I have already seen a couple of serais across the country but since Sambhu is on my way to Kurukshetra, I might as well stop here for an hour or so. I tell the bus conductor to let me know when we get there. From Patiala, Sambhu isn’t far.
‘What are you doing? This is Sambhu,’ yells the bus conductor from the front.
‘You should have told me in Hindi. I don’t understand Punjabi,’ I yell in retort. I pick up my stuff and get off by the highway. From the highway, I can see walls and ramparts of the serai. Stretched between the road and the serai are golden fields of crop. In Punjab, you are never far away from cultivated fields.
At half eight, I am at the gateway. It is closed. Apparently the place opens only at nine. I walk around the serai along its outer walls. For someone not familiar with caravan serais, this monument may seem like a fort from the outside. In fact, it was originally built by Sher Shah Suri for travellers along the G.T. Road. Later emperors modified it and even added new ones. For security, these serais were designed very much like forts, with entrance gateways, crenellated ramparts, high walls punctuated with bastions and corner watch towers.
Although the place opens at nine, the guard allows me to enter a little earlier. I pass under the massive gateway. There are two such gateways – one on the eastern side and the other on the western side. By a quick count, I figure out that there are as many as 88 rooms on the inside, each with its own portico. Each room is isolated from the next. Pointed arches define each portico. Seen together in perspective, they make quite a picture. There is proportion and balance. This serai stands beautifully to the glory of Islamic architecture in India.
All rooms are single-storeyed but the corner towers have a higher level which is further capped by a dome. There is a mosque within. The landscaping is basic but good enough to display the monument to its best advantage. The real problem I have here is that the brickwork is in most places is plastered with modern cement. How often have I seen this? Restoration gets the better of preservation. The monument is all too well restored. They should have shown a little more restraint.
After sixty years of independence, workers are still doing maintenance work on this serai. I find men working on a gateway, digging the ground in patches or laying the pavement. Work appears to be too slow and inefficient but it keeps projects alive for long and guarantees employment.
‘Oh, work has been going on for a year. It may take another six months to complete,’ explains the caretaker of the place. He has invited me into his modest residence, one of many rooms of the serai. Meanwhile, the security guard drops his pants to display his boxers. He slowly gets into his uniform.
‘I visited the serai at Doraha few days back. They complained that they don’t have funds to do necessary maintenance,’ I mention.
‘Yeah. But this one is near the border. We get lots of visitors from Himachal, Haryana and Delhi. We get more funds,’ he explains. I sit around chatting with these guys for a while, come out to the sound of chirping birds and walk to the road for a bus to Kurukshetra.