desi goes with Davinder Singh on Amritsar Heritage Walk
This is my first Amritsar Heritage Walk and I am looking at a faint sliver of the sky gives me a weak smile as I stretch my neck to yogic dimensions, as my eyes go wide at all the heritage looking back at me.
There is something historical all around me in these narrow bylanes of Amritsar, not the kind of history you find in textbooks but living, breathing, smiling, and unfortunately neglected and deteriorating heritage. I look up to intricately carved wooden balconies with designs from Shekhawati and Europe side by side, where Memsahibs in pearly white gowns from faded paintings look at me. I immediately think of Michelangelo and Sistine Chapel, only I am in Old Amritsar. I am surrounded by history, artifacts, art all in open yet not visible to the hurried tourist running from one food joint to another.
But my guide Mr. Davinder Singh is in no hurry to showcase me everything in one go. Davinder Singh has his own style of storytelling about the heritage of Amritsar, he invokes shabad from Gurbani, then shifts to stories of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his generosity while pointing out to a house with Belgian stained glass windows home to a Marwari Family for more than a hundred years.
This dear friend is just the beginning of Heritage Walk of Amritsar with Davinder Singh but I am already in awe of his knowledge and passion about history and heritage of Amritsar, as he unfurls aspects of Amritsar that I have never seen. You see like most of the tourists ( OK some of you are The Travelers type baba!), I too had seen only two aspects of Amritsar so far – home to the holiest shrine of Sikhism Shree Harmandir Sahib and the food capital of Punjab. But I was about to be shown an often missed part of Amritsar that makes the other two possible. Ladies and gentleman – Welcome to the heritage walk of Amritsar with Davinder Singh
A good way to connect with our history is to visit museums; a better way to connect with our heritage is to walk around it and see for ourselves not just the glorious, past but to do a reality check if we are doing enough to preserve, promote and patronize the living breathing heritage around us. Amritsar revered for its religious importance and loved for its yummy Punjabi food is also a living museum of history that hides in her many narrow lanes that have grown like roots of a Banyan, crisscrossed, without any visible pattern and too weak to hold the Banyan, yet together they not only support the Banyan but also make it what it is.
We meet Mr.Davinder Singh for heritage walk of Amritsar near the official start point in front of the town hall. Davinder starts by giving us a brief history of Amritsar and how the city was formed during the time of 4th guru, Guru Ram Das Ji and later developed into a major center of the trade first during the times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and then during British Raj.
It was Maharaja Ranjit Singh who patronized the city like no other ruler, though his official capital was in Lahore (now in Pakistan), he had some of his generals based in Amritsar and also strengthened the fortification around the city besides covered the upper floors of the Harmandir Sahib with gold, which gives it its distinctive appearance and the name Golden Temple by the British. Maharaja Ranjit Singh was a visionary ruler who invited artisans, merchants etc. from different parts of India to come and settle in Amritsar. Some of the Marwari families in Amritsar trace their roots to those times when they first came to Amritsar and made it their base for trading in North India. In those days Amritsar was the major trading center for cotton, jaggery, grains, textiles, spices etc. Later during the British time, the city evolved as a major grading and auction center for Tea that was shipped as far as Afghanistan, Tibet, and Persia etc. from Amritsar.
In these Amritsari labyrinth of Galis, Katras, Akharas, Bungas, Havelis, and Hattis a city flourished like no other and that continue to attract visitors from around the world for its religious and historical importance topped with the mouth-watering Punjabi food you can get on this side of Wagah Border .
After this brief history of Amritsar from Mr. Davinder Singh, we start our walk and are soon in what is known as Katra Ahluwalia once a fortification in itself with multiple gates to keep hostiles out.
Today the Katra Ahluwalia is a wholesale center for many things and I see diverse sign boards varying from paints and chemicals to stationary items. But between the boards, I can see the intricately carved wooden doors, balconies, all painted in bright colors taking you back in time. But as you look further up you get a rude shock as above the brightly painted doors and balconies you see shabby construction that is the hallmark of modern design without any sensibilities to keep the original design intact leave aside to build on it.
In one dark corner, with only a small opening visible is an old well with the pulleys still intact. The well at one time was the only source of drinking water for the neighborhood. Davinder jee points towards the two kinds of bricks used in the lining of the well the historical slim bricks called “ Nanak Shahi bricks” and then the thicker modern bricks that were used during some later repair work.
