Punjab Journal: Tea and Papers


by Shashwati Talukdar

Across from the Press club of Jalandhar is a pavement tea stall, the first thing that was open, a place where we could get that morning cup of tea all researchers require. We had company – a whole group of men who got their tea and read the paper before they got to work. The number and variety of papers that seemed to be available in Punjabi was impressively large. And it looked as if people were reading papers everywhere, including the bus, which makes sense given that the overall literacy rate is higher than average for India, and interestingly it seems to be on par with what is average for all of India, while female literacy rates are higher than what is the average for India.

newspaper-cu-2Interestingly it wasn’t the young people we saw reading these papers, and indeed literacy in Punjabi seems to be declining, despite the rich written and oral culture of Punjab on both sides of the border. In recent years there has been an effort to build bridges through language across the border. Maybe this chai shop with mostly middle-aged men, is actually a harbinger of the future. Or, maybe its the migrants to Punjab who hold the key to literacy in Punjabi. (h/t Pritam Singh)

In any case independent media is threatened in Punjab, as it is elsewhere in India and the world. Even though the newspaper culture looks very robust.

⬅︎Previous Post

(Go here for the first post in the series)

Punjab Journal: Christianizing Punjab

by Diditi Mitra


Bus stop, Jalandhar

A call to follow Jesus Christ: “Prabhu Isu Masih-ji da pukar” says the Gurmukhi script. The script in devnagari, right below it says “Prabhi Isu Masi-ji ka pukar.” “Isu Masih” is the Indian name for Jesus Christ. The poster caught our eyes as the bus pulled out of the station in Jalandhar. It raised all sorts of questions: What kind of Christianity is being spread in the rural areas of Punjab? How strong is the presence of Christianity? And, more importantly, is there a backlash against the expansion of Christianity and if so, of what kind? Should those converting and those spreading the word of Christ worry about their safety in light of the recent campaign by the right wing Hindu fundamentalist movement for ‘ghar wapsi,’ i.e. to (re)convert non-Hindus in India back to Hinduism with the assumption that all non-Hindus in contemporary India were forcefully converted into that ‘other’ religion. Something to think about, isn’t it?

While all of the above raised questions regarding Christianity, Hindutva, and Punjab are too big to tackle here, some light can certainly be shed on some of them.


A closer look at the posters

A cursory Google search on ‘Christianity in Punjab” revealed that the population of Christians in the state is notable enough to be wooed for the state Assembly elections in 2017. According to an article published in The Indian Express, the Aam Aadmi Party, or AAP, met with leaders of Punjab Christian United Front in order to get a sense of the issues faced by the group in order to define the “party’s manifesto” for the elections in 2017. The search also resulted in news stories about ‘ghar wapsi’ of Christians in Punjab. Rather curiously, the RSS performed ‘ghar wapsi’ functions not to (re)convert Christians to Hinduism, but ‘back’ to Sikhism. Yudhvir Rana, author of the article published in the Times of India entitled “In Punjab, Sangh brings Christians back to Sikhism,” writes that the RSS has plans of holding more such ‘ghar wapsi’ functions which he asserts will in fact taint the relationship that Shiromani Akali Dal, and the BJP by way of that party, shares with Punjab.

An article by Ravi Dhaliwal published in The Tribune would suggest that the relationship between the Christian leaders and these two political parties are already strained. Lack of burial grounds, employment opportunities and preservation of the churches are at least some of the unmet demands of the group.

Interestingly, Christian leaders dispute Census estimates of less than a percent of Christians in Punjab. Imanul Rehmat Masih, a Christian leader, argues that the percentage is in fact 7 to 10 percent. But, the government, according to him, undercounts Christians in the state in order to mask the fast growing attraction of the religion among Punjabis and to extend political power to the group.

Click here for a report published by the Pew Forum that points specifically to the spread of Pentecostalism in India.


Kirpa Bhavan Ministries

On our trip, we had the opportunity to visit one of the evangelical organizations in the village of Paragpur. We also met with one of the pastors in the village of Buta and got some insights into the breadth and depth of Christianity in Punjab.

