I promise. This will be the last of my Punjab posts, unless I visit again! That said, I write today about devotion, the pursuit of God and the experience of peace within a shrine. What you consider your devotion and your shrine is a very personal thing.
Personally, religious tourism has never excited me. And so, when locals mentioned that the Naina Devi temple is a must visit while returning from the Bhakra Dam, I wasn’t quite sure if expressing negative sentiments would ruffle feathers. I was curious about the cable car ride up to the temple though. And that turned out to be quite an experience. The rickety, locally fabricated cars painted in garish colors inspired no confidence at all. And when we saw a guy pour fuel into the motor using a severed bottle of Bisleri as a funnel, we really did not know whether to laugh or cry as we climbed in to the cars for the ride up. Fortunately for us, the fantastic views of the simply enormous and breathtaking Gobind Sagar Lake distracted us from being nervous; after all, all’s well that ends well and I am here to tell the tale!
The shrine was nothing spectacular, but there weren’t too many people and the visit was pleasant enough. I found a bunch of raggedy kids playing with cons outside the temple. Or rather, they found me. As I put my shoes back on, they pestered me for money. We ended up cracking jokes and I got a few good shots of them in the process!
This vacation turned out to be quite a pilgrimage, for the next on our itinerary was the Keshgarh Gurudwara at Anandpur Sahib. It’s pristine whiteness, pleasing proportions and sense of queit discipline, a submission to higher powers so to speak, made this a spiritual experience, even for someone like me who confesses to not having much of a spirit! Three aspects set gurudwaras apart for me, making them my favorite places of worship. The first is the divine sounds of the raagis singing the gurbaani, in perfect tune, with voices that sear through me and bring tears of joy to my eyes. Really. The second is the truly equal treatment of everyone, rich or poor, man or woman, adult or child, whoever. The third, of course , is the Karah prasad! We caught a spectacular sunset that made this visit extra memorable.
Our trip was nearly over. We had seen the sights and lived the holiday. I brought back with me the sound of our singing the classic old Hindi film melodies as the breeze blew our hair, the astonishing variety of green we saw outside the window, the rippling flow of zillion little streams and brooks that flow down from the Shivaliks, the simple wholesome food and open-hearted people of Punjab- a memorable three days indeed.
Where did you stay? That was the question I got asked most after returning from the trip to Anandpur Saheb and Bhakra Dam. Well, where we stayed was certainly a most memorable part of our journey. Thanks to the resourcefulness of Kiran, to whom we all owe this wonderful little sojourn (she runs Birdsong and Beyond, a niche travel venture), we got a peek into the life of the landed royalty of Punjab, in the quaint comfort of their own home.
Bharatgarh is nestled atop a hill in a landscape full of rivulets and ravines, a mini Chambal with a lot more greenery you could say! Located near Ropar at the foothills of the Shivaliks, the fort offers stunning views of the landscape around. From what I understood, it has the distinction of being the only royal residence in the Punjab that has been occupied continuously since it was built. Eleven generations of the Singhpuria Misl of Jat Sikhs have lived here, a clan that was started by Nawab Kapoor Singh in 1763. He is well known in Sikh history as a man of valor and he had the honor of laying the foundation stone of the rebuilt Harimandar Sahib, better known as the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine in Amritsar.
The current inhabitants of the fort, Sardar Deepinder Singh and his wife Sardarni Maninder Kaur, run a discreet, simple and elegant home stay in three refurbished rooms in the heritage wing of this delightful little fort residence. It is clearly renovated and maintained with painstaking love and care, and considerable taste. At the same time, it isn’t over the top. Living in Bharatgarh felt like you were within slice of history, yet it felt like home. The warm hospitality and home cooked, simple food meant we could relax completely, explore the fort freely. The hostess especially came across as a cultured and gregarious person, sharing with us stories of their life, their world view and their attitude, how they achieve the careful balance between the pace of modern life and royal legacy and tradition it is their duty to preserve. Just before we left, we were honored by a peek into their own private quarters, which at this time are being renovated in preparation for their daughter’s engagement, to be held later this year within the fort premises.
Aside from having a good time with my girl friends, some new some old, the focus of my outing to the Doab region of Punjab was the chance to see the Virasat-e-Khalsa museum that opened in Anandpur Sahib only in November last year.
Moshe Safdie, an Israeli architect won the international competition to design the museum, then called the Khalsa Heritage Memorial Complex way back in the early 90s. We must have been first or second year students at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) when he came to speak to us about the design, the concepts behind it and his vision for this monument. I remember thinking it was rather outlandish (scroll down this page to see the sketches he must have shown us), but I was impressed by Safdie’s self-assured demeanor and exotic accent!
The museum was our first destination and we went there just as soon as we had dumped our luggage at the Bharatgarh Fort (will blog about that quaint place tomorrow!) and gulped our evening tea! It was a Sunday and the crowds were overwhelming. For a museum in rural Punjab, I was pretty surprised.
We were ushered in by a smart police officer of few words who our hosts, the local royal family had requested to assist us. Our cameras and bags were kept in lockers by a smart young man who spoke good English, besides Hindi and Punjabi. In a few moments, we found ourselves in the middle of an audio-visual treat. Orijit Sen and his 13 collaborators have created this 3D panorama of life in the Punjab- a three floor high mural full of color, depicting daily activity, people and cultures, rural-urban transitions, rituals, celebrations, street scenes, architectural sections of traditional typologies like havelis and caravan sarais…..all accompanied to sounds depicting seasons, local music. It’s hard to explain. All I can say is that you start the experience here on a most unusual note; it’s not what you expect from a museum that claims it is about Sikh history and heritage!
