Kids Corner


The Magic Of Punjab





It’s dusk and there are still families out on pedalos on the man-made lake. The outlines of peaks are just visible on the horizon. We have stopped because this is where the Swiss architect Pierre Jeanneret chose to have his ashes scattered in 1967; this was his happy place.

We are not, however, by a lake in Switzerland, rather by Sukhna Lake in Chandigarh, Punjab.

This is a city conceived after the Partition of Punjab to replace the Sikh Kingdom’s original capital, Lahore, which had been lost to Pakistan. Le Corbusier, Jeanneret’s cousin, and completed in 1960. Le Corbusier was accorded the glory, but Jeanneret stayed on, and lived and breathed it.

In the vast expanses of the Capitol Complex, epic piazzas splice the cousins’ greatest legacy, the Secretariat, the High Court and the Legislative Assembly, vast temples to modernism against the backdrop of the Shivalik Hills. Monumental “open-hand” sculptures allude to the trauma of the partition of Punjab and the subcontinent, creating the new states of India and Pakistan, and a sense of hope for independence. From here, modernist homes fan out, resembling real-life urban experiments in easy living.

I wander through Le Corbusier Centre, which displays documents, sketches and photos, with letters revealing the politics behind the project; and in Asia’s largest rose garden; and in the Gaudi-esque Rock Garden, which displays more than 2,000 sculptures fashioned from waste material, from mudguards to broken bangles.

Chandigarh is the India as it would like to be seen -- prosperous, organised, designer and modern. After partition, a diminished Punjab and a new province of Haryana were further carved out of the Indian half of Punjab. So far, it’s not on the traditional tourist trail -- many of those who do come are architecture students.

However, a new Oberoi hotel just outside the city could change all that. The Oberoi Sukhvilas Resort & Spa makes a great stopping-off point between Delhi, Shimla in the Himalayas, four hours’ drive north, and the Sikh stronghold of Amritsar, five hours to the east, where another luxury hotel, the Taj, has opened.

The neat triangle of Chandigarh, Shimla and Amritsar offers modernism, colonial otherworldliness and an epic spiritual experience, respectively (as well as three top-notch hotels, two of which are new).

Let’s start at Oberoi’s 60-room retreat, on the cusp of an 8,000-acre undulating acacia forest -- the last ripple in the Himalayas before the plains, which focuses strongly on spa and rest. And perfection.

The famed Oberoi service includes such touches as petal-filled baths and finding that “good night” has been spelled out by marigolds and lit by glowing candles when you retire for the night. There are arched and colonnaded verandas, baradaris and ornate plasterwork, and haveli-style chhatri-topped pavilions, decorative pools and fountains. The dell-like, nine-acre Siswan Forest Grove, planted with orange trees, is home to the royal tents, their interiors decked out with intricately carved furniture and handpainted frescoes. The spa doesn’t open until June but will be a palatial haven of fires, glass and water features and picture-book forest views, with Roman-style baths, an infrared sauna, hammam, ayurvedic treatments and hydrotherapy.

Only in Punjab would the chef assure you that it’s OK to drink coffee after an Ayurvedic lunch “if your soul wants it”. Simran Singh Thapar is keen to showcase the region’s fresh produce and keeps a kitchen garden that provides much of his salads and vegetables. He can prepare an ayurvedic menu designed to fire the digestive system, encompassing the six properties of the cuisine. For us, he prepares a south Indian-style sour- yoghurt mom curry; a lentil pori; garlic and lime rasam soup, and a payassam sweet soup dessert made of lentils, coconut milk, cashew nuts, raisins and jaggery.

The romantic, old-world antidote to Chandigarh’s modernism is Shimla, an 80-mile drive into the Himalayas. We wind north to the famed, full-blown summer capital of the Raj -- formerly a hill-station of Punjab, now part of Himachal Pradesh, a state carved out of Punjab long after 1947 -- that has been brought to life in many books and films, from Kipling’s ‘Plain Tales From The Hills’ to ITV’s recent ‘Indian Summers’ series.

Shimla is a particular sort of place -- everywhere there are references to that now-vanished way of life: the stained glass in Christ Church, the second oldest church in north India; the 1922 manual telephone building, a reminder of the hill station’s historic importance.

Since the 1990s, when I last stayed here, the population of Shimla and its satellite towns has shot up from about 80,000 to 500,000. Fortunately some things haven’t changed. The red macaque monkeys at the Jakhoo Hill Hanuman temple will still rip the glasses off a visitor’s face, and deliver them back only if they get a snack. The Indian Coffee House on The Mall is still home to elderly coffee drinkers shrouded in Himachali shawls under yellowy bulbs. And the Himachal Emporium still holds neat folds of embroidered Kashmiri clothes.

Shimla is soon to come under the auspices of Unesco: the old Gaiety Theatre has already been beautifully renovated.

From the cedar-shaded terrace of the 1888-built gothic-styled Viceregal Lodge, now the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, you can see the runway at the new airport, which will soon bring an Air India flight daily from Delhi in one hour (at present the nearest airport is Chandigarh).

