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
With cyberspace all abuzz with the recently concluded Onam celebrations, and sadya images flooding timelines, I am reminded of another enduring Kerala tradition, that of performing arts. During a fabulously timed visit last month (you know, back in the day when it wasn’t all dry), with an evening to spare, and encouraged by the friendly people at my hotel, I found myself part of a motley audience at the Kerala Kathakali Centre in Fort Kochi. I was in for a two and a half hour session; an hour and half of which was devoted to on-stage application of the elaborate make-up that typifies this story-telling dance-drama from the 16th century.
Early versions of Kathakali relied heavily on ritualistic and other performing styles, gradually coming into its own when a scholarly and arts-loving Raja of Kottayam decided to dramatise episodes from the Mahabharata, laying a great amount of emphasis on music and abhinaya. This theatrical form under royal patronage attracted some of the finest playwrights, poets, dramatists and musicians of the time. By the end of the 18th century, it had added plays from the Ramayana and Puranas to its repertoire, intricate make-up replaced masks, billowing costumes the coconut frond skirts, and the tirashila–curtain behind which every actor makes a dramatic entry–was being whisked away even within the hallowed premises of the Shri Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Trivandrum.
Make-up is as essential a part of the character’s persona as his mudras. (I say his, as typically all characters are enacted by males; females are a relatively new entrant on this stage.) Indeed, the former enhances the latter. So while paccha (painted green) denotes godly and virtuous, is sported by those essaying a Krishna or Bhima, kathi (red moustache-like patterns outlined in white) depicts evil, including arrogance and anger; you will see it on a Ravana, for instance. Thatti (the bearded look) is what a Hanuman will wear in white and Dushasana in red. Female characters on the other hand use minimal make-up (in comparison)–a uniform fleshy-pink called minukku. They share this look with sagely characters.
Though costumes remain unchanged for good and evil, the size of a bejewelled and imposing kireetam (headgear) tells an important personage from another. Krishna’s conical one edged with peacock colours, for example, points at his non-royal one. Actors playing women wear a cotton wad on the left of the head; covered with a waist-long veil, it is indicative of hair-dos favoured by Nair ladies in the 19th century. The bulked-up long-sleeved jacket does not just accord a larger-than-life appearance, it also protects against chaffing from the countless wooden ornaments and actors carry on the person. Set to Sopana –customarily performed at temple steps– music, these ‘superhuman’ performances are greatly embellished by an orchestra comprising the maddalam and chenda (drums both), chengila (bell-metal gong) and cymbals.
In Southern India, Chittoor Kottaram is a single key hotel, which means there are no guests but you and your companions. Together, you will be transported back to the time when Kerala was still the Kingdom of Travancore, a feudal land of nobles and princes. Arrive by boat just like they did in days gone by. Live and sleep as if to the manner born.
Enjoy the same performances as the royals did and even eat the same food in the same manner. You would bask in the services of a personal retinue. And even take a pleasure cruise on the backwaters, just to watch the sun rise over your kingdom.
A great place to experience a romantic fairytale lodging experience–the regal way–Chittoor Kottaram is a royal hotel tucked away amidst a glorious verdure.
Fringed by the bewitching backwaters of Kerala, this charming heritage villa masquerading as a palace (kottaram) was built for Rajah Rama Varma of Cochin sometime in the 14th century.
Forced to move his royal seat following an invasion, and much pained at having to remove himself away from the revered Guruvayur Temple in his erstwhile kingdom, he proceeded to build the Chittoorappan Temple in the quietude of Cheranelloor, a hamlet just off Kochi. The ‘kottaram’ a short distance away came soon after and is today a delightful getaway. It calls itself a single-key hotel – in essence, you will have the run of the place, as no other guests may check-in simultaneously.
