Amritsar 3: The Kulchas
In Britain’s strange medley of militarism and well-wishing and racism and white-man’s-burdening that it called its Empire, the story of Jallianwalla Bagh has to be one of the most head-shaking and tear-budding and somber.
It’s the story of a subcontinent asking for freedom, and its wealthy Punjab province spearheading the request. Antagonizing the tale is a disciplinarian military man set on keeping order, and in the foreground are the dissident youth with more passion than common sense rousing the people of the city. A few days of protests and near-riots, a few deaths at the unrest, and a growing undercurrent of something-really-bad-is-going-down bubbled into the markets and stations and newspaper rooms.
In the immense courtyard, or Bagh, near the Golden Temple, one mid-morning in April 1919, several thousand residents and pilgrims had gathered to continue the spirit of protest and party and defiance. Fearing the worst and set on protecting the crown, the disciplinarian, a colonel by the name of Reginald Dyer, rolled in with a rifle brigade.
An unarmed populace. Tall walls wrapping the enclosure.
The troops took their positions. Did the crowds cower back to the walls? Did they shout their protests louder? Did the young men seek to hide the women and children?
Would anyone call the deadly bluff?
And then what? Mad scrambles for the walls? Shrieks and gunpowder smoke. Deafening crashes and lacerated masses. Blood soaking the garden soil.
History mocks at accuracy in Jalliawalla Bagh. England claims a few hundred died that day, from their official records. India claims more than a thousand—with families given little incentive to report fallen relatives, and with a British press more eager to downplay the figures anyway, who can say for certain? Bullet holes still riddle the courtyard walls. And as we strolled the gardens that crisp mid-day, among the green shrubs and picture-clicking families and the toddlers tumbling along the pebbly paths, it was hard to think that less than a hundred years have passed since the terror of Jallianwalla Bagh.
Coming from a country with a few hundred years of self-rule, it can be hard to picture just how big a deal autonomy must be when it’s new. It’s harder all the time to not only imagine the feeling of marching to a protest, knowing full well that those moments may well be the final ones that you ever walk out the door whole. Sacrifice and shouts, blood and moans and gore, and all those lives spilled in the Bagh for one more tiny step forward toward freedom.
I know it’s not as glitzy as the Golden Temple down the street, but if I had to choose a gold more precious—that on the roof of the nectar-house, or that in the memory of the fallen freedom protestors, I know which one I’m going with.
But that’s not all Amritsar got to offer—it’s more than the cold, and it’s more than the gold. It’s also home to one fiercely guarded border.
I find few Americans who truly appreciate the animosity of India and Pakistan’s bloody past. Even before the partition wars, history’s shifting iempires had pitted the populace’s armies along religious lines. Punjab’s fertile fields have seen no small diet of lifeblood poured into it over the centuries. Maybe it’s because Amerca has traditionally had the luxury of keeping its enemies an ocean away; maybe it’s due to our euro-centric history courses in public schools; maybe it’s a persisting colonial mentality that sees non-white lives as mere statistics.
Just try to imagine, then, not just a Cuban Missile Crisis, but an entire Russia parked right along our northern border through the Red Scare and Iron Curtain years. If you can picture that, then maybe you can start to appreciate why a trip to Amritsar necessitates a trip to the border with Pakistan.
The fanfare happens a mere thirty kilometers from the downtown. And keeping in line with my Don’t. Trust. Anyone. philosophy, we hopped on board with the third min-van tout lurking outside the Golden Temple. He was more than a little bald, and everywhere on his face that wasn’t covered in an enormous mustache was greased in a fine sheen. He smiled and waved us though the crowds. We were the last two suckers—I mean customers—he needed to fill up his van.
And we were off to see the walled frontier of Pakistan.
An active imagination keeps my travels curious, but I have no idea how to explain the ritual lowering of the flag that occurs at this border very sundown. On each side of a relatively tiny gate—about big enough for a moderately sized truck to fit through—are arranged bleachers seating thousands, and spotlights and razor wire enough to make Donald Trump grin.
As the fierce sun wanes in the western sky, the seats begin to fill and the anthems begin to rumble. The color guard, replete with rooster plumes of exaggerated proportions, takes its place.
No hush falls over this crowd, though.
Patriotic pop numbers blast from either side. Women and children flock to the street to dance the frenetic, bangle-bouncing rhythms. And the color guard struts and shouts through time-honored routines of stamping the pavement and staring down the soldiers on the other side.
