Road Trip: The Grand Trunk Road

Road Trip: The Grand Trunk Road
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If you're a driving enthusiast, the Grand Trunk Road should be high on your list

Chitralekha Basu
February 22 , 2017
42 Min Read

The Grand Trunk (GT) Road, as the travel writer Brian Paul Bach poetically imagines in his book The Grand Trunk Road from the Front Seat, begins from the core of the great banyan tree in Shibpur Botanical Gardens in Kolkata. And I don’t totally disagree with this rather anachronistic thesis. Granted, there’s a small road running between the Banyan Avenue in the garden and GT Road South. But the road commissioned by Afghan Emperor Sher Shah Suri during his short reign of Northern India between 1540 and 1545 precedes the tree, which is merely 250 years old, by at least another 150. However, the tree and the road seem to share the same ethos. Its core trunk removed, the banyan tree grows, spreading its roots and shoots, furiously in all directions, turning itself into a veritable tropical rainforest. The GT Road too seems endless, despite its often dire state, forking out from and joining highways, playing hide and seek with the main thoroughfare, going under the sand at Dehri-on-Sone and reappearing again at Sasaram.

This game of catching the elusive GT got rather exhausting after a while, and considering we didn’t have a month to cover the 4,200-km journey, we opted for a more sensible passage. As Denis, who piloted our car (a widely travelled Bolero) and was more concerned about the vehicle’s well-being than ours, kept saying in a veiled attempt to push us towards the more practical Kona Expressway, “I tell you baba, there is no such thing as GT Road beyond Rasulpur level crossing [113 km from Kolkata] any more. It’s over!”

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A lone sign by the roadside in West Bengal

But the Grand Trunk Road is not totally an abstract idea or a myth apotheosised in history as Denis would have believe. It’s quite alive, in fact. Although this sign of life is often registered at the expense of the harried traveller, made to go through a series of bump-and-grind routines, it’s a terrain worth braving. A journey across GT Road’s Indian leg from Kolkata to the Punjab-Pakistan border and back is like trav elling in a time machine, as images of India – its historical past, for got ten antiquities and post-reforms glitter, kitsch and depri vation – flash past, sometimes all at once.

At the outset, it’s a pleasant drive on Strand Road along the Ganga, up the Vidya sagar Setu and through the dock area, replete with colonial charm. But as soon as one hits Howrah (GT Road South), a congested, narrow, slightly winding and uneven road, the houses and shops on either side threaten to fall over and submerge the vehicle. This gets slightly better as one passes through Bali, Srirampur and Belur – the seats of higher learning, philosophical discourse and spiritualism – as the river (known here as Hooghly), swelling with heavy rains, shows up on the right, intermittently, between buildings. Past the factory shades and defunct chimneys from Howrah to Chuchura (once Bengal’s most produc tive industrial segment), one suddenly stumbles upon the derelict wooden chariot at Mahesh, parked by the roadside.

Post Mogra, greenery takes over. Sprawling rice fields, dotted with thatched cottages, barns and primordial contraptions to water the fields appear. Obscenely opulent mansions break the verdant monotony, jarringly. Nowhere else along the route does one find so many women working in the fields, specks of colour against a vivid green backdrop. AIR towers rise like futuristic pyramids. The Indian tricolour fluttering gaily on a speeding Maruti Swift beside us wilts, as a herd of buffaloes cross the road, sauntering. India halts for a moment before speeding up. On the outskirts of Panagarh, an air force base, discarded military vehicles are dumped by the wayside, weeds growing through their rusty windows.

The most picturesque segment of the journey is through Jharkhand, immediately after the smoke-spewing colliery area in Bengal. Although in places, the arrows on the asphalt, melting under the strong sun, have solidified back in crooked shapes, this is probably the smoothest drive on the route. A ride through this gently undulating road, whose rhythmic rise and fall is contrapuntal to that of the hills on either side, feels like being carried on the wings of a symphony. The approach to Topchachi, a picturesque lake surrounded by verdant hills, where the itinerant Bengali would go during vacations to stock up on fresh air, is a picture of abandonment.

Varanasi onwards the sheer variety of vehicles plying across the Indian countryside and the ingeniousness in putting some of these together are in evidence. Fix a small generator set to a cart, add a wheel and a brake and you have your own cottage industry of vehicles sturdy enough to carry cattle rather than be pulled by it. The most spectacular of these are the mobile DJ bands – wellcovered autorickshaws with loudspeakers sprouting all over the iron frame, dressed up in harlequin colours. As one passes through Allahabad, the transition in the local milieu is clearly demarcated. Prayag is plebeian/ spiritual, the area around Anand Bhavan is posh/ cultural and the cantonment area is a flawlessly sanitized domain of the defence personnel.

As if in deference to the rule of law, dharam kantas, the bridges used to weigh loaded trucks, proliferate once we are in Uttar Pradesh (UP). In terms of numbers it’s a neck-and-neck race with the ‘sarkari Angrezi sharaab ki dukaan’. One and two-storeyed tenements, with windowless rooms and unplastered walls, appear on either side. SUVs used to ferry passengers between local destinations move with their doors open, people, goats, cycles and merchandise hanging out precariously, threatening to spill all over the road any moment.

