Yes, I do know that Sirhind is not part of Kangra, but bear with me. Because Sirhind, once a very important town of Northern India, featured in our itinerary for our summer vacation.
Back in March this year, I had to go to Dehradun for a literary event, and we decided to make it a family trip. A weekend in Dehradun, and our five year old daughter (the Little One, or LO, as she’s referred to here on this blog) didn’t want to return from the mountains. Not, of course, that Dehradun is, strictly speaking, in the mountains, but still. At least you could see the mountains, you could look up at those pine-forested heights and imagine a walk through that.
Therefore, we decided our summer trip would be a road trip to the mountains.
Not a one-destination vacation like we’ve been doing ever since the LO appeared on the scene, but a relatively longish journey. Eight days, three major destinations in the mountains. En route, we’d see a few other attractions if we could. Himachal was what we chose, which was just as well, given the horror stories pouring in from Uttarakhand this year.
Since Noida is a five- to six-hour journey from Chandigarh (which is a very convenient launch pad for Himachal), we figured we’d do it in easy stretches, staying overnight at Chandigarh both while going as well as coming.
So we went to Chandigarh. After spending the night here, we left next morning for Sirhind, which I’d been eager to visit because part of the novel I’m currently working on is set in 15th century Sirhind. Sirhind, literally, ‘the head of India’, (which also implies ‘the gateway to India’), was once a very important town on the Lahore-Delhi trade route. In the mid-15th century, the governor of Sirhind, Bahlol Lodhi, made several attempts to capture Delhi and finally succeeded, thus making the Lodhis one of the dynasties to rule Delhi. A century or so down the line, Humayun defeated Islam Shah Sur at Sirhind and got back the throne for the Mughals.
Sirhind is a little over an hour’s drive from Chandigarh, a sleepy and dusty town that we reached—thanks to the LO’s habit of taking hours to eat her breakfast—at close to noon. It was horribly hot, but we’d gone well armed with water and hat and sun glasses—all of which came in use.
The first stop at Sirhind was Aam Khaas Bagh. There doesn’t seem any one reliable source regarding the provenance of this huge complex of gardens and accommodation: some sources say Babar was responsible for setting it up, while others point to a revenue collector from Akbar’s reign, or to Akbar himself. Still others name Jahangir or Shahjahan as the rulers who had this laid out.
Whatever: the point is that this expanse was supposed to act as a space for rest or sojourn both for the public (the ‘aam’ janta) as well as the elite (the ‘khaas’). We entered through an unimpressive gate and stepped past a row of straggly crepe myrtles, from where a policeman on duty—having informed us that we could use our phones to take photos, but couldn’t use cameras—ushered us towards a doorway set in the corner of a freshly painted and renovated pavilion that stood on the edge of a tank.
Till this point, we’d been wondering if this was worth it (though the LO, always eager to look at the bright side of things, had been hoping that a pipe being used to water the lawn would soon fill the tank so that she could jump in and have a swim). But, through the doorway, and into the grassy expanse behind it, and we got our first glimpse of just how huge this complex was. Far away, surrounded by walls on three sides, stood rows of pavilions. They were so far that we didn’t have the courage to go that far (in better weather, we might have). So we contented ourselves with standing under a huge old mango tree and taking photographs while the LO searched for fallen mangoes (and didn’t find any, much to her disappointment).
Back to the tank (which wasn’t filled up, adding to the LO’s disappointment), we took what looked a more promising path, a broad, straight walk between very shady mango trees (and one jackfruit tree). This was lovely: it was cool, there was lots of fruit to be seen, and we noticed that the orchards stretched beyond on either side. Well beyond, with amla trees, pear trees, and more mangoes.
(In this way, Aam Khaas Bagh is a good example of a well-preserved Mughal garden, since Mughal gardens originally were crowded with shady fruit trees).
At the end of this path, we came to a somewhat dilapidated pavilion. Off to the left, past a row of massive old saptparni trees, was a building that stood beyond a yard punctuated by shallow water tanks, each prettily shaped: stars, flowers, and so on. The building beyond turned out to be part of a well, now dry, but deep enough to make us a little jittery.
Next to this was a triple-storeyed ruin, which (I suppose) would have once been royal apartments. It certainly had the size, aspect and situation of something befitting royalty. Going inside (a little warily—bits of the building had collapsed), we found only one small and very sooty patch of painted plaster; the rest was all gone.
Aam Khaas Bagh left us a little confused. It’s massive, it must have been a sight for sore eyes once upon a time—and now it’s mostly in ruins. The ASI does seem to be doing some conservation work on it, but I wonder if it isn’t already too late.
Next up in Sirhind was Sadna Qasaai Masjid. Sadna, a 12th century philosopher, mystic and poet (plus a butcher by profession—therefore the ‘qasaai’), was born in Sind but died here in Sirhind. A lot of legends surround his life, and there is this mosque—built after his lifetime, probably in the Mughal era—named after him. The mosque, with vivid red-flowering frangipani trees in its front yard, is currently two-domed, but (given that the central part of the mosque is roofless), probably had a larger central dome in the middle.
It’s a very austere mosque, all beige and grey stone unrelieved by carving or other decoration. Definitely more apt for a simple mystic than the ornateness of a Jama Masjid or a Qila-e-Kohna would be.
