Walls that Speak: the Frescoes of Bundi


The soaring sandstone walls of the Taragarh fort stand guard over the present city of Bundi. From its ramparts one has a clear view of the surrounding mountains, the blue houses and the black kites soaring above the city, riding the thermals and waiting to swoop down on unsuspecting prey.

Nawal Sagar Lake and the tourist district as seen from the fort
Nawal Sagar Lake and the tourist district as seen from the fort

Once you enter the fortress through the lofty Hati Pol (Elephant Gate), it is but a study in contrast. The construction started in 1354 and the present structure is but an agglomeration of the various palaces built thereafter by the rulers of Bundi. While most of these individual palaces are in dire need of repair (thanks to the litigation among the surviving members of the royal family), some have been taken over by the Archaeological Survey of India and given a fresh lease of life.

Inside one of the several palaces that make up the fort
Inside one of the several palaces that make up the fort

Whatever be the state of preservation, the palaces in Taragarh have one thing in common – frescos. These paintings follow the Bundi style of miniature art. While the other kingdom of Rajputana like Amber, Mewar and Marwar were heavily influenced by Mughal Miniature art, the painters of Bundi borrowed elements from the miniature art forms of Deccan, thus giving rise to a unique style. The bright colours of Bundi miniatures and frescos are derived from minerals, vegetables, precious stones, as well as pure silver and gold.  The paintings deal with both secular and religious themes. They also showcase the physical beauty of the Hadoti region, the rivers, the dense forests, dramatic night skies and feature ‘a distinctive way of depicting water by light swirls against a dark background, and vivid movement’. Bundi miniatures emphasized on hunting, court scenes, festivals, processions, life of nobles, lovers, animals, birds and scenes from Lord Krishna’s life.

Painting on the ceiling of Hathi Pol. The sun is indicative of the fact that the Hada Rajputs who ruled over Bundi were Suryavanshis; i.e descended from the Sun
Painting on the ceiling of Hathi Pol. The sun is indicative of the fact that the Hada Rajputs who ruled over Bundi were Suryavanshis; i.e descended from the Sun
Painted Niches
Painted Niches
Painted niches
Painted niches
Painted niches
Painted niches

Apart from Chitrashala (discussed later), a rich collection of paintings can be found on the walls and ceilings of Badal Mahal (Palace of Clouds). Occupying some of the highest rooms in the Taragarh Fort, it is said that during the monsoons, the low hanging rain clouds would actually float through the courtyards of the Badal Mahal. Almost tucked away in a corner and accessed by narrow flight of stairs, Badal Mahal once served as the zenana or the women’s quarters, housing the harem of the then ruler Rao Bhoj. Women then had no access to the outside wall except what they could see through the latticed windows. The paintings on the walls and ceilings of Badal Mahal, depicting battle formations, rural life, fantastic beasts and heavenly creatures and even scenes from a royal darbar might have served as a portal to the outside world for the ladies. A strange, gilded prison.

Strange birds. Roosters? Phoenixes?
Strange birds. Roosters? Phoenixes?
Strange women
Strange women
Battle scene. The details are mind boggling
Battle scene. The details are mind boggling
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The king in his court

The centerpiece of Badal Mahal is definitely the ceiling of its topmost chamber. Sometimes referred to as Rajasthan’s Sistine Chapel, the mural on the ceiling depicts, in painstaking detail, the raas leela of Krishna.

The stunning  Badal Mahal ceiling in one frame.
View of the ceiling of Badal Mahal, depicting the Raas Leela
The stunning Badal Mahal ceiling in one frame

For the next collection of Bundi miniatures, head over to the Chitrashala. Previously known as Ummed Mahal after Maharaja Ummed Singh, this section of the fort was taken over by the Archaeological Survey of India, restored and preserved. If you find yourself here, please avoid flash photography.

Chitrashala, from the outside
Chitrashala, from the outside

The walls of Chitrashala come alive with the life and exploits of the kings and queens of Bundi. Along with the royals, Lord Krishna can also be seen playing his flute, gamboling on meadows with his gopis and getting up to all sorts of cosmic mischief. Most of the paintings you see here were done between 1773 and 1821. The artists of Chitrashala, and indeed of Bundi had their own standard of depicting feminine beauty. Women are portrayed with small round faces, receding foreheads, prominent noses and full cheeks. The royal ladies of chitrashala are shown wearing a transparent Jama over pyjamas. Featured prominently on most paintings is a background comprising of lush landscapes painted in vibrant colors. These compositions, massed with a variety of trees and floral creepers, ponds with lotus flowers in the foreground, fish and birds form a distinguishing feature of the Bundi style.

Chitrashala ceiling
Chitrashala ceiling
Paintings like you wouldn't believe. This is history on the walls. Never know how the hours went by!
Paintings like you wouldn’t believe. This is history on the walls. Never know how the hours went by!
Details, Chitrashala
Details, Chitrashala
One of the more famous murals from Chitrashala, showing women celebrating the Teej festival
One of the more famous murals from Chitrashala, showing women celebrating the Teej festival
Portrait of a lady
Portrait of a lady
Krishna with his gopis
Krishna with his gopis
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Women of the harem
Study of a princess
Study of a princess
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There is no space that has not been painted
The detailing is insane!
The detailing is insane!

It is said that the existing tradition of creating miniatures was given a boost in 1605 by the sudden arrival of three master painters from Chunar, near Varanasi. These painters were a gift from emperor Akbar, in return for Bundi’s obedience. These painters who had previously worked only on palm leaf manuscripts changed their idiom by painting frescoes like those at Badal Mahal and Chitrashala. This zeal soon spread through the city, across classes and through time. Even today, a graffiti on the roads of Bundi usually borrows from city’s historic miniature style.

