Travel Bucket List – India: Punjab Part 1


Originally known as the “land of the five rivers” or “panca nada” in Sanskrit with references to this regionbeing found in the epic, Mahabharata, the region we now know as Punjab was called the Sapta Sindhu, the Vedic land of the seven rivers flowing into the ocean. The name Punjab is a is a compound of two Persian words – Panj meaning five and âb meaning water, which was introduced to the region by the Turko-Persian conquerors of India, and more formally popularised during the Mughal Empire. Punjab thus means “The Land of Five Waters”, referring to the rivers Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej, and Beas. All are tributaries of the Indus River; the Sutlej being the largest. The ancient Greeks referred to the region as Pentapotamía which has the same etymology as the original Persian word.

The Indian state of Punjab is bordered by the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir to the north, and the states of Himachal Pradesh to the east, Haryana to the south and southeast, and Rajasthan to the southwest. It is bordered by the Pakistani province of Punjab to the west. The state consists of 1.53% of India’s total geographical area and is the 20th-largest Indian state by area and the 16th-largest state by population. Punjab has the 14th largest state economy with a per capita GDP of US$ 2,100. Punjab is ranked ninth in human development index as of 2018. The state’s economy is primarily agriculture-based due to the presence of abundant water sources and a highly fertile soil, because of which the state is often refered to as India’s breadbasket or India’s granary . Most of the Punjab lies in a fertile, alluvial plain with many rivers and an extensive irrigation canal system. Punjab has the largest number of steel rolling mill plants in India, which are in “Steel Town”—Mandi Gobindgarh in the Fatehgarh Sahib district.

The official state language is Punjabi which is also the most widely spoken language. The main ethnic group are the Punjabis, with Sikhs (57.7%) and Hindus (38.5%) as the dominant religious groups. The state capital is Chandigarh, a Union Territory and also the capital of the neighbouring state of Haryana.

Punjab’s geographical definition has changed over time. In the 16th century Mughal Empire it referred to a relatively smaller area lying between the Indus and the Sutlej rivers. In British India, until the Partition of Punjab in 1947, the Punjab Province encompassed the present-day Indian states and union territories of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Chandigarh and Delhi and the Pakistani provinces of Punjab and Islamabad Capital Territory. It bordered the Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa regions to the west, Kashmir to the north, the Hindi Belt to the east and Rajasthan and Sindh to the south.

The Punjab region was the cradle for the Indus Valley Civilisation and had numerous migration by the Indo-Aryan people. The first traces of human habitation in India were found in the Punjab region.A heavily contested land, it was in various times, pillaged and conquered by the Persians, Indo-Greeks, Indo-Scythians, Kushans, Macedonians, Ghaznavids, Turkic, Mongols, Timurids, Mughals, Marathas, Arabs, Pashtuns, British and others. Historic foreign invasions mainly targeted the most productive central region of the Punjab known as the Majha region, which is also the bedrock of Punjabi culture and traditions. During the period when the epic Mahabharata was written, around 800–400 BCE, Punjab was known as Trigarta and ruled by the Katoch kings. The Indus Valley Civilization spanned much of the Punjab region with cities and the Vedic Civilization spread along the length of the Sarasvati River to cover most of northern India including Punjab.

Sikhism originated in the this region during the 15th century. Approximately 75% of the total Sikh population of the world lives in Punjab. Sikhism began at the time of the conquest of northern India by Babur. Guru Arjan Dev’s martyrdom at the hands of the Mughal emperor Jahangir, led to the sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind, declaring Sikh sovereignty in the creation of the Akal Takht and the establishment of a fort to defend Amritsar, the holiest of the Sikh cities. The ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, moved the Sikh community to Anandpur and travelled extensively to visit and preach in Sikh communities in defiance of Mughal rule. He aided Kashmiri Pandits in avoiding conversion to Islam and was arrested and confronted by Aurangzeb. When offered a choice between conversion or death, he chose to die and was executed.

The Sikh community’s growing power under the reign of Guru Gobind Singh alarmed the Sivalik Hill Rajas, who attempted to attack the city, but the Guru’s forces routed them at the Battle of Bhangani. He moved on to Anandpur and established the Khalsa, a collective army of baptised Sikhs, on 13 April 1699. The establishment of the Khalsa united the Sikh community against various Mughal-backed claimants to the guruship.

The Sikh holocaust of 1762 took place under the Muslim provincial government based at Lahore to wipe out the Sikhs, with 30,000 Sikhs being killed, an offensive that had begun with the Mughals, with the Sikh holocaust of 1746, and lasted several decades under its Muslim successor states. The rebuilt Harminder Sahib was destroyed again.

The Sikh Empire which ruled between 1801 to 1849 was forged by Maharajah Ranjit Singh on the foundations of the Khalsa from a collection of autonomous Sikh misls, creating a unified political state. The empire extended from the Khyber Pass in the west, to Kashmir in the north, to Sindh in the south, and Tibet in the east. The main geographical footprint of the empire was the Punjab region. After Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839, the empire was severely weakened by internal divisions and political mismanagement. This opportunity was used by the British Empire to launch the Anglo-Sikh Wars. A series of betrayals of the Sikhs by some prominent leaders in the army led to its downfall. The Greater Punjab region was annexed by the British East India Company from the Sikh Empire in 1849. In 1947, the Punjab Province of British India was divided along religious lines into West Punjab and East Punjab. The western part was assimilated into Pakistan while the east became part of India. The Indian Punjab as well as the Patiala and Eastern Punjab States Union or PEPSU was divided into three parts on the basis of language in 1966. Hindi and dialect speaking areas were carved out as Haryana, while the hilly regions and Pahari-speaking areas formed Himachal Pradesh, alongside the current state of Punjab. During the bloody partition, huge numbers of people were displaced, and there was much intercommunal violence. Immediately following independence in 1947, and due to the ensuing communal violence and fear, most Sikhs and Punjabi Hindus who found themselves in Pakistan migrated to India. In 1956 the states under the PEPSU was integrated with the state of East Punjab to create a new, enlarged Indian state called simply “Punjab”. Punjab Day is celebrated across the state on 1 November every year marking formation of Punjabi language speaking state under Punjab Reorganisation Act of 1966.

Tourism in Indian Punjab centres around the historic palaces, battle sites, and the great Sikh architecture of the state and the surrounding region. The Golden Temple in Amritsar is one of the major tourist destinations of Punjab and indeed India, attracting more visitors than the Taj Mahal.

In the next few blog posts, I will explore in detail some of the major cities in Punjab as well as some interesting and off the beaten path tourist sites and sanctuaries.

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