A September 2009 trip
to Patiala by phileasfogg
Quote: The city of Patiala is known for its embroidery, its extra-large shots of liquor - and the larger-than-life lives of its erstwhile maharajas. With its palaces and colonial bungalows, Patiala makes for a rewarding weekend getaway from Delhi.
Attraction | "Queen Victoria all the Way"
The road to Sheesh Mahal winds past Fawwaara Chowk and the well-preserved colonial edifice of the Mohinder College, through a deliciously verdant area where the roadside fences are all draped with sprays of sugar-pink flowers. Past the Moti Bagh Palace (now the premises of the National Institute of Sports, and therefore out of bounds for tourists), and we come to the Sheesh Mahal complex.
We step in through a gate, and stop for a moment, pleasantly surprised. The Sheesh Mahal complex is quieter, greener, and lovelier in a natural, park-like way, than we’d imagined. The complex is a large rectangle, the centre of it occupied by an elliptical lake (now dried up and with thick green grass growing all across the bottom). Seen from the gate, the right bank of the lake is home to the Sheesh Mahal, while the left bank houses what is known as the Banasar Ghar—a building now home to the North Zone Cultural Centre, therefore (like the Moti Bagh Palace) off-limits for paltry tourists like us. The grounds all around the central ‘lake’ are a garden, with shrubs, low hedges, trees and beds of flowers. And there’s almost nobody around: a small family is having a picnic on a quiet bit of lawn along the Banasar Ghar bank, and we see a couple of people wandering around near the Sheesh Mahal itself, but that’s it.
The reason for this soon becomes apparent: the Sheesh Mahal, we discover, is closed off at least till 2011 for restoration. Visitors are welcome to wander through the grounds (thankfully free of charge; otherwise, a fee of Rs 10 is levied for entry to the Sheesh Mahal). We’re disappointed, of course, but try to make the best of it, telling ourselves that one mirrorwork palace is very much like another. That doesn’t detract from the fact that we’d have loved to have seen this Sheesh Mahal, but anyway. Not only do we not get to admire the interiors of the Sheesh Mahal, we also don’t get to see the museum collections that the palace now houses: it consists, according to the signboards around, of a large collection of medals, art, and stuffed animals. Stuffed animals and medals I can pass up without being perturbed, but missing out on a display of art does rankle a bit.
We walk down the length of the lake, admiring the Sheesh Mahal and its surrounds. The palace isn’t huge; it’s more like a large mansion than anything else, and was originally built as a pleasure resort for the royal family to spend brief holidays (the Patiala royal family used to live in the Qila Mubarak until they shifted to the Baradari Palace). The lake, the gardens around, and the prettiness of the palace itself—peachy-pink with white trim, surprisingly not wedding-cake like—must have made this a wonderful destination for a weekend getaway!
In front of the Sheesh Mahal, on the right bank of the lake, stand two squat towers decorated in the same pink-and-white style. These form a set along with two towers on the opposite side of the lake, and are joined by a small suspension bridge. The bridge is called the Lakshman Jhoola (‘the swing of Lakshman’, Lakshman being a mythical hero, brother to the God Rama in the Ramayana). The original Lakshman Jhoola is a suspension bridge in Rishikesh, an important Hindu pilgrimage centre on the banks of the Ganga; the Sheesh Mahal’s Lakshman Jhoola is modelled after the Rishikesh one, therefore the name. The bridge looks very rickety and has prudently been closed off to avoid accidents.
We saunter right around the dried-up lake, and onto the Banasar Ghar bank, which is interesting in its own way, since it is dotted with old statues—mainly of Queen Victoria. Three of these statues (they’re all at least life-size) are in white marble and depict the grumpy-looking empress in all her regalia. One statue, which I found most striking, is of a dark metal (cast iron? No idea, since there aren’t any labels) and is larger than life, with Victoria looking suitably imperial and imperious. The effect’s spoilt a little by the fact that her hands, though empty, are positioned as if to hold an orb and a sceptre; I guess both were there originally, but have since either fallen off or being snatched away.