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Snapshot: Breathless in Bundi


Rajasthan is, in all probability, one of the most visited states in India – both by domestic, as well as International tourists. It has been this way for decades. Given this context, to think that in this oft-visited state still lies a corner that is still relatively unexplored and untouched by the tourism industry, is well, incredible.

The kingdoms of Jaipur, Mewar (centered around Chittorgarh and Udaipur ) and Marwar (Jodhpur) were bigger, richer and almost incessantly at war – either with each other or some invading foe. Hadoti, with Bundi at its centre was tucked away in the corner, on the border with Malwa, away from the path of the invaders from the northwest.

What we now know as the region of Hadoti, started as a kingdom in the 12th century AD. It was, however, not destined to remain united. In 1631, the independent kingdom of Kota separated from Hadoti. The region was further split as Jhalawar became an independent state in 1838. So when Indian gained Independence, the three independent kingdoms of Bundi, Kota and Jhalawar joined the Indian Union.

The modern town of Bundi is yet to spill out of its medieval city walls. As a result, you are treated to a miraculously well preserved medieval town. Most of the hotels / guest houses are converted havelis, while the streets are lined with shops that have been functioning for close to half a millennia. All this, against the backdrop of the remarkable Taragarh Fortress – an impregnable statement in sandstone and granite growing like a beehive on the side of a mountain.

The charm of Bundi is very difficult to put in words. It is the result of a rather eclectic mix of rooftop cafes, blue houses, streets lined with medieval graffiti, farmers transporting milk in brass jars and a vibe that is distinctly wild and free.

It is perhaps this very charm that drew Kipling to Bundi. It is said that it was this town that inspired Kipling to write Kim. Rush to Bundi before the juggernaut that is commercial tourism steamrolls through the city’s incomparable  vibes. Go there, take in everything, change nothing and, keep Bundi a secret wrapped in time.  Above all, let’s not talk about Bundi, just like the first rule of Fight Club.

(Please click on any photograph to open the slideshow)

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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.
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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
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Our guide, a clerk at the collectorate leads us to the simply massive baoli on the western edge of the fort
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The two graves, popularly known as Mamu-Bhanje ka Mazar
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Part of Mandsaur town as seen from the fort’s ramparts.
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Parvati being mobbed by children
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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.

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

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

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

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The dried-up bed of the Chambal. Obvious handiwork of the Gandhi Sagar dam upstream.
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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!
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Another view
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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.

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Parvati, excellent writer and an even better travel companion
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Both Shiva and Vishnu reside in the same sanctum
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Here you can see how deep they had to dig in solid rock
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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!
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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.
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Still looking for a vantage point to capture the entire complex.
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The massive rock-cut alleyway that leads to the temple complex.
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Vantage point has been reached finally. A view of what the alley leading to the temples looks like from top.
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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!
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Simply massive
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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!
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A strange head bobbing about
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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.

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

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

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Pillared central hall of the Badi Kachehri
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Like pawns in a massive game of chess
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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.

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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.
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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.

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My room at the PWD Bungalow
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….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.

My Garhwal Adventure: The Long Way Home


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At the end of the last post I, battered and bruised, left Chopta and headed towards Gopeshwar. As Chopta had no electricity, I was not able to charge my camera and as a result it died even before I had reached Tungnath Temple. As luck would have it, the road from Chopta to Gopeshwar, a large part of which cut through a National Park, was spectacular. The plan was to get to Gopeshwar, which is barely 70 kms away and rest for the rest of the day before riding towards Kartik Swamy Temple.

I started off from Chopta by 10 am and was in Gopeshwar by 1 in spite of the long nature watching breaks. After two days on foot over a tough terrain, the saddle was a welcome relief. So Gopeshwar was reached and the search for a hotel was commenced upon. Soon, I settled into a cosy room at the Jai Guru Guest House (Rs 250, with running hot water, TV and power backup) and enjoyed a rejuvenating shower. After the shower, I turned my attention to food. Ever since I left home four days back, I had been surviving on delicious, but vegetarian fare. So a non-vegetarian restaurant was found and what ensued can be best described as a cull on the local chicken population.

Basic needs taken care of, my attention was turned on Gopeshwar’s prime attraction, the Gopinath Temple. Uttarakhand’s rulers have had a long history of temple building and that tradition reached its peak in the 12-13th century with the construction of the Gopinath Temple, the largest and the most ornate in the state. It is still a living temple and a carnival of sorts is held around the temple on navaratras. There is evidence to suggest that there were other temples in the vicinity but none of them have survived. The temple premises also serve as a repository for loose sculptures excavated from various parts of town. What has survived unscathed however is a massive trident, nearly 5m in height. It bears an inscription by Anekmalla, a Nepali ruler who controlled the town in the 13th century.

Gopinath Temple

What appeals one most about the temple is how it still remains the center of life in this small town. If you are there, take time out and spend an hour or so in the temple premises in the morning. You will see people dropping in for a quick darshan on their way to work. Schoolchildren say a silent prayer, quite possibly to be spared from the cane of the headmaster. Housewives catch up on the gossip of the day on the way to the markets while the elderly huddle in tight groups and talk about what the elderly talk about. The more things change in big cities, the more things remain the same in small towns. Somehow this is strangely comforting.