Christianity has a long presence in Punjab – since the early nineteenth century. But the religion and its followers continue to experience resistance as a minority religion in India as a whole. Physical attacks on Christians and destruction of churches are just a couple of ways in which their minority status becomes apparent.

So, are Christians completely accepted in the context of the Hindu dominant society of India? The answer is: no. As a minority group, Christians are subject to prejudice and discrimination in the society.






Punjab Journal: Music

by Shashwati Talukdar


Getting a music list

This taxi driver epitomizes our aural experience of the state. Everywhere we went, it seemed we were surrounded by music. From the recitation and singing in the Rara Sahib Gurdwara, to how a conductor attracts customers.

The auto driver had a tricked out auto, with customized speakers and lights. I asked him who was on his I-pod (that’s what he used) and he was shocked that we didn’t know the name of the artists.

We wondered why all the music we encountered was so good. Was it the tradition of Urdu poetry, or Sufi philosophy, was it the importance of music in Gurudwara services, with its great attention to form and not just the words?

Most of what we heard was amazing, and some of it simply left us dumbfounded:


⬅︎Previous Post

(Go here for the first post in the series)

Punjab Journal: Maseet

by Shashwati Talukdar

On the way to Jalandhar from Ludhiana, our kind and talkative taxi driver suddenly grew quiet and said just one word, ‘maseet.’ What’s a ‘maseet?’ We didn’t immediately catch on, but realized that he said the Punjabi word for masjid (mosque). He didn’t elaborate. And we didn’t press it. He looked old enough to have been born before the 1947 partition. We were perhaps just queasy about maseet3talking about trauma. Why bring it up, when all of us know those stories? When we know how those stories have scarred the landscape.

In the middle of the newly painted houses and signs of prosperity, this decrepit old building that is not used for the purpose it was built, suddenly silenced us. What had happened to those people who used this mosque? Were they part of the group that were pushed out and eventually went to the other side of the border? If so, surely they and their children talk about the trauma of partition the same way we do on this side of the border. And, even if ‘those people’ continued to live on this side of the border, the destruction endured by the mosque was perhaps endured by them as well.

We like to think of ourselves as victims, but weren’t we perpetrators too?

An interesting counter-narrative to this sad looking maseet, is the story of the Guru ki Maseet. An abandoned masjid, taken over by the Nihangs and then made available to Muslims. A feat of inter-religious harmony, but by no means achieved easily. It took negotiation and compromise. For a more scholarly account read Anna Bigelow’s article about  this shared sacred site (if you can get behind the damned firewall). The case of Guru ki Maseet makes it clear that the received notion that religious differences are intractable is by no means a given. If there is an institutional will to overcome conflict, such sharing of sacred space is possible. It is erroneous to think of sacred spaces as being always exclusive, it can have multiple meanings, and successful management of such spaces can be achieved through a historicization of the space and not separating its history from its location.

⬅︎Previous Post  Next Post➡︎http://blog.shashwati.com/2016/10/06/punjab-journal-music/

(Go here for the first post in the series)

Punjab Journal: A Day in Rara Sahib

by Diditi Mitra and Shashwati Talukdar

On the bus to Rara Sahib

On the bus to Rara Sahib

Our visit with Balbir Singh ji (see previous post) to Rara Sahib Gurdwara in Karamsar, Ludhiana was the first trip that took us through the villages of Punjab.

The gurdwara is located near Ludhiana, Punjab in the village of Rara Sahib. It was constructed in the early part of the twentieth century subsequent to the visit of Sant Isher Singh-ji and Sant Kishan Singh-ji. The village Rara was transformed into Rara Sahib after the visit of the sixth Sikh guru, Guru Hargobind-ji in the seventeenth century.

One of the features of the Gurdwara is the continuous rendition of paath rarasahibinterior1and kirtan. Apparently it goes on day and night, every single day without a break. And we would venture to say, it is much more beautiful than what you’d hear from Harmandir Sahib. Here is a live feed from Dukh Niwaran Sahib, that is comparable to what we heard in Rara Sahib.