Reached by a private approach canal bobbing with hyacinth and water lilies, the elegant, many-colonnaded mansion, with its red, aged-tile roof, wrap-around veranda lined with burnished wood windows, and expansive lawns shrouded in palm fronds, lends itself ever-so-beautifully to that solitude you have desperately sought since the merry wedding! Replete with painstakingly restored balustrades and staircases, tiled floors and wooden ceilings, rattan furniture and quality furnishings, the elegant simplicity that Chittoor Kottaram exudes is a quiet reflection of ostentation-shunning royalty of yore.
Yet, luxury is all around you, teasing your very senses at every bare-foot step, every intimate turn. In the gentle boat ride that glides you to the personal jetty. In the sweet-smelling welcome of a jasmine garland; in the palm-frond umbrella held aloft. In the personal retinue of three, four if you count the boatman. In their gentle deference to role-playing guests – they address, serve, and treat you as they would their former Thampuran (king) and Thampuratti (queen).
In the traditional meal, sadya, served on a banana leaf; in the silverware. In the hibiscus-dressed coffee service during the sunset cruise. In the divine blessings the temple priests invoke in person using age-old musical instruments. In the narcissistic swagger the floor-standing vintage mirror reflects as you walk past, even.
Yes, you’re in a palace, but search for gold taps and embroidered pillows, and you will search in vain. In keeping with the minimalistic lifestyles of the kings of Chittoor Kottaram, their furnishings tread a fine line between comfort and refinement.
Natural and traditional styles are the norm here, and while the bathrooms are modern, the towels are simple, pure linen. Lunch in the dining room is served on traditional banana leaves. But Dinner is a more indulgent affair, when you dine off pure silverware, just as the kings of yore did.
What more can one say? Other than – your kingdom awaits!
There are several properties across Southern India, from Kerala to Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and the Lakshadweep.
Kailash 1 is part of a cluster of three cottages by the same name, and sits prettily in the middle, overlooking the magnificence of snowy Pir Panjals in India beyond a deep valley. Located far from the madding crowd at Upper Bakrota, Dalhousie’s most alpine hill, this colonial-era cottage is your answer to a home-away-from-home. It comes equipped with two bedrooms & en-suite bathrooms, separate drawing and dining rooms, a fully functional kitchen, a veranda as well as a lawn running along two-sides.
Bright chintzy furnishings, colourful carpets, gleaming white windowpanes, their sheers all a-flutter, and a slide-show of nature’s many moods. What more could one ask from a vacation home in the majestic Himalayas? Kailash 1 does not offer meals as part of its package, but will gladly conjure up a cook for you at a nominal charge. If lazing and self-help is all you have in mind, do stock up on daily needs and groceries, as the closest take-away is a few kilometres away. Though a caretaker is nearly always close at hand to trouble shoot should the need arise.
If some form of activity is an imperative, the cottage setting is perfect for a ramble now and then, particularly the popular Bakrota Loop, a 4km even-path hugging the entire hill-side. Then, there is Dainkund which includes a short drive uphill followed by an easy walk to a temple atop the hill; Kalatope Sanctuary Rest House, a drive or walk (mostly even) through litter-free deep woods will get you here.
The privately-held Darang Tea Estate, roughly midway between Palampur and Dharamsala, is synonymous with warmth, hospitality and heavenly home-grown, home-cooked organic food. For pretty much every ingredient that goes into your meals comes freshly produced from their farm: fruits, vegetables, juices, dairy products, you name it.
The gracious hosts, Neeru and Naveen, leave no stone unturned to ensure your stay is completely comfortable.
They are assisted in no small measure by their three friendly canines: Layla, Simba & Brandy. And that lovely machaan that Naveen has built for his grandchildren is bound to be a big draw for other kids, too.
All meals are served in the family dining room in the main house, though guests are welcome to enjoy a cuppa in the veranda, or snacks around a cosy fireside. Neeru’s finger-licking cakes, sandwiches, jams, pickles, preserves and cereals are the kind legends are made of.
As accommodation, the 70-acre estate offers two quaintly rustic cottages with two bedrooms each, as well as, one room in the main house that justifiably claims heritage status. A tiny old-fashioned factory, woodlands, forested hillsides, tea-gardens, and a mountain stream variously dot this 150-year-old plantation.