There is neither any water in the well nor any hope for its restoration considering it is now used as a godown. I marvel at this hidden heritage well and wonder how on earth one would find about it if you are not with Davinder Singh for heritage walk in Amritsar.
After this, we are in the heart of old Amritsar and every step reveals a glorious heritage time capsule. I see European tiles outside some shops, which the owners have kept as a mark of respect of past while redoing everything else. One some of the Havelis we see very intricate jali work and on others we see in the balconies scenes from the Raj painted upside down, peeping at us along with some pigeons and more wires than the roots on the old Banyan tree.
Davinder jee informs me that as the British wanted to showcase the railways and buildings constructed during their times they incentivized building owners to paint these signs of colonial power. I see a train on a bridge, a group of British ladies on a walk in a garden. Most of the colors have faded, and are covered with layers of soot, but the hawk eyes of Davinder Singh can see everything and if you have patience he is willing to show you a masterpiece from Heritage of Amritsar at every step. You may get out of time or energy but Davinder Singh will never get tired of showing you and recreating the glorious heritage of Amritsar through his stories.
In a nondescript narrow lane, we knock on a wooden door and are soon climbing dark narrow wooden stairs that have seen better days. I wonder what secret chamber we are being led to and wonder if I will be able to click any pictures in these dark staircases.
Soon the mystery ends and we are in the living room that has bright blue-green stain glass windows. My eyes take their sweet time to adjust to the dark room with bright windows, whose glass was made in a factory in Europe. Once I am accustomed to the low light I realize I am standing in the middle of a room that could be in a villa in Europe. The nice folks who live in the house welcome us with a smile and proudly show us around. Not just the windows most of the furniture, doors, cupboards etc. are old but well-kept. The best part? These things are still being used every single day from a time much before the current owners were even born.
Question to the reader: Do you think today’s use and throw generation will ever be able to understand the value of things that lasted a lifetime and beyond ?
The owners want us to stay back for some time and join them for tea, unfortunately, we need to go to our next destination so had to decline their offer. But the lady of the house hands us each a piece of designer chocolate she makes. I am unable to decide what sweeter the chocolate or their hospitality towards total strangers.
We were short of time and we needed to cover a lot more, and our next stop is “ Akhada Sangalwala” home to a sect of monks who trace their roots to Baba Shree Chand jee, who was the son of first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak Dev Jee. The monastery or the Akhada as it is called in Punjabi and Hindi is a colorful temple cum meeting place where locals come not just to pray but also to read daily newspapers and books from the library housed in the Akhada.
Our next stop for the walk is the historical Jallianwala Bagh and once again the storytelling of Davinder Singh recreates the painful Baisakhi day when General Dyer ordered open firing on a peaceful gathering of freedom seekers. Hundreds of people died either by bullets or by jumping into the well located in the park trying to escape from the splattering of bullets. With a sombre mood we leave the Jallianwala Bagh as we walk towards our next destination in the historical old city of Amritsar. Our next stop is Gobindgarh Fort, but we drive to the same before resuming our walk to taste the famed Punjabi food of Amritsar. But dear reader that is another post, watch this space for more. Till then Happy Travels.
NOTE: There are other places covered in the Amritsar Heritage Walk, that I have not mentioned in the post as I plan to write in detail about them in other posts. You can check the route map of Amritsar Heritage Walk given below for all the spots covered in the heritage walk of Amritsar.
Information about Amritsar Heritage Walk: Starting Point: Opposite to Mayor’s Office, Town Hall. Punjab Tourism conducts Amritsar Heritage Walks and you can contact Punjab Tourism -0172-2625950 (Head Office Chandigarh Office ), Amritsar Office: 078376-13500, 0183-2402452 for more information.
Mr. Davinder Singh is now promoted as Protocol Officer and is very busy with his new responsibilities. We were lucky to have him for our special Amritsar Heritage Walk. But he does conduct private walks on his off days so give it a try if he is free when you are in Amritsar. You can contact Mr. Davinder Singh on 091-9988503458 or mail him on firstname.lastname@example.org for a private Heritage Walk on his off days.
My trip to Punjab was on the invitation of Punjab Tourism
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