Sangrur, Malerkotla, Sunam and Rohtak and the Too Cautious Innkeeper

Good morning everyone,

So Amritsar to Agra is a very, very long drive.  I decided to break the drive up a little bit by staying in Sangrur overnight and seeing some of the sights around there.  First let me tell you that Google maps has no idea about northern India.  No idea at all … 10 hours to Agra on the National Highway system me arse.  5 hours to Sangrur also… me arse.  Double any estimate that Google maps gives you.  At least.  We had little traffic and it still took twice as long to reach places.

Sangrur is a small city by Indian standards.  It was quite an adventure when we arrived at the hotel but more on that later.  First, the sights!  By the time we arrived in Sangrur, there was little time to see anything before darkness fell.  But I did get to see the beautiful gurdwara – Nankiana Sahib and also Bansar Garden.  We then looked for but could not find an entrace to the Marble Baradar.

First in the pictures is the gurdwara.  It had maybe six people in it in total, based on the number of shoes in the shoe house.  I only saw three – the Granthi, a visitor coming to pay his respects and another man who I greeted as I was leaving.  It was kind of nice to wander about the gurdwara, around the sarovar, doing naam without crowds of people.  It was also nice, because it had just rained, to walk on the cool marble walkways.  I also felt comfortable taking as many pictures as I like in there, without the crowds.  It was so incredibly peaceful and peace is what I am looking for these days.

On my way out I got to practice my Panjabi on a man who was in the shoe house.  He looked surprised to see me and said “Sat sri akal” (a Sikh greeting).  I returned the greeting and he began speaking to me in Panjabi.  I had to tell him “main todi todi Panjabi bol de ha”, which means I speak only a little Panjabi.  He got a good laugh at that and asked me in Panjabi if I would like some tea.  I had to go though so I told him thanks but no and left.  It was my first full, though simple, Panjabi conversation with a complete stranger.  So awesome.

It was also my first long trip away from Amritsar (since Delhi anyway) on my own – just me and Jagdeep, the driver.  This would really prove whether my judgement about him was correct – and it was.  He is a very good man as you’ll see in the next several posts.  I do admit though that I was nervous about it.  Something about being at the mercy of a stranger, on long, dark roads that lead so often to nowhere… can be a little unsettling.  Also, he looks a little rough and he smokes (a veritable sin here).  Turns out I’m glad he’s a little rough on the outside – he’s as nice as pie (as they say) and polite and good on the inside.

We didn’t talk a lot during the trip because my Panjabi is still so basic and his English is also very basic but we found a real rhythm, our own blend of language and got along great.  I also was put at ease by the fact that this rough looking, cigarette smoking, super quiet man called his wife and children at least three times a day.  I could tell he misses them when he’s on these long trips away.  What bad guy is calling the family three times a day just to hear their voices?

On to Bansar Gardens which is a small but beautiful park that was close to the hotel we were booked in.  It’s quite a lovely little spot and just there, beyond the eastern wall of the park are some type of ruin you can see in the pictures.  I wanted so badly to figure out a way into the ruin but there was just none and when I asked, no one else seemed to know how to get there either.

About halfway through my walk in Bansar Gardens, at the far end of the park, a man was walking briskly on the path behind me.  Darkness was falling so I became a little concerned about whether or not the near-empty park was safe.  Probably just overly concerned nerves though given all the new experiences and all the dire warnings I was given… he strode right past me at his brisk pace followed by what I assume was his German Shepherd dog.  By the time I left the park it was dark, I was hungry and it was time to go back to the hotel to eat.

And ate we did, we ordered butter naans, some dhal and some mixed vegetables for two people.  The food practically came in tubs, at least enough to feed five hungry labourers.  We weren’t five hungry labourers.  We were two people who until the food was served, thought we were hungry and had done little labour during the day.  We had a good laugh though.  We also laughed at the fact that all conversation had stopped and all eyes were on me the entire time we were there.  From the time we walked in, through ordering, eating, paying and leaving, not a single eye left me.  Not one.  A guy in a bright pink turban was especially intent on staring at me while he ate.  Dropped some roti on himself doing that, he did.

