This post is about the tiny town of Bhanpura located in a forgotten corner of Madhya Pradesh. This post is a celebration of how small places like Bhanpura, a name you might never have come across, can hold such a wealth of history and natural beauty, yet be so far removed from public vision. But then places like these come as a blessing for travellers like us, who can go to great lengths for that ‘two streets over’ feel. Although the history of Bhanpura and its immediate surroundings go back thousands of years (as we shall soon see) it rose to prominence only in the 19th century, when it was ruled by the Maratha king, Yashwant Rao Holkar (1776-1811). In this post we will look at various facets of Bhanpura and its surrounding areas, including the Gandhi Sagar Dam and sanctuary, numerous shelters with prehistoric cave paintings, inaccessible forts and fabulous Maratha architecture. This satellite view of the region will give you an idea of the area in question (right-click and open in a new window for better view).
In the larger story of Bhanpura, Gandhi Sagar Dam also plays a short but interesting cameo. The foundation stone of the project was laid on 7 March 1954 by the then prime minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and electricity production started in 1962. Originally, most of the area around the dam was uninhabited except by a few villages of Bhil tribals. However, once the dam was built and began operation, employees of the project settled in a cluster of eight small townships (known simply as Gandhi Sagar No 1, Gandhi Sagar No 2 and so on), all within a few kilometres of the dam. Each ‘village’ has its own rest-house, and visitors may get permission to stay here from the Chambal Valley Project authorities.
We were lucky to be booked into the rest house in No 2 where we arrived after a fabulous adventure on a dark February evening. Sleep was aided considerably by a few drinks and a hearty dinner. I wanted to get up early as I wanted to capture the sunset over the lake. Also as I had arrived in the dark, I had no idea what kind of landscape I was in. I woke up just as the darkness was fading away. By the time I stepped outside, a faint dawn had broken. What surrounded me was a desolate expanse of rocky land, broken in places by large bushes and clumps of cactii. Around half a kilometre ahead of me, I could make out the recess in the ground through which flows the Chambal, one of India’s most enigmatic rivers. So I started walking towards it.
At this point of time I could make out three shapes approaching me from the direction of the river. In a couple of minutes, as the shapes drew closer, I could make out the faint outline of three dogs. But then with every step the dogs kept getting bigger and bigger. Wait a minute, dogs, especially of the stray variety are usually not this big. Also dogs don’t have stripes. Only then did it dawn on me that they were not dogs but a pack of hyenas, possibly returning home after a night of hyena-ing. The moment I realised what I was facing, I froze on the spot and the hyenas coolly disappeared behind a thicket. At their closest, they were barely 30-40 feet away from me. I did not dare raise my camera to take shots but got a couple of shaky ones from the hip. Caught two of them in the act.
After the Hyenas had left and I had collected myself (which was a lot of collecting ), I continues on towards the river. Eventually i did reach the edge of the cliff and there was the Chambal, showing off its greenish blue hue. Dam was around 6 kms to my left and to my right was the oceanic expanse of the Gandhi Sagar Dam. Just a note, in case you ever find yourself here and are tempted to cool off in its inviting waters: Traditionally, the Chambal river has supported a large crocodilian population. And although their numbers have reduced substantially, crocodiles are still occasionally spotted in the river and on the numerous islands in the Gandhi Sagar reservoir. Now dont blame me if you are attacked and killed.
By the time I had returned from my early morning adventure, Parvati was up and about and breakfast was ready. Post breakfast, we visited a beautifully-appointed Circuit House overlooking the endless turquoise blue waters of the Gandhi Sagar reservoir – a vast body of water that covers 2,280 sq kms. in February 2011, plans are underway to convert the Circuit House to an MP Tourism Hotel, to boost tourism in the area.
The massive wilderness surrounding the Gandhi Sagar Dam and the reservoir has been designated as the Gandhi Sagar Wildlife sanctuary. It was notified in 1974 and further enlarged in 1983. Most of it is covered by stunted shrubs, dry deciduous vegetation – including tall, graceful trees such as Khair, Dhawda, Tendu and Palash, the last of which is known for its bright orange flowers – and flat arid grassland. Apart from the hyenas, the forest is home to leopards, sloth bear, various species of deer and antelope, hispid hare and monkeys. But on this particular day, we were going into the forest not in search of wildlife but for a rock shelter, adorned with pre-historic rock paintings – Chaturbhuj Nala.
Deep within the sanctuary, along a sinuous, perinneal stream called the Chaturbhuj Nala (sometimes also referred to as the Chaturbhujnath Nala) are rock shelters stretching in a 5-km long ‘gallery’, with thousands of figures painted on its walls. The first 700 m of this gallery is easily accessible to visitors. Historians believe that the paintings here from the pre-pastoral (over 6,000 years old) to at least the early medieval age (circa 10th century AD), these have every qualification to be declared a World Heritage Site – like the rock paintings of Bhimbetka, also in Madhya Pradesh. Named after a small modern temple, Chaturbhujnath Mandir, located on the northern bank of the Chaturbhujnath stream, this site was discovered in 1977 by a local school teacher called Ramesh Pancholi, and his friends.