It’s interesting to watch how habits and cultures change subtly along the way. For example, the kiln towers, cylindrical in Bengal, are more faceted in UP, a simpler version of the Aztec pyramid. Women wear light cotton handloom in matted colour in Bengal but Bihar onwards give in to the lure of bright fuchsia. Palates change too.

In Kanpur, we discovered GT Road parting ways with NH2, taking its own course, via Kannauj, Aligarh and Ghaziabad to Delhi. Not wanting to miss Agra – the town where Mughal Emperor Akbar built an impregnable fortress where his grandson Shah Jahan would later be imprisoned by his own son Aurangzeb –and Mathura – replete with mythological associations around the young Lord Krishna – we followed the NH2 into Delhi. The plethora of massive real estate development and profusion of colossal shopping complexes in a radius of about 10 km beyond the outer circumference of the Indian capital is aweinspiring, especially when juxta posed against the images of squalor on, say, Ring Road.

The smell of prosperity and big money continues in Haryana. Panipat looks like a model of urban development as one skims across on the flyover. Small shops dealing in building materials in Bengal, Bihar and UP are replaced by big establishments run by property developers and realtors. Dhabas with thatched sheds make way for large, fancy restaurants and drive-in outlets of multinational fast food chains, with expensive imported cars parked on the side. Between Phagwara and Kartarpur, luxury resorts, designed after medieval manors and fortresses, brush past in quick succession. And then the iconic green fields of Punjab show up, reflected in the accumulated floodwaters. Sikh shrines begin to raise their heads against a background of parrot green and sky the colour of lead, as horses trot by.

Lahori Gate, Amritsar

The stretch of the Grand Trunk Road crawling towards Attari, from opposite Lahori Gate in Amritsar, turns out to be practically unnavigable, so we turn back and continue on NH1. A cool breeze riffles through never-ending green fields of maize, punctuated by high-tension electric towers. Turbaned Sikh gentlemen walk past, flowing robes pasted against their erect frames, swept by the wind. Buffaloes graze or sit idly, chewing the cud. Children in blue turbans cycle back from school, swarming in on our car, casually.

The ceremonial Presenting Of Arms, Wagah Border

Attari, the last village on this side of the Indo-Pak border, and Wagah, which marks the frontier, are a study in contrasts. While the former is a sleepy nondescript village almost oblivious to the historical value of the crumbling fort of its brave son, Sham Singh Attari, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s favourite lieutenant, Wagah, where soldiers of the Indian and Pakistani armed forces conduct the parade of retreat jointly, is the scene of a carnival.

Determined to follow in the footsteps of Sher Shah Suri, who laid a road from Bengal to Peshawar that served as a major trading route within India and beyond for more than 400 years, we decided to check out the DelhiKanpur segment by GT Road during the return journey. Frog-leaping all through this stretch, often no better than an unmetalled country lane, cost us two days, endless tension and a bad back, but gave us Kannauj in the bargain. And it was here that we again met the formidable Sher Shah – the man who had seized and dismantled a gorgeous town King Harshavardhan built in the 7th century CE, one that explorer and writer Hieun Tsang said would take at least 150 years to build again, if it were demolished. The hand that built a road, evidently, was keen to put a mark on anything that came in the way.

On the Road

For a passage that is over 400 years old, the GT Road is actually, mostly navigable. It’s uneven only in those stretches where human habitation has grown around it and perfectly spic and span where elevated expressways/ flyovers bypass these towns and cities. As part of the Golden Quadrilateral project, linking the four metros of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata, repair, reconstruction and broadening of the GT Road where it merges with NH2 is happening at a decent pace.

NH1, which runs from Delhi to Wagah, is more or less a smooth passage, except when it runs through cities or towns undergoing hectic urban development, such as Ludhiana. That’s where the traffic is really chaotic. The flyover on Panipat is so wide and smooth that cars whiz by like a bat out of hell! Hotels and fancy resorts just outside big towns like Ludhiana and Amritsar get steadily bigger and more opulent along the way. Drive-through restaurants have limousines parked outside. But the part between Amritsar and Attari, once again, is shorn of the smell of big money. Bad roads are back, encroached on by shops, markets and one-storeyed tenements.

The absence of heavy vehicles on the GT Road makes it less accident-prone than it used to be, although it’s not uncommon to see an upturned truck or two along the way. We didn’t get held up or delayed because of a traffic jam anywhere on the 4,200-km stretch, except towards the journey’s end, when we had to negotiate a six-day-old road-block put up by political activists on Durgapur Express way, diverting most trucks towards good old GT. So if you would like to exchange dhabas and petrol pumps for great scenic beauty, GT’s the road for you in the West Bengal leg. And if you want to see how rural India travels, at the expense of sometimes clocking no more than 15 km an hour and risking grievous injury, look no further than the 355-km Delhi-Kannauj stretch of GT.

Scant respect for road safety norms is evident in the Durgapur-Asansol section. Trailers carrying oversized beams and iron rods are omnipresent. Upturned trucks take a while to be pulled up, holding up heavy vehicles, in the absence of highway patrolling. Cars without number plates, or with coloured number plates, ply merrily. Pumps selling high-speed diesel are few and far between, until one gets to Haryana and Punjab.