Bells at the entrance to the temple
A little shrine by the main temple
A little sacred tree in the temple complex

A temple can only take up that much of your time. So before it was dark I got back to the hotel room, put the cam on charge and spent the rest of the evening watching IPL matches. The next morning I planned to ride to Rudraprayag and possibly beyond. Idea was to avoid the highway that passed through Chamoli and Karnaprayag. Some research had yielded a little used road that connected Gopeshwar to Rudraprayag through Pokhri. Another appeal of the road was that it passed through Kanakchauri, a tiny hamlet that is the trailhead for the trek to Kartik Swamy Temple.

Since this was to be a relaxed ride I did not bother getting up at the crack of dawn like I normally do, but started late at around 7am. For the first 8 kms, I rode on the highway towards Chamoli and then took a left into the single lane road across the river. The surface was mostly nice with some stretches of gravel and it was almost traffic free. In the 70 odd kms to Pokhri, I could not have passed more than 4-5 vehicles. Such was the emptiness of the road that I began to wonder why they built it in the first place. Maybe it is for bikers like us, who would give up anything for a go on roads like this.

The first of the many to come
Still early days into the ride
View of Gopeshwar from the road

But like Francis Bacon once said ‘there is no beauty which hath not some strangeness about its proportions’, the road had its hidden strangeness. First of all there were the sheer drops. The drops were made scarier by the width or the road itself, or the lack thereof. Then there were the fallen pine nettles. As there is very little traffic on this road, the nettles cover up almost all the road and reduce grip on the tires.

And then there was Dope
A river down below

There were stretches where the back-end gave away on a regular basis and one needs to be very vigilant as even the slightest lapse of concentration would send you plummeting to a very certain death. This might all seem dramatic but trust me, I have ridden across Spiti but this road is something else. The real peril is not apparent once you look at it. Its only when you ride that you know that it can kill. But every biker worth his salt will tell you that this is where he/ she would rather ride!

A relatively nettle free stretch

Some 20 kms into the ride, I encountered the first village and fortunately it had a tea stall. So I stopped here and had the most amazing tea and chana.  It was slightly nippy and the warm tea and the hot chana just hit the spot.

Best…breakfast…ever!!

The riding continued and the landscape kept getting prettier and prettier. Turn off the engine and a sudden pall of silence will descend on you. Silence, you will realize, is not the absence of sound, silence is the absence of noise. Look down the edge and you will see a stream, flanked by terraced rice fields. You never see the villages the farmers stay in. This was an amazing road.

The most worrying bit on this road was a stretch, some 400 m long, which had recently suffered a landslide. The side of the mountain was disemboweled and loose rocks the size of tangerines kept falling at regular intervals.  I took a deep breath and started to cross the stretch, one eye looking at the road ahead and the other scanning the mountainside for falling rocks. Fortunately, there were no incidents and yours truly escaped unscathed.

Valley
The sheer drop that i was talking about!
Landslide ahoy
The landslide viewed from a distance..GULP!
A very colourful stretch
My best friend and companion on many adventures

By 10:30, i had crossed Pokhri and the road has smoothened out. It was curvy and had on an almost perfect black top. The traffic had also increased a bit but that did not stop me from leaning on the corners. Very soon i was at a curve on the road, flanked by a number of shops – Kanakchauri for you. A nondescript concrete archway marked the beginning of the 2.5 km long trek to Karthik Swamy Temple. On a clear day the temple, on top of a hill provides a 270 degree panorama of the Himalayas. The day was not clear and i was pretty sure that the peaks were not visible, but i started the walk nonetheless.

The wild road right before Pokhri came to view
It was smooth sailing after Pokhri
The beginning of the trek to Kartik Swamy Temple

Most of the oath passes through a thick rhododendron forest. The inclines were steep in places, but mostly it is a gentle up hill walk. Most of the height is gained in the last one third of the trek where in stretches it is almost vertical. Very little information is available on the temple online. I heard about the beauty of the place from a friend. A veteran of many treks and high altitude Himalayan expeditions, he swore by its beauty, thus prompting my investigation.

Through the forest
The temple is somewhere on top of that hill
Give it a ring while you walk past
Beauty all around
Moving on

Two thirds of the way up the hill, one comes across the quarters of the priests, There are also a few attached rooms where one can stay for the night. It is a good idea to do because then you can climb up to the mountain and watch the sunrise, which is bound to be a spectacular sight. I met the rather young priest and he said that he had just come down, so once i reach the top, i should be all by myself.  Time for an one-to-one with the big guy i guess!

The last bit of the trek is comprised of steps cut into the rock and at places its almost vertical. The beauty of the temple is that throughout the trek you know where it is, but it does not show itself. But when you climb over the steep steps and come to a plateau, it suddenly reveals itself. And what a revelation that is!

Stairs to the big blue sky
Steep!
The temple comes to view!
And what a view!

By now you are suddenly aware of the height that you have gained. You are higher than any of the surrounding hills and on either side of you are sheer drops. If you peek over the edge (if you dare to, that is!) you will see a thick carpet of trees. And again, there is silence! That soundtrack of nature!

Like i predicted, the peaks were blocked by clouds. Standing there, i could imagine how it would look had the clouds suddenly disappeared, revealing the snowy giants. But i am glad i came here and i have every intention of coming back.

The forests, nearly a kilometer below!
The final flight of steps

The Kartik Swamy Temple has a unique ritual. A big fair is held in Kanakchauri on the occasion of Kartik Purnima (usually on the last week of November). It is believed that if you carry a bell to the temple and make a wish, it will come true. As a reasult the temple complex is full of bells. Thousands of them, in various shapes and sizes. This reminded me of the Chauragarh Temple near Pachmarhi, in Madhya Pradesh. Both temples are located on top of mountains and can be accessed by long treks. The only difference is, in Chauragarh Temple, the devotees offer trishuls (tridents) instead of bells.

