My wife says I suffer from an "India problem." She's right. I lived in New Delhi as a teenager during the 1950s, came home to college at 18 and managed to stay away from India for a quarter of a century. But over the past 26 years I've been back more than 20 times, sometimes with a legitimate excuse—an assignment from one magazine or another—but mostly because I now can't imagine life without a regular dose of the sights and sounds and smells I first knew as a boy, can't bear not seeing the friends I've made there.
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When the editors of Smithsonian asked me to pick a place I'd always wanted to see, it took about ten minutes to settle on Punjab, the north Indian state that was brutally halved between India and Pakistan after they won their independence from Britain in 1947. The Delhi I knew growing up—my father was stationed there, working for the Ford Foundation—had only recently been transformed into a largely Punjabi city by the influx of more than 400,000 Hindu and Sikh refugees, all of them haunted by bitter memories of the violence of Partition that had forced more than ten million people from their homes on both sides of the border and may have cost a million lives. Virtually everyone I knew had memories of Punjab. The tutor who struggled to teach me high-school math had stumbled across much of it on foot. His elderly mother, whose gently spiced samosas I can still taste, somehow made it, too. My two closest boyhood friends were Sikhs whose poultry farm on the outskirts of Old Delhi adjoined a sprawling tent city still crowded with Punjabis awaiting new homes seven years after they'd been forced from their old ones.
I'd always wanted to see something of the world they'd left behind. I'd had glimpses: I hunted in those bad old days, so my friends and I sometimes strayed across Punjab's border in search of game. But I'd never been to Amritsar, the city that is to Sikhs what Mecca is to Muslims, Varanasi is to Hindus, Jerusalem is to Jews and Rome is to Catholics. Nor had I seen the lush countryside around it where some of the most appalling violence of Partition took place and where relics of Punjab's history lie scattered everywhere.
Two people who know the region well agreed to accompany me, the photographer Raghu Rai and his wife, Gurmeet, herself a Sikh and also a conservation architect consumed by a desire to help save all that she can of Punjab's historical heritage. They, too, are haunted by Partition. Raghu was a small boy in 1947, living in the village of Jhang in what is now Pakistan, but he still remembers fleeing with his family out the back of their house as an angry Muslim mob banged on the front door. Gurmeet, too young to have firsthand memories of the division of India, comes from a clan that includes both Sikhs who fled from Pakistan and Muslims who stayed behind. When she returned to Delhi from a visit across the border to her family's ancestral village in 2000, she recalled, "It was a homecoming from a place which felt quite like home."
The Grand Trunk Road runs for 1,500 miles from Kolkata on India's eastern coast all the way to Peshawar on Pakistan's western edge. A 170-mile section of the ancient trade route—now designated National Highway Number One—cuts diagonally across the Indian Punjab. "Truly," Rudyard Kipling wrote in Kim, "the Grand Trunk Road is a wonderful spectacle....bearing without crowding...such a river of life as exists nowhere else in the world." That river flows far faster now and is no longer uncrowded. Kim and his contemporaries moved mostly on foot; the fastest travelers rode in horse carts. Now, big gaudily painted trucks race past one another in both directions, blaring horns and spewing black exhaust. Motorcyclists weave among them, wives and small children clinging on behind. Bicycles and sputtering motor-rickshaws join the flow; so do jeeps that act as country taxis and spavined buses so oversold that a dozen or more men ride with the baggage on the roof.
The brilliant green of the countryside through which all this traffic elbows its way is broken only by the trees that set one wheat field apart from the next and by occasional patches of brilliant yellow mustard. Punjab is the heartland of the Green Revolution that turned India from a country that could not feed its people into an exporter of grain.
Gurmeet knows nearly every inch of this highway. As a young architect, she spent a season in 1993 with the U.S. National Park Service, helping to survey historic structures along the C & O Canal between Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C. After she returned to India, she persuaded a number of funders, including Unesco and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), to let her lead a team that would create a similar inventory of all the unprotected monuments along the Grand Trunk Road in Punjab. Nothing like it had been attempted before.
It's not easy to tell old from new in India. For most historic structures, there are no laws to prevent damaging alterations or outright demolition. Nonetheless, Gurmeet and her team managed to identify and document some 1,100 historically or architecturally significant structures along the Punjabi stretch of the ancient highway. Their list includes everything from the former palaces of feudal rulers to the rock-hewn wells that once served their tenants; from Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras and Christian churches bustling with believers to the lonely roadside tombs of Muslim saints, left behind by those who fled to Pakistan but still visited weekly by Sikh and Hindu farmers in search of miracles. All but a handful of Gurmeet's discoveries are deteriorating and unprotected. To an outsider, the task of rescuing more than a fraction of them seems almost insurmountable. Gurmeet just smiles. "Let's see," she says.
No city in the Indian Punjab has witnessed more history or is home to more historic sites than Amritsar. Its name combines the Sanskrit words for the sacred nectar of life (amrita) and for lake (sarovar), a reference to the pool within the precincts of the Golden Temple of the Sikhs that is believed to wash away sins. But at first glance, there's nothing celestial about it. The narrow streets are clamorous, dusty, claustrophobic. Home to more than a million people, Amritsar has long since spilled beyond the walls that once defined its borders, and even in the city's oldest sections, most buildings are drab, run-down and recent.
The Golden Temple, however, is a revelation. Sikh men are identifiable by the turbans and beards their faith requires the orthodox to wear, but their distinctive theology and remarkable history remain little known beyond India's borders. Their most sacred shrine embodies both. We joined a stream of chattering pilgrims and, with covered heads and bare feet, stepped through the main gateway—and into another world. The cacophony of the city fell away. The waters of the broad sacred pool mirrored a brilliant sky. The sun gleamed on the white marble cloister that surrounds the pool and burned so brightly on the temple built on the island in its center that it seemed almost aflame.