About Puneet Sidhu
Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu, travel enthusiast and the author of Adrift: A junket junkie in Europe is the youngest of four siblings born into an aristocratic family of Punjab. Dogged in her resistance to conform, and with parental pressure easing sufficiently over the years, she had plenty of freedom of choice. And she chose travel.
She was born in Shimla, and spent her formative years at their home, Windsor Terrace, in Kasumpti while schooling at Convent of Jesus & Mary, Chelsea. The irrepressible wanderlust in her found her changing vocations midstream and she joined Singapore International Airlines to give wing to her passion. She has travelled extensively in Asia, North America, Australia, Europe, South Africa and SE Asia; simultaneously exploring the charms within India.
When she is not travelling, she is writing about it. Over the past decade or so, she has created an impressive writing repertoire for herself: as a columnist with Hindustan Times, as a book reviewer for The Tribune and as a contributor to travel magazines in India and overseas. Her work-in-progress, the documenting of colonial heritage along the Old Hindustan-Tibet Road, is an outcome of her long-standing romance with the Himalayas.
Latest Posts by Puneet Sidhu
Ayodhya is on the right bank of the river Sarayu, a town closely associated with Rama, seventh incarnation of Vishnu. For the longest time, Ayodhya for the most part was cloaked in indifferent obscurity. Cross referenced every now and then with childhood reminiscences of Amar Chitra Katha comics. They were an early introduction to our cultural heritage, their colour-infused pages peopled with historical and mythological figures.Well-researched story lines, costumes, architectural and factual details that overshadowed the pedagogy of school textbooks helped us ace many a general knowledge test.
One such informed about the legend of Rama, prince of Ayodha, central character in the Ramayana, an ancient Indian classic first authored by Valmiki. It tells of how Rama chose to go into a 14-year exile with his wife Sita, and brother Lakshman, to honour his father Dashrath’s wish. While there, his wife is abducted by Ravana, ruler of Lanka.
Rama, Sita, Laksman – enduring motifs
A war ensues and with the help of an army of monkeys led by Hanuman, Sugreeva and his brother Bali, Ravana is vanquished and Sita rescued. At the end of his exile Rama returns to Ayodhya amid much celebration on a day we now know as Diwali. His subsequent reign as a munificent and much-loved king came to be known as Ram Rajya. Simple enough to inform curious young minds to keep the faith, which they did.
Ramayana-themed handicrafts, Tulsi Smarak Bhawan
Then along came adulthood, and current affairs. Ever since, Ayodhya has been about the exactitude of the brick-and-mortar space where her most revered icon could possibly have been birthed. Frankly, this Ayodhya left me cold, appearing as she did, to have permitted a bunch of self-serving types to dictate and demolish the veracity of her many-tiered yet unquestionable historicity.
Guptar Ghat, Faizabad, from where Rama is believed to have ascended to the heavens
And so it was that I showed up at her doorstep a couple of months ago with no small measure of apathy. I found her sound asleep; to be fair, it was an hour past midnight and I couldn’t wait to hit the sack myself.
Saryu Embankment, Ayodhya
Regardless of the whys and wherefores, morning ushered in the irrepressible thrill of waking up in a place previously unfamiliar to me. Morning also brought along an earnest local lad who, I later learnt to my surprise, had taken the day off to simply show me around an Ayodhya less known; one not mired in notoriety, he declared.
Kanchan Mahal – built by a royal devotee with her personal allowance
Hanuman Garhi, perched on a swell–we negotiated over seventy steep steps to get here–in the town’s most constricted neighbourhood, was our first stop. Milling faithful went about the business of supplication even as a chatty priest brought us up to speed with the temple’s structural history–credited to a Muslim ruler’s wife in thanksgiving for curing her husband’s illness–and other legends.
Looking down at Ayodhya’s amorphous sprawls from the temple’s sandstone-clad parapets debunked any ideas I may have harboured of tangible signs of antiquity. Warrens of tight alleys, flanked by higgledy-piggledy houses painted garishly, radiated in every conceivable direction; views of the horizon interposed by mobile towers, temple shikharas. Not far below was Ram Janmabhoomi, the improvised canvas structure where restless visitors–divested of all personal items except money and offerings–queue for a minimum of two hours, are subjected to half a dozen security checks, and then granted a blink-and-miss glimpse of Ramlalla from a considerable distance. Photography not allowed.