About a couple of kilometres around the entry and exit points in each town– Mughalsarai and Kanpur for example– there’s usually a line-up of trucks, repair shops and filling stations, turning the road into a dirty, congested cesspool. Driving through this can be extremely slow, tough and tiring. Getting into the heart of Delhi from its periphery is a nightmare, given the rush of construction work for flyovers and the metro rail resulting in too many diversions and relentless traffic jams.

Most cities in North India have no streetlights coming on after dark, so try reaching your destination before sundown. Signposts indicating distances to different cities, directions to nearby towns, villages and tourist attractions, petrol pumps and eateries rarely exist in West Bengal, few and far between in Jharkhand and Bihar and more or less adequate in UP, Haryana and Punjab.

There seems to be no dearth of petrol pumps along GT Road, except perhaps in the very beauteous parts of Jharkhand and Bihar. Since these are extremely desolate stretches, it makes sense to keep an eye on the fuel reserve indicator. Also run a check before going up on never-ending flyovers like the ones in Panipat and Kanpur. While driving in the 4-lane, pumps are less frequent on one’s left during the onward journey, but there are ample cuts in the median to the right side, so it’s not much of a problem. It makes sense to tank up on the high way outside towns/ cities, so as to not waste time in overcrowded petrol pumps.

Service stations are often clustered around the entry and exit points of each town/ city. Smaller, unauthorized service shops in the urban areas and around dhabas can be approached to fix minor problems, and even supply spares to get by in times of crisis. Dhabas are few and far between in West Bengal, non-existent in the forested stretches of Jharkhand, adequate in Bihar, and a dime a dozen UP onwards.

Stopovers

Asansol

This last major town before one enters Jharkhand from West Bengal is a mining and industrial hub, surrounded by smaller towns, Raniganj, Jamuria, Burnpur, Neamatpur, Kulti and Barakar. Built around an 8-km stretch of GT Road, Asansol has an array of posh and modest hotels, restaurants, shops on either side, marked by the usual clutter.

Maithon Dam at Asansol

Maithan Dam Reservoir, 26 km away from Asansol, and Maithan Hydro Electric Power Station are the most obvious sightseeing destinations. Maithon Dam, 5 km off GT Road, can be reached via Neamatpur on GT Road, or by taking a left from Asansol Bypass, a toll road, towards Chirkunda. Turn right once you hit the Bihar-West Bengal border, and sign posts will direct you towards the dam. There are no timings here. It’s a protected place and photography is prohibited.

Where to Stay & Eat

Asansol’s best luxury hotels are located in Ushagram, at the entry point into the town, as one drives from Kolkata by GT Road. The best known among these is Hotel Asansol International (Tel: 0341- 2304875-77; Tariff: ₹2,390-3,490), the reason why it’s fully booked at most times. A little further up GT Road is Hotel Parbati International (Tel: 2221729, 2300267; Tariff: ₹999-2,135), which has more spacious and well-appointed rooms, overlooking the busy GT Road beneath. For a quieter stay, try Hotel Ambassador Retreat (Tel: 2315391; Tariff: ₹1,395-2,595) at Godhuli Modh.

For more modest accommodation, try the hotels on Houghton Road (although parking your car may be a problem as the road is extremely congested). Hotels around the Burnpur Crossing would have more space. Purbasha International Hotel (Tel: 2259585; Tariff: ₹750-1,550) on Sen Raleigh Road is worth a try.

Hotel Parbati International’s Jewels of Kadai restaurant serves lovely cuisine. From the subtle Goan fish curry, to scrumptious chicken in fire sauce to chicken do piaza, everything is cooked just to the right degree and served with great warmth and care. Eateries of all sizes are concentrated around Houghton Road. The pick of multicuisine restaurants is Cosmic Grill on Raha Lane and the recently opened Arabian Spoon on Sen Raleigh Road. Jadu Kadai is great for lipsmacking tandoor and biryani. Vegetarians might want to opt for aromatic rava masala dosas and vada-sambhar at Durga Foods in Murga Sol area.

Ancient ruins at the Rohtasgarh Fort complex

Dehri-On-Sone

A quiet retreat in Dehri, lounging in one of the guesthouses by the River Sone, parts of whose huge expanse remain uninundated even in peak monsoon, was the Bengalis’ idea of a vacation about 50 years back. In the 1960s, the glory days of the nearby industrial township Dalmia Nagar had a positive impact on the inflow of tourist traffic in Dehri, but with the closure of the factories in Dalmia Nagar in the 1980s, Dehri’s fortunes too dipped. Now the fear of dacoits, extortionists and Maoist rebels tends to put off the potential tourist (hotel staff insists on seeing proof of identity). The hotels, eateries and marketplaces look derelict. The historic Rohtasgarh Fort is a must visit but make sure you go in a group, preferably with the locals.

The River Sone itself is the top attraction around here. Sitting by these waters, watching cattle grazing on its expansive green patches as the cool breeze from the river ruffles your hair, is a lovely experience. The Sone Bridge, at 3.1 km, and somewhat replicated by the railbridge running parallel to it, is the second longest in India. This is easily the most scenic place in town, but be careful not to roam around alone and certainly not after dark.

