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
Come February, all roads lead to a three-day sporting bonanza hosted with great exuberance at the stadium in Kila Raipur, yet a part of moffusil India some 15kms from Ludhiana.
Referred to as the Rural Olympics, it witnesses a turnout of nearly 50,000 each day as household routines, farming chores, wedding ceremonies, political rallies, and much else is set aside to eagerly participate and lustily cheer in well-entrenched sporting tradition.
Envisaged as a recreational event for farmers in 1933 by one Inder Singh Grewal, it has, by it’s 78th edition this year, taken on the personality of an international sports meet. Organised under the aegis of the Grewal Sports Association, the festival continues to enthusiastically encourage acumen and endurance in both recognized and rural sport disciplines.
While bullock-cart races remain the star attraction, horse-riding, racing hounds, cycling, and athletics find themselves equally centre-stage. Not least industrial strength shoulders, ears, teeth and hair, sported by beings that employ them well for, you know, the usual car-pulling, cycle-balancing, tractor-lifting and such like.
For the bull owner, it is no less than a child much-loved, he will proudly proclaim. Nurtured, fed and spoilt as they are wont to do sons and readied through the year for just this one event. (Fields after all are meant to be ploughed by that other lowly contraption, the tractor).
No wonder then they depend on but a dozen jockeys skilled to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, for the frightfully fast and furious dash across the stadium. Balanced harness-free on the ‘axle’ these astonishing chaps use their fists and loud guttural shouts to urge the bulls on towards a coveted prize; once a kilogram of desi ghee, it now runs into several lakh rupees.
Bare-back horse-racing is one of many equestrian skills on show. Dangerous and exciting at the same time, it pales some before the tricks the colourful Nihangs have up their sleeves.
Here’s one fearless member of the Guru Ki Fauj (Guru’s Army) as he rides simultaneously two steeds standing up.
Another reining in a blur comprising two very, very fast horses as an open-mouthed media watches in awe.
The legendary Baba Maghar Singh, at 66 years, is the cynosure of all eyes, inviting the loudest cheers for the dare-devilry that also resulted in a cameo in Aamir Khan’s Rang De Basanti. He draws his inspiration by performing at fairs and desires to ride four horses simultaneously before meeting his Maker. More power to him, I say!
Then again, he isn’t alone. A number of veterans (in the 65 years category) race each other to the finishing line. I missed the 80-year olds as I took off to peer at other curiosities dotting the stadium.
The sparkling whites of young boys in the Malwai Gidha team. For the uninitiated, gidha, the folk dance is usually performed by women. Only in the Malwa region of Punjab do menfolk enact it as much as they do bhangra.
The drool factor.
More drool factor. In miniature.
A sloganeering camel calls upon to not forget age-old culture and tradition.
While a well-rounded Punjab Police marks its self-indulgent presence.
The ensuing weeks will find me trotting around my home state of Punjab on an exciting new assignment. That aside, I look forward to re-acquainting with the idea of Punjabiyat – an elusive ethos that once was – of a shared way of life.
A brief glimpse of which I caught on my visit to the Rauza Sharif. Like most elsewhere, Punjabi tradition, too, demands a new beginning be marked by ingesting something sweet. Surely, a jaggery-laced post makes for as befitting a tribute as any barfi or ladoo, don’t you think?
A common winter sight along many a state highway is that of gigantic cauldrons bubbling lustily with boiling sugarcane juice.
Fires continuously fed with crushed and de-juiced cane strands by hardy veterans till the liquid reduces to desired consistency.
Once it achieves this fudge-like texture, it is poured into large wooden troughs and endlessly agitated till it further dehydrates.
While still hot, it is shaped into rough patties and sprinkled with saunf (aniseed) and magz (melon seeds), then left to cool.
Following which, the freshly minted gur or shakar (powdered form in pic above) is piled up streetside, irresistibly beckoning to every sweet tooth that attempts to drive past.
When a chance to carry forward said lassitude into 2014 showed up in the guise of a vacation in sunny Goa, I missed nary a beat before grasping it. Flowing some images by.