This statue of Victoria’s forms a pair with that of Albert, another equally impressive statue nearby. Both were carved by a wood sculptor called F Derwent—the name’s engraved on the base of the statues—before being cast in a foundry. Victoria’s statue dates from 1903; Albert’s, from 1912.
Along with these is a statue of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh, Patiala’s most famous ruler. This is a marble statue, with the maharaja’s chest bristling with medals and decorations. It is, I think, the only statue in the garden which does not mirror the height of the original: Bhupinder Singh was an impressive 6’6" tall.
Even though we aren’t able to see the inside of the Sheesh Mahal, or its museum collection, our trip to this palace is nice enough. The grounds are picturesque (though they have run a bit wild in places), and the exteriors of the buildings are charming. Those picnickers have the right idea.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on October 7, 2009
Attraction | "An Impressive Fort but Badly Kept"
We ask passersby for directions to the Qila Mubarak, and are told that we’ll only be able to drive up to the square known as Anardana Chowk. From there, we’ll have to walk about 10 minutes to get to the Qila, since the police have put a blockade on the road: all vehicles—or at least all four-wheeled vehicles—must park at Anardana Chowk. Fortunately, the stretch between Anardana Chowk and Qila Chowk (the latter the square that abuts the Qila Mubarak) is very interesting and colourful. This is obviously the heart of touristy Patiala, selling all the goods that Patiala is famous for: jooties (embroidered slip-on leather shoes), parandas (knotted tassels in gold or silver thread and vividly coloured yarn, which are tied on at the end of a hair braid to act as a pretty extension) and my favourite, phulkari, the very beautiful and bright embroidery that is typical of the state of Punjab—and very especially of Patiala.
It’s a Sunday, and a number of the shops are closed along the Anardana Chowk-Qila Chowk stretch. Even then, it’s a busy and very vibrant area. Before we know it, we see the walls of the fort looming above the shops ahead of us. This section of the fort is obviously of a colonial era: the columns and semi-circular arches, now with peeling paint and cobwebs festooned all across them, are probably from the late 1800’s or the early 1900’s.
We walk on, through the last of the shops, till we reach the open square known as Qila Chowk. This is where the main gate of the fort, known as the Darshani Gate, is situated. Though it’s grubby and badly maintained (adjectives which we later realise can be applied to the fort as a whole), the Darshani Gate is an attractive one of red sandstone, its façade decorated with arched niches and beautiful carving.
Just inside the gate is the ticket office: two desks with chairs, both occupied by bored-looking officers. The first one sells us our tickets (Rs 10 per adult, Rs 4 per child); the other one, who’s been looking on all this while, validates our tickets and waves us into the fort, with instructions to go right.
We step in through the gate, and into a vast courtyard. The Qila Mubarak spreads out across 10 acres, and what we’re seeing is impressive: there are palaces and large gateways topped with arched pavilions with whaleback roofs; ramparts; and grand staircases all around—in carved stone, plaster, and brick. Off to our left is a beautifully worked greeny-grey metal door set in a gateway decorated with incised and painted plaster. In front of us, across the width of the courtyard, is another gateway, also painted (in subtle shades of cream, peach and beige). Unfortunately, we are not to see any of these. The Qila Mubarak has a number of tantalisingly named halls and palaces—the Rang Mahal (the ‘Palace of Colour’), the Sheesh Mahal (the ‘Palace of Mirrors’—a common name used across northern India for halls decorated with mirror and glasswork; there are Sheesh Mahals at the forts in Agra, Delhi and Amber, for instance), the Lassi Khana ( the kitchen; lassi is a popular beverage made by whisking yoghurt with water and either sugar or salt and spices); and the Toshakhana. Intriguing though these may sound, we discover soon enough that none of these chambers—or the ten courtyards that form the bulk of the fort—are open to visitors.