We approached Chaturbhuj Nala on a day that was as clear as its waters. Apart from Bhimbetka, all the other rock paintings that I have seen have been in isolated, smallish shelters. Here, there was a channel of overhanging rock fringing the left bank of the stream for as far as i could see. The water of the stream was still, crystal clear, and almost mirror-like in its reflections.
Contrary to popular belief, these paintings are not the result of a sudden efflorescence of creativity, but are the culmination of the evolving human ability to both perceive and depict. This is a process that began over 1,00,000 years ago, as is evident from the 500-odd cupules pecked into solid rock at Dar Ki Chattan, near Bhanpura (discussed later).
Most of the paintings in Chaturbhuj Nala have been executed in shades of red, ochre and, in rare instances, white and black. It is also likely that many hundreds of compositions were made on the outer surface of the rock shelters, all of which have been erased by sunlight, wind and rain. Moreover, although it is likely that, over the millennia, many individual artists demonstrated their artistic prowess on these rocks, no artist can be individually identified, since all followed the styles of their clans.
So let’s have a look at the paintings:
Twelve kilometres from Bhanpura on the road leading to Gandhi Sagar, a road branches eastwards to the ancient fortress of Hinglajgarh, named after the goddess Hinglaj Mata. Once off the main road, the metalled surface vanished almost immediately and was replaced by a dirt track that snaked through for 18 kms through wild landscape, desolate villages and a particularly tricky stretch that consisted almost entirely of rocks that suggest the ruins of a flourishing city now long gone. It was almost like the stones that were once used to build great mansions had come loose and were strewn all over the place. On reaching the high gates of the fortress, you may well feel some of the exhaustion, and elation, of a medieval explorer. Just like we did.
This torture of a road ends on a plateau. On three sides, the landscape is dominated by rolling hills covered by the forests of the Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary, while on the fourth are the high walls and thick stone bastions of the Hinglajgarh Fort. One cannot, in words convey the location of the fort or the wildness of the surroundings. Take a look at this Google Earth screengrab and decide for yourself.
Although the fort’s ancient history is unclear, it reached its zenith during the Paramara period (10th-13th centuries). After the decline of the Paramaras, the fort was occupied by the Chandrawats of Bhanpura until, in 1733, the Holkar queen Ahilya Bai defeated Lakshman Singh Chandrawat and occupied the fortress. The fort has thus been built and rebuilt several times and to this date one can see carved and sculpted stones – obvious remains from previous structures – embedded in the walls of the fort.
Spread across several small hills, Hinglajgarh has four gateways – Patanpol, Surajpol, Katrapol and Mandaleshwaripol. Today the only access to the fort is through Patanpol. There are numerous water sources in the fort, chief among which is Surajkund, a tank that still exudes some of its former glory and is revered by the Bhil tribals of the region.
At the height of its glory, Hinglajgarh was known for its exquisite sculptures. Some of the finest specimens from this period have fortunately survived to this day and are displayed at the Archaeological Museum in Bhanpura. The Department of Archaeology, Government of Madhya Pradesh, also has a site office within the fort where several loose sculptures and temple fragments are preserved.
At the western end of the fort, are two temples, one dedicated to Hinglaj Mata and the other to Shiva. Incidentally there is a famous shaktipeeth in Balochistan in Pakistan dedicated to the goddess Hinglaj Mata that is one of the most significant pilgrimages especially for Hindus from Kutch in Gujarat.
Except for the priest and his apprentice, the rest of the fort is entirely uninhabited. Food is brought in from neighbouring villages (the nearest one is about 10 kms away) while water is fetched from a mountain stream in the valley below. A steady stream of people – both locals and the occasional tourist – trickles in every day, and the quiet is regularly broken by the roar of cars and motorbikes conquering this rocky, desolate landscape. Near the two temples is an arched pavillion inside a walled compound. It is locally known as the kachehri, or court, but may also have been part of the royal durbar hall. As most of the fort is spread over a series of heavily forested hills, it is difficult to pinpoint all the structures still extant here. One can, however, still marvel at the sheer magnificence, and isolation, of this remote fort.
Less than 5 kms north of Bhanpura and overlooking the town is a hill popularly known as Dar ki Chattan. Halfway up are two Shiva temples that date back to the period of Yashwant Rao Holkar. The larger of these is called Bada Mahadev and the other Chhota Mahadev. The hill was the site of the ancient fortress of Indragarh, a city that flourished as a major trading post in the Kushan period (1st-2nd centuries AD). The real attraction of Dar ki Chattan, however, is marked on the walls of a narrow and deep cave on its northern side. These walls are marked with 560 cup-shaped depressions.
