Why the heart of the Punjab beats to a drum

From devotional hymns to traditional folk melodies, this part of north-western India reverberates to the sound of music, says Cathy Packe

The sight of Indian and Pakistani soldiers marching provocatively towards each other is not unusual at the Indian frontier town of Attari and its Pakistani counterpart, Wagah. But this show of national competitiveness has nothing to do with heightened international tension or political uncertainty on the western side of the border. The daily ritual is a flag-lowering ceremony, greeted by the crowds who gather every day at 4.30pm with an enthusiasm that is usually associated in this part of the world with supporters at a test match. While the spectators arrive to watch the ceremony, patriotic music is played. The arrival of the regular Delhi to Lahore bus is greeted with a roar, and two runners carrying Indian flags are urged to the border gates with a rapturous whoop.

As the spectacle gets underway, immaculately uniformed soldiers – khaki trimmed with red and gold on the Indian side, dark blue for Pakistan – head towards each other, their exaggerated foot stamping and high kicking turning them into a cross between angry flamenco dancers and John Cleese at the Ministry of Silly Walks. A cheerleader on each side eggs the crowd on: "Hindustan!" he cries; "Zindabad!" bellows the patriotic crowd in response. Their cries of "Long live India" are followed by "Pakistan – Zindabad" from across the border, ensuring another wave of enthusiastic cheering from the Indian side. The two countries' flags are lowered and folded, and the crowd gradually drifts away, buoyed up by a feeling of superiority over the people on the other side of the border.

Little more than two generations ago, the people on both sides would have been part of the same Punjabi community. The daily ceremony is a symbolic reminder that partition cut a frontier through the heart of the Punjab, leaving its historic capital, Lahore, in Pakistan, and its religious heart, Amritsar, on the other side. Some 20 miles from the border, the Sikhs' holy city is the only place of any size in this part of north-west India. All around are fields of rice and sugar cane, as well as military barracks; along the roadside are simple dhabas, cafés where travellers can stop for a tasty meal of thali, or the famous local butter chicken.

Amritsar is a bustling place, a chaotic mix of sounds and sights and smells: old men sitting cross-legged by the roadside staring aimlessly ahead; eager salesmen attempting to lure passers-by into their makeshift kiosks; bony cows grazing on the rubbish that is piled up on every street corner; and a relentless cacophony of traffic. The noise and bustle of the main thoroughfares can be overwhelming, so I turn into an alley and wander the backstreets. Drawn by the rhythmic sound of hammering, I find myself in the metalworkers' market, and the workshop of Parveen Vig. He is hard at work shaping a narsiga, an S-shaped musical instrument that sounds a bit like a trumpet and is played in Sikh temples during evening prayers.

Mr Vig's family has been in Amritsar for generations, and he remembers the terrible massacre that took place here in 1984. Prevented from leaving his workshop by the curfew imposed on the city, he heard the shots as government troops opened fire inside the Golden Temple, the Sikhs' holiest shrine, killing hundreds of worshippers. The violence also caused extensive damage to the building; as a metalworker, he helped with the rebuilding, and tells me to look out for the railings outside the temple, an example of his handiwork.

Today, all that can be heard from the Golden Temple are the devotional hymns that waft through the streets of the old city. Inside, I discover two harmonium players sitting cross-legged in the heart of the temple. The building is in the middle of a lake; around it are smaller shrines, accommodation for pilgrims, and a dining hall where any visitor can come for a simple meal. By day the complex is crowded with visitors, strolling in the required clockwise direction towards the temple entrance. All are barefoot, their heads covered; some stop to bathe in the holy water of the lake. But at night the Golden Temple is at its most captivating, a stunning gold-clad building that glitters in the spotlights, its illuminated reflection glowing in the water below. Late in the evening a fascinating ceremony takes place, as the Sikh holy book, which is the focus of the prayers in the temple, is removed to a separate building for the night. Pilgrims jostle to get close to the golden palanquin, adorned with garlands of marigold flowers, as it makes its way out of the temple to the sound of a narsiga similar to the one I saw being made by Parveen Vig.

Outside the city of Amritsar, the Punjab is mainly rural. Two rivers flow through it, but most of the urban development has taken place along the Grand Trunk Road, built in the 16th century to link Kabul with Calcutta. Yet despite its importance as a thoroughfare, the Grand Trunk Road has none of the attributes of a Western-style highway. Cars and trucks zigzag from side to side, overtaking each other from left and right. Horse-drawn carts pulling precarious cargoes of sugar cane jostle for space with bicycle rickshaws, herds of goats, and the occasional elephant, pressed into service to transport the heaviest loads. Townships along the way are a chaotic muddle of people, animals and market stalls piled high with cauliflowers, carrots and cages of chickens.

A couple of places stand out on the route south. In the industrial town of Jalandhar there is a remarkable Hindu temple, the Devi Talab. Larger-than-life figures of some of the Hindu gods, gaudy to Western eyes, rise out of the lake; at the far side of the complex is an artificial cave, a reconstruction of an important shrine in Kashmir, whose entrance is through the mouth of a brightly coloured roaring lion. I follow a line of other visitors into the main temple, which sits in the middle of the lake. On the way in, each person raises a hand to toll the bell hanging above the doorway, and kneels to touch the floor. Inside, a priest is accepting the gifts that all the worshippers bring, and handing them sweet delicacies in return.

Further along the Grand Trunk Road, and the most southerly point on my journey, is Patiala, a dusty town dominated by a vast fortress, whose heavy wooden door, studded with metal spikes, hides a palace full of unexpected treasures. The Qila Mubarak was built in the 18th century as accommodation for the Sikh rulers, and was paid for with the taxes from travellers along the highway. The palace enclosed within the inner courtyard is little more than a ghostly shell, but wandering through its deserted corridors I discover a room full of exquisite, if somewhat faded, wall paintings that give a hint of its former luxury.

Outside the fort, in the shadow of its walls, traders are selling popcorn, which they cook in salt over an open fire. This is a seasonal delicacy, typical of the Lohri festival which is celebrated all over the Punjab to mark the end of winter. My companion for this part of the trip is Jasmail Singh, a photographer who has made a study of many of the region's traditions, and he is keen that I should take part in the celebrations in a rural community. Most Punjabi villages are off the beaten track, away from the main road but signposted from it by means of elaborate entrance gates, decorated with domes or arches that would not be out of place in a temple. They appear to lead nowhere, but together we head through one of them, and follow a winding country lane into the village of Boparai Kalan.

Unlike the towns that I have seen, this is a peaceful, orderly place. The constant hooting of cars and motorcycles has faded; instead I can hear dogs barking and children chattering. Our first stop is at the home of Pritam Singh, a local craftsman who makes musical instruments. He shows me a sarangi, which resembles a rather primitive, three-stringed violin but is played in a vertical position like a cello; and a dhad or hand-held drum which is beaten with the fingers of one hand, while the pitch is changed by squeezing a tape around the middle of the instrument. He lets me try out both instruments, but they are harder to play than they look. The sarangi is nothing like any stringed instrument I have ever come across, and I find it hard to get used to putting my fingers underneath the strings as I move the bow. In Mr Singh's more expert hands a glorious rich sound emerges, almost like that of the human voice. He hops from one foot to the other as he plays, and the rhythm of the music soon has everyone in the workshop tapping their feet.

The Lohri festival involves fires and music. In larger villages and towns, groups of musicians get together to entertain the crowds, playing a combination of sarangis and drums to accompany a singer as he performs a repertoire of well-known folk songs. We head down the road from Mr Singh's house and into the home of a neighbour where a party is in full swing. No one seems to mind that a complete stranger has wandered in, and they welcome me with a glass of warm milk and a tray of sweetmeats. Outside, a woman is preparing a fire from a neat pile of black discs that look like charcoal but turn out to be dried cowpats. I had seen them in the fields, piled up until they resemble a giant beehive, then covered with leaves and left to dry. When the fire has taken hold we all throw sesame seeds into it to bring good luck.

Eventually Pritam Singh takes us back to his home for a meal of spinach, dahl and delicious hot bread prepared by his wife and daughters in their open-air kitchen. We eat inside, with Mr Singh and one of his sons. As we head out into the cool winter night, the rest of his family is still outside, wrapped in pashmina shawls, chatting animatedly in front of an open fire, listening to the strains of dance music wafting through the night air, enjoying what is left of their village festival.

'Utsavam – Music from India' opens at the Horniman Museum (100 London Road, Forest Hill, London SE23 3PQ; 020-8699 1872; www.horniman.ac.uk) on 9 February and runs until 2 November. Open daily 10.30am-5.30pm, admission free. Among the exhibits will be a reconstruction of the workshop of Pritam Singh

Traveller's Guide:

The writer travelled to Punjab as a guest of the Indian Ministry of Tourism (020-7437 3677; www.incredibleindia.org) and flew with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), which flies twice daily non-stop from Heathrow to Delhi.

The same route is served by Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com), Air India (020-8560 9996; www.airindia.com) and Jet Airways (0870 910 1000; www.jetairways.com). Connecting flights are available with airlines such as Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com), which flies via Dubai from a range of UK airports.

Amritsar is also served from Birmingham and Heathrow by Air India and from Heathrow by Jet Airways.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).

Hotel Ashok, Chanakayapuri, New Delhi (00 91 11 261 10101; www.theashok.com). Double rooms start at R8,800 (£114), room only.
Ranjit's Svaasa, Amritsar, Punjab (00 91 183 256 6618; www.svaasa.com/ranjit). Double rooms start R5,750 (£74), including breakfast.

British passport holders require a visa to visit India, available from the High Commission of India in London (020-7836 8484; www.hcilondon.net), or the Consulate-General of India in Birmingham (0121 212 2782) or Edinburgh (0131 229 2144). A short-term tourist visa costs £30. You are advised to apply well in advance in case of delays.