In contrast, the Bundela-styled Kanak Bhawan, built by the royal house of Orchha and Tikamgarh in late 19th century, believed to be the site of the palace Kaikeyi gifted her newly-arrived daughter-in-law Sita, was a study in equanimity. A massive chessboard-floored courtyard led to a high-ceilinged, many-arched hall where idols of Rama and Sita watch over the devoted as they lazily break into singing, chanting and clapping every now and then.
This unhurried approach towards faith replicated itself at nearly every temple, ghat and akhara we subsequently visited. No wheedling touts; no demanding priests; no yarn-spinning guides; indeed, none of the commercial crassness I have come to associate with religious centres of this nature. Even the laidback air of the Saryu arti was a refreshing change from the orchestrated show it has become in similar destinations elsewhere.
An akhara temple
It is regrettable that the distorted face Ayodhya presents to the world is so far removed from reality. I sensed, having earlier fallen prey to human weakness, one-upmanship, self-promotion, and divisive politics, she would really just like to be left alone to manage her own affairs. To revert to her longstanding self as a multi-faith centre where co-existence was once a way of life.
Gathering of faith
An achievement her very many enlightened citizens, respected, and well-meaning community leaders are more than capable of fetching; indeed have. I also noted while the jury is still out on whether original histories should be re-written, over-written or rested, Ayodhya is quietly but diligently attempting to make amends. Because, in the end, after all has been said and done, it is she who is answerable to her god.
Sadhus enjoy a Saryu sunset
Recently, I attended a glitzy Travel Writers’ Conclave in Lucknow powered by a resurgent Uttar Pradesh Tourism. This was preceded by a visit to one of three nodal cities that comprise the newly-introduced Heritage Arc. In what appears to be an earnest bid to swell tourist footfalls to the state, the powers-that-be in the governing dispensation conjured up this concept to better the weather-beaten Golden Triangle.
Be that as it may, having already made my near-annual excursion to Agra, and having only recently concluded an assignment on Lucknow and around, I veered towards a never-seen Varanasi as my choice of destination. Now, anyone who knows the place will tell you two days are but an amuse bouche. A wholesome repast would mandate countless servings of her psychedelic sights, antiquated customs, soulful food, and heady sounds. Meanwhile, here she is, quite possibly one of oldest, continually inhabited cities of the world. In pictures.
Priests walk down to the Ganga’s edge to complete a ritual during the morning prayers.
Yawning boats await custom for a ride along the animating ghats…..and, cleaning (at) the ghats is a must.
Water-borne hearses at the ready.
The Alamgir mosque sits cheek-by-jowl with temples, residences, and guesthouses.
Vermillion brightens early morning drabness at the riverbank.
The mud at these omnipresent wrestling akharas is infused with therapeutic herbs.
Sardarji Papad Wale in Kachori Gali – serving Varanasi since 1961.
Blue Lassi has been churning out fresh, creamy, fruit-laced lassi for nearly a century!
Inner city High Street.
Satvik slurp in sanitised surrounds.
Dhamek Stupa at antediluvian Sarnath.
Sarnath Serenity – the carvings on the stone surface hark back to the Gupta period.
Quintessential Varanasi street food – kachori and sabzi.
He demanded I take a picture. I obliged – he was pulling my weight, after all.
The squeaky clean and airy verandah at Granny’s Inn.
Power looms on their way to elbowing out traditional weavers. Where’s the electricity though?
Handwoven sarees – reason Kashi became Benaras, say some.
Shiva pervades all. From fun foods to funereal moods.
Awaiting Ganga Arti at Dasaswamedh Ghat.
Let’s be honest, I travel quite a bit for both leisure and for work, and have been doing so for over two decades. That’s nearly as much time as I spent trying to get formally educated. No points for guessing which one was more edifying. It should come as no surprise then that life-on-the-road has begotten me opinion-altering epiphanies and copious amounts of perspicacity much in the same manner as life-as-usual has for others.