The lodge did not feature as the backdrop to the ‘Viceroy’s House‘, the film directed by Gurinder Kaur Chadha about the Partition of Punjab and the subcontinent that’s in cinemas now (which was filmed mainly in Jodhpur at Taj’s Umaid Bhawan Palace hotel), but in 1945 the future of independence was decided here and, in 1947, Partition was finalised here.

As they will tell you, one fifth of the world was ruled from here in its incarnation as the Raj‘s summer capital.

Shimla’s social scene was pretty stultifying and some of the smart crew would decamp to summer houses in nearby Mashobra. This is where Oberoi has its 85-room mountain resort, Wildflower Hall, built on the site of the old home of Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, once the British commander-in-chief of the Indian army.
The Oberoi Sukhvilas Resort & Spa makes a great stopping-off point between Delhi, Shimla in the Himalayas and Amritsar

It still serves as an escape -- these days from traffic snarls and Shimla’s 21st-century crowds. Poised on a spur with panoramic views, its northern aspect reveals the perennial snows of the Himalayas. The hotel’s name is inspired by the floral beauty that decorates these hills: pale violets; thick manes of iris; blood-red rhododendrons; delicate roses; peonies that bloom after the monsoon; and banks of daisies, buttercups and cowslips.

The food is superb. I ask the executive chef to bring me Himachali food, which I must admit gives the Punjabis a run for their money. The chha gosht is the most tender, yoghurt-stewed lamb. Steamed mushroom dumplings are lashed in saffron butter. A delicious kheru soup is made with buttermilk, cumin and green coriander, with a lentil-flour base. Kullu valley trout is marinated in mint chutney and cooked in a clay oven. Lamb sukka with masala is pan-fried then popped in the tandoor for five hours.

From Wildflower Hall, you can walk out on the old road to Tibet, a path that heads into silent, soft, silvery green layers of chir pine, spruce, oak and perfumed deodars. It is linked to the Chail Wildlife Sanctuary, which has macaques, leopards, black bears, boars, hares, jungle fowl and pheasants in spades.

I could stay here for weeks, but it’s time to leave -- on the Himalayan Queen narrow-gauge “toy train”. It chugs along multi-arched galleries across ravines and between spurs. Opposite me, a bangle-festooned honeymoon bride holds the hand of her beloved as we descend back to the Punjab.

My end point is Amritsar, the highlight of which is, of course, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the spectacular Golden Temple. It was created in 1577 by the fourth Sikh Guru, Ram Das, along with the city of Amritsar itself.

Forget the Taj Mahal -- the Golden Temple is a humdinger of a monument that leaves the more profound spiritual effect on many. You can see it in style too, at the Taj group’s new hotel.

Taj Swarna Amritsar has a contemporary aesthetic, its Punjabiness suggested only in the phulkari design that swirls across its foyer and its Punjabi menu.

Punjabis are the people who gave us Tandoori chicken, yellow dhal and butter chicken, the precursor of tikka masala, so it’s worth trying the street food if you have a good guide.

I head off with the Taj’s executive chef, Saurabh Singh, to the best street stalls and feast on river sole marinated in gram flour, ginger and garlic paste and salt, deep fried in ghee then powdered with dry cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and masala.

Then it’s on to A-One Kulfa, which does amazing falooda glass noodles boiled in water and soaked in milk, then topped with condensed milk for Rs 60 (less than US $1).

I wander around the Old Town, diving into a maze of dusty bazaars and taking in the amazing façades obscured under dirty tangles of wiring and pigeons’ nests. Market traders sell everything from vermillion wedding bracelets to Sikh weaponry and burnished copper cooking pots. In Katra Jaimal Singh Bazaar, I get measured for an emerald salwar kameez embroidered in gold thread. It is delivered to my room in the Taj that night.

It’s a far cry from Jallianwala Bagh, a park commemorating more than 1,500 Sikhs who were killed or wounded when Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered his soldiers to open fire on unarmed protesters in 1919, when Amritsar was a focal point for the independence movement. If you are British, prepared to be ashamed.

Another important historical site is the border post of India and Pakistan, between Attari and Wagah. Here, India’s Border Security Force and the Pakistan Rangers have indulged in 30-minute displays of John-Cleese-like military ‘bravado’ every night since 1959. A gaggle of girls are Bollywood dancing in front of the bandstand that’s set up here, while the crowd roars.

The Pakistanis are not really into it -- their side is largely empty. The soldiers, tall and well-built, with oiled, swizzled moustaches, wear turbans topped with red fans and goose-step towards the border while the crowd wails “Hindustan Zindabad!”

It’s a strange, amusing and absurd reality for a pair of nations that tore each other apart after partition.

By 10 o’clock that night, I am outside the Golden Temple, its gilded dome reflected in the surrounding sacred blue waters. The Sikh Scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, is on its way back to the Golden Temple’s sanctum sanctorum. A devotee throws out his piercing song, “Sat--na-a-m! Wahe-e-e-e-e-e guru!” The crowd sings back with equal fervour. They are garlanding the gold and silver palanquin that carries the Guru, decorating it with gold and silver brocades and sprinkling it with rose water.

The cool night air reeks of incense and the sweet freshness of flower petals -- it’s the magic of Punjab, encapsulated in this moment.

[Courtesy: The Times, UK. Edited for]
March 25, 2017

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