The Untold Story of MP: Mandsaur to Dharmarajeshwar via Sitamau

People who follow this blog will know of my love affair with Madhya Pradesh. I have been to the state a countless number of time and each trip has been a revelation. Its been exactly a year that i came back from this trip, which, incidentally happened to be my last venture into this magical state. So needless to say, this post has been a long time coming.

In late 2010, we were commissioned by Madhya Pradesh government to publish a travel guide on three of the least known districts of the state – Neemuch, Ratlam and Mandsaur. These three districts, located on the westernmost edge of the Malwa Plateau are surrounded by Rajasthan on three sides. So little is known about the region, past its main cities, that we often went along without any preliminary research, stumbling upon unknown places and palaces one after the other.

I was accompanied on this trip by colleague and friend Parvati Sharma (now a published author who had previously accompanied me to other equally exciting destinations in MP like Burhanpur and Asirgarh), who basically did most of the research and writing while I hung around, clicked a photograph or two, supplied the evening whiskeys and ran into hyenas (oh yes, but more on that later).

We took a train from Delhi and on a slightly nippy February morning, reached the small big town of Ratlam. Its claim to fame is the fact that it is a major railway junction and that a small village in the Western Ghats was passed off as this dusty town in the hit film Jab we Met. We shall deal with crowded Ratlam and its charming surroundings at a later blog post. For now we skip over to our next destination, Mandsaur. One look at the map will tell you that the three towns of Ratlam, Mandsaur and Neemuch are linked together by the spanking new, four-laned State Highway 31. We however were barely on it. From Mandsaur we embarked on a circuitous journey through the badlands of Madhya Pradesh to Neemuch. This post deals with the first leg of the journey from Mandsaur to Darmarajeshwar via Sitamau.

Mandsaur, the smallest of the three towns is also the oldest. According to some sources, the great Sanskrit poet Kalidasa was born here, and Mandsaur – or Dashapura as it was known for much of its history – is mentioned in his best-known work, Meghdoot.

Most of the town is still packed inside the medieval city walls and as a result, it is quite a job to manoeuvre even a small vehicle in its many crowded lanes. Just outside the city walls, and on the banks of the tired looking river is the Pashupatinath Temple, the biggest attraction of Mandsaur. The temple complex, which is rather modern has been built around a unique shivalinga which has four faces carved on the four cardinal directions.

Pashupatinath Temple, as the dawn breaks over Mandsaur
A spotted owlet tries to blend in to the temple spire

Mandsaur, unlike many other walled cities in India has only just started to spill over the traditional boundaries. The main markets, and indeed most of the residential colonies are still within the confines of the medieval walls. After the temple, we went back into town, entering through an arched gateway in search for a haveli that was supposed to contain 300 year old frescoes. When this search yielded no reasults, we headed over to our next destination in Mandsaur.

Perched on a hill to the south of the walled city  are the remains of Dashapura Fort. According to the Imperial Gazetteer, this fortress was probably founded by Alauddin Khilji in the 14th century. At any rate, Mandsaur and its fort played some part in both medieval and modern Indian history. It was here that Humayun fought and defeated Bahadur Shah, the sultan of Gujarat, in 1535; Akbar settled the headquarters of the Mandsaur government after capturing the Malwa region; and, in 1818, a treaty between Sir John Malcolm and Malwa’s Holkar rulers ‘settled’ the region firmly in British hands.

Located in the south of town are some overgrown bastions and a gate that leads into a colony of cattle and concrete houses. Inside is a half-ruined mosque, a grave known as the Mamu-Bhanje ka Mazar, an akhada (traditional wrestling school) and the dargah of a saint known locally as Mitthe Shah. Here’s what you will see:

Most of Mandsaur still lives within the walls. This is one of the gates into the city.
Most of Mandsaur still lives within the walls. This is one of the gates into the city.
This large and exquisite Gupta era sculpture of Parashurama stands tall at the District Collector’s office. The office complex is housed in British-era barracks and was once the fort’s citadel
Our guide, a clerk at the collectorate leads us to the simply massive baoli on the western edge of the fort
The two graves, popularly known as Mamu-Bhanje ka Mazar
Part of Mandsaur town as seen from the fort’s ramparts.
Parvati being mobbed by children
Inside the fort

