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Glimpses of Punjab

An inner strength, combined with fearlessness and a phenomenal capacity for hard work, has made Punjabis among the most enterprising and successful people in the world. Adventurous by nature, Punjabis are scattered all over the globe and have prospered everywhere.

The year was 1947. The time, mid-afternoon of a day in November. The place, an arcade in New Delhi’s famed Connaught Circus. A ten year old boy stood against one of the pillars of the arcade, selling cigarettes from a tray. Hurrying past him, a gentleman stopped by a pick up a tin of State Express 555. When he dropped a hundred rupee note in the tray, the boy replied, “I’ve no change.” But the gentleman wasn’t listening. He was, instead, staring hard at the boy. “Haven’t I seen you before? Where are you from?” he asked. And the boy replied, “Lyallpur. Now in Pakistan.”

They got talking and it turned out that the boy came of a family of Lyallpur well known to the gentleman from his well known to the gentleman from his childhood. What he did not know was that the family had migrated to Delhi in the wake of the partition and were living in a refugee camp. A wave of sympathy wept the gentleman off his feet. “Never mind if you have no change,” he said. “Keep the money. It might help. Your brother and I were class fellow at college, you known…” The boy stiffened visibly. “Thank you very much, Sir,” he said. “But I’ve been taught not to accept anything that I haven’t earned.”

That’s it. The boy’s remark reflects the notables of the Punjabi character – self-respect, self-reliance and a near total absence of self-pity.

Around the time that man landed on the moon, a joke was busily doing the rounds in north India. It seems that the first thing Neil Armstrong noticed on the moon was a Sardaji ka dhaba (a Sardarji’s roadside stall). Transported with delight at seeing a fellow human, the Sardaji rubbed his hands together and burst out in greeting, inviting him to a typical Punjabi repast saying: “ao ji aao, badsahao, ki kyhao ge? Matar paneer, dal makhnani, chicken curry, dundi da raita….” Such is the Punjabi reputation for intrepidity that nobody would have been particularly surprised had such a dhaba (stall) actually existed on the moon.

The history of the Punjab of the Punjab has had a lot to do with the building of the no-nonsense, practical Punjabi character. This State has borne the brunt of every single invasion down the centuries. Constantly exposed to peril, for even living in apprehension of being torn away from loved ones, these are factors that have toughened the physical and moral fibre of the people. They are both brave and hardy. Punjabi men make excellent soldiers. An underlying fear of losing their land to invaders has made them intensely patriotic too. Their women share these sentiments in full measure. They are not duly scared. They may get lonely and emotional but never will they bar the way of men going to battle. A Punjabi folk songs runs something like this:

If you will go to battle front,

O rider of the blue horse,

Carry me in your haversack.

Where the night overtakes us,

O rider of the blue horse,

Pull me out and take me in your arms….

Even more than legends and folk tales, the folk songs of Punjab are a mirror of the rural Punjabi way of life. These songs have no reference to the sea, for Punjab is landlocked. But rivers and wells and boats and boatmen figure again and again. So do sword and spear and battle, the tall, well built, handsome warrior and his enchantingly beautiful sweetheart. There are light-hearted folk songs about little everyday things. The sheer joy of living is reflected in many songs, but so are domestic squab-bless and intrigues. And certain relation-ships, notably that between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, come in for a lot of genial invective.

Punjab suffered great damages and destruction at the time of the partition but within a fewone of the most affluent states of India. This enviable position was worn, not by chance, but through sheer hard work. In recent years internal strife had laid it low again but now things have settled down and Punjab can hope to return to its impressive tally of achievements. Years, it had become it used to provide 22% of India’s wheat and 10% of its rice and a good part of all the milk produced in the entire country, while owning five per cent of India’s total bank deposits.

Punjab boasts a thriving bicycle and wool industry in cities like Ludhiana, Amritsar and Jullunder. Yet it remains a predominantly agricultural State, with vast tracts under traditional crops like wheat, paddy, maize, sugarcane, mustard and cotton. Other minor crops include chic-peas, lentils, fodder and sunflower. The ox-drawn plough has generally given way to the tractor, which not only takes the drudgery out of agricultural operations but also doubles as a private vehicle, taking the produce to market of the family to the nearest fair or wedding.

To robust spirit and prosperity of the Punjabis is mirrored in a Punjabi Hindu wedding which is nothing if not a grand but scaled down chaos. Surprisingly, this kind of chaos takes months to plan and the family and friends of the bride and groom would much rather be in it than out of it. True, in cities, the push button hotel wedding a becoming increasingly popular but old ways and values are alive and well in a State that is still overwhelmingly rural. There’s fun and feasting and confusion and lights and decorated pandals and song and dance and always that tend to overreach one’s means so nobody can point a finger at the show. The dholki is very much in evidence as are special wedding songs and dances – bhangra for the men and gidda for the women – to announce to the world in general that a wedding is on.

The bhangra and gidda are basically the purview of the Sikh community and vigorous as they are, they pack a lot of punch and colour into these. But otherwise Sikh weddings are far simpler and more sober than Hindu weddings. The ceremony takes place in the morning whereas Hindu weddings are traditionally celebrated at night. The ambience is quieter too and a lunch wraps up the proceedings well before the evening shadows begin to fall.


For dwellers on earth, the movements of the sun make big news. According to the Hindu calender, in mid January the sun enters Capricorn, the tenth sign of the zodiac and begins what is called the uttarayan or its journey in the northern hemisphere. All over the country the first few days of uttarayan are hailded as a highly auspicious time. Its opening day is particularly sacred and goes by the name of makar sankranti. The people of Punjab hold a celebration on the eve of makar sankranti and call it lohri. Lohri invariably falls on 13th January and right through the gorgeous winter day, village women and children go around collecting dry twigs and branches to make a bonfire. The bigger the better. Come evening and the bonfire is lighted with family and neighbours singing and dancing around it. Seasonal goodies like popcorn, reori, peanuts and lengths of sugarcane are tossed into the fire as an offering. A family with a new bride or a new born baby celebrates lohri with even more gusto. And city folks are not to be left behind. Almost every street corner has its own bonfire.

Punjab celebrates its holi and Diwali, its rakhi and karva chauth with great enthusiasm, the same as many other States of north India. But for the vast community of farmers, the culmination of a whole year of toil is baisakhi, the harvest festival. Baisakhi falls on the 13th of April every year and heralds the time when the rabi crop is joyfully gathered and brought home. The observance of Baisakhi is a very old and hallowed tradition. The day begins with a mandatory bath, preferably in the river, followed by prayers and offerings made to the household deity. Generally, harvesting begins on this day with farmers bringing home the first few ears of wheat from their fields. These are ceremonially offered to the gods and later distributed among family and friends to seek their blessing.

Making chappatis or boiled rice on Baisakhi is unheard of. The order of the day is festive food like poories and parathas to be eaten with kheer and gur ka halwa. Semolina or flour pooras are made and soaked in a syrup of jaggery instead o sugar. Homes are decorated with garlands of bright orange and yellow marigold and mango leaves. The afternoon sees the beginning of a fair that carries on far into the night, packed with excitement and music and colour. But what really marks the day is bhangra performed by gaily dressed male dancers gyrating to the vigorous beat of drums and mouthing bols (words) while their exuberance finds expression in the constant refrain O balle, balle, balle

Gurpurab comes around the same time as Diwali. It is the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion. The day is marked by prayers and devotional music with devout Sikh thronging to their temples, the gurdwaras. A sober, dignified festival.