This trip has been a yo-yo experience, one minute we are on a wayside dhaba or eatery called Dana Pani ( Dalhousie)eating fresh parathas loaded with butter and a spicy potato curry with a sudden monsoon burst pattering on the tin roof and in a few hours we are in a palace with polished silverware , fresh and crisp linen and deferential waiters serving aromatic butter chicken, fluffy nan and dark, spicy delicious mutton kadhai at the Heritage Taraghad Palace ( Palampur ) and the next day we are in this quite cheesy down market place in a bazaar ( Kulu ) with no view , no lift for four floors and a view of the gorgeous Beas river for which I had to crane my neck but to be fair they have a good cook ! Hopefully Manali will be better than Kullu
But what stood out was that palaces and forts , villas and viceroys, all crumble before time . Whether it be the the Kangra fort fighting off invaders for 3500 years or the Taragarh palace, so elegantly proportioned and speaking of splendid, glittering times when kings and queens lived and loved in obscene luxury, or Elgin house, a graceful, elegant home to Lord Elgin and his family full of Victorian bric-à-brac, cosy nooks and bespoke furniture ; they have all made their peace with time
The Kangra fort is now home to monkeys which roam in packs and look angrily at intruders, the tourists for who it is not a page from history but just a destination to be ticked off in their itinerary. The crumbling fortress which has been at the receiving end of onslaughts by a slew of invaders stands tall and battered, relieved that, at least , now it can bask in the warm embrace of historians and admirers and be left alone to rest in peace .
TARAGARH HERITAGE PALACE
The Taragarh Heritage Palace nestled in the valley with the snow capped Pir Panjal ranges in the background adding to its beauty is a statement to its deference to time . Once a grand palace to Queen Tara, wife of the Raja of Kashmir and grandmother to the 91 year old Karan Singh, it is now a hotel with tourists tramping in its long galleries, trampling on its lush lawns , posing next to its tinkling fountains, waited on by probably the old ‘khidmatgars’ or retainers or their relatives who politely and deferentially serve their peremptory demands . After all the customer is now king !
Even we returned a dish of delectable melt in the mouth chicken dish because we thought it was slightly undercooked. Maybe it was because the chef was in a rush to serve us, hungry as we looked . However, it was whisked away with alacrity and other aromatic elegantly prepared dishes were presented deferentially with equal speed . We felt like royalty, even if it is for a meal and a few days more.
Elgin house, home to Lord Elgin and his family sits in a little nook close to the bazaar and bus stand in the town of Dalhousie, named after Lord Dalhousie who gave a boost to the Indian educational system, one of the few good things the English were inadvertently responsible for, besides the post and telegraph, trains, civil services , eradication of thuggee.
Thugs were bands of cruel robbers who lived in society as respectable citizens but took off for days, weeks and months to waylay hapless travellers in order to loot and murder them . And they gave it a religious colour by pretending it was sanctioned by goddess Kali . Muslims too had no problem joining in as it was beneficial to them: no thought that it may be contrary to their religious belief . An interesting parallel to it is the modern day Talibans who use religion as an excuse to kill innocent people !
But back to the elegant Victorian building , Elgin house which is now a home stay and will give you a feel of the Raj days with its delicate china, porcelain bric-à-brac, crisp ginger cookies and again, deferential waiters serving you with ‘your wish is our command’ attitude . All for a price, of course .
And like everywhere in Himachal, the monkeys watch you with greedy eyes, waiting for a chance to grab your cookie , if you let down your guard for a second . One attacked our driver , Nanak Singh, who bent down to look at the tyres of his car. We heard a yell and a scuffle and looked up to see the monkey which had jumped on his back , running away ! I guess, Nanak Singh will forever remember the phrase , ‘monkey on his back’ for the rest of his mortal life !
In conclusion it may be fitting to quote the poet, James Shirley ( 1596 -1666 ) from his poem ‘Death, the Leveller’
The glories of our blood and fate
Are shadows , not substantial things;
There is no armour against Fate;
Death lays his icy hands on kings;
Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.