Sunday, January 30, 2011

Patiala peg, princely whims and more

Qila Mubarak 
Over a century ago, an ordinarily attired turbaned young man walks into a shop retailing exquisite Belgium crystal object d’arts on Park Street, Calcutta. The display enthralls him and he begins inquiring the price of the exhibits. The European proprietor takes him for a passerby marking time and ignores most queries, soon enough snapping at him for stepping into an establishment not worthy his modest status. Provoked by that outburst, the young man demands the cost of the entire collection. The haughty proprietor dismissively quotes an amount, on hearing which, the young man hails his aide and cavalierly instructs him to pay cash on the spot. The European proprietor is flabbergasted. He has just sold his priceless collectibles for a trivial sum. “Pray, tell me who the noble self is,” he stutters. To this the aide replies, “He is His Highness, Farzand-i-Khas-i-Daulat-i-Inglishia, Mansur-i-Zaman, Maharaj-i-Rajgan, Sardar Narendra Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala.” 
There are many delicious versions of this anecdote that’s survived the years and acquired the status of a credible legend. The sparkling crystal collection of the Patiala royal family with a Calcutta dateline, some of which is now on public display at Qila Mubarak museum, stands testimony to it. 
Patiala entertains with trivia of this sort and Basant or Spring is the perfect season to visit it. These are days when a hint of winter is still around and the cheer of pre-summer adds a mellow glow.

The royal province of Patiala, which had one of the longest dynastic rule in north India (AD 1714-1948), was established by Baba Ala Singh. His successors continued expanding the frontiers and with time, along with the spirit for conquests, they inherited the gene for lavish lifestyle turning warriors into patrons of all things beautiful. During their reign — particularly between AD 1845-1938 which saw the rule of maharajas Narendra Singh, Mohindra Singh, Rajendra Singh and Bhupinder Singh — classicism shone in Patiala as art prospered, music echoed and couture evolved. That legacy can be seen in the remarkable edifice dotting the cityscape; in the collectibles filling shelves in museums; in the Sikh school of painting that covers crumbling walls; in the birth of a Hindustani classical music genre called the Patiala gharana; in fashion parameters that still include the patialashahi salwar, pagri, paranda, jutti and zari naara, all adding to the élan that lets a proud Patialvi stand out in a crowd. 
Then of course there’s the ever-in-limelight Patiala peg. A legacy of the royals, it's a double measure of scotch taken on the rocks, and continues to get larger. According to the current ‘trend’ it remains three fingers, alright, but vertical! Legend says it was 'created' on the eve of a friendly invitation polo match between the Patiala Royals and the visiting Viceroy's Pride. In a a bid to tilt the scales of victory in Patiala's favour, the Maharaja (Bhupinder Singh) organised a cocktail where the visitors were deviously served a larger than usual peg of scotch. Expectedly, the team was under a hangover when they took the field next morning and lost the match. The Viceroy's Pride complained of the scotch having played spoilsport. To which the Maharaja is believed to have famously replied: "In Patiala, we like it large".

As I plodded through the city, I was entertained with more trivia by old-timers. The incident at Calcutta, as it turned out, was not one-off when an entire store was purchased. According to another tale, when the flamboyant Maharaja Bhupinder Singh (AD 1876-1938)—a globally-respected Indian monarch of his time infamously also known for scores of concubines—was setting-off for Austria, Max Geiger, the Viennese conductor of the Patiala orchestra, handed over a list of music he required. The Maharaja misplaced the list, and what did he do? Quite simply, he asked the music shop owner in Vienna to pack the entire content on the shelves and ship it home.
Today’s Patiala is a far cry from the times it used to waltz to Beethoven, Bach and Mozart symphonies. Still, the city is undeniably the culture capital of feisty and agrarian Punjab. Though it’s been reticent in boasting about its brilliant heritage, myriad frames of royal splendour continue to sparkle amidst its heat and dust.

