The prosperous states of Haryana and Punjab occupy the fertile river plain northwest of Delhi. Crossed by the five major tributaries of the Indus River, the former British-administered region of Punjab (“Five Rivers”) was split down the middle at Independence. Indian Muslims fled west into Pakistan, Sikhs and Hindus east, in an exodus accompanied by horrific massacres. In 1966, Indira Gandhi, in response to Sikh pressure, made the Punjab Hills into Himachal Pradesh. The plains, meanwhile, were divided into the predominantly Sikh Punjab and the 96-percent Hindu Haryana, both governed from the specially built capital of Chandigarh.
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There is little of tourist interest in the two states other than the Golden Temple in Amritsar and the wacky Rock Garden of Chandigarh, but the region, India’s breadbasket, is very important to the nation’s economy. Its farmers produce nearly a quarter of India’s wheat and one third of its milk and dairy foods, while Ludhiana churns out ninety percent of the country’s woollen goods. Helped by remittance cheques from millions of expatriates in the UK, US and Canada, the states’ per capita income is almost double the national average.
Crossing Haryana and Punjab, you’re bound to travel at some stage along part of the longest, oldest and most famous highway in India – the NH-1, alias the Grand Trunk Road, stretching 2000km from Peshawar, near the rugged Afghan–Pakistan frontier, to Kolkata on the River Hooghly. The first recorded mention of this trade corridor dates from the fourth century BC, when it was known as the Uttar Path (the “North Way”).
Punjab’s first urban settlement was the Harappan civilization of around 3000 BC. The epic battles in the Mahabharata drew on real-life encounters between the ancient kings of Punjab at Karnal. Conquered by the Mauryans in the third century BC, the Punjab saw further action as various invaders passed through on their way from the Khyber Pass to Delhi – including the Mughal emperor Babur, who routed Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat in 1526.
Sikhism began in the region under the tutelage of Guru Nanak (1469–1539). Based on the notion of a single formless God, the guru’s vision of a casteless egalitarian society found favour with both Hindus and Muslims, in spite of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s attempts to stamp it out. Indeed, one result of his intolerance was that the Sikhs – eager to avoid a Mughal resurrection – willingly helped the British to quash the great uprising in 1857. Their relationship with the British only soured after the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre of 1919.
Partition in 1947 brought sectarian hatred to the surface, with an exodus of Muslims from the Indian half of the Punjab, and of Hindus and Sikhs from the Pakistani half, amid great slaughter. After Independence, the Indian part grew wealthy on its agricultural output and militant Sikhs began to press for the creation of an independent state called Khalistan. In 1966, the mainly Hindu area of Haryana was hived off, but that failed to silence the separatists, whose party, the Akali Dal, trounced Congress in state elections.
With covert support from the national government (who saw the group as a way to defeat the Akali Dal), a more radical separatist movement led by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale began a campaign of sectarian terror, coming to a head in 1984 with the occupation of Amritsar’s Golden Temple. Indira Gandhi’s brutal response, Operation Blue Star, plunged the Punjab into another ugly bout of communal violence. Four years later, a less threatening occupation of the temple was crushed by Operation Black Thunder. Most Akali Dal factions boycotted the 1992 elections, which saw Congress returned on a 22 percent turnout. Chief minister Beant Singh was killed by a car bomb in 1995, but that was the militants’ last gasp. Public support had ebbed and subsequent state elections have seen a return to normality. An Akali Dal/BJP coalition – thrown out by Congress in 2002 – regained power in 2007, and held it in 2012, with voter turnout back to normal and no paramilitary violence.
The dusty town of Pathankot, 270km northwest of Chandigarh and 101km to the northeast of Amritsar, is an important cantonment and railway junction, close to the frontier with Pakistan and near the borders with Himachal Pradesh and Jammu. Pathankot itself is a friendly enough place, but there’s nothing special to see here, and most travellers just pass through to pick up bus connections to Dharamsala, Dalhousie, Chamba and Kashmir, or to take the slow train east through the picturesque Kangra Valley.
Pinjore, 22km north of Chandigarh and 7km south of Kalka on the Shimla road, is one of many sites associated with the exile of the Pandavas as chronicled in the Mahabharata. It is best known for its walled Yadavindra Gardens on Kalka Shimla Road, which originally belonged to the rajas of Sirmaur, but under the Mughals were taken over by Aurangzeb’s foster brother, Fidai Khan, who erected three pleasure palaces for his wife amid the cypress trees. Legend tells that the raja reclaimed his summer retreat by sending a female fruit-seller with goitre to the imperial impostors. On being told that the woman’s unsightly swelling was caused by the local water, the begum and her entourage fled. The gardens are on seven levels, bisected by waterways with fountains; the best time to visit is in the evening, when it’s all aglow with pretty lights.
Nearby, excavated remains of the tenth-century Bhima Devi Temple – destroyed during the Muslim conquest of the area – have been assembled in a pleasant park with four exhibition rooms that the caretaker will open for you if he’s about. The temple is contemporary with Khajuraho, and one or two of the reliefs are similarly erotic, though well worn.
The capital of a princely state under the Raj, and a city with much charm and few visitors, Patiala dates back to the early eighteenth century. It was founded as the capital of a state that featured a unique power-sharing arrangement, in which the maharaja was always a Sikh and the army commander a Muslim. Buffeted by rival powers, be they Hindu, Muslim or Sikh, Patiala’s maharajas finally secured their state’s survival in 1808 by allying themselves with the British. Like India’s other princely states, Patiala was absorbed into the Republic in 1947, but the city remained capital of its own state (the Patiala and East Punjab States Union, aka PEPSU) until 1956. To this day, there’s still something special about Patiala, and even the local measure of whisky – the Patiala peg – is bigger than a standard peg that you get elsewhere. The old city is full of bazaars and temples, and still has its fort and several of its original gates, although the walls are long gone. The tourist board have designated a self-guided “heritage walk” around the city’s main sights, with signposts marking out the route, although they’re a bit patchy, and a map is more helpful.
Best time to visit Haryana and Punjab
As ever in northern India, spring (March–April) and autumn (Oct & Nov) are the best times to visit. Winter (Dec & Jan) can be rather nippy, and summer (June–Aug) very hot, although nothing like the south, of course. Summer is also the wettest season, with rainfall peaking in August, but the monsoon is largely spent by the time it gets this far, so it isn’t anything like as full-on as it is further south and east.
Festivals in Haryana and Punjab
Baba Bakala (March). Sikh pilgrimage to Bakala to commemorate the induction of the tenth Sikh guru, Gobind Singh.
Baisakhi (April or early May). Anniversary of the establishment of the Sikh Khalsa by the tenth Sikh guru, Gobind Singh, in 1699, celebrated with a morning of bathing and praying, followed by parades and distribution of sweet prasad in the afternoon.
Pinjore Mango Mela (early July). Gorge on mangoes at this annual two-day mango fest held in the Yadavindra Gardens in Pinjore.
Guru Nanak Jayanti (late Oct/early Nov). The birthday of the first Sikh guru is celebrated with a three-day reading of the Granth Sahib (Sikh holy scriptures) and processions in most Punjabi cities.
Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan (last weekend in Dec). Held in Jalandhar since 1875, this is the world’s oldest festival of Indian classical music, lasting three days, with no admission or accommodation fees.