We therefore are forced to be satisfied with the Darbar Hall, also known as the Diwan Khana, the fort’s main hall of audience. When the guy at the main gate told us to head right, this was where he meant: up a broad flight of stairs, along a wide path paved like a chessboard—and to the wood-and-glass arched doors of the Darbar Hall. The hall is imposing: a large hall with a wood and plaster ceiling, 15 mt high and painted in an eye-catching geometric pattern. From the ceiling hang a dozen or so chandeliers, all huge, fascinating bits of glass, some with emerald or ruby-red chimneys and pendants, others with carved or etched glass. There are also what are known as fanoos in India: massive chandeliers that sit on pedestals (so they’re actually huge floor lamps).
We wander through the Darbar Hall, which is dotted with dusty old glass cases containing armour and weaponry. The weaponry, especially, is formidable: there are fierce-looking daggers, lances, swords, swordsticks, and even ‘gunsticks’—opening the stick reveals a single-barrelled gun. There’s an entire set of round leather shields, each painted with a scene from the Ramayana; and there’s a section on more modern weapons: a 19th century 20-shot revolver, for instance, and little bayonet-cum-pistols that look lethal despite their diminutive size. The pride and joy of the collection is a dagger with a jade hilt, belonging to the revered Sikh Guru Gobind Singh. According to the government’s tourist literature, the sword of the invader Nadir Shah—who marauded this area, massacring thousands in a single day in Delhi itself—is also housed here, but we see no sign of it.
The walls of the Darbar Hall are hung with portraits, arranged in chronological order, of the ruling family (the Phulkian dynasty) of Patiala, beginning with the first, Baba Ala Singh. It ends at Yadavinder Singh, who ruled for only 9 years, from 1938 to 1947. The portraits are all life-size and fairly well-executed. Also part of the display are some portraits of British royals of the 20th century and the late 19th: Victoria’s there, of course, and so is Edward—and a stiff-looking lady labelled ‘Queen Mary Querry’. Huh? The labels on nearly all of the exhibits displayed are, by the way, atrocious: in many cases, the only language used is Punjabi; and English, where used, is dismal. And the labels anyway are poorly-written, grimy, and far from adequate. A lot of our knowledge of what’s on display at the Darbar Hall ends up being based on intelligent guesswork.
The far wall of the hall, facing the main entrance, is pierced by a couple of very intricately carved wooden doors that are kept locked. A little peeking through the fine lattice screen of one door revealed an armoury beyond, stuffed with racks of lances; not really worth the effort, but the doors themselves are splendid examples of woodcraft.
Lastly, at the far right of the hall, are two very early 20th century cars once owned by Patiala’s royals: an Itala and a Fiat, both grand vintage cars dating from before 1915. They’re in a sad way, dusty and falling apart. Equally badly maintained is the ‘chariot’ (or so the label reads; it’s actually a phaeton) near the cars. This, though, has more to recommend it: the decoration is intricate and intriguing, with tiny figurines of what look like Sikh guardsmen moulded along the brackets, along with other motifs such as flowers and ribbons.
The Qila Mubarak is disappointing, to say the least. This is obviously a large and very impressive palace complex, and has great potential as a tourist attraction. The problem is that nobody seems to be doing very much to maintain it or even encourage visitors to come by. Except for the Darbar Hall, everything is off-limits; and the Darbar Hall itself is dim and dusty: I found myself thinking all it needed was a good scrub (those chandeliers especially need a good soak in soapy water!) and it would be great. Till then, though, the Qila Mubarak gets the thumbs-down.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on October 7, 2009
Attraction | "Avian Elvis Impersonators in a Concrete Jungle"
None of our (admittedly inadequate) tourist literature mentions the Aviary and Rock Garden, so it is a bit of a surprise—and we happen upon it by chance, when we take a wrong turn on our way to the Baradari Palace. My nephew sees the sign pointing to the Aviary and Rock Garden and decides immediately that that is what he wants to see in Patiala. My niece and my brother-in-law have better things to do than gawp at birds, so eventually the four of us—my nephew, my sister, my husband and I—walk across to the Aviary and Rock Garden on our own.