About 30 kms east of Mandsaur is Sitamau, once the capital of a princely state that was almost the size of Ratlam. In a surprising expanse of open space reached through narrow, busy lanes is the citadel of the town which houses the Sitamau Palace. Though a little blackened with time, the palace is still in a fair state of preservation – so much so, indeed, that it is currently occupied by the local branch of the State Bank of India. It is quite a sight to see air-conditioners peep out of the delicate jharokha windows on the palace’s first floor. While there is no restriction whatsoever on photography within the premises of the palace, a rather irate watchman might claim otherwise. It is a good idea not to pay any attention to him. I didn’t.

Spotted this building on the way to Sitamau. Now being used as a government office.
Gateway leading into the old part of Sitamau town, where the palace is located
The narrow alleyways of the walled portion of Sitamau town are flanked by once elegant buildings
The palace viewed from the side. Notice the scumbag watchman who kept following me around, muttering curses under his breath
The palace. The watchman has now gathered two cronies
The Sitamau coat-of-arms

A 10-minute drive from the Sitamau citadel and located alongside another palace of Sitamau’s rulers is the Natnagar Shodh Samsthan, the passion and brainchild of a woefully underrecognised
if greatly erudite and committed Raja of Sitamau, Dr Raghubir Sinh. Dr Sinh, a student of the eminent scholar YD Sircar, and recipient of the first DLitt awarded by Agra University for his thesis titled
‘Malwa in Transition’, accumulated a veritable treasure of books and manuscripts on central India. Natnagar Shodh Samsthan forms the core of the research institute he founded.

Today, it has over 35,000 books, 6,500 manuscripts and over 17 lakh letters, in Hindi, Marathi, Persian, Urdu, Sanskrit and English. Maintained by a small but committed staff, the library has served generations of scholars from India and abroad, and remains open to anyone who walks through its doors.

Both the palace as well as the library are enclosed by a beautiful garden. Also in the compound is a small but rather deep baoli

The baoli
The gardener and his son pose for a photograph
Colours we do not see that often: A peacock lands in the lawns
There was something extremely personal about this library. I wanted to pick a book, sit down in a cool corner and read for hours.
Where there are kings, can trophies be far behind?

Around 4 kms south of Sitamau is the tiny village of Laduna. Located on the banks of a large lake, Laduna Palace was built as an alternative to Sitamau in case the latter succumbed to Maratha attacks – a routine phenomenon in this region at the time. This beautifully conceived palace was built by Fateh Sinh, who assumed the throne of Sitamau in 1752.

Still occasionally inhabited by Fateh Sinh’s descendents, Laduna Palace has a square Radha-Krishna Temple that abuts into the lake and is half-submerged every monsoon. Unfortunately when we visited Laduna, the lake was dry. But a little imagination, and you can clearly see how beautiful the place would have been had there been water.

Ruins of a once flourishing village in Laduna
The Radha-Krishna Temple, which had the lake been full,  would have been surrounded by water.
A snake slithers into its hole.
State of parch-ment
The palace complex, viewed from the ‘lake’.

Every now and then in the life of a traveller, you embark on a journey of discoveries. While Mandsaur and Sitamau were quite unexplored, what came next was stuff of legends.  Sixty kilometres north-east of Sitamau, and a little over 100 kms from Mandsaur, is the magnificent, hill-top, rock-cut temple of Dharmarajeshwar (earlier known as Dhamnar)  with miraculously preserved, ancient Buddhist caves carved into the same hill.

Dharmarajeshwar, as seen from Google Earth. All along the edge of the cliff are numerous Buddhist caves
Dharmarajeshwar, as seen from Google Earth. All along the edge of the cliff are numerous Buddhist caves

The nearest village, called Chandwasa, is located at the foot of the Dharmarajeshwar hill to the west. Cut into, and out of, the hill, the temple complex bears some comparison to the rock- cut marvels of Ellora, in Maharashtra. The site is protected by the Archaeological Survey of India.