Best to get here in the day and avoid a night stop.

Where to Stay & Eat

Hotel Urvashi (Tel: 06184-253201; Tariff: ₹2,000-8,000) on Pali Road is the best option in Dehri. Hotel Sone Breeze (Tel: 252212, Cell: 09304949710; Tariff: ₹400-1,250), also on Pali Road, right next to NH2 (elevated expressway), offers a good view of the river.

It would perhaps be preposterous to look for speciality cuisine in Dehri. The restaurant at Urvashi serves multicuisine fare. Hotel Sone Breeze serves a modest but filling roti, subzi and dal fry, as would the other eateries. Chahat and Mangalam, AC restaurants on SP Bungalow Road, are good options for meals. Stop at the Coffee House for hot samosas, idli, dosa and chowmein.

Benaras

We come here in our search for ‘Kashi’ the luminous, the dwelling of all the gods, where Lord Shiva himself whispers the mantra of salvation in the ear of the dying. The kingdom that’s been around since the Maha bharata era, the powerful centre of which the Jatakas spoke, the aura which made Mark Twain splutter, “older than legend, older than tradition…older than all of these put together”. We try to find traces of the culturally superior kingdom, where Adi Shankaracharya taught, Hiuen Tsang travelled and the Gaha davala dynasty thrived up to the 12th century. But no physical presence of the ancient city is to be found in today’s Benaras, except in museums. So what is it that lives in this ‘oldest living city of the world’? Perhaps the absorbed way in which people walk into the freezing Ganga on a December morning; perhaps the closed eyes and folded hands behind which intense personal cosmic dialogues have been taking place over centuries.

Boats docked at the Gangamahal ghat, Varanasi

Things to See & Do

There’s no sight as spectacular as the sunrise-bathed ghats of Varanasi seen from a boat on the Ganga at dawn. The ghats – literally flights of steps but more like theatres of life – stretch for some 3 km along the river front. The northernmost is the Raj Ghat, the site of ancient Varanasi. Going south from here, you can take a boat till the Panchganga Ghat. The crowning monument here is the simple Dharahara Mosque built by Aurangzeb on a 17th-century Bindu Madhav Temple. The Maharaja of Satara built the current Bindu Madhav Temple in the mid-18th century. Further south, you come across Balaji Ghat built by Bajirao Peshwa in the mid-18th century, and the Gwalior Ghat and Gangamahal Ghat built by Jiyajirao Shinde in the mid-19th century.

Climb up the Nepal raja’s Lalita Ghat to see a quaint, pagoda-like wooden Temple of Pashupatinath, with brackets and erotic carvings dating from 1843 preserved in it. And do climb the Manmandir Ghat, a favourite for its beautiful Rajasthani-style, jharokha-laden palace and observatory. Palace Observatory Entry ₹5 Timings Sunrise-sunset.

A little ahead is the Dashashvamedh Ghat where an evening aarti, often called ‘touristy’, is organised. The much-visited Vishwanath Temple near this ghat was built by Ahilyabai Holkar about 250 years ago. Tulsi Ghat is renowned for being the place where the poet Tulsidas wrote Ramcharitamanas.

Ramnagar Fort, an early 18th-century fort on the east bank, is best appreciated from a boat, as it stands directly on the river. To enter it, you’ve to disembark from your boat/ motorboat. It’s a stately but fading structure, in a part of which the royal family stays. The museum here is a dusty collection of grand palanquins and pistols, rifles, swords and brocades from the royal collection. Fort and Museum Entry ₹20 Timings 10.00am-5.00pm.

The Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum, inside BHU, will help you get an idea of the glories of the Banaras now lost in legend – sculptures dating back to the 1st BCE, gods from the Gupta period up to the 12th century et al. Entry Indians ₹10; Foreigners ₹150 Timings 10.00am-5.30pm, Closed Weekends.

The Sarnath Complex, 8 km from Varanasi, holds the remains of a Buddhist monastic settlement in occupation from 3 BCE to 12 CE. The focus is the famous Dharma Chakra Stupa, marking the spot where the Buddha preached his first sermon. The museum has some superb sculptures excavated from the site, mostly 6th- or 11th-century Buddhist icons. Complex Entry Indians ₹5; Foreigners ₹100 Timings Sunrise-sunset Museum Entry ₹5 Timings 9.00am-5.00pm, Closed Fridays

Where to Stay & Eat

The unique Hotel Ganges View (Tel: 0542-2313218; Tariff: ₹4,000-6,000) is at Assi Ghat, tastefully run by Shashank Singh, whose family collection of palanquin sketches decorates the walls. The nearby Hotel Palace on Ganges (Tel: 2315050; Tariff: ₹6,000-9,000) is more of a ‘hotel’, appointed on the lines of different regional styles of India. Away from the ghats, you have The Gateway Hotel Ganges Varanasi (Tel: 6660001; thegatewayhotels.com; Tariff: ₹12,500-19,500), formerly Taj Ganges, set amid 12 acres of lush greenery. Hotel Clarks (Tel: 2501011-20; Tariff: ₹5,500-8,500), a heritage hotel, has a restaurant, and a bar. Hotel Pallavi International (Tel: 2393012-15; Tariff: ₹3,500-5,500), a former palace, is close to the ghats and has a restaurant. The oddly named Hotel de Paris (Tel: 2505131-39; Tariff: ₹1,000-3,000) is affordable and has large rooms set in an oldworld Colonial-era building surrounded by spacious grounds.

