Who hasn’t heard of Panipat? If you are from South India like I am, the first thing that would come to your mind are the three historic battles of Panipat. If the Battle of Kurukshetra is only a legend – at least, that’s what I think – there is certainly more veracity to the battles of Panipat. So don’t blame me for looking forward to see the exact spot where Babur defeated Ibrahmi Lodi. How history feeds the imagination!
Modern day Panipat is a hot and dirty place. The National Highway that passes by this old town adds to the busy fast-paced ambience of a town that is otherwise doesn’t look very well developed. From the bus stand I walk back along the highway for more than a kilometer until I find the dharmashala I had spotted earlier from the bus. A old guy is lounging on his charpoy in the entrance hall. He is leisurely smoking a hukka. The device itself is a beautiful piece of Indian art. He shows one vacant room and the common toilets.
I am quite late arriving into Panipat. I don’t want to waste time looking for better options. This is probably just about the dirtiest place I am going to endure for a night and probably ever will. The toilets are unbearable. No one who is staying here seems to have ever heard of flushing. I look out from the corridors. I see heaps of garbage and slimy green mess of chemical runoff. Panipat has long been a home for handlooms. The dyeing process has ensured full scale pollution in these parts. The good thing in all this is that my room is clean and airy; but it is still hot inside and there is no electricity at the moment.
First I need some lunch. I see Nirula’s right opposite the dharamshala. There are two problems here. First, there is no way I can cross the highway. No consideration has been given to pedestrians. Much of India’s infrastructure is for the rich. Second, many of the staff that work at Nirula’s stay in the same grubby dharamshala where I am put up. Knowing the standards in which these fellows live, I really doubt their idea of hygiene even in the best of India’s kitchens. It turns out that there is not a single decent restaurant in all of Panipat. I have to do with snacks.
‘How do I get to Kabuli Shah Masjid?’ I ask someone. It draws a blank. He hasn’t heard of it. I wonder if he is just a visitor to Panipat but quite often it happens that residents don’t know their own city. Not everyone is interested in history. I keep walking through busy streets. I enquire a little later at a corner shop.
‘Babri Masjid?’ he asks in return.
‘Yes, it was built by Babur after defeating Ibrahim Lodi. It is named after his wife Kabuli Begum,’ I quote from the little history of the place I have researched.
‘I don’t know about that but the Babri Masjid is still quite a walk from here, he explains. ‘Just follow the naalah.’
This is the thing about India. Ask for directions, you will be asked to follow gutters and drains or take turns at garbage heaps. Nothing in this country is as ubiquitous as filth and waste. They make wonderfully useful landmarks for the traveller. This naalah in particular which I am asked to follows is completely clogged with all sorts of things. It is a landfill on its own.
After numerous twists and turns, and further enquiries, I finally find the mosque. The domes of the mosques are visible about 100 meters away. I cross the naalah by a bridge and find a narrow path running parallel to the naalah. The stench is unbearable. I hear a repetitive sound in the buildings to my left. I peep inside and find workers busy at their looms. I step inside.
‘What are you weaving?’ I ask one of them. It is rather dark inside but a shaft sunlight is enough for these workers to do their job. Most importantly, it feels as if summer has already started. Any shade as this is a welcome one.
‘Durries,’ replies the man nearest to me. ‘These are specially ordered for export quality.’
I see that some of these durries are so wide that two men are required to weave the weft. One of them throws the shuttle across, the other catches. In some cases the durrie are just a meter wide so that a single man operates the loom. In this export quality that they are weaving, there are no strong colours, only white and beige threads.
‘How long is a durrie?’ I ask.
‘Length is 240 cm and width is 190 cm,’ he replies.
I learn that they are actually not from Panipat. One man says he is from Bareilly. Many of them are away from their families. Durrie weaving is a trade in Sitapur and Bareilly but there is lot more work here at Panipat. Some of these guys have been here for sixteen years, though not exactly in this mill. They move across mills, wherever work is to be found.
‘I go home once in two months,’ one man says. He wears, like the others a sleaveless singlet and trousers. The workers take a short break as we chat. One man offers me a drink of chilled 7-Up, ‘You are just like us, away from home. Let us drink together.’
‘Does this ever get cleaned up?’ I ask pointing to the naalah outside.
‘It gets cleaned up once in a year,’ he says. I am glad at least that much happens around here.
One man dozes in a corner. Others resume their weaving. They work close to twelve hours a day, earning Rs. 130 for every durrie completed. One man claims that he makes about Rs. 300 a day on average. Sometimes the shuttle runs out of thread and they quickly replace it. Knots are avoided. Ropes and threads hang from wooden poles hanging from the ceiling. I sit around listening to the looms make their repetitive sounds, of wood beating against wood. I am mesmerized by the movement of the threads and the flight of the shuttles. Sunlight falls through a gap in the asbestos roof and catches the concentration on the faces of these workers. Hand-operated looms may have disappeared in many parts of the world but they are still here in Panipat.
I take leave of the workers and make my way across garbage heaps, burning refuse and stagnant channels of open drainage to arrive at the mosque. The main dome is flanked in two wings with subsidiary domes, nine on each wing but not all survive. The domes on the northern side have been restored and those on the southern side are either missing or partially standing. The restored domes lack interest but those on the southern side show the old bricks and decorated mouldings of the squinches. A few boys are playing badminton in this domeless space. They add lively interest to this old monument. Outside, another groups of boys and men are lounging in the green lawn, really a luxury in Panipat. The monument is probably under ASI. A few old men are idling away the last hours of the day, sitting under the long shadows of the monument.
Decorative detail is minimal in this 16th century monument. The gateway of bricks and red sandstone is quite impressive with spandrels decorated with lotus medallions in a manner typical of many Islamic monuments. Quranic verses decorate the top. Octogonal projections with a domed kiosk stand at the end of each wing but only the southern one survives. A tank and a well are part of the ruins within the inner courtyard.
‘You should visit kala aam,’ says a man, seeing that I am a tourist. ‘That’s the site of Ibrahim Lodi’s tomb, built exactly where he was beheaded.’
I don’t know if that’s the truth but I am tired of Panipat and the heat of this place. On my return I pass more textile mills, this time mechanized ones. The sound in the factory floor is intense. As factories come, this one is rather small. In a neighbouring room I find some men preparing rolls of thread to feed the hungry machines. A little later I find another machine that does the job of preparing threads as well.
I have dinner at the run by Haryana Tourism. It is along the highway a little further from town. This seems to be the only decent place for a meal. There is one last thing to do here – buy a bottle of the famous Panchranga Panipat pickles.