The bite-sized city of Patiala has given its name to the generous Patiala Peg and the voluminous Patiala salwar. There’s nothing otherwise oversized about this old-fashioned city, so I conclude it must be because of the legendary Punjabi spirit. Indeed, this is easy enough to spot in the hospitable people of Patiala—in the broad smiles, hearty greetings, and ever-open invitations to down a big brass tumbler of thick, frothy lassi.
Patiala was established in 1763 as a military stronghold by Baba Ala Singh, its first maharaja; and the name literally means “land of Ala.” The fledgling kingdom became one of India’s most powerful princely states, fending off repeated assaults by the warlords of Afghanistan, the Mughals, and the advancing Marathas. During the 20th century, Maharaja Yadavindra Singh, who ruled Patiala at the time of Independence, played a prominent role in the formation of the Union of India.
Today, the city’s spruce polo field, parks, and cricket grounds exude gentility and wholesomeness. The quiet homes and peaceful, tree-lined neighbourhoods are resolutely serene in a fast-paced world.
The State Tourism Department organises an excellent 1.5-hour heritage walk of the old Patiala area. It starts at the Royal Mausoleum or the Shahi Samadhi, and is led by a knowledgeable guide. I enjoyed listening to gripping tales from Patiala’s 300-year battle-scarred history as we wandered through 18th-century neighbourhoods and markets like Bajaja Bazaar and Bartan Bazaar. After passing through Darshini Deori, the ceremonial gateway from which commoners once watched royal processions, we arrived at the sprawling Patiala Fort or Qila Mubarak. (0172-2625950; tours start at Tourist Information Centre, Old Commissioner Office, Mall Road; Fri-Sun; Mar-Nov at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., Dec-Feb at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.; cost ₹25 per person.)
Patiala Fort, built by Baba Ala Singh in 1763, is divided into two precincts that are both hauntingly desolate.
Enter through a majestic gate to visit the first, the vast Qila Mubarak (for receiving state guests), which includes the Lassi Khana (kitchen), Sard Khana (cool rooms), Ran Baas (guest quarters), and the Durbar Hall. A flight of stairs leads to the second precinct, the Qila Androon, which consists of a succession of interconnected gardens, courtyards, and palaces.
Along the perimeter of this massive ten-acre fort are its lovely, tree-shaded grounds, from which the Persian and Rajput architectural elements of the walls and jharokhas can be admired. The once resplendent Durbar Hall has stunning chandeliers, and a museum with quaint, slightly dusty treasures: a solid silver carriage, a jade dagger that belonged to Guru Gobind Singh, and the sword of Persian emperor Nadir Shah who invaded India in 1739. (Fort and museum open Tue-Sun, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; entry to fort free; museum entry adults ₹10, children ₹4; photography not allowed.)
Atmospheric Haveliwala Mohalla, barely a kilometre from Patiala Fort, was once the city’s poshest neighbourhood. The now fading havelis with ornate doors and delicate lattice-work balconies were the homes of the court aristocracy. Though frayed at the edges, the havelis still suggest their erstwhile stately aura.
The quiet lanes are full of discoveries like Chhata Nanumal, a private archway built over a public road, where public hearings were conducted. Another unusual feature is the narrow Sappan Wali Gali or Snake Lane; jewellers intentionally designed the 1.5-kilometre street to be no more than two metres wide and zig-zag crazily, possibly to slow down any fleeing thieves.
Patiala’s bazaars brim with colourful jootis (from ₹400), parandi hair accessories (from ₹200), and pretty, hand-woven phulkari dupattas (from ₹1,000). Qila Bazaar, around the fort, is one of the city’s oldest markets and is predictably chaotic, colourful, and clamorous. Before diving in, fortify yourself with chole puri (₹18) and lassi (₹15) at Pammi Purian Wale (Daldalian Chowk, near Shahi Samadhan; 98145 37933). Brothers Pammi Singh and Parinder Singh started this unpretentious eatery in 1983. The pethe ki sabzi (cooked pumpkin) is a local favourite.
Experience the bucolic Punjabi heartland at a farm stay near Patiala, where you can ride through dazzling yellow mustard fields on a buggy, tractor, or ox cart. Potter around in the organic vegetable gardens, and learn to milk cows or groom horses. Try cane basketweaving or rug- or dhurrie-weaving. The less ambitious can meet farm animals and savour homemade stuffed parathas (Gary Farms, Nanoki Village; 98146 02562; 28 km northwest of Patiala; ₹2,000 for a day trip including two meals and refreshments). Take the morning jeep safari into Bir Bhadson wildlife sanctuary. Don’t go looking for big cats or exotic wildlife, instead expect to see jackal, wild boar, sambar, partridge, peacock, duck, and other wetland animals (₹1,000 for a safari organised via the farm).
Appeared in the October 2016 issue as “Patiala of Plenty”.
Patiala is in southeastern Punjab, 65 km southwest of Chandigarh. It is 240 km/5 hr north of New Delhi and linked to the capital by NH44 and NH64. The nearest airport is Chandigarh. Patiala’s railhead, Patiala Cantt. Railway Station, is well connected with Delhi. The daily Delhi-Fazilka InterCity Express makes the journey in a convenient 5 hours.