They were partly staring, says the waiter in very broken English, because pale folk are an uncommon sight around that part of Punjab.  They were also staring because my servant (his words) was sitting with me.  Servant.  Jagdeep, who was driving me around for the next week – a servant.  I came to hate that word just then.  And just what would be proper, I wondered?  Should he eat on the floor in some back corner of the kitchen?  Maybe the alleyway?  Or would you prefer he suppress his hunger until we get back to Amritsar in a week?  Just what is the proper thing here?  What the frack, people?!?  As uncommon as it might be, it’s just a man eating with his client, who happens to be a woman.  Nothing to see here.  If it’s totally improper to eat a meal with Jagdeep, I was happy to be improper.  So be it.

The next morning, with little left to see in Sangrur, we headed north to Malerkotla and I saw pigs.  Pigs!  I thought, what the heck is this?  They clearly were not the wild pigs that live here in India.  These were of the domestic variety.  Pigs mean pork… because you don’t milk a pig.  Hindus don’t eat pork, Sikhs (at least Amritdhari Sikhs) don’t eat pork, Jewish people don’t eat pork, and Muslims aren’t eating the pork… there were a heck of a lot of pigs hanging about for people who don’t eat pork.  Seriously though, pork is consumed I’m sure by some people here, I was just taken aback to realize how many people all those pigs represented for food.  Also, the area we were headed to – Malerkotla – had a large Muslim population making it equally surprising that there would be so many pigs.  Goats, yes.  Cows, yes.  And sheep, yes.  But pigs?

With the pigs also came an increase in the non-veg and the mixed restaurants.  I was just getting used to veg only restaurants everywhere when we hit this part of Punjab.  Other than our hotel, it became hard to find a veg only restaurant.  This limited our options somewhat because I can’t eat egg or meat of any kind, so we had to be more careful about what was actually in the food and what the food was cooked in.

Malerkotla – the highlight here was supposed to be Sheesh Mahal, a palace that was called the Palace of Mirrors.  To reach Sheesh Mahal, we had to travel through super tiny market streets.  By super tiny I mean we had room for the car if all the people stepped inside AND we folded the mirrors in.  Which is what we did.  When a donkey cart came from the other direction, it diverted down an alley to let us pass.  Tight squeeze but we were going to get to see the Palace of Mirrors!

Finally, the market opened up onto … a herd of cattle.  Laying in the road, standing in the road, meandering across the road… in any way making the road impassable.  These cattle were not concerned about the horn honking either or the boy on a bike who made his way through them.  So we waited for their leader to decide to move the herd… and waited… and waited some more.  Finally, just behind the herd of cattle, so close that we could have walked the thirty seconds it would have taken was Sheesh Mahal.  In ruins.

Most of the windows which actually gave the palace its name were gone, most of the doors as well.  The place was now used in the left wing as a residence, in the central wing empty and in the right wing, as a small school for Muslim children.  The kids were super excited to see us but their school teacher, rightly so, was not gong to allow them to be distracted from their lessons.  The happy but disciplined kids got back to focussing on their work while their teachers allowed me to wander the area.  I tried to avoid disturbing the school or the people who had taken up residence in the left wing of the former palace and the central part of the palace was boarded up so there wasn’t a lot for us to see after our 35 kilometre journey up from Sangrur.  Still even in ruins the place is majestic and demands respect.  I was glad to see that, even though it wasn’t maintained as a palace, it was being used in a way that was beneficial to the community.

Our next stop was to be in Sunam, some 18 kilometres south of Sangrur on the same highway, to the Sita Sar Mandir, a huge mandir in the middle of the village.  Closed.  Locked up.  Empty.  Nothing to see here folks.  The only greeting we got came from a small dog who was not happy to see us and from a horse that was lying in the middle of a field next to the mandir.  Jagdeep went around the back to see if he could find the pundit but no luck.

We decided to move on to Rohtak, where there was more to see (we hoped).  One of the sights, according to the good old internet was Tilyar Lake.  When we got there we saw a sight that said “Tilyar Lake Tourist Resort”.  Looks promising.  Looked far more promising than it was though.  We pulled up and parked at the entrance.  No one in the ticket windows.  I heard voices though and began to walk through the gate of the mini-zoo and was greeted by quite a sight.  Eight drunken men, chewing pan and spitting all on the same charpoy.  I turned around to leave to calls of “Come on madam.”, “Come, come”.  Yeah, no thanks.  Not walking into that situation alone thanks.  The park to the left of the zoo was also filled with stumbling drunk men and with no security guards or personnel to be found, I wasn’t about to stay.

