Patiala: horses, heritage – and who wrote the letter?

Bamboo scaffolding allows access to the walls of Old Moti Bagh Palace, currently under restoration

Just after the first article about Amar Singh and Major Tom’s War appeared in the Chandigarh Tribune over a year ago, a charming gentleman named Dr Naveen Kumar got in touch with me.

An experienced RIWTC panel veterinary consultantwith a keen interest in heritage, he wanted to know more about Lady Curzon, who founded one of the hospitals in Patiala. I tried to help, albeit without great success, and Dr Naveen kindly offered to have me visit if ever I came to India. At that point of course it was only a pipedream. A lot has changed in 12 months!

The placename Patiala however did ring a bell. It send me scurrying for the family archive and this tiny postcard decorated with the head of Queen Victoria. So far the writing has defied all attempts to translate it (including those of the British Museum).

Patiala . State? Mohindara? Ju. 19? 91

The postmark is clearly Patiala (?State?) and the second I think says Mohindara (Mohindra, like the college?). The date is 1919, a time when the post-war flu pandemic was still sweeping India and the world.

Banur is about 25 miles from Amritsar. This appears to read Banur Uni Rajpur – a translation of the line above it?

The letter or card is contained in an envelope addressed to Mrs H R Poole – my paternal grandmother, who was a domineering mother and mother-in-law by all accounts. How she came to have it in her possession, and whether she ever found out precisely what it says is unclear. But she kept it.

The handwriting of a sick man? Or an Indian scribe copying a note written in English?

My mother told me that my uncle Joe (who must have been a good 20 years older than my late-born father) vanished in India at around that time. His parents had a hard task proving him dead without a death certificate and had to wait for many years to elapse. My father’s birth decades later to my grandmother, then in her late forties, was seen as a miracle, but he always lived in the shadow of his vanished brother.

Even deciphering a word or two would help – but nothing so far

The wobbly signature across the right hand corner of the card may well read ‘Joseph’ but the letter itself is in some obscure form of Shakasta Urdu. Why? And who wrote it? Perhaps an elderly person from this area of Punjab might be able to make out a word or two. If so, please get in touch!

One of the carved wooden doors of Old Moti Bagh, inlaid with ivory

So you see, I had a good personal reason to explore Patiala, marvelling at what my unfortunate uncle may himself have experienced of this beautiful city. Patiala is the ancestral home of the current Chief Minister of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh, whom I had the honour of meeting at the Chandigarh Military Literature Festival (more on that in a separate blog shortly).

Meeting Captain Amarinder Singh, Maharajah of Patiala, for the first time

The Captain, as the people of Punjab call him with great affection, was born a royal prince, into the long line of the Maharajahs of Patiala (closely connected with the Maharajahs of Jind). His role in Punjab is therefore rather like that of our Queen and Prime Minister, all rolled into one.

The Maharajahs’ vast palace buildings in Patiala bear witness to their pre-colonial power. One early Maharajah, we were told, had 365 wives. If one transgressed, she risked being walled up alive somewhere within the palace.

Inside the great reception hall the Maharajahs’ motor vehicles and a handsome silver carriage enjoy an enchanted sleep beneath protective plastic sheeting

Old Moti Bagh Palace is currently under restoration and it was one of the team there who kindly stepped forward, unasked, and offered to guide us around some of the innermost areas of the Palace.

The cool paved chequerboard courtyard at Old Moti Bagh

This was an exceptional privilege for a museums and heritage consultant like myself. These intimate inner chambers are sumptuously painted, the colour blue everywhere (before chemical or mineral blue pigments were made with minerals like cobalt, lapiz lazuli would have been crushed and used as a powder – so blue was the most costly colour).

View of an inner courtyard from the roof at Old Moti Bagh

Particularly striking was the range of religious iconography within the paintings in the palace. Sikh gurus, ancient Hindu gods and Muslim symbols appear within the same rooms, emphasising that the Maharajahs here ruled over people of all faiths. The Sikh faith is only 550 years old and Guru Nanak Dev ji its founder travelled extensively and researched the best of other religions to conclude that there is only One God.

The moulded ceiling of the reception hall showing some excellent progress in restoration work

Photography was not appropriate within these more private inner spaces but their tiny details – the haughty or cunning faces of individual courtiers and wives for example – will linger long in my memory. Our guide then led us through the palace and up a spiral staircase to a chamber where we both removed our shoes and entered a tiny dark chamber preceded by a cool tiled floor in which a small lamp glimmered. Beside this two fragrant logs smouldered on a bed of fine silver ash. The lamp, we were told, had burned for 200 years; the fire for 300. Although high within the palace walls the shrine is still set on earth – the chambers below are filled with ton upon ton of soil.

How to describe this space at the heart of Old Moti Bagh Palace? A dark chamber, bigger than it seems, but not in terms of its modest dimensions: I had a strong sense of not being alone. It was not a place for a firanghi to linger either – but neither was it somewhere I felt an unwelcome intruder. My hands and hair prickled as though I were being scrutinised – more ‘well, what do we have here?’ than ‘what do you think you’re doing here?’ Waheguru, I said, to acknowledge the courtesy of the greeting, before respectfully withdrawing.

Vast chandeliers, many imported from Europe, ornament the ceiling of the immense reception hall of Old Moti Bagh Palace, but the power of this place lies in its less public areas
A small hawk watches us pass at the Sheesh Mahal

The restoration work in Patiala is being carried out slowly and meticulously using traditional techniques. I was hugely impressed and once restored – which could take decades – Old Moti Bagh could rival any wonder on the well-worn Golden Triangle route.

I hope that when it does open, a quality- over-quantity approach is adopted, where the general tour is kept to the outer and more resilient areas only and the inner areas are kept as an advance-booked, timed-ticketed and high-value visitor experience. Certain spaces, like the upper shrine, should be kept out of bounds to all but the faithful.

The delicate pink Sheesh Mahal, the Palace of Mirrors, is also part of the Old Moti Bagh complex. It would once have appeared to float, its opulence doubled by its reflection in the still waters of a giant pool. Today it is dry and a haven for humans and wildlife – we watched a woman gathering wild greens as a wild hawk hunted overhead. We saw it later, perched on a railing, watching us closely (again that feeling of scrutiny). Dr Naveen and I sipped excellent chai masala from a little stall overlooking this dry ornamental moat and shared ideas for sustainable tourism in Patiala. (you would make an excellent host/guide for other visitors, Dr Naveen)!

To complete a whirlwind tour of Patiala Dr Naveen took me to visit the stud farm at New Moti Bagh Palace, the Captain’s home in Patiala. We glimpsed the building from the edge of its fine gardens.

My heart danced when I saw the horses and Tom’s genes told me exactly what I was looking for: a fine intelligent expression, ears forward not back, a small head and fluid movement in a powerful body. Dr Naveen tells me he sources these mares from all over the world. They are looked after wonderfully well, with fields of specially-grown fodder and spacious stalls and paddocks.

May these magnificent brood mares breed many future champions for the Captain!

Author: veewalkerwrites

Hello new readers. If you enjoy my blog why not try my prizewinning novel of WWI, Major Tom's War? It's available as a revised and expanded second edition in paperback and on Kindle. You can order it via my lovely publisher Kashi House at or from any good bookseller. Ask me nicely and I can send you a signed/dedicated copy for just £12 including UK postage and packing 🙏🌹

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