The bells of Kartik Swamy
No dearth of them around here
The other side of the temple

I also spotted some offerings of sindoor (vermilion)  and combs. I could not understand the logic behind this. In Hindu mythology, Kartik, or Kartikya is known for his handsomeness. His vanity is also reflected in is choice of vahana (divine vehicle) – a peacock! I think since both sindoor and combs are used as cosmetics, they would make sense as offerings to Kartik. I might be wrong, but in case you know the explanation, please do tell me.

Strange offerings
Another view

Like the priest had predicted, i was all by myself at the top. Intent on making the most of this rare solitude, i spent over an hour there, just sitting and gazing into the abyss, battling inner monsters. I knew that after i climb down, i would begin descending and very soon i would be in the hot, shimmering plains.  Predictably, the abyss gazed also into me and whispered words of kindness and promises of a return into my eager ears.

Right now, four months later, i am sitting in a south Delhi barsati, jabbing at the keyboard and counting down to the day when i will go back to the mountains.

Oh, the drop!

Along the Eternal Narmada: Omkareshwar


The second and the last installment has  taken a long time and for good reasons. I have changed jobs again and now I am employed as a commissioning editor with a leading global travel guide publisher. So it took me some time to get used to the new job responsibilities and the trainings and the workshops that come as part of the deal. Oh and then the commute from Delhi to Gurgaon. The metro has made it much more comfortable, but it still take roundabout the same amount of time. But then again, for the first time in almost six years I will have a five-day week. Working Saturdays suck. Big time.

Coming back to Narmada, like I said in the previous post, the lives of the people of the region revolve around the river. When kids are born, they are bathed in its holy waters; a pot of the sacred water is essential for every marriage, the daily rituals happens on its banks; and when they die, their ashes are scattered on its choppy dark waters. The Narmada is the cycle of life. It was not unusual that when the but I was travelling on from Maheshwar to Omkareshwar hit a bridge on the river, almost all of my co passengers raised their folded hands to their forehead and chanted in unison Jai Mata Narmadae!! I could translate it  for those who do not know what that means, but then the devotion would be lost in translation. So I’d rather not.

Omkareshwar!

My arrival at Omkareshwar was very eventful as well. I caught the bus one evening from the main bus stand at Maheshwar and prepared for what was going to be a two and a half hour journey. But i was in for a surprise. You see, for those who are not accustomed to travelling in buses in India, you must know that there are several types of services – Super Express, Express and Local. The names of the services might differ from state to state but in essence they remain similar. The Super Express has very limited stops on its way whereas the Local service will stop anywhere, all you need to do is stick out your hand. So the thing is what i thought was a super express, turned out to be a local.

So we stopped at every village and finally after three and a half hours we arrived at Sanawad, 15 kms from our destination. To my surprise the bus emptied itself and for the last leg, I was the only person in the bus. So I moved up front to the driver’s cabin and started a chat. The terrain from there on was hilly and the bus had a pair of grimy 40 W bulbs for a headlight. Worrying. More worrying when a single bolt of lightning tore through the night sky and almost immediately conjured up a dust storm of Biblical proportions. Okay..ALMOST Biblical proportions. By the time we reached the bust stand at Omkareshwar, the heavens had opened up and it was raining by the bucket-loads.

Omkareshwar is a vehicle free town, and as a result the main bust stand is outside the city limits and you need top walk from there. Not good news for lazy people like me. We waited in the bus for the rain to slow down and in a while, the driver conjured up two bottles of country made whiskey! That eased the pain considerably. Half an hour and three drinks later the rain held and I was able to walk down to my hotel for the night.

First view of the holy town!

Omkareshwar is located on the old volcanic rocks almost halfway down the Narmada’s course. Here the river passes through a narrow and deep gorge and in the process creates an island in the shape of the holy symbol ‘OM’. So technically it’s the island that’s called Omkareshwar, but just like the town, even its name has spilled over to both the banks.

A dharmashala in Omkareshwar

It was these banks that i set about exploring the morning next. Being vehicle free (motorcycles not included) the lanes of Omkareshwar were easy to navigate. They were lined, much like any other holy city in India with shops selling colourful puja paraphernalia and other trinkets and a score of dharmashalas. I eventually found my way to the Gomukh Ghat, one of the busiest places in Omkareshwar, just when the first sunlight was touching the temple spires.

The narrow and plunging gorge that the Narmada cuts in the ancient rocks of Omkareshwar is known as Gomukh, meaning the ‘mouth of the cow’. Legend has it that, long ago, a demon went on a rampage killing sages and sadhus. The sadhus assembled at Omkareshwar and prayed to Shiva for protection. Moved by their prayers, Shiva fought the demon and killed him with his trishul (trident).

To purify the trishul stained with the blood of the demon, Shiva flung it towards the Narmada at Omkareshwar. The trishul landed a fair distance from the river and its impact gave rise to an underground stream that resurfaces to meet the Narmada at the Gomukh. The stream is referred to as Kapildhara and the ghat built around it called the Gomukh Ghat.

beads and strings
Gomukh Ghat
Gomukh Ghat and the moored boats: A bird’s view
One of the bridges to the island
Old palaces overlook the gathering crowd at Gomukh Ghat

There are two bridges connecting the mainland part of the town with the island, but many tourists and pilgrims prefer to cross over by boats from Gomukh ghat. The boats moored on the ghats carry a maximum of eight passengers and charge Rs 10 per head. You could also hire a boat to take you on a joyride on the Narmada. The boats sport colourful canopies and even more colourful names like Titanic, Tu Chor Main Sipahi (You are the convict and I’m the cop), Jalpari (mermaid), etc.  For the sinners among you, who want to attain redemption by taking a dip in the holy waters of the river, do be careful. The steps of the ghat are extremely slippery and as the Narmada flows through a gorge here, it is extremely deep. Also, crocodiles are known to stray here from time to time.

