Gold stands for purity and winnings. It’s one of the few elements on the periodic table that isn’t chemically combined. Gold, the colour, is a mix of yellow and orange, and when you mix the element and the colours together, you get Punjab. The romanticised depiction of the state in movies has never needed any exaggeration as we found out in the process of Chasing The Sun in the land of the five rivers. Here’s how gold dust is sprinkled on the state every day.
I had been on the road for a while. It was somewhere in Rajasthan, stuck at a railway crossing for about half an hour that I started to crane my neck to look at what lies ahead. An Indian Army supplies train was crossing, painted completely green from start to end. Greens are also associated with fertility and after dusting the sand from every part of my body from the morning in the dunes, the pleasantness of the green train was soothing. The gates opened soon after and just a few kilometres on the other side, the landscape began to change. The desert sand was fading away but the trees were dusty and the fields had a tired feel to them. Haryana is like a buffer zone when you come from Rajasthan. It shields Punjab from the harshness of the desert. A short stint through Haryana is done and dusted in a couple of hours and it is just about early evening when we are closing in on Doraha.
A few hundred kilometres of driving in the new Hyundai Verna and I’m already very impressed by how good a car this is. In our attempts to chase the sun, we are usually running against the clock to get to a location in time. Doraha for those who don’t know, is the place made famous by the fort used in the movie Rang De Basanti. The Verna can stretch its legs and has much improved dynamics than before so I’m earlier than usual to the location. We had about thirty minutes of photography time ahead of us. It so turned out that Google Maps was wrong on the location though. The correct location is about 10km away. We had to move, blitz a stretch of the AH1 between the wrong fort and the right fort, scout a location and get a beautiful spot for the money shot.
When you drive west, the sun is your ally. When you drive north though, it’s pedal to the metal. Those 15 minutes to Serai Lashkari Khan, the secretly famous movie fort, totally sold me on the Verna. I remember driving the post-facelift predecessor near Udaipur a few years ago. Hyundai was on a mission to make its cars better to drive and the few changes they made to that car like stiffening up the rear suspension for example, worked to improve its stability. There wasn’t much the Korean car maker could do though as the model change was when the Verna could receive a proper image makeover.
And what a makeover it is. I’d talk about the looks and the strong petrol engine and the slick gearbox and progressive clutch, or I could harp about the cooled seats, the sunroof that feels lovely in the beginning of winter, or the crisp music from the Arkamys sound system that’s so essential on a long roadtrip, but all these are now expected of Hyundai. What you need to know however is about the chassis, suspension and steering and the world of good they do on a thousand kilometre roadtrip.
The learnings from the Elantra translate so well on the Verna that it tends to wrap the car around corners like never before. It’s stronger and stiffer and although overall the length of the Verna has gone up now, it feels more compact from behind the wheel. There is a lot more space mind you, but the chassis is so much better that the Verna it is actually a lot of fun to drive. Ride and handling now strikes a perfect balance and although Punjab doesn’t have twisties to throw the car into, its high speed stability on the highway and ability to handle direction changes with its newfound poise ensured we caught a glimpse of the setting sun at Serai Lashkari Khan.
Serai Lashkari Khan is known as the RDB fort after a few of the movie sequences were shot here. Around then, a few locals say, it wasn’t one of the government’s protected monuments and the dilapidated palace gave a nice rustic backdrop. Since it came to popularity, the structure has historical value now. Serai Lashkari Khan was built by Aurangzeb in the seventeenth century as a highway inn along the Grand Trunk road. GT road built by Chandragupta Maurya connected the eastern city of Kabul to Chittagong in Bangladesh. It was the oldest trade route established during the Maurya empire and was also Asia’s longest road stretching a length of 2500km. Road tripping in the seventeenth century must have been a pleasure for horse-heads on this road. The ‘Hotel Decent’ of its time I suppose, Serai Lashkari Khan seems to be quite the structure with a large square yard flanked on all sides by rooms and two prominent entrances allowing traders to enter and safely park their goods on the inside.
Serai comes from the word Caravanserai which was built for caravans of travellers to rest in a palace after a day’s journey, palace being the literal translation of the Persian word Saray. Khan stands for house and denotes a more modest accommodation to the palatial connotation of the word Serai. The GT road was of high trade value and the business travellers needed a safe place to park themselves during days of work. Considering the size of Serai Lashkari Khan, it must have been a flourishing business back in the day.
The setting around the inn is beautiful. The wheat and barley fields all around painted a golden landscape in this light and the cooling hues blended the smooth silhouette of the Verna with the fields. It’s lovely really to watch the sun set in Punjab as light plays its magic on the land of the five rivers. The prosperity of the state as the gold dust sprinkles all over at the time of the setting sun is one to gaze at in peace, take a deep breath of all the fresh air around and drive back to our Ludhiana hotel with the memories of the beautiful sight we just witnessed.
The GT road that passed through Punjab back in the time of the Mauryas and the Mughal empire brought a lot of prosperity to the towns along the way. Amritsar and Ludhiana became prosperous and today it seems like AH1 is doing the same. The AH1 in an ideal world, will extend from Tokyo in Japan all the way through to Istanbul in Turkey. It enters India from Moreh in Manipur and takes you to the Wagah border. 20,557km long, and connecting an eighth of the world’s countries, AH1 will hopefully spawn countless modern day Caravanserais for our future generations to be proud of.
Such long roads demand a fast car and the Verna petrol can be just that, but it also aces an easy drive back to town. The suspension soaks in undulations without any of the bobbing you associated with the old car and the cooled seats just add to the calm after a long drive. It gives me time to reflect on the absolutely random roadtrip we just did. You don’t really consider Punjab as a roadtrip destination because you won’t find twisties or a great deal of must-see places. Yet, there’s a charm to the state that’s hard to quantify. Because the fields are so fertile, poverty rates are low, illiteracy percentages are very low too and in general, the people of the state emit a happy vibe. There’s an abundance of water and the road infrastructure is excellent. You will end up seeing massive farm vehicles around Punjab that you won’t see anywhere else in the country and everything is painted in green and yellow shades.
The state feels like it prepares for a beautiful sunset like a bride on her wedding night, and you know that glow the morning after… That is how fresh Punjab looks at sunrise. Golden mornings with the sun on my back, a nip in the air and the life in the fields, a Punjab roadtrip is highly underrated but a must do.