On the second floor of the main building was a permanent exhibit of paintings. The first image that greeted us was a sign saying “self photography strictly prohibited.”


‘Self Photography is Strictly Prohibited’

It wasn’t that taking photographs was prohibited. The use of the Gurdwara as a tourist destination is what was objectionable.


‘To save Jogi Bharthari from hell, Guru Nanak Dev Ji takes him to Junagadh for his marriage with Princess of Junagadh (Daughter of Kamlapat Juna) through stirit val (sic) power’

Most of the images had to do with incidents from the life of the Gurus that are familiar to everyone. An image, however, stood out. This was the image of Bharthari  — something we had not really associated with Sikhism. Bharthari is a Gorakhshnathi Saint, a figure of reverence for some Udasins ( for a discussion of how Udasins stopped being part of the Sikh panth read this, if you can get behind the firewall). And here he was, his story conflated with that of Guru Nanak.  Despite the hardening of boundaries of Sikh identity over the last hundred and fifty years or so, this image, which one imagines had been purged out of Sikh religious institution had survived. For a the current status of who is considered a Sikh and who is not according to the ecclesiastical powers that be, see Amandeep Sandhu on the status of Sahajdhari Sikhs.

rarasahibinerior13We had lunch at the langar in Gurdwara. Scores of women were seated in rows, hovering around a hot oven in the extreme heat of summer in Punjab, making rotis. Making bread was their seva, or service, as part of Sikh religious duties. The particular task of seva – cooking – is of course gendered. That observation, while difficult to overlook, is not the entire picture of the kitchen though. Clearly, it is a space that women have carved out for themselves, albeit within the confines of social expectations. So then one has to consider that this space is likely where women form close bonds, a space to talk about their lives, and it is likely to be a place where women offer support to each other. This space for seva is also then a space for women’s community.

⬅︎Previous Post  Next Post➡︎

(Go here for the first post in the series)

Punjab Journal: A Miracle in Ludhiana

by Shashwati Talukdar


Jass at his Kathi Roll stand in the Hualien night market

We heard a miraculous story in Ludhiana. And this is how it came about that we heard it.

I met Jass in the night market in Hualien, a small town on the east coast of Taiwan. In a country where there are very few Indians, and most of them seem to be post docs in Chemistry from Hyderabad, Jass stood out. He ran a kathi roll stand in the night market and also taught English, his wife is Taiwanese Canadian. They met while she was traveling through India, and Jass is an avid traveler, makes friends easily and is truly cosmopolitan. So much so, he taught himself English so that he could communicate with more people from all over the country and the world.

Jass is from Ludhiana, and since we were going there, we wanted to say hello to the family, which consists of his parents, grandfather, brother and a large extended family.


Jass’s father, Balbir Singh ji

Meeting Jass’s father, Balbir Singh-ji, it becomes clear why Jass is such a path breaker himself.

Balbir Singh-ji’s family was one of the dispossessed millions from West Punjab. When he was a child, he was sick very often. His mother took him to the Rara Sahib Gurdwara to be blessed. The Granthis at the Gurdwara told her that she should leave him there. With the Guru’s blessings, he would get better. She left him there after making them promise that they would not stop him from leading a householder’s life outside the Gurdwara, if that’s what he wanted. And miraculously the child became well and flourished.  I suppose as a child of partition, it was indeed a miracle that he had survived. But what was striking was the story that was chosen to relate the experience of that survival. A story of a miracle and a divine gift.

Balbir Singh-ji grew up in the Rara Sahib Gurdwara. He was educated there as well. Working for a pharmacist was his first occupation as a ‘grown up.’ Later, he opened a pharmacy of his own. Greatly respected for his knowledge of medicines and his kind manner, he was called Doctor Sahib by the villagers. Eventually, he retired from the pharmacy and moved to Ludhiana.

A soft spoken and devout man, he spends his time studying the scriptures. Being so highly literate, his speech is some of the most beautiful spoken Punjabi I have ever heard. It suddenly started to make sense that his son Jass would have the gift of teaching himself English, and have a yearning to connect with the world, the world beyond the town in which he grew up.