The ghat is located roughly midway between the two bridges. From  here, another shop lined, colourful lane winds up and down the hilly bank towards the newly constructed suspension bridge. Incidentally, both the bridges are for pedestrian traffic only. Although the policemen are known to turn a blind eye towards bicycles and motorcycles.

Piles of sindoor (vermilion)
A baby Krishna graces one of the piles of sindoor
Choose your god, sir!
Floral Offerings

Omkareshwar Mahadev Temple, also called Omkar Mandhata Temple, is the key attraction for pilgrims who visit the island. It is the ancient site of one of the 12 sacred jyotirlingas. Local legend holds that the linga, or cosmic pillar emblematic of Shiva’s procreative energy, arrived here as a result of the devotion of the mythological king Mandhata.

The white shikhara (spire) of the Omkar Mandhata Temple dominates the rocky little island that is sacred to millions of people
Seen from a boat, the Narmada here does feel like the cosmic ocean
Boats from the Gomukh Ghat dock here, and the steps then lead up to the temple. Shops, boats, merchandise and even the plastic sheets, everything adds to the riot of colours here
One more

Omkar Mandhata Temple is said to have been built by the Paramaras in the 11th century and rebuilt by the Holkars in the 19th century. The temple is suffused with symbolism, much like the island. Its shikhara is said to correspond with Mount Meru, the axis of the world according to Hindu mythology, and to overlook the cosmic ocean, represented by the Narmada.

A series of steps from the ghats leads up to the mandapa of the temple, marking the entrance of the enclosure. The mandapa is decorated with heavily carved soapstone pillars with elaborate capitals in the form of yakshis, while niches on either side are occupied by images of Ganesh, Ram, Sita, and other deities. As one crosses the mandapa, one encounters Nandi, Shiva’s divine vehicle. From the first mandapa, one ascends to the recently built sabha mandapa or prayer hall.

A vast terrace above the sabha mandapa leads to a small door through which one can enter the upper levels of the shikhara. Inside are three shrines, one above the other, enshrining more manifestations of Shiva – Siddhanath, Kedareshwar and Guptanath.

In the room just before the sanctuary
No kidding. This is the main deity in the temple

The two approaches to the temple are lined with shops selling baskets of flowers, incense and other puja paraphernalia. There are also people manning little stalls where for Rs 1 you can deposit your foot-wear for safekeeping till you are done with your darshan. It is likely that you will be approached by several priests and chances are that the experience might not be your best. You have been warned.

The temple is the hub of all activity in the island. All roads seem to converge here and it is the starting point of the famous Omkareshwar parikrama. The 16-km parikrama or circumambulation of the island starts from the Omkareshwar Mahadev Temple and proceeds clockwise around the island. Until a few years ago, the path of the parikrama was an unpaved road, making the journey quite arduous. Recently, a proper track has been laid. All along the road, painted on boards, are verses from the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit and Hindi.

Govindeshwar Gufa, at the base of the Omkar Mandhata temple is where the Omkareshwar parikrama begins

Along with temples old and new, ruins of ancient shrines and remains of fort walls, the path passes through a number of tiny villages. For generations, the villagers have served as priests and caretakers of the island’s many temples, and remain tied to this tradition even today. The route passes through a series of crests and troughs in the landscape and may be intimidating for those that are not used to long walks. The harsh Omkareshwar sun, which can be surprisingly hot even in winter months, is an added challenge. The best safeguard would be to drink enough water and rest when exhausted. I, for one was smart enough to start just at sunrise, to make sure that I was back in my hotel room by about noon.

In this journey, one encounters numerous langoors or hanumans. These monkeys are known to snatch food from people’s hands and it is a wise idea to carry foodstuff in covered bags.

Some truth in it!
Oh how the Narmada changes her look with every passing km
The writing on the wall

The sacred and purifying Narmada meets the fast flowing Kaveri at the sangam, or confluence, of these two rivers. Located on the westernmost part of the island of Omkareshwar, this narrow projection of land at the meeting point of the streams is covered with stones of all sizes shaped like shivalingas. The Kaveri, actually is not another river, but a part of the Narmada itself that encircles the island on the north.

Legend has it that it was here that Kuber, the god of wealth sat here and meditated without food and water for 100 years. Satisfied with his devotion, Lord Shiva appeared before Kuber and asked him what he wanted. To this Kuber replied that he wished to be the king of the Yakshas and gain immortality. Like all good mythological stories, his wish was granted and he lived happily ever after in the photo-frames in many a temple and home.

Apart from its religious sanctity, the sangam is the perfect spot to cool down after the arduous parikrama. It is a good idea to take off your shoes and sit on a rock while the cool water plays around your tired feet. Pilgrims are required to take a dip in the waters of the sangam to cleanse themselves before heading on.

The sangam – viewed from a distance
Walking among the pilgrims at the sangam
Saw these at the sangam. My best guess is that these are meant to ward off the evil eye

After the sangam, the parikrama route becomes even more interesting. The path takes a sudden turn and  after a few climbs one reached the top of the island. For the next few kilometres, the road is level. Here you come across broken fort walls and ruins of temples and gateways which prove that at one point of time, the city existed only in the island. Many of the old temples have been built over and modernised, some of them wonderfully preserved by the Archaeological Survey of India, but most are still in ruins.

Rinmukteshwar Temple – it is believed that if you pray here all your debts will vanish. Mine didn’t.