The last day of last year found me at the dargah of Sheikh Ahmad Farooqi Sirhindi, a Sufi mystic of the Naqshabandi order. An inexplicable, hard to ignore desire to experience first hand the sights, sounds, and flavors of an Urs (death anniversary) had played impetus.
Held annually, it attracts Sunni followers (who look upon his dargah as the second Mecca) in their hundreds from world over, and is a buzzing three-day celebration. Celebration, because the passing of a Sufi saint, in Islamic thought, is looked upon as the long-awaited, longed-for union of a lover with his beloved; God, in this instance. Indeed the Arabic translation of the word Urs is ‘wedding’.
Gloomy chill due day-long drizzle was no deterrent for worshippers, nor the curious.
For the sartorially adventurous.
Access to the inner courtyard and main tomb beyond is through that arch. Many moments of despair when politely informed women were not permitted during the Urs preceded a Eureka moment that comes with discovering the power of a sudden sulk. The management relented; just enough to usher me in for a brief glimpse before the prayers were to begin. That, I respected.
The courtyard is lined by a number of simple tombs of the absolute devoted; many who believed it a privilege to be buried in close proximity to the Sufi himself. Two of these reportedly house Afghan ruler Zaman Shah Durrani (1793-1800) and his wife.
This far, no further. A zoomed in image of Sheikh Sirhind’s sepulchre.
Members of the family that has served as custodian of the mausoleum for thirteen generations, including current Khalifa, over nearly three centuries are buried in an adjoining corridor.
Following his abdication in 1879, Shah Yakub Khan of Afghanistan lived in Dehradun under British decree till his death in 1927. Following which, he too, was interred at the Rauza Sharif (grave above).
This pretty sight somewhat made up for an unceremonious expulsion from the sanctum sanctorum. The place had an amazing buzz and feel to it as I hung around for a bit and people-watched. The melange of accents – Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Pashto – holding their own alongside resounding namaaz.
And soon, olfaction kicked in. Starting with the overwhelming sweet of rose petals…
…to the explosion that is a steaming biryani.
Traditional Mughlai sweet, sohan halwa, makes its ghee-rich appearance on many a stall.
As does this curiosity posing as a halwa parantha. Will have to go back for this one, if ever.
Called khajla locally, this is a version of the Rajasthani ghewar it seems, and has wandered here all the way from Uttar Pradesh; so the vendor informed me.
Informatively, the dates of the Urs are not fixed, losing ten days each year, so do confirm ahead for definites before making plans. Also, in step with conventional Islam, music is discouraged; ergo, no qawali rendition. And as mentioned earlier, women stay away only during the Urs.
Note: Sirhind is roughly 40kms from Chandigarh.
With my summery affair with the Himalayas temporarily yet firmly in the deep-freeze, I turn a bereft gaze towards that more accessible point of interest: a much-reviled, oft-overlooked, dust-laden, ever-sweltering Punjab. But we’re talking winters here. When it is at its glorious best and welcoming most. When freshly sown fields are turning a tentative green on a less fiery sun’s watch. When frosty mornings merge swiftly into hazy afternoons and smoky evenings. When NRIs descend in their droves for the aptly-termed ‘wedding season’ and that customary visit to the Golden Temple.
Absurdly, my own last visit to Amritsar transpired during a brain-frying ruthless summer. With a relentless sun bearing down on a city plagued by heat-induced somnolentia, it was evident there would be no re-living my gluttonous marathon. The assigned task out of the way, there was little else to occupy my time, save Punjab Tourism’s newly introduced heritage walk through the historical albeit congested by-lanes of the inner city. Just as well the city had yet to wake up; even better I didn’t succumb to early morning torpor. For it was to unravel an incredible array of traditional town-planning expression hidden from view by time, grime and (metal) twine.
