Punjab: A Quick Guide To Kapurthala

Punjab: A Quick Guide To Kapurthala

A visit to Kapurthala reveals the erstwhile Princely State's obsession with Europe

February 19 , 2017
06 Min Read

The sight of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse affects different people differently. If you belong to the fairly substantial minority that fantasises about stuffing garbage down unmentionable bits of their anatomy, Kapurthala is one place where you can indulge yourself and still be a good citizen. This is courtesy a thoughtful municipality that has placed garbage cans moulded in the likeness of Disneyland’s most famous denizens at major intersections. Their disposal flaps, as you might imagine, are in very interesting places.

Maharaja Jagatjit Singh

In Amritsar, with its ancient bloodstained streets, or in Anandpur Sahib with its innumerable brooding gurudwaras, the Disney motif would be out of place. In Kapurthala, it just adds to the surrealism of the cityscape. For the Europhiles who ruled what used to be the richest princely state in the rich Jalandhar Doab had baroque, exotic tastes they indulged to the hilt. The erstwhile state of Kapurthala was founded in 1777 when one Jassa Singh Ahluwalia drove out Ibrahim Bhatti and established his dynasty. The town was built by his successors, among whom one name stands out – His Highness Farzand-i-Dilband, Rashik-ul- Itkad-i-Daulat-i-Inglishia, Raja-i-Rajagan Maharaja Sir Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala, who ruled from 1890 to 1947 and died in 1949. Jagatjit Singh had a conspicuous fondness for art and women. When in Kapurthala, the maharaja was prone to driving around in a gold and silver carriage drawn by six or eight horses wearing emerald-studded harnesses. He was fluent in French and Spanish, married a Spanish dancer and travelled extensively, apart from Europe, in South America, Egypt and Morocco. He even came back clean-shaven from one of his trips, much to the consternation of his Sikh state. But it was France that was his spiritual playground: He engaged French culinary experts, drank spring water from Evian, spent a considerable amount of his pleasure-seeking time there, and made French the language of his court. For this all-enveloping mania he was conferred the Grand Cross of the Legion d’ Honneur by France, where flags were kept at half-mast when he died. And it was Jagatjit Singh who hired, needless to say, French architects to design the sumptuous New Palace in Kapurthala, the State Gurudwara, the State Mosque and the Villa Buena Vista.


Things to See & Do
Present-day Kapurthala is an obviously prosperous place, largely due to migrants who have made good all over the globe. Kapurthala is atypical for an Indian small town. It’s been around for the best part of a millennium, but there is no fortress, or ‘native’ section with narrow streets, ‘exotic’ bazaars and noticeably uncertain drainage. Roads seem to connect to each other in a clear grid and there are huge green areas. Despite such welcome aberrations, you’ll find a weekend ample to appreciate Kapurthala’s charms.

New Palace
A gorgeous pink, miniaturised replica of the Versailles Palace, the New Palace, also called the Elysee Palace, stands inside splendid 300-acre rolling parks, themselves a replica of the Versailles grounds. The palace is set in front of a sunken lawn, with several large white marble fountains and scattered life-sized statues of big animals. Until you’ve seen a steel tiger stalking a gunmetal barasingha across the lawns of what looks like a 17th-century French palace, you haven’t lived! The palace, begun in 1902, took seven years to be built to the maharaja’s satisfaction. It cost ₹3.4 million at the time; at least ₹400 crore at current prices. Don’t miss the library, once the maharaja’s office, built on two levels with wooden galleries. Its walnut and gilt panelling has work as fine as any you’ll ever see. The big entrance hall has massive mirrors and huge portraits. Wheedle the school authorities into opening some of the rooms that are usually shut, and you will enjoy a walk through the Chinoiserie rooms, where the walls and furnishings are done in exquisite faux-Sino Brighton Pavilion style. There are many incredible objets d’art scattered around: a tiny marble puzzle replica of the St Petersburg Winter Palace, a monster Swiss clockcum- barometer, jewelled mechanical contrivances....

In 1961, the state government bought the palace and parkland from the royal family at a relatively nominal price of ₹22 lakh. The mysterious circumstances in which it was handed over to the state government still has tongues wagging. As locals point out, the abandonment of expensive and easily transportable objets d’art along with the immovable property add to the mystery of the takeover. This property is now in the hands of the Army School Board, which runs a Sainik School here and has done a magnificent job of maintaining the estate. Anybody can walk into the park or sign up for a guided tour. However, you need special permission from the registrar or the school principal to inspect the interiors.

Villa Buena Vista
Around 4 km outside the town is the 50-acre Kanjli Lake. Maharaja Jagatjit Singh built a love nest on the edge of this lake for dallying with a favoured member of his 300-strong harem. The Villa Buena Vista, a Spanish-style construction, is still owned by descendants of the royal family. When Maharaja Jagatjit Singh brought home his new Spanish wife Anita Delgrada in 1910, his maharani moved out of the main palace to live here quietly. Later, the villa also became home to Princess Brinda when she fell out of favour with Maharaja Jagatjit Singh and her husband, the Crown Prince Paramjit Singh, for not producing a male heir. Cole Porter is said to have written his famous tune Let’s Misbehave for this ravishing, globe-trotting beauty. Today the Villa Buena Vista is a popular venue for picnics and boating expeditions.

The Law Court of Kapurthala

Other Attractions
The State Gurudwara, located on Station Road, was consecrated around 1916. Styled after Italian cathedrals, it has a lovely red marble dome. The building is set in a neatly landscaped garden, with flowerbeds laid out just so. The State Masjid borrows from another great tradition, that of the Moors, and is inspired by the design of the Grand Mosque at Morocco. The Law Courts are among the handsomest Raj buildings constructed though they now show signs of neglect. The blending of Indo-Saracenic motifs with British redbrick is surprisingly harmonious. These buildings shot to fame during the Khalistan days following a spectacular shootout and escape attempt in their corridors. The ruined Nihal Palace at Jallowkhana, the Randhir College with its Jubilee Hall, and the Panch Mandir are also worth a visit.

Quick Facts

Named after a semi-legendary Rajput from Jaisalmer called Rana Kapur, Kapurthala was established in the early 11th century when Rana Kapur arrived in the area of the Punjab. Kapurthala lies between Jalandhar and Amritsar in north-central Punjab, 162 km from Chandigarh.

Where to Stay
In Kapurthala Your best option is the new London Hotel (Tel: 01822-230166; Tariff: ₹2,000-3,300). Other decent properties here are Shiven Hotel (Tel: 232033; Tariff: ₹1,000-1,800), Taj Regency (Tel: 239881; ₹800-1,200) and Ramneek Hotel (Tel: 329590; Tariff: ₹1,200-2,100).

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