On a large clearing, on the highest part of the island stands the Gauri Somnath Temple surrounded by numerous smaller shrines and a number of ashrams. Built in the early 15th century by the Paramaras, the temple was once faced with a pillared mandapa which is no longer extant.

In the garbhagriha of the temple is a 2 m high, black granite shivalinga. It is believed that this linga once possessed the power of revealing to a person their previous and future incarnations. When the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707) was passing through Omkareshwar, he expressed the wish to verify if this was true.

The story has it that the emperor was much disturbed by the linga’s revelations and, in a fit of rage, had the entire temple burnt down. The linga cracked in the intense heat and its surface was scarred and since then it has lost its special ability.

The state archaeological department runs a site museum at the premises of the Gauri Somnath Temple. While the more intricate and delicate sculptures are placed indoors, many others have been installed on pedestals all around the temple.

Gauri Somnath Temple

After you leave the temple and proceed onwards, to left of the parikrama path runs a fallen wall which was once about 9-12 m high. At various places on the parikrama route you will come across ruins which at first glance look like a pile of stones. Closer examination reveals that these are actually remains of the ancient walls of older temples, and gateways.

While most of these temples are barely recognisable, interestingly, some sculptures have survived almost intact. Some of these sculptures have been painted a bright red and a few have been taken over by nature with creepers spreading their delicate tendrils across them. The atmosphere here is completely different from that at the main ghat. It is almost as if two different towns exist on the same space.

The mammoth statue of Lord Shiva, a little distance away from the Gauri Somnath Temple
Ruins of a temple
Only the goddess survives
A ruined gateway
The air is so clean, so so so clean.
Flotsam
The parikrama path passes through another gateway

After descending through a valley, the road emerges on to the second plateau of the island, with the last destination on the parikrama, the famed Siddhanath Temple, perched on it. According to some historians, this is one of the oldest temples on the island.

A fine example of early medieval Hindu architecture, the temple is built on an adhisthana, or plinth, which is about 1 m in height. The sides of the plinth are embellished with an exquisite frieze depicting elephants in various postures. Legend has it that when the shikhara of the temple was still extant, lights in Mandu, 145 kms away, could be seen from it.

Recently a couple of silver Sheshnagas have been installed in the garbhagriha, shading the linga. Every day, a puja is performed here in which the linga is decorated with freshly picked flowers. The entire temple structure stands in the middle of a wide enclosure, which at one time could have been surrounded by high walls, though no sign of these exists today. The courtyard is filled with free-standing sculptures collected from this and other ancient shrines across the island. A walk through the courtyard reveals bharvahakas and chandrashilas along with numerous other temple fragments.

Siddhanath Temple, or whatever remains of it

When you reach the Siddhanath Temple, it means that the parikrama is almost over. It’s all the was downhill from there. From one point in the descent, you are offered a fabulous view of the town with the suspension bridge in the foreground and the path snaking through the river bed, which has shrunk substantially since the dam has come up.

Hey.. i can see the town again!

I had stared really early in the morning and had almost no breakfast. I had, however, stopped at many places on the road and rested or had nimboo paani. Times are tough for the villagers and to make the extra buck, many of them have opened up nimboo paani stalls. Please do stop at a couple of these stalls if you do the parikrama. The  10 rupees or so that you spend on this delicious and refreshing drink wont hurt you much, but to the villager, it is precious. Support the local economy, buy the nimboo paani.

Anyway, in spite of all the drinking and stopping, I managed to finish the walk by noon and headed to the MPSTDC rest house for lunch. It is on  top of a hill on the mainland part of the town and offers a stunning view of the island with its temples and little houses and the Narmada in the foreground.

View of Omkareshwar Town from the MPSTDC property

While most sites of tourist and religious interest in Omkareshwar are along the parikrama path on the island, the town itself, on the other side of the river, is home to a number of attractions, the most significant being the Mamleshwar Temple. It is in the mainland part of the town where most tourist infrastructure is concentrated. A walk through the narrow lanes of the town reveals a large number of dharamshalas or religious rest houses (dharma means ‘religion’ while shala means ‘sanctuary’). Many Indian communities, such as the Rajputs, the Agarwals, the Yadavas and the Jats, have their own dharamshalas in this town. All the markets, the police station, municipality offices, the main bus stand and hospitals are also located here.

Mamleshwar Temple is located barely 200 m from Gomukh Ghat. Also known as Amaleshwar, Mamleshwar is generally considered to enshrine one half of the jyotirlinga, the other half of which rests in Omkar Mandhata Temple on the island. Set in a walled enclosure and meticulously maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the east facing temple is five-storeyed with a shivalinga enshrined on each floor. The enclosure also has six other temples built on the lines of the main temple.

Mamleshwar Temple
Nandi Nandi burning bright!

The long parikrama and the hearty lunch thereafter propelled me towards my hotel room where i spend the rest of the afternoon sleeping. At around 4 in the afternoon, relaxed and rested, I set forth again, this time to explore the Omkareshwar Palace. Commanding a wide view of the Narmada and the town, the palace is located on the island on a flat piece of land above the Omkar Mandhata Temple. A narrow lane leads from the bustling flower market at the ghat and winds up to the entrance to the palace. From the outside, the entire palace looks like a single structure, but upon entering it is revealed that it is actually a series of three large courtyards surrounded by rooms on two levels.

The most striking aspect of the palace is the central room or the durbar. It was here that the king would receive guests and preside over the affairs of the state. The circular ceiling of the hall was once painted and inlaid with glass. Although the past glories of the Holkars have since faded, traces of their grandeur are still clearly discernible. When you visit, the chances are that the bright fluorescent colours that you see in the photograph will still be there, but i can guarantee you that back in the good old day of the maharajas, it looked classier. Taste, you see, has taken a nosedive since then.

