Cycle Ride to Fatehgarh Sahib | Exploring Buddhist Heritage in Punjab

I have spent lived a considerable part of my life in Hamirpur, a small town in Himachal located in the foothills of Shivalik Mountains. The shrines of Jawalaji, Baba Balaknath, and Kangra, are in the vicinity of Hamirpur and it serves as a gateway for pilgrims coming from Punjab.

I grew up watching them ‘cyclist pilgrims’ coming from the planes of Punjab to pay their obeisance at ‘our’ holy shrines. A fragile body riding an ugly mass of black steel I;e Hero Atlas, heart pounding through their chest and face looking like a replica of red hot burning sun, that’s how I remember them.

And I used to wonder why are they always pedaling in standing posture?

I got my answers during this cycle expedition of ours. As I ‘sit down’ to write this blog post several weeks later, I can still ‘feel’ those answers. In short, my ass still hurts. Adjusting my ‘medium size’ ass on a tiny seat is a tough balancing act and it will take me quite some time to master the balancing art.

Cycle Ride to Virasat-E-Khalsa | Cycle Ride to Banda Bahadur Museum

Fatehgarh Sahib Cycle Yatra

Fatehgarh Sahib Cycle Yatra

In continuation to our quest of Khalsa History, the next destination was Fatehgarh Sahib Gurdwara near Sirhind. Three cyclists; Sourabh, Shubham, and I started in the morning from Chandigarh only to realize that it was way too hot to ride on a bicycle. But like a warrior in the battlefield who knows not giving up, we decided to pedal on in the scorching heat.

Punjab has this special ability to automatically differentiate itself from Chandigarh and you feel it the moment you leave the city beautiful. Helmets disappear, traffic lights are royally ignored, and nobody gives a flying fuck about the presence of cops because everyone is somehow related to Badal’s or Majithia’s. So that’s how you know that you have arrived in Punjab.

We hit the SH-12A that goes straight to the shrine of Fatehgarh Sahib. I am a slow rider and because my ass hurt real bad, I tried to maintain an average speed close to 15 kmph while my partners raced ahead.  They met a female Police Party with flat tyre who were waiting for someone to come and help them. I wonder if ever they are stuck like this while chasing a criminal, who would they ask? Probably they will ask the criminal because everybody wants to lend a helping hand here.

The shrine complex is a small village in itself with a massive sarai/dharmshala built behind the gurdwara complex. Cheap rooms are available so what we saved in rent was used to buy juices, fruits as supplements for out tired bodies.

Fatehgarh Sahib Yatra

The Fish Pond

There’s a pond at the shrine where we tried to wash our sins. Whether we succeeded or not, that is debatable, but dancing with fish in cold water was certainly a great experience. Shubham lost his eyeglasses, which he thinks he dropped into the pond while rescuing himself from fish trying to infiltrate in his boxer. We waited for half an hour hoping to find a benevolent fish who would bring them eyeglasses to the surface but that wasn’t going to happen.

The shrine of fatehgarh sahib was constructed to commemorate the martyrdom of younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh who were bricked alive in 1704 by Wazir Khan. It marks the conquest of Sikhs in 1710 when under the leadership of Banda Bahadur, the Khalsa army ran over the area and established Khalsa victory.

 Discover Punjab: Attractions of Punjab by Parminder Singh

The historical wall where two young warriors were bricked alive has been preserved.

We spent our night at the sarai thinking about our return route. Initially we thought about Chamkaur Sahib but that would have meant riding at least 120 km on our return day, so the plan was dropped. Instead, we decided to simply go back via an alternate route.

Through paddy fields and village roads. Behind sugarcane tractors and disfigured autos. Through the heartland of PunjabWe witnessed the outcomes of a revolution called Pradhanmantri Gram Sadak Yojna.

Sanghol Archaeological Site, Fatehgarh Sahib

Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna, Sanghol

Sanghol Museum, Fathegarh Sahib

Sanghol Museum, Fathegarh Sahib

We chose a road that connected us to the main Chandigarh Ludhiana Highway near Sanghol. That detour turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we were now to witness remains of  Buddhist civilization that flourished in Punjab between 1300 B.C to 600 A.D. One wouldn’t talk of Punjab and Buddhism in the same breath today but that was not the case 200 years ago.

Sanghol, locally called as ‘Uchha Pind’ is an ancient Harrapan site located atop a mound. It derives its name from Sanskrit word ‘Samgha‘ which means ‘a place of Buddhist monasteries’. The great Chinese traveler Hiuen Tang noted that there were as many as 50 monasteries in the land of five rivers. Various archaeological excavations over a period of years have been conducted at Sanghol site.

Outcome? A vast treasury of about 20000 antiquities including stone jewelry, sculptures, coins, seals, just to name a few. There is a museum just next to the National Highway, a red building with circular walls that may look like a fancy water tank but actually is a a treasure trove. (Punjabis are fond of fancy water tanks)

One of the major sites is a few  hundred meters from the museum while the other one is in the village. There are no milestones or tourism hoardings pointing you to the excavation sites. Thus it becomes even more important to ask the right questions.

Sanghol Concentric Circles

12, 24, 32

In Conversation with Teja Singh

In Conversation with Teja Singh | Sourabh and Shubham (L-R)

Inside the Museum

Inside the Museum

There are three concentric circles made of burnt bricks spread on a 17 square meter platform. And what’s so special about these circles? Well, as described by Teja Singh, the caretaker; these circles have 12, 24, 32 sections related to different aspects of life. There are meditation chambers, long corridors and a boundary wall to keep the mighty waters of Satluj at bay. The river has now shifted several meters away from the excavated site but many years ago, it would have served as a major source of water for Buddhist monks.

The entire area is riddled with several stories from the past. Sometimes the entire setting feels like a chapter in Hieun Tsang’s book. And you, the traveler.

Ask not for Sanghol but for Uchha Pind and you shall be directed appropriately. Else you'll remain as confused as we were.
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