Gold swayed in the fields. The wheat was ready for the sickle. Well, machines now. Gone are the days of the sickle for most farmers. This was my fourth visit to the sleepy town of Anandpur Sahib in Punjab, but it was the first time I was seeing golden wheat. Far beyond the trees, the sun seemed happier. Everything seemed familiar, even the way the car went over the rocky bed of the little stream, an offshoot of the Satluj river, to reach our resort, Anand@The Satluj. We arrived late in the afternoon, a day before the harvest festival of Baisakhi.
Suraj, who drove us there from Delhi in a Renault Duster, remembered me, while my memory failed me. It had been two years since my last trip here. Pressing Suraj for some good music, we decided on making just one stop on the way–breakfast at Zhilmil Dhaba near Murthal for its butter-laden stuffed parathas, and lassi. Between chats and naps, we were there soon enough and back on the road in about 45 minutes.
The plan was no stops from there on, but that isn’t the way drives work, of course. You want to watch the roads, the fields, the outskirts of towns; press the driver to drive carefully; watch out for trucks and other large vehicles; bang your head on the ceiling of the car when you hit rough patches; yell at cows for straying on to the highway; find a place to wash your hands after continuous snacking and listen to all kinds of music. We did all this and more.
The road to Punjab is lush in all ways and the lure of fresh oranges too strong. Every few metres, we would see some piled high in baskets. And, of course, we stopped for that big glass of fresh juice. Right behind the juice-seller was a shack where villagers were making gur. They stirred the sugarcane molasses in a large iron vessel and put the thick syrup in a flat one to dry. Once dried, fresh jaggery would be up for sale. Note to self: buy some on the way home.
Anandpur Sahib is a sacred place for Sikhs, the birthplace of khalsa. (Anand, of course, means bliss.) Two major attractions bring people here–Takht Shri Keshgarh Sahib and the Virasat-e-Khalsa Museum. The takht or power centre is as revered as the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Unlike most towns which are built by rulers, this one was founded by the ninth Sikh guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, in 1665 and was then known as Chakk Nanaki (the guru’s mother was Nanaki). It was on Baisakhi in 1699 that Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th guru, dramatically chose the panj pyare here, the five beloved who would uphold the values of the Sikhs. Baisakhi is also when farmers come to take the guru’s blessings before beginning the harvest of their fields.
Through the narrow lanes, passing Lohgarh Sahib, the car entered the gates of Anand@The Satluj. Poplar trees and golden wheat, it was just the calm one needed. The cottages were designed for comfort and made of natural material.
The Anandpur Sahib Heritage Foundation was holding its third edition of the Khalsa Games. Our host and the man behind the foundation, Vikram Singh Sodhi, can trace his roots to the fourth Guru, Ram Das. Along with his wife, Sumathy, he has been working towards promoting the values of this sacred town through exhibitions across the globe, games of polo during Hola Mohalla and regional martial arts during Baisakhi. Over our two-day stay, we saw splendid young sportsmen from Punjab’s schools and colleges showcasing their skills in wrestling, kabaddi, the art of using swords and daggers, motorcycle stunts, and more.
A quick wash, a freshly cooked meal, and we were off to the temple of Naina Devi. This is just a short drive, about an hour away, in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh. Hailed as a shaktipeeth, it is where the goddess is said to have defeated the demon Mahishasura. There are several other legends associated with it. According to one, Shiva was going beserk, roaming around earth with a corpse on his shoulder. The gods asked Vishnu to intervene, who cut the corpse into 52 pieces with his sudarshan chakra. And the eyes fell here on this hilltop.
Up the winding roads, we waited for the breeze to flow freely; it didn’t. The sun was yet to set, but short on time, we took the ropeway up. Up some steps, into the shrine, and bowled over by the view, we would have liked to spend a few hours observing the clouds. But the ropeway timings didn’t allow us the luxury. We had the mandatory cup of evening tea at a small tea shop, and down the winding roads, back to the starlit resort. The light of the full moon slipped through the leaves, touched the golden tips of the crop and disappeared into the earth.
Shabads reverberated in the background as we ate a light meal. The next day began before sunrise; ducks were busy foraging in the river while we watched from the river bank. During the rains, this streams wells up. And the fertile land has different crops then. Birds called out, as we began the drive to the canal nearby, watching the sun rise. With no other humans around, the morning quiet was a balm for city dwellers like us.