The rest of the galleries- and there are 14 open at present out of a planned 28- did depict that history, but it was far from boring. Fabric, texture, other unusual materials, light and an array of crafts have been used to stunning effect to depict the evolution of Sikhism and the life of the main Sikh gurus. At no point does the content get preachy or overtly religious. Audio visual displays puncture the visuals and text to make it easier on the senses. Hordes of villagers from surrounding areas pass through,awestruck and absorbed. This is a world class museum that isn’t just for the elite and the lovers of history and art. It’s for the people who live the heritage it depicts.
It was dark when we stepped outside again and the magic of Moshe Safdie’s architecture hit us like a punch in the stomach. The lighting highlighted the bold form, the water body created an added dimension of playful reflections. Serene and monumental, the walk around the museum transported me into another world. A full moon added the poetic touch. After a long long time, was I affected this way by the sheer power of architectural design. For all those of you who are architects, or think they have it in them to appreciate architecture, the Virasat-e-Khalsa is a must-visit. Bundled with the peacefulness of the Gurudwara next to it, it’s a pilgrimage for the eyes and for the spirit!
To visit the museum, drive to Anandpur Sahib near Ropar. It is about an hour and a half from Chandigarh and the roads are excellent. The museum is closed on Monday and Sundays are usually crowded. The audio guide is available in English, Hindi and Punjabi and is excellent, we were told by our hosts.
It’s turned out to be a spiritual sort if day, or at least a day of visiting places of worship or belief- Bhakra Dam, Naina Devi temple and the Anandpur Sahib Gurudwara Keshgarh Sahib.
Our first stop and one that took most of our day was the Bhakra Dam, a monument to modernity, a temple that celebrates Indian independence and progress. The dam is a hydro electric power project that powers much of north India. It also supplies water for irrigation to a large area, enabling to a large extent India’s green revolution. It’s impressive certainly and the scenery is breathtakingly beautiful, but the scale is so large both of the structure and the landscape, that it’s a bit hard to take in. There is considerable security. ‘No photography, no parking’ proclaim several large signs and security personnel are pretty sharp about stopping people from clicking and generally putting the fear of God in visitors.
We walked past the dam and peered down to see a mountain of silt and garbage on the other side. All feelings of national pride came instantly crashing down. Irritated, we asked the security boys about this. The garbage is what the river brings in with it and it gets caught on this side of the dam. There is no sophisticated machine to dredge or clean this stuff. ‘By boat, by hand’ the security guy informed us!
Even on the boat ride onto the vast stupefying waters of the Gobind Sagar Lake, I counted an array of alien objects- plastic bottles of course, slippers, medicines intact in their plastic sheath, condom, etc even though it was largely clean. I sat there and thought about how people dump all manner of rubbish into the streams and rivers that flow by and how the lake and the dam have to deal with all that trash.
We also talked about the dam being a manifestation of how man has interfered with nature. We spoke of the complexity of issues rehabilitation of villages drowned in dam projects. Of course, back then when this dam was built people whose village was drowned considered it a sacrifice to the ‘temple of modern India’ or so my mum tells me from her memories of the time. We also spoke of how that very flat enormous lake actually filled a deep gorge and we were floating around on the top of something that went way down!
More about the other two sites later (with pics) and here are some clandestine clicks of the dam and surrounds.
A girlie trip to the Punjab. Sounds good? It is good.
Here we are, five of us. Two of whom I know, two others became my friends today. In the cool fresh air of rural Punjab, it’s hard to remember the crazy pace of city life and its easy to let go and just be.
Driving on highways on a Sunday morning ensures a smooth ride and we literally zipped across Delhi and Haryana to land up in Chandigarh well ahead of schedule. Amusing sights like the gate of Jurasik Park that sported two super ugly dinosaur statues, a fiat car adorning someone’s roof in Sonepat and glimpses of two astonishingly beautiful ruined old havelis from atop the elevated highway at Gharaunda were some highlights. Prompted by these and other sights, the conversation flowed. From homes and husbands and children to hobbies, vacations and the dubious joys of social networking. Silly jokes, nostalgic anecdotes from the past. All poured out of us as we bonded. As women are wont to.
And then we reached Chandigarh and got off the car in the infamous Sector 17. Where you apparently go to hang out, ogle at the girls or guys depending on your choice and simply pass time. We girls, on the other hand, were dead serious about our shopping. Or at least two of us were, buying up the place in record time and derailing the time schedule by an hour!
Going back to Chandigarh after years was a pleasant experience though. What a vision Corbusier had in terms of scale for public spaces! I can imagine hundreds of people thronging the square in Sector 17 and it would look right. The tree lined parking, the street furniture, lovely shaded corridors and a large open space make for very nice high street retail indeed. Unfortunately on a Sunday morning and most other times this city does not create the sort of mass that a space like this deserves. Swank showrooms aside, there is a laid back run down quality to this place as well. Of course, that didn’t deter us from shopping, eating and giggling like schoolgirls. Some of whom we encountered in the ladies loo of ‘Girl in the Cafe’, attending to a puking friend who hadn’t been able to hold down her morning vodka!
A short drive from here and we were in the lovely fort of Bharatgarh, the last living fort in the Punjab and the seat of one of the twelve Misl of Sikh warriors. We headed out almost immediately and are just back from soaking in the mesmerising experience of the Khalsa Museum at Anandpur Saheb. But I will wax eloquent about the fort and the museum another day when I can upload the pictures that will show you their surprising beauty.
For now, it’s goodnight amid chit chat and more giggling.