Try the nice vegetarian Vatika Pizzeria at Tulsi Ghat; their apple pie with ice-cream is especially good. Just a minute’s walk away from Assi Ghat, Haifa is a decent foreigners’ dhaba with Middle- Eastern and Indian food on offer. Temple Restaurant is one of the closer places for nonvegetarian food; it’s a 10-min walk from Dasashvamedha Ghat, on your right. The Banarasi loves his kachauri-subzi break fasts. These flavoured black gram-dal-laced puris are to be found in the many shops that line Vishwanath Gali –all of which, like the rest of the roadside eateries in Banaras, are uniformly dirty and fly-infested. Try Vishwanath Sahab’s (the shop goes by the name of its founder) desi ghee ki kachauri-subzi; the shop is 2 km from Gaudulia Chowk at Vishveswar Ganj.

Allahabad

The town that draws the world’s largest religious gathering during the Maha Kumbh has many temples. Hiuen Tsang visited the town in the 7th century CE. Muhammad Ghori, the Sultan of Delhi, annexed it in 1193. Later, it became a part of the Mughal Empire and Akbar built a massive fort here in 1583. It was Akbar who called it ‘Illahabad’, the City of God, and it was Shah Jahan who gave Allahabad its current name.

Colourful boats at the Triveni Sangamin Allahabad

Things to See & Do

Triveni Sangam is the famed confluence of the three Indian rivers, the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. The banks of the Sangam are littered with shorn hair, paper, decaying flowers, coconut shells and all kinds of rubbish. A boat ride to the confluence costs ₹75-150 per person; the entire boat can be hired for ₹350-400. With the exception of the Kumbh Mela, Allahabad draws the largest crowds between mid-January and mid-February, during the annual Magh Mela. There are several temples in Allahabad that you can visit. These include the Patalpuri Temple, Bade Hanumanji Mandir, Mankameshwar Temple, Benimadhav Temple and the 1,500-year-old Kalyani Devi Temple.

Visit Anand Bhavan (Entry ₹5; Timings 9.30am-5.00pm), the ancestral home of the Nehru family, now a museum, located on Jawaharlal Nehru Road. Right next to Anand Bhavan, in the same complex, is Swaraj Bhavan (Entry ₹5; Timings 9.30am-5.00pm), the mansion donated by Motilal Nehru to the Congress Party.

Where to Stay & Eat

Allahabad offers a variety of accommodation. Hotel Samrat (Tel: 0532-2561200; Tariff: ₹2,500-3,000) on MG Road is one of the most ideal places to stay in the city. It has an old-world charm; the rooms are spacious and the décor tasteful. The nearby Grand Continental (Tel: 2260632-35; Tariff: ₹5,000-8,500), on Sardar Patel Marg, is another great option. The luxurious Hotel Kanha Shyam (Tel: 2560123-32; Tariff: ₹6,500-22,000) in Civil Lines is the only 4-star property in the city, with a restaurant, bar and a 24-hour coffee shop. Hotel Prayag (Tel: 2656416; Tariff: ₹700-2,475) on Noor ullah Road is reasonably clean with cable TV and hot water but there is nothing fancy about it. The UP Government’s Rahi Ilawart Tourist Bungalow (Tel: 2102784; Tariff: ₹1,900-5,000) has simple and fairly clean rooms and dorms.

There are umpteen places all over Allahabad where one can have staples such as samosas, mithai and chaat. For a more up-market experience, MG Road is the best place to head for. It has a number of elegant restaurants, including El Chico, Tandoor and Khana-Khazana (the last at Grand Continental Hotel), serving everything from South Indian to Chinese and Continental. A more cosy and informal atmosphere, with delicious snacks and meals, is to be found at the Kamadhenu Fast Foods Restaurant and the Indian Coffee House. Friends Café, just off MG Road, is a good bet for pizzas, burgers and milk shakes.

Kanpur

On the face of it, Kanpur might appear as another North Indian commercial and industrial centre, known for its leather products and textiles or, at best, the presence of some of India’s best institutes for education and research such as IIT Kanpur. But the town happens to be a rich repository of relics of Indian history.

Things to See & Do

Both Bithoor, 20 km upstream of the River Ganga from the city where Valmiki supposedly wrote the epic Ramayana, and Jajmau, in Kanpur’s eastern suburb, where Lord Brahma is said to have performed the Ashvamedh Yajna, are replete with mythological associations. A mausoleum built in 1358 by Feroze Shah Tughlaq, in memory of Makhdam Shah ala-ul-Haq, a Sufi saint who believed in secular ideas, and a mosque built by Kulich Khan in 1679 are in the same locality as the temples of Siddhanath and Siddha Devi, which are huge public draws. Locals warn against visiting the area after sundown.