The dried-up bed of the Chambal. Obvious handiwork of the Gandhi Sagar dam upstream.
A village on the way, with a palace/fort on top. We passed by many villages with heritage structures. There is so much history in this land… so much to preserve!
Another view
Declaration of love, roadways style

We had no idea what to expect at Dharmarajeshwar. We just knew that it was a rock-cut temple, in the style of Ellora and barely anything more than that. We had no idea how big it was, or how ornate it would be and since it is cut into the rock, we had absolutely no idea what we would see until we actually went through a gateway. When we did go through that door, we stood face to case with the complex. The main temple and a few subsidiary shrines occupy a depression the size of half a football field carved into solid rock!

The main shrine in the 8th-century Dharmarajeshwar Temple complex was originally dedicated to both Vishnu and Shiva, and an image of Harihara – the combined form of both Vishnu (Hari) and Shiva (Hara) – is found in its garbhagriha. However, it later became a Shiva temple, so the garbhagriha also houses a shivalinga, and today Mahashivratri is the main festival celebrated here. There are five smaller shrines within the temple complex, one of which is empty. The others are dedicated to Panch Devi, Chote Vishnu, Bade Vishnu and the Dasavtaras.

Parvati, excellent writer and an even better travel companion
Both Shiva and Vishnu reside in the same sanctum
Here you can see how deep they had to dig in solid rock
The scale of the enterprise is simply mind boggling. Especially when you consider that it was undertaken more than a millennium and a quarter back!
Loneliness. A photograph I have come to love. The woman on the right lost her husband who was the caretaker of the complex. The government was kind enough to give her the job. Thank god for small graces.
Still looking for a vantage point to capture the entire complex.
The massive rock-cut alleyway that leads to the temple complex.
Vantage point has been reached finally. A view of what the alley leading to the temples looks like from top.
Here you can see most of the temple enclosure and the main temple itself. All of this has been carved out of one solid piece of rock!
Simply massive
Finally, the whole temple complex in one shot. The opening on the right is the one that leads to the alley-way. It is a very tricky thing to photograph, this temple is!
A strange head bobbing about
A tree marks the spot: When you approach Dharmarajeshwar Temple from the surface (as opposed to using the alley) this is all you see at first!

Carved into the rough laterite rock of the hill-face, a few minutes’ walk from the temple, are a series of Buddhist caves, dated to the 5th century AD. These caves were discovered by James Tod, an officer of the East India Company in the early 19th century. Although Tod described these as Jain caves and said there were 170 of them, this was disputed by later scholars, including Alexander Cunningham, who identified the caves as Buddhist and their number as about 70.
It is believed today that there may be up to 300 caves all around the hill, hidden amid the chiral, ber, tamarind and neem trees that rustle when the occasional gust of wind disturbs their branches. Only 14 caves, however, are open and accessible to visitors. These include an unnamed enclosure that contains five seated Buddhas (locally believed to be the five Pandava brothers), three larger-than- life standing Buddhas and a beautifully elongated depiction of the Buddha’s parinirvana.

Climbing down from the Temple to inspect the Dhamnar Caves.
One of the cave shrines
A stupa that also doubles up as a pillar
Stupa and the Buddha
Parinirvana – the moment when the Buddha’s spirit travelled from the mortal world to the heavens above
Larger than life images of Bodhisattvas carved in relief in one of the shrines
A smaller cave shrine glows in the afternoon light

The largest cave here is called Bhim Bazaar, and it contains a chaitya (or shrine) enclosed within what is probably a vihara (living quarters for monks). Each row of small cells in the vihara has one cell that contains a small chaitya. No matter what the temperatures outside, light filters gently through this porous stone and a sense of peace pervades these now-deserted halls.

Entrance to Bhim Bazaar
The chaitya inside Bhim Bazaar
Corridors in the vihara surrounding Bhim Bazaar
Corridors in the vihara surrounding Bhim Bazaar

There is also the Badi Kachahari, a large chaitya hall, which may once have been decorated with painted plaster, though only some traces of carving remain today.