Like the Baradari Gardens, this area too is full of trees, groves of bamboo and shrubs, but it’s much smaller—less than a tenth, perhaps, of the Baradari Gardens. At the entrance, there’s a sign that reads Birds of Paradise, with a photo of a bird of paradise flower. (Didn’t anyone tell whoever designed this that the bird of paradise bird is not the same as the bird of paradise flower?) Opposite it is a badly printed map of the gardens. We peer at it dutifully, but can’t figure out much except that there are toilets tucked away in some part, and a ticket office, plus some bird cages. Despite much searching, we’re unable to find the ticket office, so end up assuming that entry is free. We don’t come across anybody vaguely official during our brief saunter through the area (except for a man sweeping the bird cages), so we guess they’ve decided to scrap the idea of charging for visits.
The Aviary and the Rock Garden are contiguous: interspersed between the cages housing the birds are the formations that comprise the Rock Garden. And what formations! Whoever was responsible for creating this monstrosity should be taken out and shot. The rocks in the garden consists largely of ‘boulders’ made out of concrete, curved and painted a dull yellow which is, I presume, supposed to resemble something out of the Himalaya or wherever. Where real rock has been used, it consists of pumpkin-sized river stones, glued together with concrete and shaped into a riverbed of sorts, along with a series of steps supposed to act as cascades—since it’s very dry right now, they seem to have decided not to bother with turning on the water. There are a couple of pools, though, with dank green water. Beside one sits an ugly figure made of concrete or plastic or something, dressed in a pair of overalls and wearing a baseball cap. Why?? As if that wasn’t bad enough, the dustbins are large cans shaped and painted like penguins. Ugh.
Fortunately, the birds help redeem this place a bit. The cages are all large, room-sized ones that usually house one species, sometimes two. Avid Gerald Durrell fan that I am, I can see that the cages aren’t that great. Most have stark interiors that must bore the birds to death. Some are dirty—the wire mesh fronts of the budgerigars’ cage is so riddled with dust and feathers, we can barely see the birds beyond. And the large cage for the very gregarious rainbow lorikeets is inexplicably divided into two: the birds are trying their best to carry on a social gathering through the wire that separates them, but it must be a frustrating business.
In spite of all that, the birds look uniformly happy and well-kept and beautiful: the pheasants (Golden, Silver, Ring-Necked, Lady Amherst’s, etc) with gleaming iridescent feathers; the parakeets, lorikeets and cockatoos with bright, inquisitive eyes; the pigeons and doves plump and well-feathered. Among the birds I think are the loveliest are the pheasants (well, I have a fondness for pheasants, anyway) and the vividly coloured rainbow lorikeets and nanday conures, the latter’s distinctive black heads contrasting with their grass-green bodies. I also like the cockatiels (the signs read ‘cockatiel’ and ‘cocktail’ in front of different cages), snowy little birds with pretty sulphur-yellow crests and a look of utter charm about them. In fact, there are quite a lot of birds here that are very pretty—I just wish they’d tried to include some more Indian birds; the emphasis appears to be on exotic birds rather than endemic ones.
The Aviary and Rock Garden is good for half an hour’s stroll and a look at some nice birds, as long as you don’t expect something along the lines of Singapore’s Jurong Bird Park. And try to ignore the ‘rocks’; they’re an eyesore.
Attraction | "Trees, a Maharaja’s Statue and a Disappointing Fern House"
According to the rather scanty tourist information available about Patiala, the gardens were laid out by Maharaja Rajinder Singh in about 1876, when he ascended the throne of Patiala. I have to admit this sounds a little dubious, since the same year is attributed to Rajinder Singh’s having begun work on converting the pavilion in the gardens into the palace. It’s likely that the gardens and the pavilion had been in place at least for a few years if not more before Rajinder Singh began building the Baradari Palace. It’s possible that he carried out some ‘repairs’, so to say, on the gardens—he is certainly known to have helped improve the gardens by planting trees and putting in fountains.
We set off on an exploratory walk of the vast gardens after a late tea, when the sun’s setting. Patiala is a hot and humid place, and after sunset is perhaps the best time to be out. We soon discover we aren’t the only ones who think so; there are plenty of local people who choose this time to go for a walk in the gardens. Fortunately, the gardens are so vast that you never feel hemmed in.