Latticework facade in wood
Painted underside of a chajja (eaves)
Facade: Shiva flanked by angels
Another fine example of the city’s wood-craft tradition
Buxom ladies adorn embellished archways
Chajja underside: one overlooked by the vagaries of time
Classic colonial feature
A curiosity alright
Balcony at Thakurdwara Dariana Mal dedicated to Krishna
Such vibrant frescoes stand nary a chance with continuous clay-oven cooking in an adjoining room by the resident priest
Hanuman and Garud watch over the entrance at the Shahni Mandir
The gnarled and deified Bohar (Banyan) Baba. 500 years old, it remains untouched and buildings are simply built around its branches.
Chitta akhara: serai for (shy?) sadhus
Another sooty yet undeniably brilliant fresco.
NOTE: The two hour guided walk commences twice-daily from the Town Hall and culminates at the Golden Temple entrance gate.
Tired of air-kissing buddies at run-of-the-mill New Year Eve parties? The predictable wind-down to midnight on television shows? The odd invite from hotels offering the usual suspects: booze, bonfires & Bollywood? This year, wake up and smell the New Year at any one of these delightful properties.
Citrus County, Hoshiarpur (Punjab): A slice of celebrated Punjabi hospitality, you do well to wind your way through acres of kinnow orchards for an effusive welcome by Citrus County’s indulged canine residents. It is a modern European-style house surrounded by manicured lawns, with three spacious and cheery rooms. And a massive back lawn lined by old mango trees; beneath their luxuriant boughs await plush tents. The owners, Jasveen and Harkirat Ahluwalia are a mere kinnow’s throw away were you to require their presence. Jasveen’s traditional menu and delicious meals are one of many reasons you will return through the New Year.
Chambal Safari Lodge, Jarar (UP): Set amidst 120 acres of woodland and pasture, it once served as a camp office for bi-annual cattle fairs. Decades of neglect later, the owners Ram Pratap Singh and Anu gave up their professional careers to meticulously restore and rechristen it the Chambal Safari Lodge. This bougainvillea-engulfed Lodge, twenty minutes from the National Chambal Sanctuary–teeming with avian life and aqua-fauna–located within a 35-acre plantation of the original woodland includes clusters of well-appointed cottages. An hour and a half’s drive from Agra, this is the perfect antidote to that metro madness you seek to escape in the New Year.
Neeralaya, Raison (HP): Recycled timber, stone and slates define Neeralaya. Hemmed in by the Beas on one side and forest and orchards on the remainder, it is the ideal setting to keep your date with the New Year amidst nature. Cleverly designed and landscaped for visitors to fall in love with it at first sight, riverside cottages and villas, generously spaced, include tastefully and luxuriously furnished bedrooms, en suite bathrooms, a sitting-room, dining, kitchen and a veranda with a private garden. Meals are cooked home style with produce from their farm, free range poultry and fresh trout from the river.
Ballyhack Cottage, Shimla (HP): Best located property on Shimla’s famed Ridge; adjoining the Christ Church and minutes from its buzzing promenade, the Mall. This characterful heritage home has managed to retain the patina that history & age accord. It is the oldest surviving house built by the British, and is said to have been commissioned for then Governor General, Lord Amerherst in 1826. It makes a worthy start to that heritage rich walk that takes you to the Viceregal Lodge past the Cecil Hotel, Telegraph Building, Gorton’s Castle, Vidhan Sabha, and Peterhof. Who knows, you may well catch that first snowfall of the New Year right here. Phone: +91 9815600076.
Darang Tea Estate, Palampur (HP): Privately-held, the Darang Tea Estate, is synonymous with warmth, hospitality and heavenly home-grown, home-cooked organic food. The 70-acre estate includes two rustic albeit quaint cottages and a room in the main house that justifiably claims heritage status. The foliage-enveloped cottages are conveniently distanced from the main house, and ensure maximum privacy for guests. A tiny old-fashioned factory, woodlands, forested hillsides, tea-gardens, and a mountain stream dot this 150 year old plantation. It would be justified, wouldn’t it, to ring in its 151st?
Note: Published earlier at Lonely Planet India.