Known as ‘cupules’, these are said to be the earliest attempts at artistic expression by human beings, predating the rock-paintings of Bhimbetka and Chaturbhujnath Nala by thousands of years. Scholars have suggested, in fact, that these cupules are anywhere between 1,00,000 and 2,00,000 years old. Many hundreds of thousands of years ago – even before the continental shift, when the Indian Plate split from the primeval continent of Gondwanaland and collided with the Eurasian plate to form the Indian subcontinent as we know it today – the region that became Bhanpura was under the Tethys Sea. As the land was pushed up, sedimentary rocks, like the ones that make up Dar ki Chattan, were formed, interspersed with pebbles of harder metamorphic rock, which were much older. Scientists conjecture that ancient humans used these harder pebbles to make depressions on the cave walls.
Archaeologists who tried to recreate the cupules using these prehistoric techniques found that it took over 700 blows to form even a shallow indent. Obviously, great time, and patience, went into the creation of these concave depressions, but scholarly consensus about their purpose is yet to be achieved. In spite of a lot of research, it is not clear why early humans chose to make these cupules. There is no dearth of theories. Some think that the cup marks are actually the positions of stars plotted on a wall, pothers believe that the sound of the stone hitting the cave walls was a means of communication. Maybe someday we will have an explaination, but for now it remains a mystery
The story of Bhanpura cannot be complete without a mention of its great hero. Sometime in the early 1990s, Dr. Pradyumn Bhatt – a schoolteacher by profession and amateur archaeologist by calling – had climbed to the peak of Dar ki Chattan to inspect the remains of an ancient temple. With him were two friends, Mr Agarwal and Mr Gaur. At about four in the evening, the friends noticed the sun’s rays gleam on water accumulated in small cups on the ground. All three had seen these little ‘bowls’ countless times in the past, but something about the beauty of light playing with water focussed their gaze, and they noticed, for the first time, how the cups were made in two straight lines. Suspecting that this could not possibly be a natural occurrence, the friends began exploring the hill for more cupules and so, eventually, a veritable treasure of 560 cupules was found.
Over the last 20 years, Dr. Bhatt has worked tirelessly to bring these cupules to the attention of paleontologists and archaeologists both within and outside India. He has also fought to protect the cave from the less welcome attentions of vandals, going so far as to reforest the hill to dissuade any but the most dedicated visitors from accessing the cave.
Already, however, the rock art that decorated parts of this hill has faded; and Dr. Bhatt and his friends need all the help they can get to ensure the cupules are not similarly lost in obscurity. Dr Bhatt is also a poet. If you find yourself in Bhanpura, talking archaeology with Dr Bhatt over a cup of tea, chances are he will gift you one of his volumes.
Another of Bhanpura’s attractions (albeit from a time much more recent) is Yashwant Rao Holkar’s chhatri. It took 30 years to complete and was designed to look like a temple. Built by his wife, Maharani Tulsibai, the memorial stands on a solid plinth over 2 m high. Within is a square mandapa, its ceiling embellished with intricate sculptures. The mandapa leads to the garbhagriha through a short antarala. In the garbhagriha there are marble images of the king and his two queens, Kesarbai and Tulsibai.
The chhatri is enclosed within a walled compound and is entered through an imposing gateway to the east. The compound walls have pillared cloisters, which have now been converted into a museum by the Archaeological Survey of India. The open-air Bhanpura Museum houses invaluable sculptures, mainly from the nearby fortress of Hinglajgarh. Even to this day, people in surrounding villages stumble upon priceless sculptures while ploughing their fields, digging a ditch or even washing their clothes on the river-bank.
Many of these have been found to be both exquisite and valuable, and several of these loose sculptures are displayed here. The collection starts from as early as the Gupta period (3rd-5th centuries AD) and includes exhibits from as late as the Maratha period (18th-19th centuries). The real gems, however, date to the Paramara period (9th-12th centuries). This was the time when the Paramaras occupied the Hinglajgarh fort and local artisans produced some of the most beautiful sculptures of all time.
Most striking among these are two images of Uma-Maheshwara and one of Nandi, the primary vahana (vehicle) of Shiva. The anatomically precise Nandi, the bull, is shown sitting down while a group of ganas (divine attendants) offer him a plate heaped with laddoos. Nandi is adorned with beautiful ornaments, which historians conjecture, may have been gilded in the past.
The Uma-Maheshwar sculpture, on the other hand is a study of the divine family. Uma (or Parvati) is shown seated on the lap of Maheshwar (Shiva), who is in turn seated on Nandi. The divine couple is accompanied by their four children – Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartikeya – depicted in a diminutive form compared to the relatively larger images of their parents.
Both these sculptures have been exhibited in various international exhibitions where they have won critical acclaim. The museum’s caretaker, a brave man who has battled antique smugglers armed with nothing more than his lathi, is quick to point out that when the Nandi left the country for India Festivals in France and the United States, it was insured for the sum of 2 crores!
Travel is a great leveller. A few months back I had no idea that a place called Bhanpura even existed. And now it has taken my breath away. I have done my share of travelling but never has a place had this air of ‘forgotten’ about it. I hope people do visit Bhanpura. I hope some of you do have that cup of coffee with Dr Bhatt or have your bones rattled on the way to Hainglajgarh. And above all I hope you explore, dream and discover.
Till I see you again.