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 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.

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 Gurdwara, the State Mosque and the Villa Buena Vista.

Carving on a column at Sainik School
Carving on a column at Sainik School

THING TO SEE AND DO

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 appre ciate Kapurthala’s charms.

New Palace

A gorgeous pink, miniaturised replica of the Versailles Palace, the New Palace, also called the Elysee Palace, is set amidst splendid 300-acre rolling parks, themselves a replica of the Versailles grounds. The palace is situated in front of a sunken lawn, with several large white marble fountains and scattered lifesized statues of big animals. Construction of the palace began in 1902, and it took seven years for it to be built to the maharaja’s satisfaction.

In 1961, the state government bought the palace and parkland from the royal family at a relatively nominal price of ₹ 22 lakhs. 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. It cost ₹ 3.4 million at the time. This property is now in the hands of the Army School Board, which runs a Sainik School here and has done 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.

Amit Kumar
Fountain at Sainik School, Kapurthala
Fountain at Sainik School, Kapurthala

Don’t miss the library, once the maharaja’s office, built on twzo levels with wooden galleries, with walnut and gilt panelling. 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 visit 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 monster Swiss clock-cum-barometer, a tiny marble puzzle replica of the St Petersburg Winter Palace, and jewelled mechanical contrivances are just some items you can see here.

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 Spanish wife Anita Delgado 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, globetrotting beauty. Today the Villa Buena Vista is a popular venue for picnics and boating expeditions.

T. Narayan
State Gurdwara, Kapurthala
State Gurdwara, Kapurthala

State and other attractions

The State Gurdwara, 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 pretty, 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.

WHERE TO STAY

Your best option here is the London Hotel (Tel: 01822-230166; Tariff: ₹2,300-3,000). Other decent properties here are Shiven Hotel (Tel: 232033; Tariff: ₹1,000-1,800), Taj Regency (Tel: 239881;  ₹1,200-1,500) and Hotel Royal (Tel: 505110; Tariff:  ₹ 850).

WHERE TO EAT

Hotels Shiven and Taj Regency have multicuisine restaurants. But you must drive down to Jalandhar and pull over at a dhaba on the GT Road. The biggest deal in Jalandhar dhabas isn’t tandoori chicken but baingan bharta! Melt-in-your-mouth and spicy, mop it up with hot tandoori rotis and dal. Haveli, with its wide range of Punjab’s favourite dishes, is popular with families. Another good vegetarian place is Radhe Radhe at the Monika Tower at Company Chowk. It serves great biryanis. Chocoholics must try the Chocolate Room in Model Town. Sagar Ratna, opposite the Gymkhana Club, is a favourite for its great south-Indian fare.

Intricately carved jaali doors, Panch Mandir, Kapurthala
Intricately carved jaali doors, Panch Mandir, Kapurthala

In Jalandhar, the Radisson has two restaurants and the Jack Daniels sports bar. Leo Fort has several options. Kebabz & Curries offers a mix of nawabi and Punjabi food. Chopsticks serves Chinese and a few Malay and Thai dishes. The hotel also has a 24-hour coffee shop, Cafe Manhattan, which serves everything from dosas and paranthas to pizzas, pastas, steaks and sandwiches.

When to go October to March, though the state is lush and green in the monsoons Location Between Jalandhar and Amritsar in northcentral Punjab Air Nearest airport: Amritsar Rail Nearest rail: Kapurthala, Kartarpur

THE INFORMATION

Tourist/ Wildlife Offices

● Punjab Tourism

Punjab Bhawan, Copernicus Marg

New Delhi. Tel: 011-23384943

W punjabtourism.gov.in

Haryana Tourism Tourism

SCO 17-19, Sector 17-B, Chandigarh

Tel: 0172-2702955-57

Anandpur Sahib

Punjab Tourism

Near Water Lily Restaurant, DC Road

Ropar. Cell: 09814657056

STD code 01887

Harike Bird Sanctuary

Range Officer (Wildlife)

Harike. Cell: 08872317800

Divisional Forest Officer, Amritsar

Tel: 0183-2585480

Divisional Forest Officer (Wildlife)

Ferozepur. Tel: 01632-279412, 222312

STD code 01851

Sultanpur NP

Haryana Tourism

Sultanpur National Park

Contact: Rosy Pelican TRH

Tel: 0124-2015670/ 207

Chief Wildlife Warden (Haryana)

Panchkula, Haryana

Tel: 0172-2583682

STD code 0124

Kurukshetra

Haryana Tourism

Neelkanthi Krishna Dham

Thanesar. Tel: 01744-291615

STD code 01744