Punjab: an Amalgam

Famous for its scenic landscape, mustard blooms, ancient fertile lands, religious diversity and gregarious people, Punjab, despite it’s beautiful mountains and rivers was not always as blessed! Punjab has always been the center point of civilizations due to its strategic location as the entrance to the Indian subcontinent. Foreign invaders like the Persians, Greeks, Scythians and Kushanas came into India through this gateway and they faced tough resistance from brave Punjabi warriors. Some stayed, some plundered the lands and left; however, each community that entered Punjab, left an indelible impression on Punjabi culture that enriched and enhanced it.

When you visit Punjab, you get to experience this rich, storied Punjabi culture through its cuisine, architecture, music and its crafts. On a visit to Punjab, you would of course want to do all the fun things like gorge on chana stuffed kulcha dipped in desi ghee and makki di roti & sarson da saag and take a fun tractor ride through a field of mustard. A visit to the Virasat-e-khalsa museum, exploring fascinating sites in its centuries-old cities, beautiful temples, picturesque gardens and palaces will give you fascinating insights into the wondrous history of the region.

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But if you want to soak in the true spirit of the land, acquaint yourself with its rich handicrafts. Bearing witness to centuries of give and take between cultures, Punjab’s famous handicrafts like Phulkari, woodwork and leather crafts add a swathe of color to its rich historical tapestry.The artisans of Punjab lay immense importance on their artistry and the intricate details in their crafts. God really is in the details here and you can see that thought come alive in traditional Punjabi handmade products.

Take for example, Punjab’s leather craft, especially the ‘juttis‘ or soft leather shoes. A beautiful product, these shoes  having no left and right distinction, and are always flat-soled.These light slip-ons were traditionally embroidered in gold and silver thread, but are now embellished with colored threads. Construction of one pair of juttis involves people from different communities: the “Cobblers, who process raw hides, the “Rangaars”, who color them and the “Mochis”, who assemble the pieces together and do the final stitching and embroidery. Colorful, unique and comfortable, this type of footwear is also called a “Mojri” and can be found in nearly every woman’s wardrobe!

The jutti evolved from a shoe style with a curled up pointed toe called mojri, worn by the wealthiest male citizens during the Mughal Empire in the early 16th century. For example, “Salim Shahi Juttis”, which have a curled toe point and a decoratively curved upper, are named after a Mughal prince of the 1600s. Mojri continues to be worn at weddings and other special occasions in India.

The word ‘Phulkari’ means ‘flower work’, done on coarse handwoven cotton fabric and is a richly embroidered fabric, usually a dupatta or shawls. Handcrafted with a simple needle with multi colored raw silk thread, a Phulkari used ‘resham’ or silk threads to fill up traditional floral and geometrical motifs creating a densely embroidered texture. An exquisite, visually arresting craft, Phulkari probably started sometime in the 15th century and was once an ubiquitous part of a bride’s trousseau.

“Ih phulkari meri maan ne kadhi, iss noo ghut ghut japhiyan paawan”
(“My dear mother has embroidered this phulkari, I embrace it again and
again with affection”) – Traditional Punjabi song

But the craft was not exclusively meant for women and there are instances of Sikh scriptures being kept wrapped in phulkaris as well.Though the origins of Phulkari embroidery are unclear, it is often linked both to the Gujjar nomads of Central Asia and the ‘Gulkari’ embroidery of Iran. It remains a folk treasure, more art than pure textile, celebrating culture and life.

Punjabi carpenters are highly skilled in making durable and visually attractive furniture with beautiful carvings, their skill passed down from generation to generation. One of the most famous wooden furniture pieces from Punjab is a bed with a back rest fitted with mirrors and colorful legs called pawas. Various Mughal motifs of animals, birds, natural scenery and geometrical patterns are used for carving on these beds which were once added to a bride’s trousseau. Skilled carpenters in the state also make ‘Peeras’, decorative boxes, ‘Pidhis’ and wooden toys with ivory inlay work, that are exported worldwide. The woodwork was originally practised in Bhera, Amritsar, Batala, Chiniot, Hoshiarpur and Hissar (now in Haryana), each with its own provincial characteristics.

Would it surprise you to know that the all-time favourite cuisine combination among Punjabis, seekh kebab and naan, originated in Persia? We are thankful to the Mughals for introducing us to these delectable delights. A great deal of Punjabi cuisine is a blend of Indo-Mughal-Persian food. Paneer, every Punjabi’s ultimate comfort food, also originated in Persia and was introduced to Punjabi cuisine by the Mughals while in Iran, paneer is generally salty and is eaten spread on bread for breakfast. Another culinary favorite, common to both cultures is the samosa, known as “Pirashki”. More popular in India as a vegetarian item, the Iranian version is stuffed with minced meat.

Indian architecture of Islamic period was immensely inspired by Persian monuments and Mughal architecture flourished in Punjab in the 17th century. Sikh temples, called ‘Gurdwaras’, like the famed Golden Temple in Amritsar, show some of the finest examples of this architectural influence. Being a later religion, Sikhism did not develop its own original architectural style and usually followed the style of Mughal palaces finished in white but with more decorative features like the resplendent golden dome of the Golden Temple.

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Despite having faced countless wars and invasions, periods of instability and the human cost of war, Punjab’s culture progressed and is a thriving one. Punjab and its people have evolved so much while absorbing in the positive influences from various cultures. The glorious past and present shows us that it has come a long way and it’s rich heritage will last centuries.

-Images by Shilpa Sharma. Co-Founder, Jaypore

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