Apart from awakening me to the mysticism–in a non-theological sort of way–that is the Himalaya, an undiminished respect for nature, a great aversion to humourless folks, and an undying dread of heaving crowds, it has inculcated in me a healthy disdain for institutional religion and an even healthier disregard for indoctrinated rituals. Both continue to blossom in equal proportion to the swell in dogmatic practices.
That said, should you be rummaging around for encounters of the spiritual kind, shorn off unnecessary rites, they do exist. At Sufi shrines, for instance. Their enticement, at least for me, has always been in the easygoing informality most of them exude. Insistence, if at all, to purchase a chaadar to drape over a grave or a basketful of rose-petals stems more from commercial interests of those trying to make a living, and not so much as a mandate.
I found it no different at Dewa Sharif, mausoleum of Haji Waris Ali Shah, a 19th century Sufi remarkably contemporary in thought and deed who founded the Warsi silsila. Though born to privileges, his philosophy of renunciation and all-consuming, all-pervasive love struck a resonating chord with those similarly inclined from across the social milieu. Nothing appeared to have changed in the century and some since his passing as I people-watched from a quiet, rose-and-incense-bathed corner on my visit there last month.
The gleaming white edifice with an emerald-hued dome atop a broad plinth is a striking illustration of Indo-Persian architecture and is set at the top end of a massive courtyard. Inside which is Waris Ali Shah’s marble-clad sepulchre surrounded by a knee-high screen, also in marble. A gilded ceiling is all but hidden from view by glittery chandeliers, a feature replicated in the encircling corridor where I sat and witnessed visitors of all hues–newlyweds, families, youngsters, old and infirm–regardless of religious leanings stream to and from. Photography of this section is not permitted.
It being the month of Ramzan, numbers began to swell towards sunset as more arrived to break their roza (fast) in the presence of Sarkar Waris Pak, as he is affectionately called by his following. Unmistakeable in its sartorial choice of yellow ahram (attire worn during the Haj), much like Waris Ali Shah adopted on his return from Mecca. I hung around amidst this ochre-draped lot for my favourite part of a Sufi experience–qawwalis. Even here, most Thursdays will find hereditary as well as aspiring qawwals performing soulful renditions in memory of the mystic.
Note: Dewa Sharif is 40 kilometres northeast of Lucknow via Chinhat in Uttar Pradesh.
Pulling rank on a 4×4-wielding younger relative was never more fun. Especially when it meant making the acquaintance of a road never travelled. That he himself is an off-roading enthusiast meant the proverbial gun to the head would remain cable-locked.
We started early from Chandigarh with the intention of hitting Tirthan Valley before sundown that same day. Our chosen route would take us via Shimla, past Kufri, Theog, Matiana and Narkanda towards Rampur. At Sainj, we would veer left towards Ani and Khanag; the latter a few kilometres short of Jalori Top.
The extended winter this year, pushing spring by a few weeks, treated us to flowering apple orchards well into April. Caught these coy white blossoms blushing pink along the highway somewhere between Theog and Matiana.
We wound our way down to cross the Satluj at Luhri, a sleepy little place in the news a couple of years ago for a controversial hydro power project that saw dogged resistance by villagers and environmental activists. Once over the bridge, we turned left through the cramped marketplace to begin a gradual climb to Ani, some 20 kilometres away, where we intended to make a pit stop at the colonial-era rest house.
The road is narrow, winding, largely devoid of traffic but replete with pretty scenes if you’re not flying over indifferent patches to just get somewhere. We were in no hurry that day and seriously enjoyed tracing this section of the NH305 that connects Sainj on NH22 to Aut on NH21.
Locales such as these were par for the course. Were it not for rude reminders like that dug-out in the background, nothing would have stopped us from labeling this spot as idyllic. Regrettably, transformation of this heavenly spot into the exact opposite will only be a matter of time if the massive power project is not shelved.
Nearly 50 kilometres of the river is likely to run dry and affect up to 80 villages in the three districts of Kullu, Mandi and Shimla. And traditional homes like the one in the picture above, a fast dwindling sight as it is, will then be seen only in travel blogs like this one.
The surrounds took on a more alpine flavour as we closed in to Khanag, roughly five kilometres short of the Pass. This stretch, minus most of its tar, slowed us down considerably, allowing us many photographic moments even though we were a tad disappointed at not sighting any snow. Something we got aplenty of soon as we crested Jalori and a few kilometres beyond.
