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
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.
Immaculately designed with a great deal of emphasis on detailing, the ever so plush cottages at Norwood Green lend an incredible amount of luxury to your stay here. Top that with the uninterrupted majesty of snow-tipped Dhauladhars across hillsides carpeted with tea plantation. Right from the word go, young Karan Grewal, your enthusiastic and delightfully-mannered host–he lives in the adjoining cottage–sets the tone as he personally walks you through your temporary home.
Soothing furnishings, dark-wood flooring, dim lighting, and soft music complement the all-pervasive lush outdoors. En suite bathrooms with state-of-the-art amenities, a laundry room, and private balconies are par for the course. The meals here are hearty, wholesome and come with a generous dose of Punjabiyat (read calories)! Guests are welcome to request a toning down of this ‘creamy’ generosity; the chef will readily agree.
Were you to launch yourself at any of the day-long activities Karan suggests you will be pleasantly surprised at a well-stocked picnic basket magically appearing in the boot of your car; which, by the way, has its own private parking space outside each cottage. Were you to set a more leisurely pace to your vacation, the spacious sit-outs overhanging (almost) the Bundla Tea Estate, is a great option to enjoy nature’s spectacle. Grab your choice of beverage or/and one of countless books scattered around the place, and you’re on a roll.
Norwood Green Bundla Tea Estate,Village Lohna, Palampur.
Welcome to the Himalayan Kothi, which is a wonderful example of Katkhuni, traditional Pahari architecture, unique in that it uses no vertical supports. Constructed by building a mesh of thick cedar rafters, later stacked with stone, this earthquake-resistant style is a fast disappearing sight in Himalayan architectural vocabulary. Still, it is heart-warming that Shalini and Rajeev Khimta, proud owners of this five bedroom house chose to showcase this style when they decided to build in their orchard near the Kais Sanctuary in the Kullu Valley.
While Rajeev shuttles between Shimla and Kullu, Shalini oversees the operations, the kitchen, and warmly looks after her guests. Her food is to die-for and she needs no persuasion whatsoever to conjure up local delicacies ever so often in case you show the slightest inclination. Do request her for the traditional dham (a multi-dish meal) if you are on an extended stay at the Himalayan Kothi, the sweet rice as dessert is truly manna.
The Khimta’s have taken every comfort into consideration while building the house; complementing the two-storey structural design are plush interiors and modern plumbing. In deed Shalini laughingly shows you around her stylish bathrooms. The best feature, were you to ask, is the open to elements veranda running the entire length of the upper level – offering the most magnificent panorama of the Kullu valley spread-eagled below. It is entirely possible that the Roerich duo saw and painted the exact same vista from Naggar further up the same axis!
Himachal is full of mystique and wonder. Rightly known as dev-bhumi, the land of gods and goddesses, every village has its own presiding deity (devta). These devtas are as alive as you and me. They sleep, wake up, eat, dance and enjoy the beauty of nature like everyone else. They have families, relatives and near ones. They get angry, they sulk and are wooed back into good humour; often devotees also get annoyed with them and express their displeasure openly.
Some of these devtas do not want to travel while others are constantly on the move. These travelling gods and goddesses not only visit the homes of their people but also undertake long journeys to faraway places to meet their friends and relatives. When they move, they move in caravans with their mediums, musicians and followers. Their day to day affairs are managed by local committees comprising a kardar (manager), kayath (cashier), pujari (priest), goor (medium / oracle), bhandari (storekeeper) and bajantris (band of musicians).
Devtas play an important role in the daily life of the people in the areas that they ‘preside’ over. They are ‘every day gods’ different from the refined gods that are worshipped in cities and towns. These gods speak through a chosen medium and respond to all kinds of queries by devotees.
The devta variously acts as judge, psychiatrist, healer and environmentalist. They are friend, philosopher and guide to the villagers. Devtas also guard their environs jealously and forbid felling of trees from their forests known as dev-ban (sacred grove), polluting lakes and water sources. The multi-crore Himalayan Ski Village Project was stalled by the devtas as they disapproved the investment. They gathered at Jagti-Pat (Kullu), discussed the project and announced their verdict: we do not want this project.
In Manali when winters set in, people of nine villages discontinue the usage of all modern gadgets like radios, TVs and cassette players because that’s when the devtas leave for heaven and these noises disturb them. When they return, they narrate Bhartha (story of how they came and settled at their temple) and Barshoa (annual prediction). Every devta dispenses justice, but there are some who are special judges, kind of like a Supreme Court. Kasmi Narayan is one such devta, people go to him to resolve their disputes and his judgement is absolute and final.
They are playful gods and travel with a colourful retinue to attend fairs and festivals. Kullu Dussehra is one of the brightest and most brilliant expressions of this wonderful culture. More than two hundred and fifty gods converge at Kullu for a week long festivity and to pay homage to Lord Raghunath, the presiding deity of erstwhile Kullu state. They also bind their community together. It is mandatory for one adult male member from each family to be available for the affairs of the deity whenever required. Non-observance of traditional and customary duties attracts fines. The institution of devtashas always had a strong and positive influence, and though change is inevitable, people have managed to keep core values and traditions intact even in the twenty-first century.
Contributed by Minakshi Chaudhry – Author and former journalist, she lives in Himachal and is a keen observer of people, culture, and lifestyles.