In 1801, Kanpur or Cawnpore, was annexed by the British as part of Oudh, and went on to become a major military station in British India. In June 1857, during India’s first War of Independence, rebel Indian soldiers laid a siege on the fortifications, and 900 British officers, women and children were held hostage.

In a skirmish that followed, many British hostages lost their lives. The British forces recaptured the city on July 18, killing rebel sepoys and harmless locals. The memory of the Kanpur massacre is pres erved in a quiet, reason ably huge gothic church, All Souls’ Cathedral, in the Cantonment area. The church-cum-cemetery, with breathtaking stained glass windows, remains closed to the public during monsoon.

Where to Stay & Eat

Some of the finest mid-range hotels in Kanpur are lined up around Gumti No. 5, on GT Road. The biggest of these is Kanha Continental Hotel (Tel: 0512-2557985-87; Tariff: ₹5,000-7,000), on Coca Cola crossing. Hotel Bliss (Tel: 2554338; Tariff: ₹2,500-4,000), a few blocks down the road, charges less but offers almost the same standards. Hotel Celebration (Tel: 2548254; Tariff: ₹1,900-2,900), further down the road, near Gumti Gurdwara, is also an option.

If you would like something more luxurious, try The Landmark (Tel: 2305305; Tariff: ₹7,500-26,000) in The Mall area. Besides getting to use the hotel’s beauty salon, health club, swimming pool and high-speed Internet connection, you also get a vantage view of the Kanpur cityscape, against the backdrop of the Ganga.

All of these hotels have their own multi-cuisine restaurants that serve Indian, Chinese, Continental, Mughlai and Tandoori cuisine. To have a standard Indian meal, go to Mehfil Restaurant in Civil Lines. If you like Chinese, Chin Mi on Parvati Bagla Road is your best bet. If it’s Continental food that tingles your taste buds, look no further than Basil & Thyme, in the same locality. Those who are fond of junk food can indulge their palate at the amazing chaat shops in Swaroop Nagar, where the staff has a tough time coping with the heavy demand. Meeks’ aloo tikkis and dahi puchka are highly recommended.

Amritsar

Famous for the Golden Temple, Amritsar sometimes appears to be a bewildering maze of streets, thronged with seekers of blessings and purveyors of fine kirpans and delectable kulche-chhole. Into this perpetual chaos, the visitor is welcomed with a generosity that’s as unforgettable as the vision of the Golden Temple reflected in the silken waters of the sacred pool around it.

Things to See & Do

Also known as the Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple’s architecture reflects the basic tenets of Sikhism. Just as the religion combines the principles of Hinduism and Islam, Sikh architecture fuses aspects of both religious styles, while also expressing its individuality. The gurdwara has four entrances, emphasising the fact that its doors are open to all. A marble parikrama surrounds the temple, framing the pool; a causeway connects the temple to the entrance gate. The Central Sikh Museum (Timings: Summer: 7.00 am-7.00 pm; Winter: 8.00 am-6.00 pm), located to the right as you enter the temple complex through the main entrance, has on display several paintings depicting gory tales in Sikh history.

The Akal Takht is located opposite the Golden Temple, in the same complex. It was the seat from where orders were passed and military plans discussed. The Akal Takht was badly damaged during Operation Blue Star (June 1984) and had to be rebuilt. Timings The Harmandir Sahib is open at all times and is closed only for cleaning purposes. Tobacco, narcotics or intoxicants cannot be carried inside (it’s inappropriate to smoke even outside gurdwaras). Visitors should cover their heads at all times and wash their feet before entering the temple premises. Photography is allowed only from the parikrama.

There are several gurdwaras in Amritsar. These include the Gurdwara Baba Atal Rai, situated right behind the Golden Temple; Gurdwara Mai Kaulan, which stands in the same com pound as Atal Rai; Guru ke Mahal near Shastri Market, located on the site where the gurus once lived; Gurdwara Ramsar Sahib, near SGRD Senior Secondary School on Ramsar Road, where the Guru Granth Sahib was compiled; Bibeksar Sahib, whose building is said to have been constructed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1833; and Saragarhi, close to the Town Hall, built by the British in 1902 to honour Sikh soldiers who lost their lives fighting for the Queen. Timings Most are open from 6.00am- 9.00pm, though this can vary depending on the season. Saragarhi is open from 5.00am-7.00pm and Santokhsar Sahib from 4.30am-10.30pm

Of the 12 gates that Maharaja Ranjit Singh built, only the Rambagh Gate, located in the northeastern part of the city, is well-preserved today. Behind it is Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Summer Palace (Entry Adults ₹10, Children ₹5; Timings 9.00 am-5.00 pm, Closed Mondays and public holidays), converted into a museum. Jallianwala Bagh (Entry Free Timings 7.00 am-6.20 pm, Open everyday), ahead of the main entrance to the Golden Temple, is where General Dyer infamously ordered his soldiers to open fire on a public gathering in 1919.