Pleased as punch from a successful foraging of guchchi, a type of sponge mushroom that commands a gob-smacking price (last count Rs 15,000 per kg) in the world of gastronomy, this couple very kindly offered to pose for us. Just like that.
The gent even spread out his harvest most generously so I could get a closer look at the ridged fungi. Found at heights ranging between five to ten thousand feet where deodar and kail forests abound, the nutritious and flavourful fungus is said to sprout on the ground as well as on trees. It comes visible soon as the snow melt begins and is known to die at first rain thereafter.
Melting snows also reveal the minty fresh blades of the wild Iris that spring from the ground in April-May. Carpeting soon after (June-July) every available hillside with bursts of mauve as the flower blooms to its short-lived glory.
The descent to Tirthan was a marvelous stretch save for burgeoning Banjar where parking could be a possible nightmare – try not to stop and shop! For starters, we didn’t want to keep ourselves from this delightful vision of the Tirthan river at sundown. Nor that well-earned sun-downer after the 10-hours it took us to get there. Cheers!
Note: I re-traced this route in a hatchback more recently. For long I believed that would be a challenge. Apparently not….as long as Driver No.1 is at the wheel.
Very early on in February this year a motley lot largely comprising Europeans was spotted excitedly finding its way around the flatlands of Punjab. Somewhat out of character, one would say, as the state as a whole is not known to be a destination for mass tourism or group travel. Excepting, of course, sundry jathas headed to one or more of its historical or popular places of faith, which is generally a domestic movement with the odd NRI family thrown in.
Daulat Khana at Aam Khas Bagh, Sirhind
Imagine the surprise then when it was revealed that this group was visiting for purposes reasonably touristy in nature. For the sake of specifics, they were on a fortress tour; at a personal level, consequent to an irrepressible interest in military heritage and fortifications. In their varied professional capacities, however, as architects, sketch artists, heritage management students, conservation specialists, enthusiasts-at-large, they hoped to study conservation techniques and redevelopment practices.
Oldest surviving gate and mosque inside Bahadurgarh Fort (Patiala)
The group helmed by Dr Hans-Rudolf Neumann, Scientific Co-ordinator, European Cooperation Centre of Fortified Heritage (ECCOFORT), was facilitated in large measure by the efforts of the Cultural Resource Conservation Initiative (CRCI) in cobbling together a comprehensive itinerary. “Punjab has the potential to become an international tourist destination. The visitors were particularly intrigued by the forts of Bathinda, Gobindgarh and Bahadurgarh. These three monuments and their setting reveal the ancient, medieval and modern history of the state. Further, the Imperial Highway, as a cultural route, was the passage into India that connected Taxila to Nalanda, the two most important universities of Ancient India,” shares Gurmeet S Rai, Director and Principal Conservation Architect, CRCI.
Customary mosque, Shambhu Sarai
She adds, “Islam, too, came into India along this route. The throbbing living heritage of Bhakti-Sufi tradition can be experienced here due to this transmission of tradition and knowledge. Punjab is today a melting pot of cultures and the route led to this creation. This can become a brand for Punjab as a cultural-tourism destination.” Coming from the sole voting member from India on the International Scientific Committee of Cultural Tourism at ICOMOS International, this would be a fair assessment.
Qila Androon inside Qila Mubarak, Patiala
The visitors’ 10-day tryst with the state’s monumental legacy included visits to fortified structures in varied states of repair and disrepair. From the much-manicured Mughal Sarai at Shambhu to the fading grandeur of Patiala’s Qila Mubarak to the feverish restoration-in-progress at Gobindgarh Fort in Amritsar, they managed to cover a lot of ground. Foraying, as well, into the busy towns of Nabha, Ferozepur, Kapurthala, Nakodar, Phillaur, Doraha and Sirhind — all teeming with layers of history albeit crying for preservation.