The gardens aren’t beautifully landscaped or ‘structured’ in the style of Mughal gardens or other more formal gardens. This is more like a prettified wilderness, with plenty of trees—huge ashoka trees (usually only about 10 feet tall; these tower up to beyond the first floor of the Baradari Palace!), banyans with aerial roots as thick as a solid pillar; palms and more. There are lawns and paths snaking through between the trees; and—best of all for a bird-lover like me—lots of birds to be seen and heard. The tallest trees invariably have a nesting black kite; in the more leafy canopies of some trees, we see attractive tree pies, with their striking brown, white, grey and black plumage, their long tails sweeping behind them. Equally prominent are the grey hornbills, flapping in an ungainly way from branch to branch; and the noisy groups of babblers, hopping about near the hedges. Since it’s evening, flocks of green parakeets screech as they swoop across the gardens.
On our ramble through the gardens, we come across a white domed pavilion made of plastered brick. Nice enough, though not exceptional—and there’s no indication of when it was built or by whom. There is, however, a very nice statue of Maharaja Rajinder Singh, the man credited with laying out the gardens. The statue is of white marble, nearly life-size, with the ruler in full regalia standing under a canopy. The details are beautifully done: the medals, jewellery and clothing of the maharaja, the coat of arms above (two rampant horses, with a tiny elephant above them), and my favourite, the maharaja’s shoes, which look like old-fashioned dancing shoes, complete with bows!
The Baradari Gardens are divided into different sections. The section facing the Baradari Palace has shallow water tanks with fountains in them. Not worth looking at, unfortunately: they’re ugly in the way only bad modern Indian architecture can manage. On the side away from the Baradari Palace and near the Fawwaara Chowk (‘Fountain Square’— a busy traffic crossing marked by a large fountain), the Baradari Gardens have their horticultural section. There are plant nurseries here, interspersed with greenhouses (not open to the public) and beds of saplings. There’s also a walking track marked with distances, for the more dedicated walkers—and there is the 19th century Fern House. This was modelled on the Fern House in the Botanical Gardens at Kolkata, and is a structure with multiple domes, made of a thick wire mesh. It looks quite fantastic, since the mesh is painted a dark green and each dome is topped with an inverted gilded lotus. Pillars and other details are also picked out in a bright yellow, so the entire effect is a little garish. Unfortunately for plant-loving visitors, the Fern House is kept locked. However, since it’s made of wire mesh, you can at least see a lot of the plants. We craned our necks a bit, and saw quite a few plants, though not a single fern!
There is no entrance fee to visit the Baradari Gardens. There are numerous gates and turnstiles along the periphery, so you can enter just about where you please. The gardens open as early as 5 AM, and are great for an early morning stroll.
Hotel | "A Non-Neemrana Non-Hotel"
We’d read that the Neemrana group had opened the Baradari Palace in Patiala a year ago, and since we’d also discovered that Patiala had some interesting palaces worth seeing, we decided to take advantage of a long weekend. My sister, her husband and their two children, my husband and I—two nights at the Baradari Palace.
The staff at the Neemrana booking office in New Delhi’s Khan Market couldn’t provide an address for the hotel ("Just ask for the Baradari Palace"—very vague), and the Neemrana Web site also didn’t have a map we could use. Eventually, with some help from passersby, we managed to get to the hotel, a large white-painted palace that looms beside the sprawling Baradari Gardens next door.
Baradari(‘twelve-doored’) is the Hindustani word for a rectangular pavilion, with three arched entrances on each of its four sides. Baradaris became integral parts of gardens in medieval India, especially during the Mughal period. One such baradari was built in Patiala’s Baradari Gardens. In 1876, the then ruler of Patiala, Rajinder Singh, decided to extend the baradari and make it into a palace. Over the years that followed, rooms were added around the original pavilion, and by the 1930’s, a first floor had also been added—this was where the Maharaja and his wives lived.