Pillared central hall of the Badi Kachehri
Like pawns in a massive game of chess
Denizens of the night spend the day in a dark cave… only to be rudely intruded upon by a man with a flashbulb

A day that started so remarkably in a town that has managed to retain its medieval flavour was coming to an end on top of a hill, surrounded by flotsam of an age long gone by. The sun was about to kiss the horizon and the bare rocks of Dharmarajeshwar were set aglow by the magic afternoon light. Around me was the evidence of an age where two religions made this tiny piece or rock their home and most importantly, home to their Gods. It was an important day, because the travel guide that would reasult from this trip would be the first stage in building tourist infrastructure to this area. It would be great to see this place bustling with tourists (responsible tourists at that) which in turn would bring in the much required capital to the local economy.

If this scheme were to succeed, I would take pleasure in the fact that I have had a miniscule part to play in it.

The landscape around the Dhamnar caves. We were told that there are numerous other unexplored caves on the cliff-face. Some home to leopards and sloth bears.
Ruins glowing red in the unearthly afternoon light. My shadow makes little impact in the proceedings

We left Dharmarajeshwar just as the sun disappeared over the horizon. We had to cover a distance of almost 80 kms over questionable roads that ran through a vast wilderness. The roads, as it turned out were surprisingly good (with some bad patches) and we reached Gandhi Sagar No 2 (more on this in the next post). Where we were booked in the PWD bungalow. It was a single storeyed structure with high ceilings, set in the middle of nowhere. At this point of time, I must point out that the entire settlement of Gandhi Sagar No 2, is a mere collection of a few houses and a couple of shops selling the basic necessaries. The room was big enough to accommodate three people but it made up for it by the toilet, which was barely fit for use. But one cannot complain after a day of amazing discoveries and looking forward to a night of peaceful sleep.

My room at the PWD Bungalow
….and the bathroom!

If this experience was wild, the next day’s adventure would be taking it to the next step. Watch this space for more.

23 thoughts on “The Untold Story of MP: Mandsaur to Dharmarajeshwar via Sitamau

  1. so nice to relive this through your post, bodhi… the photos are stunning (that peacock particularly!) and I’m remembering everything I’d half forgotten. waiting to read the next instalment. next time, but, you mustn’t be so modest – supplying the evening’s whiskey is the most critical part of any journey 🙂


  2. I casually happened to view your blog when I searched for Mandsaur, the ancient Dasapura. I searched whether there is any Sun Temple still exists in Mandsaur, said to have been built by the guild of Silk Weavers who migrated from Lata to Dasapura. The temple was built in A.D. 437 and after 36 years it was renovated in A.D.473. Vatsabhatti has composed verses in Sanskirt about this temple construction in a rock edit, which is now housed in Gwalior Museum. There is no information about all these things in your write up. I belong to Sourashtra community settled in South India (Madurai). Our tradition says that we migrated from Saurashtra – Lata. We are silk weavers by profession originally. Except the above rock edit of Silk Weavers Guild, there is no evidence available about our migration. Please reply if you have any information about the Sun Temple built by Silk Weavers.
    3rd May 2013.


  3. Woah! I’m really enjoying the template/theme of this blog. It’s
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  4. Delighted to read this article . If anyone is interested in Sitamau, or even better wants to go there, please let me know. It is my hometown though I now live in Delhi. I am also the chairman of the natnagar Shodh sansthan and can assist you. I can be reached at Thank you, Puranjay Sinh Rathore.


  5. I’m not sure why but this web site is loading extremely slow for me.

    Is anyone else having this issue or is it a issue on my end?
    I’ll check back later on and see if the problem still exists.


  6. Namaskar and regards. In one word “WONDERFUL”. I was looking for hinglaj temple in Mandsaur district. However by God’s grace I found your document. It will give me a great way to visit and to meditate in those silent, serene and lonely places.

    If possible please let me know is it safe and open to all or only to you as govt. employee.

    Please write about Hinglaj of MP not of Pakistan.

    Thanks regrads


  7. A very captivating narrative indeed. you have made me realize the hitherto unknown historical and cultural importance of my city

    Thank you sir


  8. Thanks a lot .. Good to see some of the best photographs of my birthplace Sitamau.. The government building you feature is in fact High Schools building..Shri Ram vidyalaya.