To watch the Retreat Parade at the Wagah Border (35 km west of Amritsar) at sunset, in which both Indian and Pakistani soldiers ceremonially lower their flags and seal off the border for the day, one has to walk one kilometer beyond the Customs Gate after they are opened at 5.00 pm (4.30 pm in winter). The scene outside the gates is that of a carnival. The parade lasts 25 mins, but is preceded by an hour-long impromptu dancing by over-enthusiastic members of the audience to the tune of popular Hindi film riffs with a quasi-nationalistic spin.

Where to Stay & Eat

Amritsar’s luxury hotels, with all facilities ranging from pools to restaurants, include: WelcomHeritage’s Ranjit’s Svassa (Tel: 0183-2566618; Tariff: ₹6,500-17,000), an Ayurvedic-spa hotel with great organic food; Hyatt Amritsar (Tel: 2871234; Tariff: On request), a luxurious option with all amenities; Hotel Ritz Plaza (Tel: 2562836; Tariff: ₹4,700-5,700) on Mall Road; Hotel Mohan International (Tel: 2227801; mohaninternationalhotel.com; Tariff: ₹4,500-7,000) on Albert Road; and MK Hotel (Tel: 250460; Tariff: ₹5,000-8,000) on Ranjit Avenue.

Grand Hotel (Tel: 2562424; Tariff: ₹1,430-1,900) on Queen’s Road is one of the oldest of Amritsar’s mid-range options. It has a courtyard and clean rooms. Hotel CJ International (Tel: 2535677-78; Tariff: ₹1,850-4,250), near the Golden Temple, has clean rooms with musty walls. The well-known Mrs Bhandari’s Guest House (Telefax: 2222390; Tariff: ₹2,000-2,500), in the Cantonment, has 16 rooms on a lodging-only basis, but meals can be arranged on request.

Amritsar’s dhabas are so popular that they even form the subject of a book. An unlikely setting for good food is the fly-filled All India Fame Amritsar Special Kulcha, on Maqbool Road. They have divine kulchas and chhole. Makhan’s Fish Shop on Lawrence Road has excellent Amritsari machchi. Durga Ice Cream on the same road has a winner in its kesar kulfi. The best chaat is to be found at Brijwasi Bhandar on Cooper Road –the aloo tikki and moong pakori are delectable. Wash it down with tea from Giani’s Tea Stall located on the same road. Bharawan Da Dhaba, close to the Town Hall, has decent Amritsari kulcha and channa.

Novelty Restaurant on Lawrence Road serves everything from Chinese to bhelpuri. The same chain runs Novelty Sweets, which offers good Karachi halwas, jalebis and barfis. Popular Bakery on Queen’s Road has great lemon tarts and phirnis. Crystal Restaurant on Cooper Road serves excellent Chinese, Continental and Indian food.

Ludhiana

Ludhiana, which is believed to have been founded by the Lodi dynasty in 1480 and was later turned into a British Cantonment of great strategic importance, is today better known as a shopping hub for woollens and woollen accessories.

Things to See & Do

The 500-year-old Lodi Fort was built by Bahlol Lodi to the northwest of present-day Ludhiana and is held together precariously, threatening to collapse any moment. Tiger Safari in the zoo (Entry ₹50; Timings 9.00am-5.00pm, Closed Mondays), War Museum (Tel: 0161-2826022) and Hardy’s World, Punjab’s largest water sports theme park, come in a cluster on GT Road, about 6 km west of the town. The first is more of a sanctuary for wild animals – blackbuck, sambar, rabbits and peacocks, besides the majestic Bengal tigers – rather than a zoo.

The Maharaja Ranjit Singh War Museum, located in the middle of a huge leafy campus, is a great place to brush up one’s knowledge of India’s defence history. Walk past the massive sculpture of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and step into the garden to have a look at the tanks, anti-aircraft gun and car scout from up close. Rather well-preserved but, by the look of it, less frequented, the War Museum has provisions for a sound-and-light show, depicting India’s war of independence and Punjab’s role in it, but not that many people in the audience. Entry ₹20 Timings 9.00am-5.00pm Photography Free Photography prohibited in the galleries without permission from the curator.

The Museum of Rural Life, located in the Punjab Agricultural University campus, is a must-see if one wants to have an idea of Punjabi culture. Its beautiful façade resembles traditional houses in rural Punjab. A collection of Harappan pottery and coins excavated from Chandigarh hold the pride of place. Entry ₹5 Timings 9.00am-1.00pm & 2.00-5.00pm, Closed Sundays

At the Ludhiana town centre stands The Victoria Memorial Clock Tower, keeping a vigil over the city’s never-ending traffic. Also known as Ghanta Ghar, the structure was inaugurated in 1906 by Punjab’s Lieutenant Governor, Sir Charles Montgomery, marking the 25th year of Queen Victoria’s reign.

Where to Stay & Eat

Ludhiana attracts a huge number of business travellers, hence there is no dearth of hotels. Park Plaza (Tel: 0161-2773000; Tariff: ₹9,000-40,000) on Ferozepur Road in downtown Ludhiana, is Punjab’s only 5-star hotel. It’s expectedly swank and has a gym, pool and foreign currency exchange. Fortune Park Klassic (Tel: 3988444; Tariff: ₹6,000-22,000), on Link Road, is another luxurious property, with a swimming pool and 24-hr coffee shop.