The baradari is still one of the nicest parts of the palace, especially at night: the twelve cusped arches forming its sides are beautifully illuminated and an attractive chandelier hangs in the middle, above a mirror-topped table. Very nice, as are some of the surrounding rooms: the tea room, with its yellow and blue tiled floor, its large windows and its comfy cane chairs: and the dining room, a U-shaped hall with a balcony of carved stone and painted wood, which was probably once used by the maharaja as a ‘throne balcony’ of sorts, with his subjects standing below.
My husband and I have a double room, Room#8, the Rani Fateh Kaur room. It’s a nice room, with a desk and chair, sofa, bedside tables, an occasional table with tea and coffee fixings, and an old wardrobe (really old—the wood polish has worn off, but the inlay along the edge and the painted porcelain doorknobs are intact). The curtains at the door are a dull purple velvet in sharp contrast to the more subdued colours of the rest of the room. There are three very interesting pictures. Two are obviously a set—an old print of Edward VII and another of Queen Alexandra. There’s also a newer print of a 1936 painting of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala. The dining room and other public areas, by the way, have further proof that this was once a royal residence: the glass doors of the dining room are etched with the coat of arms of the royal family, and photos of royals—the Nawab of Bahawalpur, the Raja of Kashmir, the Maharajas of Patiala, etc—are abundant. The dining room itself has two large and very impressive photos, one of the notorious Bhupinder Singh of Patiala and another of the handsome Maharaja of Faridkot.
Our room has a phone (no TV, as is the norm in Neemrana properties), and a bed. The bed is double in name only—it’s pretty narrow. What’s worse, it’s very high; the top of the mattress is over 3 feet from the ground. If you slide off the bed—a very real danger in a bed this narrow—it’s a long way to the floor (which only has a thin rug on it).
The bathroom is the most impressive we’ve seen, however, at least in terms of size. It’s about the same size as the bedroom, if not a little larger. There’s a big gleaming bathtub in the centre, fresh fluffy towels, and a basket of Neemrana’s very own shampoo, soap, body lotion, hair conditioner etc.
My sister and her family share a much larger room, which has two double beds but a fairly small bathroom (the highlight of which is an old cheval mirror). The fittings in the room, however, seem to need more frequent quality checks: when my niece tries to draw the curtains at the door, the curtains, along with the heavy pelmet from which they hang, drop on her. She escapes with a mild bruise on her hand, but it could’ve been worse.
Now for the food: unlike the usual Neemrana buffets, the menu in the Baradari Palace’s restaurant is all à la carte. The restaurant serves North Indian, Chinese and Continental food. The restaurant is open to outsiders (another departure from the Neemrana tradition, which usually caters only to residents), and is obviously very popular—we see it full at nearly all meals. The Indian food is apparently the most in demand, but isn’t exceptional: the gravies, for instance, seem to be all the same and lack the subtle differences in spices that can make good Indian food really good. The Continental (we can’t summon up the courage to sample any Chinese) is so-so: the coq au vin is very rich in wine, though the chicken’s stringy and the sauce too thin; but the pastas—carbonara, macaroni with cheese, ravioli—are all swimming in cheese. The waiters are not very comfortable with most of the Continental dishes with their fancy names, and end up making mistakes: after waiting 15 minutes for a poulet forestiere, we’re served penne carbonara (huh??). And the service is appalling: our breakfast takes about an hour, because nothing comes at the same time. The toast is served five minutes after the fried eggs have arrived and have since congealed; tea is served, but with no milk. The sugar comes in a tarnished milk jug, and my tea has a large ant floating in it. Most annoying.
Equally irritating is the lackadaisical attitude of the receptionist. She’s sitting and surfing the Net when we’re leaving on a sightseeing trip. When we ask her for directions to the Qila Mubarak (Patiala’s main attraction), her answer’s vague: "Go to Sheranwala Gate and ask for directions." Yeah, right.
Verdict? Pretty place, great location (the trees and the birdsong of Baradari Gardens are a plus point) and lovely old-world decor. So-so food, atrocious service (did I mention? My niece created a noughts and crosses grid using the cutlery in the tea room on the table we had our tea. 24 hours later, we sat at the same table—and the grid was still there, undisturbed). This may be the nicest hotel in Patiala, but it falls far short of Neemrana’s usually excellent standards.