The southern wall of the durbar hall opens into three jharokhas (projecting balconies). These balconies with their superb view of the temple town make the perfect vantage points for observing life in the town below.

Omkareshwar Palace as seen from the Omkar Mandhata Temple
And as seen from the MPSTDC property
God in the wall!
Ma Narmada – Graffiti seen on the wall of a house on the way to the palace
Huffing and puffing up the stone steps with goats leading my way
The Durbar Hall.. in Eastman colours!
View of Omkareshwar from the palace jharokhas
‘Is everything alright down there?’

I couldn’t end my narrative on Omkareshwar without a mention of the daring kids that make a living from the waters of the river. They lead, what I call a recycle business. When devotees offer their prayers on the ghats, they usually throw a lot of flowers, colours and coconuts on the river. The kids, sometimes on boats and sometimes on inflated tire tubes  venture into the river and pick up the floating coconuts and bring them to their parents who then sell them again.

Incidentally, I have seen the same thing in Mumbai. Lots of people offer coconuts to the dogs in marine drive. Following them are a group of youngsters armed with a basket tied at the end of a length of rope. Just as the devotees have turned their backs, they come out swinging their baskets with the same air that a cowboy would swing his lasso. eventually every coconut would be fished out from the sea and resold. We Indians are very inventive and innovative people, you see!

The recycle boys
The recycle boys on the job

A travel writer’s job is not easy. You often have to talk the talk while you walk the walk. Omkareshwar was one such trip. In spite of the afternoon siesta, I was tired, so I headed off to a local barber’s for a wet shave and a nice champi. For the philistine, it is a sort of head massage with fragrant, mint infused herbal oil. If done  right, it has the power to relieve you of any stress, mental or physical. My guy was good and before I knew it I was fast asleep.

Jadu ki Champi!

Freshly massaged and feeling like a million bucks I headed off to the ghat for a cup of tea and a moment of quiet reflection. Dusk had just started to set in and one by one the lights started to come on. Before I knew it was dark and the temples on the islands were lit up. The waters of the Narmada were now forebodingly dark and on its choppy surface danced a million reflections of the thousand lights that shone on the island. I sat there until one by one most of the lights had been switched off and all the shops had closed down. All I heard as I walked the deserted streets back to the hotel were the distant chiming of the temple bells.

When the stars go blue

In the next post, I shall be talking about the road trip I took to a scenic hill station in the middle of the monsoon. That reminds me, unlike my other trips, this time I had used public transport. From Indore to Maheshwar, from Maheshwar to Omkareshwar and from Omkareshwar back to Indore, it was all on crowded buses, and how I loved it.

On my return trip, I shared a seat with a guy my age who was travelling with his two little daughters. The first thing he did after he sat down was to deposit the smaller of the two on my lap. Trust comes as a given. You are, on a long journey supposed to look after each other and their children. I guess to illustrate the point even further, halfway down the journey, he leaned his head against my shoulders and went to sleep!

Oh, how I love my India!

I, Pillow!

Along the Eternal Narmada: Maheshwar


It is said that of the five most sacred rivers of India – Ganga, Yamuna, Narmada, Godavari and Kaveri, Narmada is the holiest. It is also said that when Ganga herself feels unclean, she takes the form of a black cow and using the darkness of the night as her cover, comes to cleanse herself in the waters of the Narmada.

Narmada at Maheshwar

She is known by many names, one of them being Shankari, or the ‘daughter of Shankar (Lord Shiva)’. It is believed that she was borne out of a drop of tear that fell out of Shiva’s eyes. Narmada’s connection with Shiva does not end here. Anyone who has travelled to any town on the Narmada has heard the saying ‘Narmada ke kankar utte Shankar‘, meaning ‘Shiva lives in each pebble on which the Narmada flows’. True to the legend, the banks of the Narmada are replete with cylindrical pebbles, looking rather similar to the shivalingas worshipped across India. Banalingas, as they are better known are collected by tourists and pilgrims and taken back to their homes.

The Narmada, for most of its course flows through Madhya Pradesh, a state that has always amazed me. Owing to its sanctity, there are many temple towns on the river. Amarkantak, at the border of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where the river originates is one of the holiest places in India, and so is Omkareshwar, which is located roughly midway through the river’s course. And then there is Maheshwar. This tiny town on the banks of the Narmada is known not for its temples but for its benevolent queen, Ahilya Bai Holkar, considered by many as a goddess. Also, there is the famed Maheshwari saris, a dying weaving style which has now, fortunately, been revived.

I set off from Delhi for Maheshwar and Omkareshwar on a rainy November night from Hazarat Nizamuddin Railway station. My train would take me to Indore from where I would continue by bus, first to Maheshwar and then to Omkareshwar.  I reached Indore station at 5:30 in the morning and then caught an auto to Sarwate Bus Terminus. Maheshwar is 92 kms from Indore and depending on the bus you take (express, super or local) the journey could take you anywhere between 2.5 to 4.5 hours. Luckily for me I managed to get hold of an express bus which was scheduled to leave at 8:00 am. The bus followed the beautifully laid National Highway 3 till the town of Dhamnod from where it diverted off to a charming double-laned road for the last 15 kms to Maheshwar.

Narmada, as seen through the pillars of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Maheshwar

After alighting in the main square at Maheshwar, I realised that staying options in this town was very limited. There was the Fort Ahilya, a very expensive heritage hotel and a couple of tiny lodges. After some asking around, I was shown into a very basic, yet clean room for Rs 400 a night. Since I am not fussy about accommodation, provided it is clean, I took it. A quick shower later, I was all ready to explore Maheshwar.