Sarai Lashkari Khan, Ludhiana
While many sites in the afore-mentioned places have received evident makeovers by departments overseeing their upkeep, conservation techniques have often left a lot to be desired. A lament shared by Gizem Dorter, an expert from Turkey. “As a cultural heritage professional it was interesting for me to see conservation practices during the tour, especially the use of traditional techniques and materials. One of the problem areas was the sameness created in some restored sites we visited. In some places, all patina and historical layers have been removed and one homogenous, clean but “historicised” surface is created taking away the interesting aspects of the sites. In order for this to be controlled heritage — architectural conservation professionals should be monitoring the conservation work going on, otherwise sites lose their meaning and history.”
Sheesh Mahal of Qila Mubarak, Patiala
Other well-meaning professional voices echo her. Says Indira Zuljevic, a restoration architect from Utrecht, “We realised our views on conservation are very similar and techniques differ only when affected by climate and materials. The problem lies at the organisational and management level; in Europe we see it as “too much regulation” and in India as “not regulated enough”. She explained that restoration projects in the Netherlands are funded by public money and partially sponsored by private stakeholders,which typically on completion receive media coverage and those involved their moment of fame.
Relief work on sandstone, Nabha Fort
Soon after decay sets in and with any luck the same process repeats itself 40 years later! Her architect-partner Gerco Meijor pipes in, “We noticed a similar tendency here. In our view, it is not a sustainable solution. To stay in shape, projects, buildings or historical sites should earn their own preservation. To define this we will have to broaden the term conservation to heritage development. The goal is to enhance the sense of experience and participation which will generate a natural obligation for preservation.”
Dr Neumann, who having successfully led a insightful tour, invokes the sentiments of many heritage-loving individuals when he says, “Forts and fortresses are symbols of state power, and temples symbols of faith. Together with houses, villages, cities and the people who inhabit them, they form the history of a country. They are worth preserving.” Refreshing candour, no doubt, but begs further query.
Inner precincts, Nabha Fort
After conservation, what? After all, none can escape the reality that most of these structures are now located in the midst of or very close to habitation. “Don’t you see it is this very physical connection with their surroundings that give them opportunity for holistic development? Naturally, parts of the area could keep their function as museums and galleries but it is also easy to imagine vast spaces of big forts redeveloped as offices, health centres, markets, and even living spaces,” proffers the Dutch couple earnestly.
Main entrance, Sarai Lashkari Khan
Most others believed reutilisation was key. Citing examples of the numerous sarais visited, they said redeveloping these ancient travellers’ inns keeping their original function in mind would probably serve the best purpose. Presently, save for the one in Shambhu, none of the others could lay claim to any semblance of visitor amenities in or around their modern day avatars. One would say it makes perfect sense. What better way to showcase Punjab’s legendary hospitality than by welcoming all into the expansive folds of its built heritage!
Note: This article has earlier appeared in The Tribune.
Nothing in the bumpy ride from a desultory train station to your hotel quite prepares you for the whimsy-wonder that is Churu. On the face of it, it is just another unexceptional town fringing the Great Thar largely notorious for mercurial swings ranging from near freezing point to hovering around the 50 degrees mark in high summer.
In recent times it has been trying to rid itself of another ignominious mantle. Finding itself at the bottom of a list on sanitary behaviour a few years ago, it avowed to become north India’s first Open Defecation Free district. To its credit, the mounds are no longer piling up, though hundred per cent is an off-way mark, and turning around mindsets clearly mandates larger shovels.
That said you’re really here for Churu’s forsaken past, one that included more than considerable commerce along a busy trade route that sliced through the Shekhawati region. And one that proved hugely advantageous to an assiduous Marwari community during the 19th century. Which celebrated its ka-ching moments after a grand and, quite literally, monumental fashion. Raising massive multi-storeyed, many-courtyard havelis (mansions), often with European flourishes, enclosed within lofty walls accessed through soaring portals.
Their mud-washed surfaces are swathed in strikingly hued frescoes, with the painted artistry depicting experiences, aspirations and prevailing interests of an affluent, well-travelled people. In more ways than one analogous to today’s social media, these fanciful ‘status updates’ of the past were also marked by incredible amounts of creativity, boasting variously humour, faith, irreverence, story-telling, tradition, leanings, and acquisition. Not to mention generous doses of narcissism!