Hotel Maharaja Residency (Tel: 4688222; Tariff: ₹4,400-7,800) on Ferozepur Road has reasonable rates, given the comfort and service it offers.

Budget hotels in downtown Ludhiana include the comfortable Nanda Hotel (Tel: 2742618; Tariff: ₹1,190-1,790) near the Clock Tower, with a touch of genuine warmth and hospitality. Close by is Hotel Hallmark Regency (Tel: 4648701; Tariff: ₹1,800-3,500) on GT Road. It comes with elegantly furnished, natty rooms and a friendly, efficient service.

If you insist on having butter chicken in Ludhiana, visit Chawla’s Chicken in Jamalpur. Chawla’s cream chicken is an improvised variety of the original, cooked in milk and cream, garnished with black pepper and green cardamom, and served with bread and mint chutney. The Yellow Chilli in Sarabha Nagar serves awesome traditional cuisine. For sweets, head to Khushi Ram & Sons. Gyan’s Vegetarian Restaurant on The Mall has two eateries– South in North and the open-air Bagicha, serving both Indian and Chinese cuisines. If you have a craving for Continental cuisine, Oliva, near State Bank of India on Firozepur Road, serves Italian dishes.

You can order fresh fruits and veggies gift-packed in cute baskets at Guru Nanak Fruit Stall at Subzi Mandi. For a tall glass of fruit juice, try the stalls around the Clock Tower. New Basant on Jail Road makes lip-smacking sherbets, kulfis and fruit ice-cream.

Kannauj

Kannauj has the look of a typical small town if you’re passing by on GT Road – a plebeian marketplace, rickshaw stand, and sleazy-looking hotels near the circle at the centre of the town. It’s only when you enter about 3 km into the town, driving towards Gourishankar from the Central Chowk, that the last vestiges of a land that once flourished and was the seat of high art, culture and governance begin to replay in front of your eyes.

Kannauj was one of the oldest urban settlements in India and was mentioned in ancient texts such as the Mahabharata and the accounts of the geographer Ptolemy. The apocryphal story goes that Harsha vardhan, who reigned over this land like a model king for 41 years (606-647 CE), ordered the fortifications in Kannauj to be destroyed after his humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chalukya emperor Pulakesin II. The truth probably has more to do with Sher Shah Suri, the Afghan chieftain who captured Kannauj around 1537, and drove Humayun to Kandahar. Immediately after the siege of Kannauj, Sher Shah demolished the old city and built his own red brick fortress, which too lies in shambles today.

Things to See & Do

Drive past the market area into the old town where the bylanes are so narrow and winding that they could easily rival the labyrinthine lanes of Varanasi. The Gourishankar Temple looks like a tacky modern-day establishment with walls the colour of strawberry ice-cream, but the deity inside is said to have been worshipped by King Harshavardhan every morning.

The fortifications are now almost completely razed to the ground except for a door and a stack of bricks, once part of a wall. The one structure that stands conspicuously is a mosque constructed by Ibrahim Shah of Jaunpur in 1406. The mausoleum of a local pir is adjacent to it, offering a bird’s eye-view of the town once one goes up its steep staircase.

The government-run Archaeological Museum, stashed away in one of the bylanes in town in a two-room establishment, opens up a treasure trove. Ancient coins and pottery ornaments dug up casually from underneath the ground by local people have been put together under one roof. The museum is open to anyone who’s curious, usually between 10.30 am and 5.00 pm. There’s no entry fee.

Don’t miss Vijay Market, where perfume-makers who supply their wares across the world also do some retailing. Fresh from the workshops in Kannauj, where perfume is prepared through the traditional, intricate and hugely expensive method of hydro-distillation, the product is stored in large glass bottles or leather containers. You can buy an ounce of scent extracted from juhi or jasmine. The perfume bottles also come packaged in a wooden box with intricate brass inlay work.

Where to Stay & Eat

At Kannauj, the UP Tourism-run Rahi Tourist Bungalow (Tel: 05694-234275; Tariff: ₹1,350) is a decent place to stay in. At the few other establishments along GT Road like Vaishali Guest House (Tariff: ₹350-400), one would probably get a room at ₹400 or less, but don’t expect an AC. Other options with restaurants include Hotel Hindustan Kannauj (Tel: 234141; Tariff: ₹1,200-1,600) and Hotel Rajdhani (Tel: 234215; Tariff: ₹1,530-1,854).

Unless you’re staying at the government-run tourist bungalow, it’s good old dhaba fare is what you’ll have to bank on. Sri Vijay Hotel on GT Road, opposite Vaishali Hotel, serves good paneer paratha and aloo jeera.

Driving Options

This is a drive that can be done in a month, which will allow you to stop for two nights at major destinations such as Allahabad and Agra. The shortest and smoothest way to do this trip by road would be to stick to NH2 in the Kolkata-Delhi segment. Take the Kona Express way after crossing Vidyasagar Setu, which leads directly to the Durgapur Expressway, and continue on this road. Also, instead of doing the punishing Delhi-Ghaziabad-Aligarh-Kannauj-Kanpur segment by GT Road on the way back, take the tried and tested Delhi-Mathura- Agra-Kanpur route by NH2 for the sake of greater comfort.


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