India: Punjab and Haryana

Golden Temple

Harmandir Sahib, Amritsar, Punjab

March 2022

Rock Garden Chandigarh

A YouTuber got to do what a YouTuber got to do, come war, elections or pestilence. Yes, we now have a YouTube Channel, an extremely popular one that too, with close to double digit subscriptions, almost triple the number of our blog post readers. Now that pestilence seems to have petered off, war in a far off land and elections all but over, it was time to brave the elements and go searching for material for our twenty-third episode of our Bharat Darshan saga (now playing on YouTube). It was time to hit the North West.

After pretending to sleep in a noisy hotel following a late night arrival into Chandigarh, we headed bright and early, (well, more like "groggy and dark" - the sun doesn't rise here until 7 am), to Yadavindra Gardens in Pinjore. They are a Mughal era, late 17th century gardens built by Nawab Fidai Khan Koka, the Master of Ordnance of Emperor Aurangzeb. Yadavindra Singh, by the way, was the Maharaja of Patiala (and father of Amarindar) restored the gardens to its former splendour during the early 20th century. After roaming the gardens in complete solitude, thanks to the early morning start, we headed to the prime attraction of Chandigarh, its Rock Garden. Back in 1957, when Chandigarh was getting built from scratch, one Mr. Nek Chand, a PWD employee, started creating rock sculptures, in a secluded gorge, in complete secrecy. His work wasn't discovered until 1975, by which time, it occupied an area of 13 acres of interlinking courtyards. The government initially wanted to demolish it, but thankfully better sense prevailed and Chandigarh is now home to one of the finest sculpture gardens on the planet. After a couple of hours of getting lost in the fantasy filled ravines of the Rock Garden, we headed to check out the more traditional gardens of Chandigarh. Located on the foothills of the Shivaliks, Chandigarh has the ideal weather for gardening and the city has its fair share of gardens. We visited a few and the pick of the lot were the Garden of Fragrance and the Terraced Gardens. Punjab had lost its capital, Lahore, to Pakistan, thanks to the partition. So Nehru decided to build a new one from scratch. He was old school. Instead of announcing a hundred planned cities, delivering none and blaming Mountbatten, Nehru promised one planned city and employed the best architect of his times, Le Corbusier, and actually delivered it. Corbusier's masterpieces are a set of government buildings located at the heart of the city, its Capital Complex. It was a revelation to realise mundane can be this magnificent. We ended the day with a pleasant stroll along the banks of the serene Sukhna, an artificial lake created by Le Corbusier to quench the new city.

Rock Garden Chandigarh
Tombs of Ustad Shagird Nakodar

The event for the following day was a short drive to Patiala. About midway, lies the ancient town of Sirhind. It houses a famous Gurudwara, Fatehgarh Sahib, constructed on top of the very ground where the youngest two sons (as young as 9 and 7) of the last Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, were buried alive by the Mughals, for simply refusing to convert to Islam. A short distance away stands the haveli of Todar Mal, the haveli of the Hindu Diwan who paid a fortune to get permission to perform their last rites. Further away stands two Mughal era tombs, simply named the Tombs of Ustad-Shagrid, belonging to a master (ustad in Urdu) architect and his student (shagird in Urdu) - both tombs standing midst of a picturesque verdant paddy fields. Sirhind also houses an Aam-Khas Bagh, an impressive Mughal era highway inn. Sirhind, owing to its location on the main Delhi-Lahore highway, was an ideal place for the caravans to spend a night. We reached Patiala by lunch only to discover its main attraction, the Sheesh Mahal, closed for renovation. But its imposing fort, Qila Mubarak, with its super-massive ramparts made up for the disappointment. For most of the 18th century, Sikhs were ruled by a loose federation of twelve independent misls. One of these was the Phulkian Misl whose ruler Ala Singh founded the city of Pati-ala. The Patiala rulers struck a deal with the British which was instrumental in keeping the Sikh Empire of Ranjit Singh confined to the west of Sutlej. A peaceful stroll around the Baradari Gardens, a serene Gurudwara (Dukh Nivaran Sahib) and shopping for Punjabi Jutti kept us busy for the rest of the day.