Then, sometime during the second quarter of the 20th century, most merchants left to grow their fortunes in Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi; imminent business centres, all. Entrusting home and hearth to caretakers, locks and pigeons, they were to rarely return. No wonder then that moseying along, around or inside Churu’s embellished albeit deserted bulwarks, while artistically overwhelming, led to moments of abject desolation. The few families that stayed on are expectedly-evidently, too-unable to arrest the pace of disrepair as these structures increasingly necessitate thoughtful renovation.
It falls to the credit of those at Malji Ka Kamra for having somewhat retrieved the town and its fading legacy from near oblivion. Remarkably Venetian in appearance, the confectionery-coloured, lancet-arched facade of the town’s only heritage hotel fronts fifteen well-appointed guestrooms over three floors. Adding to its light-hearted trimmings are quirky doe-eyed figures in stucco lending themselves to many an hour of amused neck-straining.
Others who remained did so for reasons quite funerary in nature. This is borne out by a cluster of sepulchral pavilions in neighbouring Ramgarh, a settlement that owes its existence entirely to the Poddars, a well-known last name amongst the Marwaris. Harking back to mid and late 19th century, these structures are every inch as magnificent as the havelis once inhabited by those now resting here. Notably the Ram Gopal Poddar Chhatri built in 1872; a wide flight of steps leads up to a fresco-rich and pavilion-laden upper storey.
This is crowned by a slender-columned dome, the underside of which is beautifully embellished with images from the Ramayana and Krishna’s Raas-leela. Other chhatris within the premises are near replicas, sporting rooms or temples in the lower sections, and one, a double dome. Ramgarh is a convenient 15kms from Churu, should you to choose to visit, and can easily be clubbed as a day-trip with Mandawa, another 45kms from here.
Places of faith also benefited from the hard-earned munificence of Churu’s success stories. The Jain Temple here is empirical evidence of their grateful generosity. A cornucopia of artistry that borrows unabashedly from Neoclassical Italy and Victorian England and marries it to Rajasthani elements, its interiors are a burst of stunning kitsch. Brilliant frescoes, glossy chess-board floor, fresh gild and cobweb-free crystal chandeliers clearly suggest recent refurbishment.
But the gods weren’t always kind, and along came the famine of 1896. It was time for well-meaning individuals to step up. The Sethani Ka Johra, a chhatri-edged water reservoir on the outskirts of the town is attributed to one such – Brij Kanwari, the widow of Bhagwandas Bagla. It appeared to me when on a visit here recently that it was time again for yet another philanthropic intervention. This time to prevent a calamity more cultural. For it was evident that continued apathy towards Churu’s matchless heritage will find it fading sooner rather than later from both mud and memory.
Are the Poddars, Kotharis, Baglas, Khemkas, Ruias, Suranas, Baanthias, Bachawats et al listening? Anyone?
Note: This article has earlier appeared in Huffington Post.
Kullu, or Kulu, is the capital town of the Kullu District in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh and is located on the banks of the Beas River in the Kullu Valley about ten kilometres north of the airport.
A summer visit to Kullu Valley generally mandates bye-passing the eponymous township en route Manali, its poster destination. Unsurprising, as what you see of it from across the Beas is unremarkable and uninviting. Having choked up both banks with thoughtless habitation, it is steadily crawling up the mountain-face behind it.
In the bargain one is guilty of forgetting that Kullu is home to the 17th century Raghunath Temple honouring the vale’s chief deity, and hosts the iconic Dussehra unfailingly each year. Another draw includes the Bijli Mahadev Temple perched high on a ridge above the town with fabulous views of the Kullu and Parvati vales.
Recently, it has added another more youthful one – The Book Cafe. Sitting pretty in Dhalpur, within a gaily painted pre-fab structure, this cheery little place is more than a good cause to weave through the busy bazaars of Kullu.
Joined at the hip with a freshly refurbished building, the cafe is fronted by a large ground which has long been used as a resting place for deities during Dussehra festivities. The bookshelves are stacked with an eclectic mix of reading material in both Hindi and English and visitors are welcome to browse though, read even, while preparation of their favourite beverage or bite of choice is underway.
That it serves a mean cup of freshly brewed coffee is something I will gladly vouch for as another flavourful reason to stop by. A limited choice menu yet lists all those tidbits that non-readers will also eagerly espouse – cookies and cakes, sandwiches and burgers, rolls and pizzas – all under a princely Rs 100. One corner is taken up by a chessboard constantly poised for mind-games while a guitar resting at the reception counter begs for some note-worthy attention.