Unsurprisingly, seven ancient cities and one busy metropolis later, Delhi’s architectural skyline is dominated by forts, palaces, and sundry monuments at varying stages of (dis)repair. Then, there be those breathtaking ruins of historical remains, the tombs. Of which, the 15th century ones within the Lodhi Garden, in my opinion, out-rank by far many others that dot the National Capital.
Nearly a hundred acres of green lung amidst frenetic activity, the garden’s well-maintained verdure, historical footprint–permanent home to Sikandar Lodhi (pic above) & Mohammad Shah Sayyid (pic below), among others–and beautifully laid walking trails are a classy seduction act. Unsurprisingly, again, it remains the most preferred go-to place for families, office-goers, fitness enthusiasts, lovers, and unabashed heavy-petters.
I caught a few rounds of the place in winter earlier this year. One such visit on a late evening found my camera handy to capture the creatively-lit monuments as I trailed (way, way behind) a more energetic sibling on the joggers path. Subsequent visits, during the day, have found me minus my photography aids. Of course it is entirely possible that I may have also been otherwise occupied; but that’s for me to know and you to guess.
The erstwhile Katoch rulers of Kangra will have you know that this fabulous fort, spread eagled over a 4km radius, predates Christ. Other than providing a chronological perspective, that’s really not saying much. Given that the Mahabharata, in which Kangra finds a mention as the kingdom of Trigarta, predates Christ by over three thousand years!
Suffice it to say that this majestic edifice is very, very old. It has passed variously from the Katoch dynasty – founded by one Susharma Chandra who, it is said, fought alongside the Kauravas – to Mahmud Ghazni of the plundering and looting fame; then onto Firoz Tughlaq, before Mughal Emperor Akbar set his sights on it. His son, Jehangir, was quite taken with the place, too, but then Kashmir happened to him. The Jehangir Gate, and what could have been the site of his mosque, the only vestiges of his imperial presence.
Kangra, also referred to as Nagarkot & Bhimkot, continued thus till the setting of the Mughal sun, returning back to the Katoch fold only some two hundred years later. Twenty years of peace & prosperity under the able administration of Sansar Chandra were then rudely interrupted by Maharaja Ranjit Singh; he took complete possession of the strategically situated fort in 1828. The main portal (foreground, pic above) stills bears his name.
Finally, the British stepped in following the First Sikh War in 1846. Them, it would take the disastrous earthquake of 1905 to dislodge from the majesty of this incredible poem-in-stone.
A formidable witness to history, it remains a study in steadfastness: silent, sombre, strong. From here on, let us walk the talk.
Okay, that’s a dog. But it could have been a wolf. Made an interesting silhouette from where I was looking up.
One of seven portals that usher you deeper into the fort’s many-layered past. The colourful standard visible beyond the doorway bears the insignia of the royal family.
Signs of devastation inflicted by the earthquake lie everywhere.
This, an outer wall, is all that remains of the once resplendent Laxmi Narayan Temple within the confines of the fort.
The magnificent Dhauladhars as they appear from the highest but one rampart. Imagine the sight on a clear, rain-washed day!
Seated atop a massive rocky outcrop, the fort is naturally fortified by sheer walls dropping hundreds of feet into the Banganga and Manjhi Rivers that flank its sides. Were you to peer hard at the image above, you’ll notice the Kangra Valley heritage train chugging past the golden fields. The narrow gauge tracks, laid by the British in 1932, span Pathankot in Punjab, and Jogindernagar in Himachal Pradesh.
It was topography such as this that attempted – and often succeeded – to keep marauders at bay. You will be greeted by this view from the top-most level of the fort; looking back.
Wide rivers lend themselves as handy moats while them cliff-faces speak volumes.
Nothing can keep lovers away, though. There is a compellingly romantic air about this place, you’ll see.
The fort complex can be visited from sunrise to sunset; closed on Mondays. The museum on the premises remains closed on Fridays. A short drive up from the fort is the privately-held Maharaja Sansar Chandra Museum, owned and managed by the Katoch family.