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
Cobra in the Bath – Adventures in Less Travelled Lands, readers will find, is many things but what it is not however is your everyday travelogue. Au contraire, this here is an engaging chronicle of a near-seven decade expedition–one that has an uncanny knack of catapulting headlong into history-shaping geographies across several continents. It revs up in an India on the cusp of her freedom, and then yaws along to Mossadegh-era Iran after hovering momentarily over an exhausted post-war England. It is found idling on pristine Greek beaches–celebrating surviving that most terrifying of British institutions, boarding school, and Oxford–before eventually parking itself firmly in financial adventuring.
Morland’s early travels were a consequence of his father, a British naval commander, being posted in India. In fact, it was in the suffocating heat of a Delhi afternoon that he chanced upon the eponymous cobra in the bath at age four. Later, subsequent to the divorce of his parents, he accompanies his mother and stepfather (s) to Tehran where they were gainfully employed; the first by a fast diminishing British Empire, the second as Italy’s Ambassador. Given he was barely seven years at the time the author summons an elephantine memory to describe this phase of his life with incredible intensity–his first flight, witnessing Shi’ite ceremonies, setting the garden afire, surviving a riot.
Adulthood was defined by aimless days as a mini-bus driver in Greece followed by a brief stint on Fleet Street where he turned down a column to review corporate companies as his ‘ignorance of matters financial was total’. Only to land a job at John Govett despite having no idea what the difference between a stock and bond was. ‘They sounded boring too, and I did not know what an investment analyst was either…’ This boredom, as it turns out, lent itself to more than twenty years in matchless money-management in London and Wall Street, starting Blakeney Management that pioneered investments in hitherto untouched African markets, co-founding Development Partners International, a core African PE firm, and setting up of the Miles Morland Foundation with a purpose to promote African writing.
The author’s career milestones were interposed by impetus outings, like chucking up his job at First Boston in 1989 to explore France, a pied, with wife Guislane. That though is another story, The Man Who Broke Out of the Bank. While business interests found Morland testing waters at the Cairo Stock Exchange ‘a grand circular marble hall with ornate pillars in which sat three old men wearing fezzes, sipping Arabic coffee and dreaming of 1955’, similarly at Accra, Casablanca, Nairobi, Tunis, Amman, Bahrain, and Oman, he wilfully hops onto a train at London to witness history in the making in a crumbling East Europe. A riot here and a demonstration there later, his arrival in Bucharest coincides with Ceausescu’s orders to seal borders and he is turned back at gunpoint. He would return though, at age 47, after he decides to buy himself a motorbike ‘to celebrate his menopause’! This acquisition uncovered the latent biker in him and led to many momentous excursions across Europe, India (closest to assisted suicide is how he describes it), South America to partly retrace Che Guevara’s treads, and finally Japan where he is ambushed by a typhoon.
That an endless career in investment banking didn’t cost Miles Morland his humour, or joie de vivre, is most evident, not just in his witty story-telling but also in the spontaneity he summons at life’s many crossroads. Employing vividly recollected anecdotes as a device to take his narration forward, the author recounts his unconventional life–loves and losses included–in a disarmingly self-deprecatory and candid manner. As a result of which you are willing to overlook the many meticulously detailed pages he devotes to his love for machines (ships, planes, cars, trains, and bikes), the boat races at Oxford, and those dedicated to his irrefutably brilliant profession. In all, Cobra in the Bath is a riveting memoir of, by, a man who has continuously lived life to its optimum, on his own terms. Reading it will be time well invested.
Note: This review has earlier appeared in The Tribune.
The refurbished Bastakiya quarter–settled by Persian traders at the turn of the 20th century, now rechristened as Al Fahidi Historic District–is pretty much all that Dubai can pass off as structural heritage. Neighbouring Shindagha where the ruling Al Makhtoum family once lived along the shores of the Dubai Creek is still in the process of receiving its makeover.
Defined by sun-baked mud walls and barjeels (sea-facing rooftop towers that served as air-conditioning vents) and located a short walk from Dubai Museum, itself housed in the Emirate’s oldest surviving building, the 18th century Al Fahidi Fort, the place is populated by a sprinkling of eateries, art galleries, souvenir shops and a generally dozy air.
No surprise then that coffee trader and collector Khalid Al Mulla chose one of these restored homes to enshrine another long-standing Arab tradition, caffeine-quaffing, when he decided to give shape to UAE’s first coffee repository.
Villa 44 is tucked away in a very quiet street within the historic district, and if at first you are unable to sight the strategically placed cart piled high with coffee-bean-stuffed sacks, have no fear, for the olfactory will steer you right in.
Spread across two floors with a central atrium strung with likenesses of flags of coffee-loving nations, this museum is manifold more than your average pick-me-up. It’s a veritable sensual delight, one that has all the trappings of becoming a caffeineaholic dream destination.
At ground level are the museum gift shop, International, and Middle Eastern antiques sections, as also a room made-up majlis-style–traditional floor-seating used for all manner of Arab gatherings.
The exhibits are a gob-smacking array of accessories ranging from grinders, roasters, silos, tins, quirky collectibles, and live demonstrations of roasting and brewing techniques, as well as, serving styles endemic to certain countries.
The dallah, for instance, a curvy metal coffee pot with a long sharp spout, is what the Bedouins use to brew in and dole out their somewhat bitter qahwa. This is usually accompanied by dates in place of sugar.
Ethiopia, the hallowed land to whose 5th century berry-chewing goats each one of us coffee-addicts is forever indebted, employs a spherical-based clay pot with a narrow neck, spout and handle called jebena for the same purpose.
Impossible to miss is however the ever-so-shiny metallic exhibit placed in the Egyptian section. This, interestingly, is a sand-brewer, into which the tiny cezve (pronounced jezz-va) is nestled to roll-boil that strong, thick, unstrained, sickly-sweet, cardamom-infused potion we know as Turkish coffee.The first floor is where you will find a small-ish section dedicated to coffee literature; the prized possession here is the original print of Johann Friedrich von Pfeiffer’s encyclopaedia Corrections published in 1784. Clearly a man who knew his beans, for the German has reputedly devoted nearly 180 pages to the subject!
Adjoining it is a multi-media space airing theme-centric documentaries, a kids’ corner, offices, restrooms and a bespoke brew-bar where a barista will most artfully lay out your favourite cuppa even as you busy yourself with the Story of Coffee lining the walls.
Opening hours: 9am to 5pm, all days except Fridays.
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.