Next week, our visit to the Rara Sahib Gurdwara with Jass’s father.

⬅︎Previous Post  Next Post➡︎

(Go here for the first post in the series)

Punjab Journal: All Tanked Up


by Shashwati Talukdar

An airplane on top of a large house, a horse, a football, even a body builder — these are water tanks. The bigger and more fancy the house, the bigger were these amazing rooftop structures. When asked ‘why build a water tank of this kind?’ the answerIMG_4854 was ‘shauq. ‘ That is, a gesture to the favorite hobby or aspiration of the owner of the house which could be body building, or soccer, or a gesture towards the airplane thaHousesTanks6t took them to the outbound journey which then took them out of the country to earn enough and eventually build a mansion ‘back home.’

Perhaps, it was also a sign that wealthier the owner, the bigger and showier the water tank, thereby demonstrating that the owner was wealthy enough to have access to unlimited water. A resource becoming increasingly scarce with each passing year.

HousesTanks8CUPhotographer Rajesh Vora has done a photodocumentation project about the tanks with some fancy examples.


⬅︎Previous Post  Next Post➡︎

(Go here for the first post in the series)

Punjab Journal: A Spell Over Birowal

by Shashwati Talukdar

NRI HousesBirowal2On the way to Chandigarh from Jalandhar is the village of Birowal. Like any Indian village, it had narrow streets and sleepy cows, but the streets were lined with palatial huge houses. And it was deathly quiet. It didn’t look like anyone lived in these houses. It was like a ghost town, except the houses looked well maintained. But, for whom? And, by whom? Were these absentee owners perhaps driving cabs in New York city, while their parents and grandparents flitted from room to room, keeping things going? Do the owners return? If so, when? And once they are back, what is their role in these homes and the community? Do they farm for the time they are back? Perhaps, they buy and sell land and they are in fact developers? Maybe those tilling the fields are tenant farmers?

HousesTanks9What little I could glean from census data of the village was this, that it had a higher literacy rate compared to the rest of the state, and there were approximately 5 people to a house. And at least 40% are from the Scheduled castes.

There was nobody to answer any more complex questions we might have, the place was like a ghost village. My partner in crime and co-writer of this series, Diditi Mitra thinks everyone was inside cooling off. It was the middle of summer after all. Maybe that’s true. And maybe there was a spell of enchantment over the village. Everyone was asleep till the HousesTanks5.2Princess woke up. And perhaps given Punjab’s problems, especially in the agricultural sector, would dissipate this mirage.

For the tip of the iceberg, or the thread that unravels the crises facing Punjab, read Amandeep Sandhu’s piece in Caravan on rural indebtedness.

⬅︎Previous Post  Next Post➡︎

(Go here for the first post in the series)

Punjab Journal: Signs of prosperity, maybe

Propertyby Diditi Mitra

We saw this advertisement for Best Way, presumably a real estate company, in the Doaba region of Punjab. Signs, just like this one, show that people have resources in the area or else why would one find advertisements for property sale/purchase?

So it might be important to consider how that wealth is distributed which, in turn, is used to invest in purchase of land or other kinds of property, most likely to demonstrate a higher, or a rising, social status.

Economic reports on Punjab, although reports have shown an overall decline in the state’s prosperity over the years, continue to suggest that the state is still located higher up on the wealth index. The same report shows that it ranks highest in percentage of households with durables, like computers, and has the lowest percentage of households with no durable asset at all, like cell phones and bicycles. However, high position in the wealth index is not accompanied by a lower gap in inequality between the advantaged and disadvantaged social groups. In fact, Punjab shows high social inequality.

It is important to note that a widening of the gap between the rich and the poor is a global phenomenon, including India as a whole. Punjab is not alone in this.

Nonetheless, Punjab continues to be one of the places that is doing “well.” The question thus arises, and afore mentioned: who is doing well and are the targets of “property advisors?” Clearly, there are people with sufficient wealth in the state who can purchase property. We saw the huge immigrant Punjabi mansions discussed in our previous post with our own eyes. So then are the immigrants the ones whose attention advertisements like the one above are trying to attract? Or, perhaps it’s those who have benefited from economic liberalization in India the aim of property advisors? I will leave the questions for you to ponder.