Sheesh Mahal
Patiala comes across as a laid-back city with no one seeming in a rush to reach anywhere. That scenario changes around Qila Mubarak, the second largest fort in Punjab and the fulcrum around which the erstwhile Walled City developed. Shops have always lined its periphery and today it’s said the best deals are here, the reason they are always spilling over with buyers. Trousseau shopping has become synonymous with Patiala and no Great Punjabi Wedding is complete without a visit to this labyrinth of lanes. The Qila Bazaar, dressed with dupattas, lehengas, kurtas, phulkari and a whole lot of other bling and tinkle, is where this action unfolds. The best eating spots are also around (Jaggi Sweets is a legend which can give an Amritsari food joint a run for its money) and so are the best jutti stores (Data--pronounced 'daataa', meaning god--is a name to reckon with).
If shopping is not on the agenda it’s best to thread your way through this typical old city environ—read: commotion of rickety rickshaws, potholed streets, nonchalant cattle and friendly pedestrians—to the Qila that lends the bazaar its name. In contrast to the flurry outside its precincts, Qila Mubarak remains deserted but certainly not stripped of an aura of regality despite its weathered façade. The edifice exemplifies its citadel character—immense, impregnable and indomitable. Built largely in Mughal and Rajput styles, a little British influence is visible in its later construction.
Architectural beauty bearing a royal seal fills urban spaces and at a slight distance from the Qila is the impressive Old Moti Bagh Palace. Spectacularly set in a sprawling garden with terraces, fountains and water channels, it’s the erstwhile royal residence, and it took three kings and 60 years to give it its current look. At present, it’s the National Institute of Sports (NIS) that pumps in all efforts to produce sporting champions. Also a part of the Old Moti Bagh complex, but a separate unit, is the onion pink Sheesh Mahal, a leisure palace. It overlooks a water channel—now a green maidan—with a suspension bridge patterned on Rishikeish’s famous Laxman Jhula. The Mahal has been converted into a museum, which among other exhibits has a notable medal gallery, said to showcase the biggest compilation in the country. The majority of these medallions, about 3,200, and other figurines belong to Maharaja Bhupinder Singh as well as to his son, the handsome gentleman-maharaja, Yadavindra Singh, the last monarch.
The local administration woke up to the potential the city held and recently added a feather in its cap when the historic Rajindra Kothi, a rich blend of Mughal and Colonial architecture adjoining the former royal greens called Baradari Gardens, was converted into the state’s first heritage hotel by the Neemrana Group and rechristened ‘The Baradari Palace’.
A trip to Patiala, especially during springtime, remains incomplete without paying obeisance at Gurdwara Dukh Nivaran Sahib, a place of historical worth associated with ninth Sikh Guru Teg Bahadur. He’s believed to have visited the spot on Basant Panchmi day and cured sufferers. Customarily, there’s a massive rush here on the festival with believers from across faiths taking a dip in the blessed waters of the sarovar (holy tank) that are supposed to rid all illness.

Naara (drawstrings)
Quick facts:
STAY: The Baradari Palace (
Rajinder Kothi, Baradari Gardens,
Tele: 0175-2304433, 2304533
Once the guest house of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh, the building has lovingly been resurrected by the Neemrana group, masters in the art of conservation. Its 19th century
legacy and the recreated ambience of the days of yore is its biggest USP.
Hotel Grand Park (
Bhupindra Road,
Opp. Kaintal Pertol Pump, Patiala
Tele: 0175-2210725, 5051725
Jutti mardana
A centrally-located budget hotel in the old city. All shopping is
walking/rickshaw distance from it. It has a Cafe Coffee Day outlet on its premises

EAT: Jaggi Sweets & Malhotra Sweets, Adalat Bazar; Sadhu Ram (kachoriwala), Arna-Barna Chowk; Arjun Gajakwala, Qila Chowk

SHOP: Suhaag (wedding trousseau), Adalat Bazaar;  Main Bazaar (phulkari), Tripri; Data (juttis),Qila Bazaar 

Published. Edited version appears in ITTP, Jan 2011 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Its the park street and cal connection here that got me hooked! its amazing how you weave in connections like it. Also love the nostalgia and the strange bond that one has. But with this the feisty and agrarian description by the way......I can almost visualise dadaji telling us a tale like that --> thats the other connect i had going for me here.
And with you I saw Patiala from an all-together different angel:)Beautiful