Land. Turf, Country. Ideas created from dust, marked on the ground through imagined boundaries branded on people’s minds by the force of politics and history. Crisscrossing lines, overlapping both in mind and on the ground. New ones claiming greater validity in strident voices. Older ones dimmed with age and disuse, left behind, obscured by the mists of time. But like a dream, occasionally returning to haunt the dreamer. Inexplicable, irrelevant perhaps, like the childhood pain of a mother’s slap. The startling glimpse of regret and frustration in her own eyes.
The highway from Amritsar to the border at Wagah is a busy official thoroughfare, its gleaming metalled surface the brave front of a tenuous diplomacy. Turning off onto a bumpy track winding through a sea of brilliant green paddy, one takes a detour from the harsh, linear path of reality into a softer focus world where past and present overlap like mist and sunshine. Villages of katcha and pucca homes blend into the fields. They are more in tune with a past that lives on in the present. Herds of buffaloes lying submerged in shallow pools of muddy green scum. Witness to centuries of movement along these tracks, armies of battle- weary soldiers, caravans laden with silks, spices, green tea and other treasures of the sub-continent, winding their way through market towns, towards the snowy passes that opened onto Central Asia.
Through the fields ran the Imperial Canal, Badshahi Nahar, carrying river water to the Mughal Gardens of Shalamar in Lahore. An Emperor’s whim, to sustain a thing of beauty. But also satisfying the needs of the countryside and watering the verdant fields, so that the people’s riches lay in their land. Twelve feet wide, the crystalline water of the Nahar flowed while empires rose and fell. In time, another Maharaja, affectionately called “The Lion of Punjab”, stopped to rest his horses on its fruitful banks, on his way to his Summer Capital at the holy city of Amritsar. Enjoying a respite from ceaseless warfare, he sat in his pavilion (Baradari) amidst green fields, listening to the concerns of his subjects by day and taking pleasure in the company of the Peacock Dancer (Moran) in the evenings.
It was on one such evening that the Dancer lost her silver slipper in the fast flowing waters of the Nahar, while she attempted to cross it in a flimsy coracle. Indignant, she confronted the monarch with her loss, and he laughed and made a bridge for her: Pul-Kanjari. Not exactly the Taj Mahal, it was nevertheless a monument to the love of a Maharaja- small, earthy and practical, just like the country around it.
In time, a town (Qasbah) grew around the Maharaja’s resting place. The caravans unloaded some of their precious stock, and shops sprang up to market them. Rows of shops – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh – community identities were unimportant before market potential. A great harmony born out of the growth of mutual prosperity, nourished the multi-cultural community. Temple bells rang out each day in the Shiva Dwala, huge copper deghs (pots) prepared langar for hundreds at the Gurudwara, white capped heads bowed regularly in the Masjid, thousands from the countryside came to the Dargah during the annual Urs festival. People cycled the short distance of eight kilometers through scented orchards to the great city of Lahore for a day’s shopping. Pulkanjari was very much a town, with all its cosmopolitanism and wealth. Parochial taboos dividing caste and community had no place here. Perhaps this was its undoing.
August 1947. The night was hot and sultry, lit up by great fires in the distance. Villages burning, homes were ransacked, the fabric of life lay in shreds. Mobs of looters, who knew of which community, were silhouetted against the leaping flames like dark devils from Hell. Permeating everything was the stench of death and the suffocating miasma of Fear. Hundreds huddled within the flimsy walls of the Gurudwara, seeking refuge from violence. Children too frightened to sleep, mothers too shocked to weep, people too numbed by fear to contemplate their loss. All around them, Pulkanjari was being razed to the ground. Its wealth was the target of marauders, and its multi-cultural community was a soft target, with none of the safeguards with which groups in more polarised settlements protected themselves.
Under cover of darkness, a truck loaded with over a hundred people, slipped away towards Amritsar. It met with a roadblock on the highway, and armed looters killed almost all the passengers. Just two boys survived, buried underneath the dead bodies. Those two lived to tell the world the story of Pulkanjari. To map the memories of their once flourishing town. For it was only memories that remained. No one settled there again. It was as if the wounds of violence had never healed. Harmony had died here, and there was no one to mourn it. It became a place of ghosts.
The only thing that grew here was the hatred between two nations. Like a cicatrices of scar tissue, the barbed wire fence dividing what was once whole, marked the limits of a country’s horizon. Its grim watch towers a perennial reminder of suspicion and danger. The Maharaja’s pavilion crumbled away under the heedless eye of military bunkers. The canal waters were dammed, like tears that threatened to spill. The bicycle path to Lahore faded away until it was only a few scratches on the earth and a memory in the minds of the living. And yet, the essential humanity of people, irrepressible, raised its head from time to time, in the banter and interaction between soldiers on either side of the fence.
The clouds of war gathered in 1971, and Pulkanjari was in the eye of the storm. The same soldiers who had smilingly raised their regulation tea mugs to each other from either side of the fence, now rushed at one another with bayonets bared. For a time, Pulkanjari was ‘taken’ by the other side. The deserted settlement with its memories of a Maharaja’s passage, suddenly became a powerful rallying point for a people. A battalion of young Sikhs fought for it with unparalleled ferocity and brought it back into the nation’s fold, leaving behind their lives on the battlefield. The roar of guns and the thunder of shells, the music of the battle, was heard far away in Amritsar town. An obelisk marks the scene of triumph and tragedy now, the flowers bend their heads in the breeze in homage.
Today, while the two nations still face each other in confrontation that could erupt into conflict, green fields cover the expanse of land that was Pulkanjari, like a veil waiting to be lifted.
Note to readers: The historic village of Pulkanjari is situated 35 kms from Amritsar on the Wagah border. Three layers of history are captured in its environs. In the 17th century, the Mughal Emperor Jahangir built a canal here to transport the waters of the river Ravi to the Shalamar gardens in Lahore. In the early 19th century, Maharaja Ranjit Singh would stop on the banks of the canal during his journey from his capital, Lahore, to Amritsar. During the day, he would meet local villagers in his baradari and listen to their problems. In the evenings, he would be entertained by Moran, his favourite dancing girl (kanjari), a resident of the neighbouring village of Makhanpura. Once, while crossing the canal, she lost a silver slipper that the Maharaja had presented to her, and complained to him indignantly. He built a bridge (Pul) across the canal, immortalising the dancing girl. In 1947, Pulkanjari was a bustling market town in the hinterland of Lahore. During the Partition riots, it was razed to the ground, never to regain its vitality. In the India-Pakistan war of 1971, Pulkanjari was captured by Pakistani armed forces, only to be recaptured by jawans of the Sikh regiment of the Indian army. Today, a war memorial marks the scene of the tussle, while green fields on either side of the border fence blend into each other, demonstrating the irrelevance of boundaries and conflicts in the face of people’s need for life and livelihoods. A temple embellished with painted frescoes, a sarovar (tank) along with a mosque and gurudwara stand today to tell the story of Pulkanjari to the world.