Next on our list was the Sai Temple, which simply means God’s temple.  This was a quite, small temple that was quite beautiful and had the symbols for most of the major religions inscribed on it’s gate – a Star of David, the symbol for Om, the Islamic crescent moon, a cross… inside it is a mandir though and therefore a Hindu temple.  It took me maybe 15 minutes to see the place, which was fairly empty of people.  Still, if you find yourself on the highway between Sangrur and Agra, it’s worth a stop.

On the way to Rohtak we stopped at a dhaba for lunch.  The dhaba’s food was awesome and for the first time since I’ve been in Punjab, I ate about four rotis and a lot of paneer.  Just couldn’t get enough of the food.  The dhaba also had a macaque on a chain outside.  It was obviously fed and appeared healthy but still on a seven or eight foot chain isn’t much of a life for the little guy.  There was also a very mangy, near starved stray dog which got the leftovers from my meal.

Finally on the way into Delhi (oh my, Delhi is a post for another day), we saw a very inventive way to tow two cars at one time.  Seriously, check out the picture.  When are you going to see that again?

So finally on to the story of the too cautious innkeeper.  When we arrived in Sangrur we decided to check in at the hotel before going out to see some sights.  When I gave them my passport (required in all hotels in India), we were told that they don’t have any rooms in the hotel.  I told them my room had already been booked and paid for.  They said “we have no Indian rooms, we can’t help you.”  What?  What the heck is an Indian room?  Just what?  Dude, I paid for this room and there’s only one other hotel in town, and it has no stars.  They said sorry.  I found my borrowed mobile and was able to show the guy the reservation.  Suddenly they had a room.

The manager (or owner/innkeeper, whatever) took me to the room and asked me to please, please lock the door while I’m in the room and also when I leave.  He seemed worried.  He told me the number to call if I needed anything and then wanted to know what I would need right away.  Again he seemed very worried.  He was starting to make me concerned for my own safety.   I told him that I didn’t need a thing and that I would be sure to lock up the room at all times.  He then took my bags and put them in a closet.  That is the first time I have ever had anyone hide my bags in a closet.  He then checked that the windows in the room were all latched.  Now he was really making me worried.

Turns out he’s just a person like the host unit who thinks that robbers are coming to kill you in your sleep.  He especially thinks so if there is anyone who is obviously foreign around because foreigners in his mind are targets.

The funny thing is I unlatched the windows in the room to get some air flow going (it was obviously a smoking room) and all the windows opened onto a grilled hatchway that housed the air conditioning unit.  Across the 5 x 5 hatchway was another room.  Above the hatchway was a super thick grill and some sort of cover.  No one getting in these windows.  Even if they got into the hatchway, good luck getting into the tiny part of the window that did open.

It also turns out that ClearTrip.Com did not pay the hotel for my room so I had to pay for it again.  Good thing it was dirt cheap.   They did send the mobile text though which meant I even got a room so I’m not really complaining.  Just something to look out for when planning trips online.  Expedia India sucks and Cleartrip.com also has its issues.  I’ve been using Stayzilla and Booking.com since then with much better success.

Luckily for me, and I’m sure satisfying to the overly paranoid innkeeper, not a single scary thing happened to me during my stay at the hotel.  Except the staring in the restaurant, everyone was very nice and treated me well.  The lizards in my room weren’t scary either.  I have found the lizards in the nice hotels, the middling hotels and the seedy ones so get over it.  Lizards happen.  Besides they run away as soon as they notice you anyway.

The only real complaint I have about the hotel is that someone left their greasy comb in the room, tucked into the space above the bathroom mirror.  Seriously?  Did housekeeping miss the huge comb?   Also, and this is also common in some of the hotels, a half full hotel shampoo bottle was left in the bathroom.  Why waste is the thinking behind that and sure.  What could possibly be in there that I should worry about besides shampoo?

All in all, Sangrur is not a place that has a lot to see and most tourists are never going to find themselves here, which is a bit of a shame.  The people are lovely and I got to see a side of Punjab that I otherwise might never have seen – closed mandirs and ruined palaces and all.

Until next time when we’ll be travelling through Delhi to Agra… an odyssey…

Peace and love all,
Himmatpreet

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