many bullet marks on the red brick walls, a bloody reminder of that monstrous massacre that left several dead; the well situated in the garden premises still echoing with the deafening screams of innocent women and children.
Caught amidst these myriad emotions, I am unceremoniously asked to step aside by a group of tourists who are adjusting their selfie sticks as the women practice the ‘pout’. As the cries of the martyrs of 1919 ebb, I come back to 2016 and look for my mom and dad, who are also basking in the winter sun. Walking back to them, I look at the red brick walls, think of my next blog and wonder how a General and a Bagh let me bethink of the many histories of the Punjab!
Thank you Dadaji for teaching me to ‘observe’ and introducing me to the joys of travelling, writing and reading history.