Breakfast was fruit, toast, poha and, of course, parathas. Off to explore the town, best done on foot, we stopped first at Lohgarh Sahib. Once a fort, this gurudwara was where the weapons were made during the battles with the Mughals.
And then a few minutes’ walk to the main gurudwara, Takht Shri Keshgarh Sahib, where weapons of the guru are displayed every evening. The view from here makes one feel like being on top of a peaceful world. And you know why it’s called the ‘city of bliss’. Lunch was langar, of course.
The busy hall was run by hundreds of volunteers.They had come from all over the country and there was always something cooking in the kitchen. Kamaljeeet Singh and Brig. Premjit Singh had come with 80 volunteers from Delhi. Around 5-6 lakh people have langar here during Baisakhi, they told us, as we walked around the kitchen, seeing the huge vessels and tons of veggies. They had brought literally truckloads of bread and other edibles. Their group also feeds over 2,000 people in Delhi daily. Twice a year, on Hola Mohalla and Baisakhi, they come to offer their services. An elderly gentleman was making jalebis, having come with his group from Jalandhar. The rule for those eating: nothing must be wasted. A little overwhelmed by this expression of faith and service, we walked out to get our shoes.
After the live examples of faith and service, we headed to the Virasat-e-Khalsa museum (also known as the Khalsa Heritage Complex) to learn about 500 years of Sikh history. An architectural marvel, the building, spread over 100 acres, is in the shape of hands folded in prayer. Families asked us to take their photographs as we tried to capture the ambience. Inside, the music and the excellent use of multimedia ensured that the day was well spent, learning tales of valour, sacrifice, goodwill and hard work. There is also a souvenir shop here to take some memories back home.
It may have been my fourth visit, but the choice to visit may not have been mine, for they say the land chooses some. In a truly blissful state, we were back on the road again. This time, we were greeted by young boys on motorcycles with the khalsa flag flying high on their vehicles. How could we return without another glass of juice? Our langar this time was sugarcane juice on the highway. We bought our jaggery, watched the wheat being cut, and slept, for Delhi abhi door tha, almost six hours away.
Anandpur Sahib is around 320km away from Delhi. A drive from the capital takes nearly six hours. Take the NH1 out of Delhi past Karnal and Ambala. Head on to NH3 near Chandigarh to reach Anandpur Sahib. For the first two hours out of Jalandhar, the road to Anandpur runs through a flat landscape, before the Shivalik foothills start to appear.
Where to Stay
Anand@TheSatluj has an organic vegetable garden, offers a glimpse of rural life, and has cottages made of natural materials. There is a choice of two-bedroom and one-bedroom cottages. The facilities include in-room tea/coffee arrangements, hot/cold water, air conditioning and an electronic safe. There is a polo lounge to witness games and relax in. Arrangements can be made for bhangra and gidda dance training; traditional martial arts sessions; farming, cow milking, vegetable growing and organic farming demonstrations; trekking; nature walks and other spiritual tours.
Tractor rides and river crossing on tractors with field-side picnics can be arranged. Contact: 0124-4908617, 9873563218, anandatthesatluj.com.
What to See & Do
The area is a treasure trove for tourists who are spiritually inclined. There are many famous gurudwaras here.
Sisganj Sahib is where the head of the ninth guru Tegh Bahadur was cremated in 1675. Guru Ka Mahal was the residence of the guru. Part of Guru ka Mahal, Bhora Sahib was where the guru would go to meditate. He used to deliver his sermons from Gurudwara Thara Sahib. The 10th guru addressed the congregation at Gurudwara Akal Bunga Sahib. Guru Gobind Singh’s sons used to study at Gurudwara Manji Sahib. There is also Gurudwara Mata Jit Kaur Sahib on the outskirts.
Guru Gobind Singh also built forts in the region: Holgarh Sahib, Lohgarh Sahib, Fatehgarh Sahib and Taragarh Sahib.
Besides Virasat-e-Khalsa or Khalsa Heritage Memorial Complex, one can also go to the Dashmesh Academy.
Panj Piara Park at the entrance is where the world’s tallest khanda, approx 70 feet high, is installed. It is a good place to just watch the world go by.
The main market is where one can buy cheap clothes and trinkets. A local amusement park of sorts can also be seen here.
The Ropar wetlands for nature lovers are about 40km away. One can also go to the Bhakra-Nangal Dam (37km).
This article was published in August 2017. It's part of our ongoing series highlighting the best of Outlook Traveller's local India stories.