The music blasts louder, the soldiers’ kicks raise higher and higher, till their high-polished combat boots slam the pavement from over the height of their heads, and the belligerent posturing swells into full swing.
The crowds on either side go absolutely bananas.
Only when the frenzy is at a fever pitch of nationalism and noise do the color guards carefully lower the flag of each nation—never for a moment allowing one to be seen higher than the other.
Then the crowds spill into the street and takes selfies in front of the storied gate. Then the chill air seeps back in, and each Amritsar pilgrim is left to file back out through the concertina and metal detectors to the market junction they arrived at. Once there, scour the maze of souvenir and street food that has blossomed from out of nowhere for a ride back to town. Imagine the county fair meets Tea Party immigration policy summit for a chest-thumping shindig at the Juarez-El Paso border crossing.
And then imagine trying to find your ride in the midst of a hundred identical minivans sputtering through the scene.
Cold? Check. Gold? Well, at least it made for a memory.
Hard as I try, though, it’s tough for me not to imagine the color guards getting off duty. I can picture them now, unwinding and nursing their aching feet, perhaps tossing a compliment or two to a comrade who had a particularly elevated foot-stomp that day, or an especially intimidating glower across the gate. Maybe they go out for drinks later—say a mango lassi among the vendors down the street. Maybe they hit on some girls and make some flirtatious comments about which caste she might belong to, or about having his parents express interest to her parents. Maybe after a few years, they’ll be forced to retire early and take disability pay due to chronically fractured feet from the endless pavement-smashing. Maybe back home in their military retirement village they will swap war stories with other vets about those rascally Pakistanis and the shenanigans they tried to pull one evening on the border
Back in reality, back in Amritsar, I was certain that we were going to sleep. We had rolled into town on the overnight train, hit the town before sun-up, and had walked rather non-stop round and round the temple, listened to enough chants to make even a monk look for the mute button, strolled through a massacre site, and sat through a strangely invigorating propaganda fiesta.
I felt like a marathon finisher had just been invited to a rock concert before through-hiking the Appalachian Trail and finishing the evening with a squats-and-lunges workout. Worn out? Beat down? Ready to collapse somewhere on the sidewalk, not even enough energy to shiver in the frigid cold?
Yep, I was already drifting away into thoughts of a hot shower and bed with plenty of thick blankets.
Andy, though, had other ideas, and her eyes sparkled with the brewing thought. “Let’s go back to the Golden Temple. I want to take some night pictures.”
A couple hours later we did collapse—in a tiny booth in a tiny café just off the old-town night-market side of Amritsar.
Night-pictures of the Golden Temple? Check. Down-and-back exploration of the night market effects? Check. A hole in our stomachs stuffed with the buttery goodness of Punjab’s legendary kulchas? Coming up soon.
Kulchas, you see, had become my newest obsession earlier that morning. Back then I was an energetic guy—groggy from a train ride, sure, but still brimming with the possibilities of the new city to explore. It was cold and I needed a hearty breakfast to get me going.
I opted, on the advice of Blackbeard and Long John Silver, our hotel clerks, for a little kulchas joint sitting just across the courtyard from the temple. My breath was fogging in the morning air, and their tandoori was smoking hot.
We ordered the only thing on the menu: kulchas.
For those who haven’t braved the elements and exhaustion to gape at Amritsar’s gold, a kulcha is something like a hearty flat-bread stuffed with potatoes and roasted to toasty perfection on the inside of that super-heated clay oven. It comes out more golden than a certain nearby landmark, and much warmer, too. Slap a slab of butter on top; ladle a heaping portion of spicy garbanzos on the side. You tell me if you can possibly spare your taste-buds from sizzling into one. There’s no way I was going to wait for that little dandy to cool down.
Keep the architecture and the temple. Bring me the real gold of Amritsar.
During the long day’s treks and pictures, throughout the chants and the surprises, the fatigue and the I’m-so-hungry snappy comments, one thought, one golden memory of that fine morning, kept me going.
Even when faced with a surprise return-trek through the temple grounds that night, topped off with a jaunt among the tiny streets and crowded shops, I stayed in it for the gold waiting for me in the end.
“So?” Andy could barely lift the menu to read. “What do you want?”
Did she even have to ask?
“Bring on the gold of Amritsar. Three plates of it!”