  9. respected sir,
    i am giridhar ., manthapala ghotru,.
    ahvuna is ghar-naam. and a saurashtrian- palkar living in palkar trichy ,tamilnadu.our ancestor’ s profession silk weaving ( magha Vinas ) pashuth magha vinus.,
    thana vinus and same byhaar. ie. trading . see ., keeping priests ghothras and also having seperate family home names as available in Jewish races. We may be identified as saurashtra priests. Where as the guild of silk weaving is another identity.
    and amazingly the term ” palkar pahlaeo ” reveals sun faced siddhanta astronomy or astrological predictors .naturally all are involved with astrology with faith.
    so a seperate powerful ethnicity
    people may be we were.
    our ethenic society may be administered and ruled by our
    own. , ” Sauli- gonds. ” with saulin sabha.
    so i kindly request the West, North, East bharatha vasi interested with archaeology with good history may reveal as ” We are who factually ”
    palkar surname people are now living from Goa Maharashtra Gujarat and Madyapradesh .
    saurashtra region is mentioned as South Gujarat.
    silk weaving profession is having seperate identical word as “” Pashuth “‘/ where as in North India
    silk is mentioned as ‘ pattavayakka’
    and also before our arrival in South India the silk is pronounced here as
    “pattaiya salia ‘” so we are again seperate ly. identified with the term as Pashuth Weaver’s.
    why i am coming to say this is.,
    In ancient ghanthar or Afghanistan
    there is a ethenic race with Islamic identity as “” Pashuthun “”
    So how to recognize us
    please any genuine historian may reveal the unwritten story of South India saurashtra s.
    One more view. we speak now only spoken language of saurashtri or palkari.
    which is definitely mentioned in ancient times as ” saurasreni ‘*.


  10. Hi. Had read your blog, and was positively smitten by it. So this March, while on a week long trip to MP (I am from Punjab), I tried to follow in your foot-steps. Skipped Mandsaur though (I think it slipped from my mind, although did take in the pillar of Yashodharman at Sondani), and took a immediate (wrong) left turn after crossing Chambal (by the way, Chambal time was all blue and serene!) . Got lost in the villages, and reached Dharmarajeshwar very very late. Got maybe 10-15 minutes at the temple, and something similar at the caves before it was quite dark. There’s a museum at the site now, mainly dedicated to the recent restoration work at the site.
    Took the Shamgarh (correct one) road to Sitamau and spent the night there. Early morning, looked around the fort and palace (And the *** watchman wasn’t around this time :), although a couple of CRPF/police guy’s in early morning banians and chhaddis kept a wary eye on us!! Skipped various other sites Natnagar etc,(I plan to be back), and followed onwards towards Bagh Caves.
    The region seemed, if I may add, bucolic, prosperous (citrus, opium along with wheat)! Loved the drives and colours as the palash and semal were in full bloom!

    Also, I had taken a Kota, Rawatbhata (Baroli temple etc), Jhalawar trip some time back, but had to skip the Chaturbhuj Nala/Hinglaj garh/Bhangarh (I am a big fan of Jaswant Holkar) part. Hope to get it done this year. Thanks for “blazing the trail”, and keep writing!!


  11. Itts amazing that someone has posted about my Hometown . It is the answer to those who asked me every time that where is your Mandsaur Located.


  12. Sir,

    Untold story of madyapradesh.
    please reveal untold story of saurashtrian-palkar.,
    why they identified so.
    whether they have unique Kings from their soceity
    may any historians clarify that the pala dynasty Kings like mahipal are related with Palkar of saurashtra.
    Is pala dynasty Kings emerged from same saurashtra region Palkar clans
    Then why Palkar clans are speaking various mother tonques such as gujarathi Marathi konkani marwari hindhu and Nepali so
    Is there any relationships with Pali language with saurashtrian Palkar langauage



  13. It was very nice to read the travelogue. It was not merely fascinating but mesmerizing to know the places far from the beaten track. Thanks a lot for the article.


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