Gourmet Traveller

Soul Food at Attari: Chargha Chicken from Punjab Grill, Courtesan Tales & Songs of Peace at India’s Final Frontier

Posted: January 15, 2017 at 7:51 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

In the shadow of the BSF’s last outpost on the Amritsar-Lahore road, little over a kilometre away from a bunker of the Pakistan Rangers, we savoured the flavours of Punjab as the state’s favourite folk singer, Gurmeet Bawa, sang songs of peace.

AMRITSAR resides in the imagination of all Indians as the city of the Golden Temple, a city immortalised by the martyrs of Jallianwala Bagh, a city teeming with historic dhabas that dish out crispy kulchas and chhole or the inimitable makkhan fish. The march of history, however, doesn’t stop at the precincts of one of the country’s holiest shrines.

Thirty-five kilometres away, as your bus zips past vast green fields on what was once the Grand Trunk Road, the artery of commerce in the sub-continent, is located the village of Pul Kanjari, where memories of the tinkle of the anklets of Maharaja Ranjit Singh‘s favourite courtesan, Moran, melds into the story of the valour of Lance Naik Shangara Singh, who laid down his life as he rescued his motherland’s last border outpost from Pakistan’s marauding hands on the night of December 17-18, 1971.

Before 1947, Pul Kanjari was a thriving town, a trading outpost of Lahore, where Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus lived and prospered together, praying respectively at their gurudwara, dargah and temple, which co-exist even till this day within a few metres of one another. In Pul Kanjari’s glory days, the one-eyed Maharaja who created the Sikh empire, built a step well (sarovar) to store water drawn from the canal that ran beside it. Shahjahan, the Mughal emperor, got the canal constructed to take the water of the river Ravi to the Shalimar Gardens in Lahore. The step well also has a Shiva temple constructed with the slim Nanakshahi bricks, its walls embellished with frescoes recreating mythological episodes centered around the god.

On his marches from Amritsar to his court in Lahore, the maharaja would stop at Pul Kanjari, where at a baradari that he had built, he would be entertained by his favourite courtesan, Moran. She would come on foot from a neighbouring village, crossing the canal to reach her royal patron. On one such day, she lost a silver slipper she was wearing in the canal. It had been gifted to her by the maharaja. He was so upset that he got a brickwork bridge built over the canal so that Moran would never have to wade through the water.

That is how the village got its name — it’s the village where the maharaja built a pul (bridge) for his kanjari (a derogatory word for a courtesan). Historians today are lobbying for the village, despite the romantic lineage of its name, to be known as Pul Moran. It is in fact the address of the last BSF outpost between Amritsar and Lahore, keeping a 360-degree watch on the swath of fenced-in land separating the two cities, and the well-maintained Martyrs’ Memorial built to commemorate the outstanding bravery of Lance Naik Shangara Singh and his colleagues.

Today, the thriving town is a village with dusty roads. Shahjahan’s canal has been overrun with weeds. The fields, bright green with the results of the rabi season sowing, and the occasional tourists headed for the historic sarovar that’s been restored with great care by the Punjab Tourism Department, are the only signs of life. The BSF outpost, which has 80-90 men and women, and an old, abandoned mosque in the care of the paramilitary force, comes alive only around 4 p.m., when the jawans fan out to spend yet another long night of keeping a lonely vigil on the border.

At one end of the horizon, you can see the Pakistani outpost, which sits like an extra-terrestrial space ship lost to time — there’s not even a shimmer of life, yet you get the eerie feeling that you are under enemy surveillance. At another end, you see a jamun tree, one-half of which is in India and the other half in Pakistan. I wondered how the spoils from the tree got divided, or were they just allowed to rot.

For someone visiting Amritsar, here’s an unknown jewel worth a detour. It was also the perfectly unusual setting for a lunch, accompanied by the songs of Gurmeet Bawa (alternating between soulful and playful), organised by the Punjab Grill chain of restaurants as a part of its Rangla Punjab 2.0 deep dive into the state’s culture and cuisine.

Like Pul Kanjari never comes up in any discussion on Amritsar, the menu too showcased dishes we do not associate in the normal course with Punjabi cuisine — from achaars (including one with quail meat) and murabbas (amla and apple being the favoured fruits) to the juicy and flavourful Chargha Chicken, now better-known as a favourite of Lahore, and the mutton chaamp tak-a-tak, the spicy mutton mince cutlets (and not the rib pieces you’d expect from the name) that may not be as famous as the kulcha or makkhan fish, but are loved as much by the Ambarsaris.

We couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate setting or a more soul-satisfying meal. Punjab Grill’s efforts to explore deeper into the state’s rich culinary heritage through its Rangla Punjab experiential tours are opening up new destinations and food experiences for the world traveller. Punjab doesn’t look the same after Rangla Punjab.

This article first appeared in Mail Today on Sunday, January 15, 2017. Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers