Tripping On India: The Palatial Pleasures Of Punjab
There is an image that one has of Punjab, of yellow mustard fields (largely thanks to Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge), of the Golden Temple, the patriotic border ceremony at Wagah and butter chicken and malai-topped lassi. Punjab is all that, yet much more, as we discovered on our three-week sojourn across the state. Punjab is also about large forts that once belonged to Sikh rulers, ornate palaces heavily influenced by Europe and the only Moorish mosque this side of the Indus. Punjab is way more than just Amritsar and Chandigarh, the two cities most people tend to visit. We recommend seeing the former princely states of Kapurthala and Patiala, the fort of Bhatinda and the serene Anandpur Sahib which houses one of the best private museums in the country.
The relatively small state boasts an excellent bus network, which will not only get you everywhere, but also give you a crash course in Punjabi pop music. You can make any of the major cities, such as Chandigarh, Amritsar or Ludhiana, your base and travel around. Travel in rural Punjab is a little like stepping into parts of your favourite Bollywood movie, minus the spontaneous group singing. Yes it’s true that thick lassi is drunk first thing in the morning along with hot parathas dunked in homemade white makhhan, something we experienced while living with a few families in villages across the state. For a similar experience, you can stay at The Kothi, a beautiful old mansion arranged around a central courtyard in Nawanpind Sardaran, a small village two hours from Amritsar.
Famous for the peg and the salwar, Patiala, a couple of hours outside Chandigarh, was one of the richest former princely states. Before Partition, Punjab encapsulated modern day Punjab, Haryana and parts of Himachal in India and Punjab province in Pakistan. Of these, five remain in Punjab, India: Patiala, Faridkot, Kapurthala, Nabha and Malerkotla, though much of their former glory has long since been lost and very little has been done to conserve monuments. The Patiala dynasty built some magnificent palaces, gardens and a fort complex. We visited the eighteenth-century Qila Mubarak where the Durbar Hall holds some vestiges of the dynasty. There are beautiful carriages, display cases with weapons and armour, grand chandeliers and a dagger that belonged to Guru Gobind Singh. It is said that Bhupinder Singh, the former maharaja of Patiala, built the highest cricket pitch in Chail (now in Himachal Pradesh) apparently to spite the British who wouldn’t allow him into Shimla for being a little too friendly with the English ladies. True or not it’s a fun story, one of many you will hear while wandering around the old gallis of Patiala.
Qila Mubarak, Adalat Bazar, Patilala. Open Tuesday to Sunday, from 9am to 5pm; Monday, closed.
At the other end of the state is Kapurthala, another former princely state. Kapurthala is rather fascinating because the last maharaja Jagatjit Singh married Anita Delgado, a Spanish flamenco dancer, a true rags-to-riches story made famous by Javier Moro’s controversial book Passion India. A Francophile, he was well-travelled and in addition to building a palace modelled on Versailles, Jagatjit Singh built the Moorish Mosque in 1927 modelled on the Grande Mosque of Marrakesh. Though nowhere near as large as its Moroccan counterpart, it’s quite stately, painted in warm tones with delicate designs on the inner domes and the main altar executed by art students of Mayo College in Lahore. Tourist footfall is minimal in this tiny capital and walking around transports to you different parts of the world all at once, thanks to its globetrotting former ruler. Another example of foreign-inspired architecture is the The Jagatjit Club, a Greek-style building constructed in the early twentieth century and originally used as a church.
Moorish Mosque, Circular Road, Shakti Nagar, Kapurthala.
Bathinda, about three hours south of Ludhiana, is home to one of India’s oldest surviving forts. The Qila Mubarak (not to be confused with the one in Patiala), which dates back to around 100 AD and has passed hands through several emperors and dynasties, stuns with its sheer size and and scale. It was once captured by Mahmud of Ghazni in the eleventh century and it is here that the only woman to rule the Delhi Sultanate, Razia Sultan was imprisoned 200 years later.
Qila Mubarak, Old City, Bathinda. Open daily, from 4am to 8pm.
Schlepping around dusty towns and wheat fields, we found broken monuments and tombs from the Sikh empire scattered everywhere. The history of the religion and empire is best understood at the impressive Virasat-E-Khalsa, a private free museum in the religious town of Anandpur Sahib that’s managed by the Anandpur Sahib Foundation. The 500-year-old history of the religion and the state, so intricately intertwined with each other, is explained in an engaging manner with paintings, videos, life-sized cutouts, murals and multimedia displays.
Virasat-e-Khalsa, Khalsa Heritage Memorial Complex, Anandpur Sahib. Open Tuesday to Sunday, from 10am to 6pm; Monday, closed.
A couple of hours from Chandigarh, Anandpur Sahib is the second most sacred Sikh site. It’s home to the sprawling Gurudwara Takht Sri Keshgarh Sahib, the birthplace of the Khalsa, where we had the wholesome langar for lunch. From the quiet roof overlooking Anandpur Sahib, the gurudwara affords a sweeping view of the small town, which is filled with white domes and spires in all directions. The little town has one of the highest concentrations of gurudwaras in the state and the many white domes all around provide a sense of peace, with the lower Himalayas in the distance. Gurudwaras tend to have that effect on people. Immaculately clean, we feel that they should be the norm for how all places of faith, history and heritage are maintained. There is order, quiet and solitude.
Gurudwara Takht Sri Keshgarh Sahib, Guru Gobind Singh Marg, Anandpur Sahib.