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Diary

Taking in loss and joy in Amritsar

Our Sri Lanka correspondent gets time off from cricket to explore the history-laden Punjab city

The Golden Temple's tranquillity is underscored by a violent past  •  Andrew Fidel Fernando/ESPNcricinfo Ltd

The Golden Temple's tranquillity is underscored by a violent past  •  Andrew Fidel Fernando/ESPNcricinfo Ltd

The Sri Lanka cricket team can be very generous on overseas tours, by which I mean they consistently collapse, to give touring journalists a day or two off.
So on what should have been day five of the first Test, we cut right across Indian Punjab. Over the Sutlej and Beas rivers - two of the five waterways for which the region is named. Past fields of wheat, onion, and mustard - cannabis lurking deviously on the edges. Across land so flat, all you need to do to get a view for much of the journey is step out of the car and stretch up on tiptoes. It wasn't the most eventful travel. Sometimes, it is about the destination.
Only after I'd arrived at Amritsar did it occur that this was a place I had read hundreds of pages on. In novels. In history books. (And, yes, fine - Wikipedia.)
Chandigarh, where I had been for the week, was not without its charms. Its broad, tree-lined avenues, its tidy pavements, and its lower-than-usual alcohol pricing were all appropriately enjoyed. But Chandigarh is a city that sprouted out of the ground - all grids and ordered sectors - only post-Independence. In Amritsar, we were swept away by history the moment we stepped out of our cab.
In the museum of the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple), where no photos were allowed, the most violent phases of Sikh history were remembered in unflinchingly graphic paintings. We will not detail them here, partly because that would require a serious content warning. What was clear was that this was a place of powerful grievance. The word "martyr" was among the most common on the museum's plaques, as wars against largely the Mughals, and then the British, were remembered - the most famed Sikh generals and warriors often pictured on horseback, engaging an enemy.
And yet the temple, itself, the holiest site of the Sikhs, was still. Tens of thousands of pilgrims in colourful clothing - saffrons, fuschias, teals - walked around the turquoise pool, though many stood on the edges of the water in prayer too, some venturing in for a restorative dip. From the centre of the pool rose the most hallowed place in the complex. The Darbar Sahib, with its gold-plated columns, spires, and domes, twinkling today in the mid-day sun, houses the Sikh holy book - the Guru Granth Sahib. On the peripheries, though out of sight of the pool itself, langar was being served. This is the free meal that gurdwaras provide to all who come through their doors and request it.
Around the corner from the Golden Temple was the site I had wanted to come to Amritsar for - Jallianwala Bagh. Barely larger than a football field, how small it was for a place that cast so large a shadow on history.
In the saddest ways, its size made sense. When Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to open fire at those peacefully protesting the British Raj, the corpses fell in heaps near the gates of this walled garden, which Dyer's men had closed beforehand. The British put the death count at 350; others at well over 1000.
In the galleries on the edge of the park, I learned that Rudyard Kipling had defended the massacre, claiming Dyer "did his duty as he saw fit". I loved The Jungle Book as a child, and wrote an essay on his poem "If -" in high school. I talk to my four-year-old son about the adventures of Mowgli, Baloo and Bagheera, which we delight in. One day I'll also have to read him "The White Man's Burden". This will be a more difficult conversation.
What do you do when grievance stands in such callous proximity to things that bring you happiness? The Sikh festival of Vaisakhi is a harvest festival - their solar new year - celebrated across much of South and Southeast Asia on the 13th and 14th of April. It was on this festival day in 1919, that the massacre was ordered.
I didn't have answers to many of the questions that came to me during our time in Amritsar. But we did stop off and have Amritsari kulcha before we headed back. And there, at least, was untrammelled, uncomplicated joy.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf