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