The Patiala peg, according to this story, owes its origin to a game of polo in which the Maharaja of Patiala’s team resorted to somewhat underhand means to win. Whether the story’s completely true or not, there’s no doubting the fact that the man who features so prominently in it—Bhupinder Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala from 1900 to 1938—was one of those legendary maharajas whom plenty of Indians still talk about.
The Phulkian dynasty, of which Bhupinder Singh was the last but one, was founded by Phul, a descendant of the same dynasty that ruled the Rajasthani state of Jaisalmer. The first of the maharajas of Patiala was a descendant of Phul, Baba Ala Singh. He came to the throne in the late 18th century. Baba Ala Singh and the six rulers who followed him more or less pale into insignificance when compared with Bhupinder Singh, who towers over them all—even literally, since he was well over 6’ tall. Bhupinder Singh was much decorated (among the many honours he received were the Order of Leopold of Belgium, the Legion of Honour, the Crown of Roumania, and the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Nile—all supposedly a result of his service during WWI, though that claim is dubious. The nearest Bhupinder Singh probably got to participating in the war was when he went to London to give a speech in support of British colonialism, at the War Office). Bhupinder Singh was a member of various international organisations (including the Royal Asiatic Society); a representative of India at the League of Nations’ Assembly in 1925; and a one-time captain of the Indian cricket team. He was also a close friend of both George V and Mussolini.
As if that wasn’t enough, Bhupinder Singh had a very colourful personal life. He had at least 10 wives and a rumoured total of 365 women in his harem—one for each night of the year! He sired 88 children (yes, all those women...) and owned a fleet of 20 Rolls Royces. The book Maharaja, by Dewan Jarmani Das, an ex-courtier of the state of Patiala, describes in great and lurid detail all the juicy scandal surrounding Bhupinder Singh, but there are conflicting views on how accurate Jarmani Das’s version was.
But leaving aside such voyeuristic interests: Patiala is still worth a visit—even if it’s just for a day. The city lies about 200 km north-west of Delhi, in the state of Punjab. It’s about five hours’ driving time, most of it along the well-maintained Grand Truck (GT) Road, designated National Highway 1.
As a city, Patiala is a mix of charming colonial-Indian and crass modern. The area around the bus station, for instance, is crowded, polluted and ugly; the Mall Road, the Baradari Gardens and the area around are, in contrast, quiet and green and full of old bungalows with shady verandahs, shuttered windows, and facades of semi-circular arches. Patiala’s main citadel, the Qila Mubarak, sits in the heart of the old town, surrounded by vibrant bazaars that sell clothing, jooties, jewellery and more. Outside of the melee are the peaceful Baradari Gardens and the Sheesh Mahal, the latter originally built as a pleasure resort for the royal family and now used as an art gallery, though it’s currently closed for renovation.
Patiala has its share of hotels, most of them mid-range ones catering to families or businessmen driving through Punjab. The most stylish hotel is the Baradari Palace, a heritage hotel set in a 19th century palace that was, for a while, home to the royal family of Patiala. The best thing about the Baradari Palace is its location: the Baradari Gardens are next door, and the neighbourhood is full of lovely old colonial buildings that can be admired on a short ramble through the area. To see sights further away (such as the Qila Mubarak and the Sheesh Mahal), it’s best to hire a cycle rickshaw.
One last piece of advice. If you’re driving from Delhi to Patiala, you’ll pass through a town called Rajpura, which is about 30 km short of Patiala. 10 km short of Rajpura, just off the highway (you can see it from the road) is an imposing old Mughal caravanserai at the village of Shambhu. The Mughals (as well as other, earlier rulers) built these—known in India simply as sarais—to provide shelter to travellers, and the sarai at Shambhu is a fine example of a typical medieval sarai, with its many cells, its central mosque and the high surrounding wall, complete with bastions. This sarai was originally constructed by the ruler Sher Shah Sur in the 16th century, and was subsequently added to and renovated by 17th century Mughal rulers such as Jahangir, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb. The sarai is currently being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India, but visitors are welcome to visit (free of charge) and have a look around.
New Delhi, India