Heritage is an intangible experience, a combination of tradition and memory. To be made alive, it needs to be nurtured, celebrated and also made a part of one’s everyday life. When third-generation Patialavi Ravee Ahluwalia realised that the history of his city was confined to just books, with no people connect, he couldn’t sit back.
Volunteers were roped in and a successful walk involving officials from the local administration and the State Tourism Board was organised, thus proving that the project was doable
For anyone to feel the past, one must experience it, and that can only happen if one can visualise and re-imagine the past. But sounds and smells cease to exist, and visuals change. So one has to recreate the past to make it alive again.
Patiala was once dotted with grand buildings and is still redolent of a glorious past, but many of these buildings are today crumbling and in disuse. Similar was the fate of the Shahi Samadhs, the cenotaphs of Patiala’s erstwhile rulers. Encroachers had taken over land on either side of the grand façade. The tombs were broken and unmarked. They now housed a cow shelter and nearby fields threatened to creep up nearer and nearer the tombs.
Ahluwalia realised that a busy administration had no time, funds or even the inclination to undertake the mammoth task of reclaiming the town’s heritage buildings and it was up to the citizens to initiate interest and action. “One can try to initiate action either by complaining and forcing attention or by bringing in the stakeholders voluntarily. We chose the latter,” he says.
Volunteers were roped in and a walk involving officials from the local administration and the State Tourism Board was organised. This convinced those in power that the project was doable. Ahluwalia worked in tandem with Geetika Kalha, who was Principal Secretary, Tourism and Cultural Affairs, at the time. She made presentations before several agencies in 2012-2013 and her efforts bore fruit. In 2014, the Asian Development Bank and World Bank gave funds to the Punjab Heritage Tourism Promotion Board and today the Shahi Samadhs — the façade, interiors and the tombs — bear a brand new look. The administration did the needful, too, by removing encroachers and covering the drains so that the experience of the heritage walk improved. Ahluwalia and his team researched and tried to recreate what the area must have been during its heyday.
Founded in 2009, Ahluwalia’s Patiala Foundation initially focussed on a livelihood project involving the use of heritage buildings. Rickshaw-pullers were trained as tourist guides who could intelligently inform their passengers while taking them around the city’s main heritage sites — Sheesh Mahal, Qila Mubarak, Baradari Gardens, etc. However, realising that a walk would be a better experience for tourists, they started the Patiala Heritage Walk in 2013. “The UN has now given special consultative status to our Foundation,” says Ahluwalia.
Today, the Foundation has 47 trained guides, mostly students and self-employed youngsters. All volunteers are fluent in Punjabi, Hindi and English, the only pre-requisite being their interest in culture and heritage. Training happened over walks to understand the subject. These youth are now adding value to the database by clicking photos while also exploring the area further. New recruits, meanwhile, keep getting added. Like Harmanjot Singh, who is currently pursuing a course in computer applications.
The team is connected through a WhatsApp group. When a query for the walk comes, they check whosoever is available at the time. “A walk is conducted even when we have just one query. And it is totally free,” says Ahluwalia.
The walk is an hour and 40 minutes long and covers a 2-km stretch. Ahluwalia has rejuvenated localities of yore: Haveli Wallah Mohalla (sadly, today there are only two standing havelis, down from 12 in 2013), Chhatta Nanumal, Bartan Bazaar, Sapaan Wali Gali and Darshani Deori, among others.
Attention is given to little things. During the walks, Ahluwalia noticed that youngsters were fascinated with a half-buried antique water tap, having the mouth of a lion. He has requested the administration to remove some of the cemented road around the tap, so that it stands out prominently and becomes a significant landmark.
Another discovery while researching the area was the aroma of the freshly-fried ‘bedmi’. “We were enticed to explore further and discovered it to be an unusual combination of a ‘poori’ and ‘bhatura’ with stuffing inside, and made only in the morning. Today, the ‘bedmi’ from Dal Daliya Chowk is a tourist attraction of Patiala. A food walk is on the cards,” Ahluwalia shares.
A recent addition is a QR code for each heritage site, which leads to details online in English, Hindi and Gurmukhi. These are dynamic codes and can be constantly updated. Sakshi Sawhney, the Patiala DC, and her team are active collaborators.
Up next, the Patiala Foundation wants Patiala, Kapurthala and Sangrur to be included in the current tourist circuit of Chandigarh, Anandpur Sahib and Amritsar. “We need better infrastructure — better hotels and better transport facilities. We have e-rickshaws, but these are not enough. Once we have strengthened the basics, there will be no stopping,” says Ahluwalia.
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