Kangra Travels, Part 1: Sirhind and Pragpur

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.

The mountains: these are the Dhauladhar ranges, seen from McLeodganj.

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.

Aam Khaas Bagh, just inside the gate.

Whatever: the point is that this expanse was supposed to act as a space for rest or sojourn both for the public (the ‘aamjanta) 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.

A pavilion behind an empty water 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).

The vast expanse behind the pavilion.

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.

Stepping up on to a path between mango trees.

(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.

Looking towards a massive old well. Note the terracotta pipes sticking out, lower right corner.

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.

Ruins of a building at Aam Khaas Bagh.

The sad remnants of some painted plaster.

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.

Sadna Qasaai Masjid, and its picturesque trees.

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.

Sadna Qasaai Masjid: there was probably once a dome above this part.

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).

Diwan Todar Mal Haveli: a sunken area which might have been a water tank?

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?

Diwan Todar Mal Haveli, seen from the front.

Diwan Todar Mal Haveli. Note the staples put to hold the bricks in place at the lower arch.

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.

The Judge’s Court, seen from the back.

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.

Spoils: a pear and a lychee.

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)…

Watching a field being ploughed.

… was wide-eyed with excitement. The smells! (Yes, well. Uncovered drains aren’t my cup of tea). The sounds! The sights!

Stepping into Pragpur Village.

A new house, but with some shades of the old.

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:

Pragpur Taal: a photo from 2009.

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.

Pragpur Taal now, a decade later.

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.

Examining the wares at a village shop.

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.

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18 thoughts on “Kangra Travels, Part 1: Sirhind and Pragpur

  1. I soo want to go to “The Judge’s Court”. Sad to see Diwan Todar Mahal’s haveli in that condition. Why are we so apathetic towards out heritage?
    Waiting for the next part.

    • If you ever head for that part of Himachal, do make it a point to go to Judge’s Court – it is very nice.

      Our apathy towards our heritage… I don’t know. It’s so terrible. On the one hand people rave about our glorious past (even if often their understanding of it is very flawed), on the other, they have no qualms about scratching graffiti all over it, encroaching on anything that doesn’t have a strict security system in place, and just generally not caring a bit. It’s an uphill task for conservationists. :-(

      • Good Evening Madhuji,

        this is a very complicated and sensitive part in maintaining our heritage in tact. What maximum the Ministry of Tourism can do is to keep the environment spic and span, with economical government tourist homes to facilitate a happy stay and tour.

        But if the point of renovation of these heritages is considered to look make them look more beautiful, then the old look of the past glory gets diminished.

        They can at the most take interest in keeping them clean with regular cleaning
        and use of proper pesticides.

        What exactly I want to impress is to see that this heritages are not damaged and destroyed but hold in tact for all our future generations to witness, learn and appreciate our glorious past and ancient history.

        And in addition the best the Government can do is to uplift these places with good infrastructure and other amenities of Transport, Food and shelter to tourists on economical basis.

        Once again thanks for this wonderful article and thanks for sharing.
        \With Regards and blessings.

        • Agreed (to some extent), though I think what the government really needs to do is sensitize the public to the importance of maintaining and respecting our heritage. Until there is awareness and a genuine pride in our heritage, until people realize that by neglecting heritage (or by littering/scrawling on/encroaching upon, etc) they are causing real harm, all these initiatives will be in vain. In most places (even within India) where such a concerted effort has succeeded, it’s because the local population has been made aware.

          “And in addition the best the Government can do is to uplift these places with good infrastructure and other amenities of Transport, Food and shelter to tourists on economical basis.

          This is one thing I don’t agree with. Good infrastructure etc is all well and good, but making a heritage area – it could even be a national park, a natural heritage zone – easily and economically accessible, ends up often making it very vulnerable. It leads to over-tourism, which almost always has a disastrous affect on the site, especially one that is already fragile.

          • Good Evening Madhuji,
            I agree with you. I have visited some places and my impression is, our Ministry of tourism is doing things very negligible in executing their responsibility of keeping these tourist centres par below the standards.

            I do agree with your opinion regarding over-tourism, but it is one source of good revenue to the Government.

            Taking proper security on these sites with official guides in protecting and caretaking of these the heritages, is the prime responsibility of our Government.

            A lot can be done to improve tourism, facilities and uplift, with no damage to the Heritage structures and surroundings.

            We have lot of ideas, but these ideas have to be borne with the respective caretakers. It is difficult for us to put them all here.

            Thanks for your quick response. Apologies if I am wrong in my opinion.

            Regards Blessings to you.
            Uma

            • No apologies required, sir. Of course you have your own opinions and are entitled to them!

              The problem with over-tourism is that, while it’s a good source of revenue, it is not a sustainable source of revenue. It makes more economical sense (as has been seen in the case of Taj Mahal) to increase the tariffs and allow fewer visitors in – that way, only those who truly care for a monument (and are not visiting just to click selfies and scratch their names on the walls) are allowed in.

              On the other hand, over-tourism means that the place is soon flooded with so many unaware and careless tourists that it loses its charm and is either destroyed or in serious danger of being lost forever.

