You cannot be in three places at once. So which of these three should one choose to visit on the weekend of Independence day: Amritsar, Lucknow or Madurai? All of them look interesting. The only way to choose is by elimination.
In the last few days we managed to eliminate Amritsar. In the end the method was simple. I looked for flights from Mumbai to Amritsar. The only non-stop flights were by an airline in which we have, at least temporarily, lost confidence. A few months ago they had severe cash-flow problems and canceled many flights during vacations. They seem to have recovered partially, but are still on the edge. We would prefer not to take this airline. Moreover, the prices of tickets on these flights are sky-high!
One of the flights with one stop takes a little over 5 hours one way. Most of the others involve long layovers in Delhi. This will take a day off our vacation each way. So that’s out too.
The way most people do this, it seems, is to fly to Chandigarh and then take the road. The flight to Chandigarh takes two and a half hours. It looks like a 4 to 5 hours’ drive to Amritsar after that. The trip could well take 7 hours. This is no better than changing planes in Delhi.
This more or less eliminates Amritsar. Its now a straight race between Lucknow and Madurai.
Madurai is also out for the same reason. In principle it is possible to get from Mumbai to Madurai in about 5 hours, including time for a change of flights in Chennai. But its now too late to get such a flight. Now the only connections available are those which more or less eat up a full day. So Madurai is out too.
Three weeks from now we have a four-day weekend starting on Independence Day. Just the right time to start thinking about where to go. I thought maybe Madurai, deep in the heart of Tamil Nadu. The Family suggests Amritsar, culturally the other end of India. We might compromise with Lucknow, with its faded memory of culture and extreme politeness.
Some reading is clearly in order. Lucknow brings to mind the Bara Imambara, chikankari work, dussheri mangoes, and galawati kabab. There’s more. Lucknow also brings to mind stories of the Sultan Wajid Ali Shah, lost in songs and courtly manners, arrested by the East India Company, the subsequent failed siege during the war of 1857, the creation of the dance form Kathak and the story of the courtesan Umrao Jaan Ada, steeped in the formality and melancholy of a city which flowered in the 18th and 19th centuries. I look for books on Lucknow. There are many, but they are not available as e-books.
Amritsar is different. It has the golden temple, and the brilliant rustic food of Punjab. One remembers also the turbulent recent history, the siege of the golden temple, and the subsequent separatist terror. But before that there was the symbol of imperial oppression, the massacre of unarmed civilians in the Jalianwala Bagh. Between these events was the partition, symbolized by the Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan just outside Amritsar. It seems that the long and dazzling history of the Punjab has been completely erased in our minds by the bloody history of the 20th century.
And Madurai? What does it have apart from the Meenakshi temple? One knows of the colleges and a medical school, an underground neutrino observatory being built nearby, but precious little else. Taking quick look at blogs, I find photos of an impressive palace of the Nayaks, forts outside town, and a zany drink called, quite unbelievably, jigarthanda. There are other large temples, some mosques, and multiple palaces. It is also possible to take a long day’s trip to Kanyakumari. Part of the reason I find it hard to locate books about Madurai is because most of the literature is in Tamil. It is, after all, the real heart of Tamil culture.