Lovingly maintained and invitingly decorated, the foliage-enveloped cottages are placed at a convenient distance from each other, and the main house, to provide maximum privacy to guests.
When visiting Palampur last summer, at the urging of those at Norwood Green I found myself headed for a day-trip to village Gunehar, hitherto unheard of. Located in close proximity to Bir, largely known as a paragliding destination when twinned with Billing - an activity I have not yet had the desire (read courage) to experience. You see, my sense of adventure extends far beyond the pale, to the palate. Wolfing down meals at all sorts of dubious places works just as well for me, if not my innards. Indeed my aim even that day last year was to locate this cafe, supposed haven of culinary treats that its owner Frank Schlichtmann created himself. In that sense, it was a wasted effort; a hot coffee and hurried chat across the cab boot was all I got.
On a repeat visit this year I discovered there was a lot more to this sleepy Himalayan hamlet. Listing here, in no particular order, the 4reasons why it is worth every minute of the near-eight-hour drive from Chandigarh. For one, the 4tables Cafe dishes out some truly divine, home-cooked, wholesome fare in order to justify its worth and popularity. I confess the conjurer had me at first bite…of a delicately herbed baked chicken in a beer reduction served with potato and spinach gratin. His breakfasts - a variety of cheese, fruits, freshly baked buns, choice of eggs – all designed to take you through the day with nary a sign of hunger pangs. Greed yes, pangs no. The presence of a wood-oven out-front points at his willingness to play pizzaiolo-with-aplomb when it takes his or the guests’ fancy. Yes, Frank can cook.
The 4rooms Hotel is new, a welcome addition to Gunehar as part of the 4tables Project. Housed in a mud-walled and low-roofed traditional home with a wraparound veranda, none can tell by looking at its gaily painted walls and cheery furnishings that it was once a charred shell – an inferno victim - before receiving its present makeover. The restoration has been thoughtful and in step with environmental concerns. The comfortable rooms on both levels are real cozy, outfitted with all the essential thingamajigs, and en suite bathrooms with modern plumbing. A spacious courtyard lends itself to much stargazing or sun-soaking depending on time of visit. Recommend you catch a full moon on its trajectory across the inky sky some day.
Why I didn’t get a chance to review his skill in the kitchen last visit was Frank’s involvement with ShopArt - an initiative to fill empty shops with art wherein participating artists were to incorporate the village and villagers into their creations. The ‘studios’ would open each day from 9-to-5 while artists went about their business as usual under the often watchful, sometimes wary, now admiring, then questioning, but mostly curious gaze of villagers as they went about their business as usual. The endeavour was to exhibit at the end of a three week retreat not just artistic creations but showcase the process of creation itself. That it was a success can be measured from the numbers that showed up during the week-long ‘exhibition’ after. That a majority were locals and residents of neighbouring villages made it a resounding one. The next edition, slated for summer 2015, is a worthy third reason.
Last on the list is a tad personal in nature. An affaire de coeur, if you will, for someone not usually in the habit of leaving her heart behind. A large frame, floppy white hair, beautiful black eyes, and a friendly becoming manner, even the most stoic would be hard pressed not to fall prey willingly. Her name is Peaches, is a six-month old sheepdog from the Bara Bangal area, and for me, it was love at first drench. She came bounding out of her bath, shuddered herself free of soapy water, and leapt up to plant her slimy welcome across my face. She is the pet-in-residence – who thinks she is human. How could I resist? Afflicted as I am with love for all kinds of dogs…
Note: Unmarked images courtesy 4tables Project.
Undoubtedly Dharamsala’s most charming heritage, it is set at the top end of a large family-owned tea estate, far from the madding crowd.
It was once owned by adventurers Robert Shaw, first European to set foot in the Central Asian city of Kashgar, and John Younghusband. The tea gardens are said to have been planted by them in the mid-1800s. The White Haven Estate–oozing character & equipped with the most enviable views–has been with the owning family for over 100 years now.