              But let us agree to differ on that. :-)

  2. Very interesting and informative.
    I haven’t been to any of these places, in fact I wasn’t aware of them.
    To see the ruins is a painful experience. But at the same time, it does stimulate our imagination and complete the picture in our minds. How exactly this place was once?
    ASI I think, does, what they can to protect the monuments. But the structure itself should support their efforts. After all, many monumental are too old, to tolerate even the conservative work. I’m talking in general, and not about the mentioned sites.

    • I suppose one can use the paintings from Akbar’s time to conjure up at least a possible image of what these places may have looked like. Mughal paintings can be really detailed in that way.

      As for ASI, yes, of course they do what they can. The problem is actually much wider-ranging and deep-rooted, because ‘development’ too often is at the cost of heritage, there’s a general sense of apathy towards heritage, and most Indians couldn’t care less about monuments – except the very popular ones.

      “After all, many monumental are too old, to tolerate even the conservative work.

      As someone who has been involved with INTACH – even though in a very peripheral role – and who has a sibling in INTACH – I can say that that is not often the case. INTACH, for instance, has done a lot of work in conserving structures that were on the brink of collapse, and that too by using traditional techniques and materials.

      An important point which needs to be noted is that ASI’s rules lay down the law: that a building is to maintained in the state in which it was when taken over by the ASI. Which is why they don’t attempt to redo things, even when there is a fairly reliable idea of what the monument might have looked like earlier. I think laws on this are changing, though.

      • “INTACH, for instance, has done a lot of work in conserving structures that were on the brink of collapse, and that too by using traditional techniques and materials.”

        Oh! That’s so nice. I did not know that. Nor did I know about the laws of ASl. It’s good that they are thinking of changing the laws. I came across conservative work going on in Ajanta caves, a few years back. I guess, it could be complete by now and I should plan a holiday again there to visit the color paintings there. A rich heritage. Certainly worth multiple visits.

        I do agree with you about apathy towards our heritage. That’s sad enough!
        When I went to Konark a couple of years back, the supports surrounding the temple were obstructing the view, but we were told that it was necessary and we accepted it.

        • I do need to visit Ajanta and Ellora! I have been wanting to, for a long time now, but have never got around to it. Do you think they are doable for a 6-year old? (That is what the LO will be a few months from now). I heard that there’s a fair bit of walking and climbing involved?

          • Oh!
            Yes, you need to walk along the horse shoe shaped walk way at Ajanta. But if you plan it in winter, it won’t be too much for the LO. Anyway Ajanta would be too hot in summer, no way we can go there. In monsoon, the greenary in the valley is worth watching, but as there is no shelter on the walk way in Ajnata (and in Ellora), it’s again not a good idea.
            You can select to visit certain more important caves in Ajanta (e g Cave no 1& 2 and one more that have color paintings).
            At Ellora, you can get a rikshaw or a vehicle that can drop you to the caves. The sculptures there are magnificent too!
            You have to halt at Aurangabad, which is near to Ellora and Ajanta, the latter being around 1.5 to 2 hrs journey from Aurangabad.
            You should plan it soon! It’s worth multiple visits.
            :-)

  3. The Aga Khan Foundation and Tata Trusts are engaged in conserving (and preserving) the Qutb Shahi Heritage Park in Hyderabad. I know the Trusts were also involved in the conservation of Humayun’s Tomb, using traditional building material and construction methods – even removing concrete and modern plaster to bring it back to its original form. But this is just a drop in the ocean.

    The problem – I think – is also that we, as people, don’t care about despoiling our heritage structures. When we visited Lucknow, I remember people stepping on walls and getting to the middle of tanks (where they weren’t supposed to go) in order to take selfies; eating snacks and just dropping the litter where they stood and so on. It’s painful to watch. :(

    LO has grown! :) I miss her.

    Looking forward to Part II. I love your travelogues – you bring these places alive.

    • Yes, when I went to Hyderabad a few years ago, we saw the work the Aga Khan Trust has been doing at the Qutb Shahi Tombs: really good. In Delhi, it’s not just Humayun’s Tomb, but in all of the nearby Nizamuddin Basti too that they’ve been working, and not just at conserving monuments, but also setting up and running initiatives to involve the local people. We went on a delightful Nizamuddin food and heritage walk back in 2014, where the heritage angle of it was handled by a guide who was from the basti. I really appreciate this ‘human’ angle of it, and think it works: because the local people have been involved and have been made aware of their heritage (plus, because they see the benefits to them of looking after that heritage), they co-operate in preserving it.

      I agree so completely about Indians not caring at all about their heritage. Most visit a monument just to be able to say they’ve been there, not necessarily because they respect that heritage or truly appreciate it. It’s heart-breaking.

      Thank you for the appreciation! Yes, the LO is growing up very quickly indeed! (Right now, she’s come under the spell of cricket. Or rather, more specifically, Virat Kohli. She watches World Cup matches only to get a glimpse of him, and if she sees any newspaper ads featuring him – and there are plenty these days – she goes “Oooh, he’s so handsome!”).

      Sigh.

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