Tombs of Ustad Shagird Nakodar
Gurdwara Tarn Taran

The event for the following day was a long drive to Kapurthala. We were driven around the heart of Punjab by a Tamil speaking, austere, friendly, armed to the teeth, Nihang Sikh. Only in India can a string of such mutually incompatible adjectives make any sense. We first headed dead west to Bathinda, where its fort, Qila Mubarak (yes, the same name as the one in Patiala), with equally imposing ramparts, is the prime attraction. Its genesis goes further back in history, to the time of the Kushan Empire circa 100 AD, although very little survives from that era. This was one of the first forts captured by the Mohammeds (Ghori and Ghazni) on their forays into India and it was here that Razia Sultana was held prisoner after her failed bid to recapture Delhi from her half-brother. After soaking in the history and the views, we drove to Nakodar, a town that hides a priceless gem - a pair of breath-taking Mughal era tombs, Tombs of Ustad-Shagird (yes, the same name as the pair in Sirhind and yes, nouns are in short supply here). This master-student pair were classical musicians. The tombs dating to 1612 and 1667 AD to the era of Jehangir and Shah Jahan. The drive ended in Kapurthala, the erstwhile capital of the Ahluwalia Misl (another of the dozen Sikh misls) and the later Kapurthala State. Its last ruler, Maharaja Jagatjit Singh, was a liberal and a world traveller, a combination that made him build an unique mosque for his Muslim subjects. Not any old mosque, but a scaled down version of the Grand Mosque at Marrakesh. This lovely little jewel is generally deserted and is wonderful place to walk around in silence. Kapurthala also houses a neglected old Darbar Hall with its splendid bronze equestrian statue of Raja Randhir Singh and the abandoned cenotaphs of the Maharajas left to crumble in the ill-maintained Shalimar Gardens. If only India valued actual history as much as it values the made-up ones on the WhatsApp forwards. Sigh!

Gurdwara Tarn Taran
Tomb of Sheikh Chilli

A short one hour pre-dawn drive brought us to Tarn Taran Sahib, housing a Gurudwara with the largest Sarovar on the planet. Walking its periphery with the sun rising over the misty Gurudwara is one of life's unforgettable experiences. A shorter ride brought us to Amritsar, home to the Golden Temple, the one city and the one monument that anyone with an IQ of a carrot would be able to name in Punjab. We headed there after a sumptuous breakfast of the city's signature dish, the Amritsari Kulcha. It was late enough that there was an ocean of people already inside the temple. But thankfully all were devotees and all were confined to the inner sanctum. Since we only wanted pictures, we could roam the outer periphery in relative comfort and peace. A short hop from the temple lies Jallianwala Bagh, the ground zero of the gruesome massacre of 1919 when one Brigadier General Dyer opened fire on unarmed peaceful protestors after blocking off the only exit, killing over 1500 people and injuring many more. An incident for which the polite Brits expressed a deep regret a century later, something that we Indians express instantly and automatically after accidently stepping on a piece of paper. The Silver Temple, a Hindu temple and a replica of the Golden, a wonderful Panorama depicting the life and the battles of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, his Summer Palace, his well-maintained Fort Gobindgarh and the sombre Partition Museum were the smorgasbord of sights that occupied us for the rest of the day.

Tomb of Sheikh Chilli

The following day was a long drive to Ambala with a couple of worthy stops. First was the Gurudwara at Anandpur Sahib. This was the place where the last Guru, Guru Gobind, dug his heels and faced the Mughals. He rallied his men, founded the Khalsa, decreed that all men will take on the surname of Singh (he was the first Guru to take that surname) and won the first battle of Anandpur Sahib. The second battle ended in a stalemate and the horrific martyrdom of the Guru's sons (at Fatehpur Sahib) happened during the chaotic withdrawal of the Sikhs after this second battle. All of this history is wonderfully retold in the nearby impressive modern museum of Virasat-e-Khalsa. Guru Gobind ended the tradition of Gurus in Sikhism in an attempt to end the cycle of violence. His primary disciple, Banda Bahadur took over the leadership of Khalsa after the Guru's death. Banda's finest moment came at the Battle of Chappar Chiri where he defeated the Mughals and help establish the Khalsa rule in Punjab. This Chappar Chiri is now a suburb of Mohali where a decade ago, Fateh Burj a 100 m tall victory tower was erected to mark the 300th anniversary of the battle. And that was our second stop of our day.