A short, well-marked forested path just off the main road will bring you to this pretty, flora-rich colonial manor. Still, it would be prudent to call ahead for directions.
Gleaming white balustrade-flanked steps usher you up to the front porch, and into the wood-floored hallway and library beyond. Where, you are likely to be greeted by the chatty manager of the property, Mr Sidhu–Sid to friends–a font of local information. And cartographer of any number of accurate hand-drawn maps of the surrounds, were you to ask!
The under-stated and spacious rooms in the main house are complemented by two cottages out back, and share a large shady lawn with excellent views of the valley & Mcleodganj. Replete with balconies and cozy sit-outs at every turn, the place has been thoughtfully crafted to endlessly soak in the verdure or gawk at the snowy Dhauladars.
The food served is delicious and freshly-prepared; ergo, the kitchen staff will need a heads-up of arrival time and meals required. Unlike other hotels, there may be very little on offer, other than beverages, in case you show up unannounced.
Punjab was astoundingly well-located on his inroad to Hindustan left many an invader swimmingly chuffed. Naturally, it left many a ruler at the receiving end suitably miffed. They began building citadels of varying sizes and strategic needs, studding the landscape with impregnable edifices whence the potentate in residence defended his moat-girded abode from behind crenellated ramparts and lofty barbicans.Over time, particularly with the advent of modern warfare, their original utility was rendered obsolete.
The decadence of Mughal rule found some of them falling into colonial hands–ones that housed military barracks and training academies within, unmindful of destruction of heritage. Post Independence, they simply changed hands while maintaining status quo. Those in possession of owning nobility fell quickly into disrepair with the abolishing of the Privy Purse in 1971–ruination was just a matter of time.
Rani Mahal, Bathinda Fort
Of these ancient fortifications but one survives in the Punjab of today – that in Bathinda. Harking back to the early Christian era its name is a derivative of Bhatti – in reference to the Rajput clan that lorded over it some twelve hundred years ago.
Thirteenth century historians talk about one Tabarhind governed by Altunia; notorious for his revolt against Razia Sultan, then Empress of Hindustan, whose charge against him resulted in her incarceration in this fort. Following her thwarted attempt at escape she joined forces with her captor–marrying him even–to re-capture Delhi. They were defeated and killed and the rest, they say, is celluloid history.
Ceiling detail, Bathinda Fort
Mid-eighteenth century, the fort fell into the hands of Baba Ala Singh of Patiala and thereon followed the history of the former principality. Renamed Gobindgarh after the tenth Sikh Guru, a gurudwara high on the ramparts marks his reputed visit. Resembling a big old clipper of expansive girth it rises Phoenix-like from the heart of Bathinda, its architectural design pointing to a past as a military, non-residential fortification.
The Rani Mahal above the towering entrance is evidently a later addition. Other than the walking paths around well-tended lawns and the gurudwara, the rest of the fort is exempt from public viewing. Including the pavilion-topped bastion with an incredibly beautiful ceiling where Razia Sultan may have plotted her escape.
Bajwara Fort, Hoshiarpur
The Qila Mubarak in Faridkot is reportedly of similar chronology though its early history remains obscure. While what we see today is in some disrepair, with several additions by subsequent rulers, it is one of few family-held forts still surviving. Its multi-tiered entrance, barred by a mammoth wooden gate, is crowned by the Sheesh Mahal sprawled across an entire floor.
The Durbar Hall–an architectural marvel, it is said to remain cool even during Punjab’s sweltering summer–is kitted out with an intricately decorated plaster of Paris and woodwork ceiling. Once easy to access, this fort is temporarily out of bounds for public, till such time its ownership is re-established. A wait of some two decades has recently found two former princesses on the triumphant side of familial litigation.
Royal Courts, Malerkotla
The fort built by the Nawabs of Malerkotla, never a large edifice to start with, is today merely a sad cluster of crumbly walls and rubble mounds. A curiously circular building with its obvious European influences that once housed the royal courts lies right across. None can shy away from the faded majesty though that manifests in the intricate embellishments still visible on their facades.Yet another weather-beaten citadel stoically sits on the outskirts of Hoshiarpur, the Bajwara fort–looks anything but.
