There are some places in India that a traveller must visit, even if such places may have nothing interesting to see or do. These places are so famous in Indian history, folklore or epics that just to be there is a good deed done. These are place names you have been hearing since childhood in grandmother’s tales or read in history books. Try telling someone in your family that you have been to Kurukshetra, they will be instantly amazed as though you’ve gone to Mars and returned. I am sure it will happen to me.
In this context, I am on my way to Kurukshetra, the famous place of battle of the Mahabharata. The problem is that the highway doesn’t pass through Kurukshetra and I am told to get off at Pipli by the NH1. I get off the bus. Someone tells me that Kurukshetra isn’t far. I hop on to a shared tempo – actually it’s more like squeezing into one – and we are on our way to Kurukshetra. It’s hard to imagine that a popular place like this doesn’t have a regular public bus service from Pipli.
If I expected Kurukshetra to be an endless dry and dusty scrub-covered plain, with evidence of ancient tracks of chariot wheels or pieces of iron arrow heads and spears, I was only being naive and silly. Kurukshetra is a sizeable town with roads, shops, restaurants, dharamshalas, temples, pilgrims and inhabitants. I have no idea where to get off. I pick a place where many of my co-passengers get down. I look around for a place to stay but there is nothing here except businesses.
‘Do you know any place where I can stay for a night?’ I ask a man. He has just stepped out of a mechanic’s shop with his old Bajaj scooter.
‘Nothing here really. You have to go further down,’ he points down the road. He is a friendly chap and we stand by the road chatting.
He tells me all the places I have to see and even plans the itinerary for me. I take out an old bus ticket. He scribbles behind it a list of places and groups them together.
‘At the moment I am on my way to Bhadra Kali Mandir. I can drop you there. The temple will be closed now but you can first visit the Jindal Park nearby,’ he offers. So I postpone the task of getting a room or having a proper lunch and go with him.
The Jindal Park is a park dedicated to O.P. Jindal, the great industrialist and philanthrophist of modern India. A bust of O.P. Jindal greets me at the entrance. The day is hot. The park is empty. There are very few trees to give shade. I would have liked to see a more shady and leafy park. But Kurukshetra has a dry climate and the heat of summer is intense. Water supply is probably a problem too. The park is nicely designed with open green lawns, neat walkways and decorative topiaries. The only thing of interest here are five pillars that represent the panchkarma – Satya, Dharma, Shanti, Samriddhi, Tyaga. These are the ideals that guided O.P. Jindal throughout his life. All these ideals are very relevant to modern India but we are too deep in our own mire to even think of them. I think much of the goodness that lived in the early decades of independent India is lost.
From the park I can see the main dome of Sheikh Chaheli’s Tomb. A short walk brings me to the tomb dedicated to this Sufi saint. A board claims that he was the spiritual teacher of Dara Shikoh which would date him to the 17th century. The tomb itself is a classic takhtgah type of tomb with a massive platform of buff sandstone with many arched openings. Above the platform is the main monument in marble. It is octogonal with arches set into each side. The slender turrets above surround the beautiful smooth dome that rises to a pointed finial. It is surrounded by smaller domed kiosks which at the madrasa side stand on the platform but on the road side are canopies of towers that projection out from the walls. Within the main monument are two simple marble tombs. Early afternoon light slants through beautiful stone tracery.
On the whole, the monument is a beauty, the landscaping is good and well-maintained. The madrasa encloses a quadrangle which contains a clean square tank, lawns bordered with low hedges and beds blooming with roses red or white. False agaves (aka Mauritius hemp) and decorative ferns beautifully balance the hedges.
The madrasa is no longer active and the space is instead used as a museum. This part of Kurukshetra is actually called Thanesar, historially the center of ancient Kurukshetra. This used to be capital of Harshavardhana in the 6th century after the decline of the Guptas. Near the tomb are older excavated ruins and presumably ruins not yet excavated. Huge grassy mounds in the area suggest this. From the heights of these mounds I can survey the spread of Kurukshetra. From what is a Muslim monument, I can see the low landscape dominated by temple spires and gurudwaras.
There are many dharamshalas in Kurukshetra and one of the large ones that offer rooms to singles is the Jat Dharamshala. In the verandah, some men sit around at a table playing cards. Couple of old men are wearing turbans and thick glasses. Almost everyone is in clean whites. Fans whirr under the high ceiling. At one end is the office. I wait for my turn. I get a basic room for fifty rupees. The room has nothing more than a traditional charpoy. This is a wooden cot with coir ropes strung taut across its frame. This is yet one more unique and original experience of real India. I am enjoying it. The bathroom at this dharamshala is moderately clean by which I mean that it is clean for a bath but not clean enough for a wash of my clothes. I’ll have to wash them at my next stop.
In the evening I return to the Jindal Park where at half past seven every evening a sound and light show is organized. It doesn’t take much to guess that the show starts with tribute to O.P. Jindal. Once that is out of the way, the real show starts rather late. It was a good show overall but didn’t start very well. Co-ordination between the lights and the music was awful for the first piece. The third one was too long and repetitive. Fourth one was abruptly stopped before it had reached its end. In the open air, I had to keep busy swatting mosquitoes.
Brahma Sarovar is a huge tank, probably four times the size of Golden Temple’s tank at Amritsar. In almost every corridor and bay by its sides, there is a sadhu or a mendicant of the homeless variety. Many of these people sit around looking for… salvation, I guess. There is a modern statue of Krishna preaching the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna. The actual place of this preaching is believed to be at Jyotisar some way out of town.
Using a mix of buses and shared tempos I get to this place. I don’t find anything to interest me. A colourful Hanuman stands 26 feet tall. A sign claims that the Shiva temple has been witness to many foreign invasions, where foreign can only be construed as Muslim. Another place by the name of Bheeshma Kund is the place where Bheeshma is said to have rested on a bed of arrows. This place abounds with facts from the great epic with no reference to any historic evidence.
Kurukshetra is really a place for pilgrims and not for tourists like me. I have enjoyed the tomb of Sheikh Chaheli but otherwise it’s been a bore. It’s time to pack up and leave. I return to the dharamshala and check out. As I leave I notice a long queue of sadhus queuing up for the free morning meal. I am tempted to join them but the kitchen hasn’t actually started serving yet. Dharamshala workers are busy setting up. The sadhus stand in colouful clothes and props. Some carry umbrellas or walking staffs. Others carry tridents in true style of a seeker of spiritual powers. At half past ten, food is served. The sadhus collect daal is small tiffin boxes and rice in common plastic bags. Some may eat this meal right away but others may eat them later. Some others familiar Kurukshetra may move on to join another queue elsewhere in this generous city.
There is one last thing to see at Kurukshetra. I head to the Kalpana Chawla Planetarium, dedicated to the late Indian-American astronaut who died in the Columbia Space Shuttle crash. It turns out that I have just missed the timings for the special shows. I instead head to the Krishna Museum next door. This is a unique museum dedicated to Lord Krishna in particular. Based on this theme, the exhibits are tastefully selected and organized. From palm leafs of Orissa to paintings of Tanjore, from colourful Madhubanis to Andhra’s kalamkaris, from woodcarvings in flamboyant Hoysala style to ivory miniatures, the exhibits are wonderful. I am glad I visited this one.