Group of Tombs Jhajjar

Our trip continued on into Haryana, which was, by the way, Punjab till the state was split in 1966. First up - the top two historical sites of the state. Started off with Kurukshetra, where the climax of the world's longest poem and the world's longest epic, Mahabharata, was said to have played out. Mahabharata culminates with an epic 18 day battle fought on the fields of Kurukshetra. Today, a large pond, Brahma Sarovar marks this point. It was here that Duryodhana hid himself on the penultimate day of the battle. the sarovar was a very well maintained pond and great place to hang around till the other sights opened their gates for us. One of these is the best monument in Haryana, Sheikh Chilli's Tomb, a mausoleum built in 1650 by Dara Shikoh for his Sufi master, Sheikh Chilli. Dara was the first son of Shah Jahan and the empire's heir apparent. Aurangzeb had to get Dara executed to become the next Mughal emperor (which he eventually did in 1659). Another monument worth a mention is the Nabha House, a lavish guest house built by Maharaja Hira Singh in the 1800s to serve as a temporary residence for the Nabha royalty when they paid a visit to the holy land of Kurukshetra.

Group of Tombs Jhajjar

A couple of hours away from Kurusketra is another battlefield, the most famous one in Indian history, Panipat. Three pivotal battles which changed the course of Indian history were fought here. The first gave Mughals an entry into the Subcontinent, the second helped them regain their foothold (a defeat in either would have removed the only election issue that the BJP ever fights on) and the third battle weakened the Maratha Empire paving way for the British Raj. After Lodhi, Hemu and Sadashiv Rao, it was our turn to lose at Panipat. We lost to the chaotic, choking and impenetrable traffic of the city. Of the long laundry list of sights, we could only check out two - the Battlefield Memorial and the Kabuli Bagh Mosque that Babur erected to commemorate his victory - before hastily fleeing to the safety of Hisar, a smaller Haryana town with more manageable circulation. Hisar was home to Firoz Shah Tughlaq's favourite concubine - we only know her as Gurjari. She saw something in Hisar that we couldn't and refused to leave the town and move to Delhi. So Firoz Shah built her a palace, the Gurjari Mahal, and built himself a palace (the crumbling Firoz Shah Complex) and built themselves a mosque - Lat ki Masjid. Firoz Shah had a fascination for Ashokan Pillars. He had one hauled to Firoz Shah Kotla in Delhi and he had another one hauled to here in Hisar. The "Lat" in the mosque is an Ashokan Pillar. All of these events happened in the 1350s.

Chor Gumbad Narnaul

The following day, we drove to Jhajjar, home to an astonishing group of seven tombs. We don't know whom they belong to, we only know that they date to the era spanning Akbar to Shah Jahan: 1594 - 1626 to be precise. After spending an hour being amazed at the edifices and appalled at how badly they are maintained, we headed to the crowning glory of all hidden gems in the state, Narnaul. It was an important town all through the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughal era and the Suri interregnum and each of them had bestowed the city with a gape worthy monument. Sultanate era gave the city the imposing Chor Gumbad. The Mughal era gave it the impressive Birbal ka Chatta, the stunning Jal Mahal and the majestic Tomb of Shah Quli Khan. The Suri era gave the city its best - the stride stopping Tomb of Ibrahim Khan Sur, a mausoleum that Sher Shah built for his grandfather. These gems of Narnaul were so hidden that most locals didn't even know their existence, let alone their locations. With approximate locations on Google Maps and piecing together half leads from the locals, we managed to get to all of them before sunset.

Chor Gumbad Narnaul

The final day of the trip dawned on us and we had a half a day drive to Delhi to catch our evening flight. This is Haryana, you know the drill by now. The less-known site for the day was Nuh. It was the capital of the even lesser-known Mewat Kingdom which sprung up in the 14th century and continued as vassals of the Mughals. The monuments we happened to visit, however, post-dated this kingdom. The first was an ornate cenotaph of a wealthy local Seth Chuhimal dating from the early 19th century located next to a picturesque pond and second was a mosque - Sheikh Musa, to give its name - with a photogenic front facade.

Looking back, an year ago, neither of us had gotten our first vaccine shot and we had no idea how long the wait might be. India was entering its darkest phase of the pandemic. And we were looking at YouTube recipes to make naan without tandoor using pressure cooker instead. We were quite convinced those will be only naans we will ever be able to eat in our lives. Who would have thought within one year, I would be fed up of naans and would be queueing up to the idli counter at an overcrowded airport. Life is indeed stranger than fiction.

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