At some point, I spotted a gaggle of school kids queueing up in the space outside the cafe. Curious at their presence – for obviously they were way too young to be around addictive industrial strength beverages – I stepped out to watch where they were headed. And found them making a beeline for the adjacent structure with a freshly minted roof I had clearly ignored while being led by the olfactory to the cafe.
It revealed itself as an uncharacteristically inviting District Library. I say uncharacteristic as that’s not usually how anything sarkari (a byword for all things desultory, in my dictionary) presents itself. Instead, here was a bright airy space exuding refreshing cedar in both look and aroma, teeming with all manner of booklover. A mezzanine floor was filled out entirely by serious note-takers, researchers, and college students. None in the least bit perturbed by a noisy intruder attempting to document scenes rarely seen.
This section overlooked a kiddies pen where the school goers were now comfortably ensconced; some poring over story-books and graphic-novels, others awaiting their turn. It was the most delightful sight ever! As minders reached into the shelves for more, I overheard a well-meaning voice suggest, “Let them pick and choose, get a feel of books. That’s what will turn them into readers.” Well said.
I am reminded of yet another who was unable to repel the lure – Lady Penelope Chetwode. Her initial ill-disposition towards India when she arrived in the late 20s (her father was the British Commander-in-Chief) swiftly disintegrated in face of the youthful and towering charm of the Himalaya. Accompanied by her mother, she undertook a mule trek from Shimla to Rohtang via the Jalori Pass at 10,500 feet. The photo below could well have been the view she encountered when she approached the Jalori for the very first time in 1931.
View from Jalori Pass
Lady Penelope returned to the region many a-time including once in 1963 when she retraced her earlier ‘pony-ride’ through Narkanda, Ani, Khanag, over the Jalori before descending to Banjar, Aut, Kullu and finally up to Manali and the Rohtang. No doubt she would have gotten a hot cuppa ever so often along the way at the many dak bungalows she halted at en route. Today, visitors will also chance upon the welcoming sight of Shan-e-Jalori (one of two shacks selling tea, kadhi-chawal, Maggi and the works) crowning the Pass.
The descent from Jalori to Banjar goes past Shoja (short detour). For long an idyllic Himalayan hamlet that many escaped to for respite from metro madness. And even though it is now experiencing its share of ‘concretising’, it is still one of the most picturesque villages of the Seraj region. From where I was looking on my own visit, it would have been no different from what the intrepid Englishwoman would have seen of other villages during her many excursions.
The bountiful Shringi Vatika, however, is more recent in vintage. Owned by a garrulous lady – Pammi Aunty to all – and her laconic husband, it has been feeding and housing visitors to and from Jalori Pass for a while now. Typically, on a day-trip when ascending from the Banjar or Tirthan valley, you will place your order on the way up and find a freshly prepared, mostly delish meal awaiting your return. While it would appear to the uninitiated that you’re spoilt for culinary choice; I suggest you stick to local fare. The sidoo is divine; the frightfully bitter nettle soup is explained away as a French recipe.
Pammi Aunty’s bounty
Lady Penelope made a longish detour while returning from her jaunt in 1963. She wound her way up to the sulphur springs at Khirganga in the Parvati Valley, before choosing a different route to return to Shimla. This time around through Goshaini in Tirthan, and over the Bashleo Pass which descends towards Sarahan and Rampur on the banks of the Sutlej. Her travelogue, Kulu: The End Of The Habitable World, is a vivid recounting of this adventure.
Heaven is a place on earth, yes? Tirthan.
She continued to visit the region well into the 80s, often leading tours to the place she came to dearly love and know as home away from home. Her last trip was made in April 1986. She passed away reportedly around Dim village near the Jalori while helming one of her groups. Another version suggests she may have died in Khanag. Where, set in the garden of the colonial-era rest house, a memorial tablet in black granite honours her deep affection for the Himalaya.
Rest house, Khanag
As for you, dear Peeved Mountain-loving Reader, I sincerely hope you will get that chance real soon to cut loose from whatever is keeping you from your love.