In India (or at least northern India) Patiala is almost synonymous with everything colourful—literally colourful, as in even slightly risqué. At its most innocuous (and modern Patiala is pretty much that), this is a town renowned for its pretty leather slip-on shoes known as jooties; for the Patialashahi salwar, a heavily gathered and draped lower garment that resembles harem pants and is worn with a tunic; and for the Patiala peg, a large helping of liquor, invariably exceeding even the 60 ml that constitutes a double.
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.