Last up in Sirhind was the Diwan Todar Mal Haveli. Todar Mal, as most Indians would know, was one of the ‘navratna’ (the ‘nine gems’) of the court of Akbar, and held the post of Finance Minister. He is credited with a vast number of land and tax reforms, several of which were adopted by the British when they arrived in India and have even survived in some form or the other into the present day.
[Edited to add: I have since discovered from somebody in the Punjab State Tourism Department that this is not the case. According to Mr Sarbjit Singh: “This Todar Mall is a different personality. He had no relation with Akbar’s court. In December 1704 when two younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh named Shahibzad Zorawar Singh and Shahibzada Fateh singh aged 8 years and 6 years were bricked alive in sirhind by the then governer of sirhind Wazir Khan . This Todar mall bought land from a local landlord at very very high cost for cremation of sahibzadas bodies.The land which was bought by Todar Mall is still considered the expensive land in the world.”]
We were, therefore, eager to see Todar Mal’s haveli in Sirhind—and, like Aam Khaas Bagh, this turned out to be sadly dilapidated. We got off our car at the head of a dusty sort of driveway (that’s what it probably was, back in the 16th century) and walked past what looked like a one-time water tank, with the ruins of what might have been a pavilion partly beside it and partly straddling the water. (Or, what you see here could well be just the sunken foundations of a building, no water tank at all. I would love to know what this might be).
And then on to the haveli itself, which was a shambles. Massive steel staples held together the bricks in places, and there was a ladder against one wall, possibly pointing to some ongoing conservation work, but who knows?
That, therefore, was Sirhind. By this time, we were very hot and therefore happy to get back into our car, drink lots of water, and head north towards Pragpur, going down the Bhakra Nangal-Anantpur Sahib-Una route and into the foothills of Himachal Pradesh.
Pragpur is a small, sleepy village which is home to a wonderful old heritage hotel, The Judge’s Court. Named for its original owner, a Mr Jishnu Lal (who was a judge of the Punjab High Court), The Judge’s Court is a place we’ve stayed in several times over the years—and every time we’ve returned, we’ve found it better than before.
This time, the first time we visited with the LO, was even better, because she was so excited about everything. Walking up to our room, we discovered that our balcony looked out onto a lychee tree laden with fruit—so close, in fact, that we could have picked it right off the tree (had the fruit been ripe and we inclined to pick some).
We arrived after sunset, so we decided to delay our exploration of the area to the next day. In the meantime, the LO, exploring our room, discovered that the bathroom, with its door charmingly slatted, had the slats at the perfect angle for a 3’ person to look right in. After her father was almost caught with his pants down by an inquisitive LO, he ended up devising a curtain using a bath towel.
The next morning, after breakfast (a long-winded one, since the LO was more keen on making friends with the waiters and the chef than eating anything), we went out to explore.
There’s really not much to see in Pragpur. You could, of course, go to the nearby heritage village of Garli, but since my husband and I had seen it several years back and didn’t think it would appeal to the LO, we decided to stick to Pragpur itself.
First of all, we went around the grounds of The Judge’s Court. Besides the massive camphor tree outside the dining room, and the lychee tree outside our room, there were other lychee trees, an amla tree, and an entire orchard of mango, pomelo, pomegranate, and more. The LO had a fabulous time, picking up fallen fruit and handing them to her father to keep for her.
She exulted over the butterflies, the birds (there were lots of Himalayan bulbuls around, as well as some babblers, crows, and—much to the delight of the LO—hens!). She discovered a little patch of brinjals and was thoroughly chuffed to actually see baingans growing on plants.
After our jaunt around the premises (attractions include an old-style clay chulha, too, where something was cooking), we went around to the back. Here, past some crepe myrtles and through a quaint old arched gate with bougainvillea growing all over it, is a paved path which leads to Pragpur Village. The LO, having stopped briefly to watch a field being ploughed (such are the joys of childhood)…
… was wide-eyed with excitement. The smells! (Yes, well. Uncovered drains aren’t my cup of tea). The sounds! The sights!
Pragpur, while some of its residents do take the trouble to uphold its reputation as a heritage village, is sadly falling prey to the aesthetics (or lack thereof) of the 21st century. This, for instance, is a photograph I took in 2009, of the main water tank in Pragpur:
And this, a decade later, is the photo I took now. The walls around have been half-painted over with patchy blue and white, there’s graffiti, and the water in the tank is murky and smelly.
It didn’t matter to the LO. She found a couple of butterflies sitting beside the lake and was happy to bend over and watch them. And, a short distance further, when we reached the local bazaar, she was intrigued by all the interesting things to be seen in the sacks, piled up and ready to be bought.
In the evening, another little jaunt around The Judge’s Court resulted in the LO’s meeting the resident cow and her calf, both of whom were as intrigued by the LO as she was with them.
The LO came back to our room that evening exhausted, a little grubby, and with her little hands full of treasures: some interesting leaves, a few seed-pods (which we intend to plant sometime and see what comes up), a couple of wild flowers. She did not want to leave Pragpur.
But we had to, to go on to the second stage of our travels. Kangra Fort and Palampur awaited us. Watch this space for that travelogue.