It has been some years since I embarked on a road trip. I rectified that this February with my dear friend Anuj Ambalal, a photographer. The journey was a quest to explore akhadas (wrestling gyms) in Rajasthan and Punjab, and for my next photo-project on Tibetan monasteries.
Our first stop after Ahmedabad was the Chambal river vantage point, from which one can see the gorgeous river snaking through the canyon. One can imagine why this territory is heaven for dacoits. The next stop was Kota, Rajasthan where we stayed at the Sukhdham Kothi Hotel. I stay here every visit and strongly recommend it for bikers as there is ample and safe parking.
“In Ludhiana we stayed with Jawed Grewal in his hotel, creatively called A Hotel! I seriously recommend this place for it is really comfortable, with extremely friendly staff, has absolutely terrific food and loads of safe parking”
In Kota I visited a few akhadas, talking to gurus of mud wrestling or kushti. Some even train women and I met those who acted in the Aamir Khan blockbuster, Dangal. After two days in Kota, we started for Ludhiana, Punjab. With over 900km to go, we stopped half way at Neemrana, Rajasthan. We stayed at the Neemrana Palace hotel just off the main highway. It is a fabulous old palace converted to a five-star heritage hotel and is very pretty. But this isn’t a place for the feeble or the lazy. The reception to our room was a 40-metre climb through a maze of steep steps! One can imagine how the maharajas lived then, helped at every step by a zillion slaves. On the way to Ludhiana we had the first taste of my favourite sarson da saag, spinach cooked with mustard leaves. A dish that is extremely popular in north Rajasthan and especially Punjab during the winter months, it is delicious and best consumed with makki di roti or corn bread. I could never have enough of it.
In Ludhiana we stayed with Jawed Grewal in his hotel, creatively called A Hotel! I seriously recommend this place for it is really comfortable, with extremely friendly staff, has absolutely terrific food and loads of safe parking. Jawed invited some of his biker pals over to meet me as well. It was wonderful meeting them and it reaffirmed the fact that Punjabis love things that are larger than life. Their estates are never modest. Their harvesters are the biggest in the land and their brass lassi tumblers would dwarf beer mugs. Sure enough, one of Jawed’s friends brought his Harley with a 220-size front wheel! I also got to ride Javed’s spanking new Honda Africa Twin and from just a 30-minute ride I came back terribly impressed by its sophistication. Jawed had organised for me to go see an akhada nearby. It was awe inspiring to see the place set in mustard plantation, with several buffaloes and wrestlers as big as the buffaloes, working out. They were sweating profusely even though it was 6ºC outside! Next to these giants, I must have looked like a Lilliput.
“Indeed, Punjab has many problems, chief among them a problem with drug abuse. But for all its problems, it is beautiful and weaves its magic over you”
Outside A Hotel we found a police pickup with a machine gun mounted on it. I promptly took a photo as we don’t see machine gun-toting cops much in our country. The cop saw me and invited me to stand with them so they could get a group picture. And with that photo, something must have clicked, for the cop and I continue to be friends and exchange messages. Our next encounter with a cop (we had two on the journey) was when we were pulled over and handed a speeding ticket. Contrary to all generalisations, both times the police were extremely polite and friendly. We spoke for a long time over tea. Indeed, Punjab has many problems, chief among them a problem with drug abuse. But for all its problems, it is beautiful and weaves its magic over you. We left Punjab with a heavy heart. To be continued…