Two multi-tiered bastions sporting towering arched portals connect an impenetrably thick wall, the roofs have caved in and a persistent peepal has been victorious in rooting itself into the outer wall of one of its bastions. Yet it holds ground, a silent and telling sentinel to history. Little is known of its origin. Some believe it was built by Afghans from Ghazni; others that Baiju Bawra, renowned dhrupad singer, lent his name. British gazetteers state its use as a prison for mutineers of 1857 and locals will tell you it was built by Sher Shah Suri.
Entrance, Qila Androon, Patiala
Other forts of significance are reminiscent of the Sikh Empire and the times just preceding. The confident rise of Sikh confederacies saw those establishing garhis (mud forts) in territories owned, usurped and annexed by them, with the prominent Phulkians marking their presence in Patiala, Nabha and Jind (Haryana). The massive Nabha fort in the centre of town has long housed government departments and is a pale shadow of its former self while the once magnificent Qila Mubarak in Patiala has fared no better. A fine testimony to Mughal and Rajasthani styles of architecture, it is home to Qila Androon which houses an elaborately frescoed Sheesh Mahal, sundry palaces and courtyards within its confines–all out of viewing bounds.
Sarad Khana, Patiala
Other than the Darbar Hall-cum-museum, visitors only get to see the forlorn remnants of the Sarad Khanna meant for European guests, the Ionic-columned Jalau Khanna or exhibition hall, and a couple of cannon barrels. On Patiala’s periphery stands another fort, in reasonable mint condition, largely due to the presence of the Punjab Police Commando Training School located within. Built by Nawab Saif Khan during Aurangzeb’s reign, it was called Saifabad; renamed Bahadurgarh to commemorate the stay here of Guru Tegh Bahadur. The presence of a gurudwara in its grounds allows limited access.
Gobindgarh Fort, Amritsar
Of those associated with Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the colossal Gobindgarh fort in Amritsar is perhaps most remarkable. Distinct for its military architecture, it was formerly owned by the Bhangi clan, and later commandeered by the Maharaja. The Tosha Khana here is said to have hosted his treasury including the matchless Kohinoor at one point. Long possessed by the Army, it is currently undergoing a massive restoration exercise, and is slated to throw open its doors to the public in a year or thereabout.
Another at Phillaur was a Mughal serai before Ranjit Singh chanced upon it and gave it a fortified makeover. Following the defeat of Sikh forces, it was occupied by the British army before it was converted into a police training centre in 1890. It continues to be one, and bears the Maharaja’s name, even though it boasts of just one surviving structure from his times.
Note: This article has earlier appeared in The Tribune.
You can be forgiven for believing you have entered the home of an English squire when you step into the tres chic drawing room at Nalagarh House. And you wouldn’t be that far from the truth, owned as it is by Vijayendra Singh, scion of the erstwhile Nalagarh State. A beautiful wood and stone fireplace crowned by a large gilt-edged mirror, blue pottery on the mantle, silken wallpaper, and roomy armchairs dressed in cheery blue and white chintz instantly set the tone for your vacation.
The formal dining room is a few steps up and beyond the sitting area, and comes with a sunny breakfast nook at one end. The state of the art kitchen is where you can choose to unleash your culinary creativity if you so desire; else, a cook is available for you at a nominal daily charge. All three bedrooms, equally well-appointed, are spacious, airy and well-lit by natural light courtesy large picture windows looking out at an alpine skyline back-dropped by snow-clad mountains.
The adjoining two-bedroom outhouse, shrouded in verdure, is a tad less plush yet cheerful, airy, and gets a fair share of spectacular views to boot. The shared garden is large, verdant and an explosion of colour, especially from spring through summer when the rose bushes are rife with flowers. The very gracious Poonam Singh, your host, is just a shout away in the cottage next door should the need arise. In the event you may require more rooms than available at the time of intended visit, they may be able to rustle up an extra or two in other cottages in the vicinity.