For now though, suffice it is to know that wealth is accumulated by Punjabis (and Indians) as well as immigrants from Punjab, people who are selected segments of the “Indian” population but, it is definitely not had evenly by all.

⬅︎Previous Post  Next Post➡︎

(Go here for the first post in the series)

Punjab Journal: Village Mansions


Home in Buta village in district Jalandhar

by Diditi Mitra

It is the most incongruous of sights. Amid the dusty fields and huts of rural Punjab are sprawling, palatial bungalows with names such as Orlando House, Vancouver Villa, White House and California Farm. These are dollar-dream homes built by wealthy NRIs with an architectural twist.” And, in my view, they are mansions. The photograph on the left is an example of many such properties.

These mansions often replicate the architectural designs of non resident Punjabi (NRP) homes abroad, typically in western parts of the world. Replicating the homes in particular is also a way to entice the generations born abroad to spend their holidays in rural Punjab and remain connected to their heritage. “It is a small price to pay to attract the children to their roots… I don’t want to lose them to western culture,” said 45 year old California resident Kamal Mann who spent Rs. 2 crore to build a house in Banga in the district of Jalandhar. The house has all the amenities of their 3.5 million dollar (Rs. 14 crore) home they own in San Francisco, Ramesh Vinayak writes in an article published in India Today. “The swanky, one acre house, named Piara Farm after Mann’s grandfather, boasts an indoor swimming pool, a 15-ft-high waterfall, home theatre, central air conditioning, sauna bath, a hi-tech gym, pool-side bar and a billiards room.”

So for those who are able to build such homes, it is concrete evidence of their success overseas.

In addition to using the wealth earned to maintain cultural continuity, struggling

Entrance to Talhan in district Jalandhar. Photo Courtesy: www.alamy.com

Entrance to Talhan village in district Jalandhar. Photo Courtesy: www.alamy.com

villagers use it as a way “to re-establish themselves in their native villages and…set up village gates to satisfy their ego and relate their rise from rags to riches.” The photo on the right is of gates to the village of Talhan in the district of Jalandhar. It is also the village that holds the “hawaijahaj” gurdwara. Gates like this can be funded by NRPs. Click here to read about this gurdwara.

Besides improvement in social class, the “riches” allow the villagers to negotiate lower caste positions in their favor. Research by Archana Verma on early twentieth century Sikh immigrants shows the ways in which Mahtons, a caste group, negotiated their position in the caste ladder (which show the fluidity of the caste hierarchy too) in their native village of Paldi with status obtained as immigrants to Canada. Scholarship on contemporary immigrants from Punjab, like the that of Darshan Tatla, shows a similar pattern among various other Sikh caste groups, like Ravidasis, who were able to negotiate their lower caste status in their villages of birth and/or emigration with the resources earned through immigration. Informants included in my current work (in progress) on immigrant Sikh families reinforce the findings of such earlier works on immigration, earnings and social status in the villages of Punjab.


NRI home in Punjab. Photo Courtesy: www.jessicadhillon.com

Material resources acquired through employment abroad is used to facilitate development in the villages of Punjab as well. Satnam Chana’s work show that immigrants invest in social welfare projects, like dispensaries, schools and basic infrastructure. In fact, immigrant funding has become very important to the Punjab government, and the Indian government broadly, in its development initiatives since the government itself has receded from those responsibilities with the start of economic liberalization. NRPs (and NRIs) are encouraged to remain connected to their “homelands” so that they continue to finance projects to advance their “home.”

In the end, the story of the huge mansions constructed by NRPs is certainly evidence of their movement up the social ladder in Punjab. It is perhaps also promising for the Punjab and the Indian government as it has now come to rely on the flow of cash coming into the state from the hands of its wealthy residents abroad. Immigration out of Punjab thus appears to be helpful at the level of the personal, socio-political as well as at the level of the state.


⬅︎Previous Post  Next Post➡︎

(Go here for the first post in the series)

Load More