The landscape around Maheshwar is typical of the Nimar plains which are drained by the Narmada. Scorchingly hot in the summers and warm during the winters, this undulating land is composed of red soil, which itself is derived from the ancient lava rocks that once covered the region. One afternoon during my trip, I borrowed a moped from the owner of the hotel I was staying in and drove for around 75 kms on the small roads leading out of the town connecting it to the tiny villages.

The red soil of the Nimar plains. Some say that these plains have seen so much battle that the blood of the fallen have coloured the whole land read.
Bhils, the tribe that populate the arid plains were once hunters. Civilisation has made them drop their lethal bows and arrows and pick up shovels.
A small dargah

As instructed by the owner of the hotel and the moped, i drove around 5 kms on a dirt track to the top of a hill west of Maheshwar town. From there one could see the Narmada tumbling over a rocky bed giving rise to thousands of tiny streams. It is for this exact reason that this cascade has been called Sahasradhara (Sahasra, in Hindi means ‘a thousand’ while dhara means ‘stream’)

Sahasradhara

Surroundings visited, I turned my attention to the town itself. All there is to see in Maheshwar is located inside its fort, and to get to the fort, one has to walk two kms through the busy market. Although it was November, the afternoon soon was burning in all its fury and the temperature was hovering around the 40 degree mark. It was as if the entire town had gone for a collective siesta. The shops were open but there were no shopkeepers. The customers too were absent. Every know or then I would spot a stray canine, a dusty kid running after a rolling, used bicycle tyre or a housewife making a quick trip to the grocer.

A shop selling framed images of Maheshwar’s famed queen, Ahilya Bai Holkar
Before and After?

Very soon, the north gate of the fort, Ahilya Dwar was visible. Previously known as Gadi Darwaza, it is the largest gate and the only way to enter the fort on a vehicle. Just as you enter through the gate, to your right is the quaint Laboo’s Cafe. Stop here for some much-needed lemonade or if hungry, a home-made lunch. The café also offers rooms to travellers, which in my opinion was a little overpriced.

Ahilya Dwar from the inside
Laboo’s Cafe
A tiny wall-shrine in the café

As you enter through the gateway, you also step into the old, walled city of Maheshwar. Although people continue to live here, the main city and its all-important market lies outside these walls.

Straight ahead of Laboo’s Cafe is a small gateway which is the entrance to the Rajwada, or the palace. Half of the palace has now been converted into the luxurious Fort Ahilya Heritage Hotel, while the other half has been converted to a museum and is open to the public. The first thing that strikes you about the palace is its simplicity. If you have travelled to historic destinations around India, you would have noticed the opulent palaces that the rulers used to live in. This is a complete antithesis to the seemingly vulgar pandering of wealth, often accumulated over the blood of poor farmers. It is not that Ahilya Bai, the Holkar queen who constructed much of this fort or the palace was the queen of a small dominion, unable to muster money for such luxuries. At the height of her rule, she controlled over half of what is now Madhya Pradesh.

She spent the money instead on building temples. The famed Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi was built by her. She constructed temples, dharmashalas (guest houses) and baolis (wells) in Haridwar, Badrinath, Rameshwaram, Kanchi, Jagannath Puri, Pushkar, Nasik and Pune. She is, even today depicted wearing a simple white sari, the same costume she used to wear while she was the queen. It is said that she possessed only three of these saris, all of which were woven by her.

View of the Rajwada from the front
View of one of the courtyards in the Rajwada
Lord Krishna and his cows keep an eye on the main entrance

The simplicity of the queen can be further seen at her so-called durbar hall, where she conducted the affairs of the state and held audiences with the average person. Located on the verandah in her wing of the palace, it is nothing but a white mattress covering the floor with a low, wooden throne at one end of it. These days, a white marble image of the queen can be seen on the throne.

The audience ‘hall’

From the simple to the plush. Here are some snapshots of the Fort Ahilya Hotel in the palace:

Old World
The swimming pool
One of the many charming courtyards in the hotel.
Maheshwar town viewed from the ramparts of the fort

A double storeyed gateway, directly opposite the main entrance to the Rajwada leads to a flight of steps leading down to a cluster of buildings on the banks of the Narmada. It is from this gateway that you get your first glimpse of this holy river, which at this point is over a mile wide!

At the foot of the flight of stairs, to the right is another gateway, which opens into a compound at the centre of which lies the Chhatri (mausoleum) of Vitoji Rao Holkar. He was the younger brother of king Yashwant Rao Holkar (1798-1811). Built on a high plinth and sporting two bulbous domes, this chhatri is known for its exquisite carvings, especially that of a row of caparisoned elephants on its side.

Chhatri of Vitoji
Another angle
The beautifully carved row of elephants
A night-shot

Facing the entrance to the Chhatri of Vitoji is a gateway to yet another enclosure which houses the Ahilyeshwar Shivalaya. Although it sounds like a Shiva temple, and is definitely built like one, it is actually the chhatri of Ahilya Bai Holkar. Built by the queen’s daughter Krishna Bai, this towering structure combines the north Indian nagara style of temple architecture with the Maratha style.

Ahilyeshwar Shivalaya
A night-shot of the chhatri’s spire
Inside the chhatri’s sanctum. The priest decides to pose
While on the outside, his wife tries her hand at modelling!
Interesting sculptures in the chhatri 

From the enclosure that houses the two chhatris, another gateway leads to yet another flight of stairs that forms the main ghat of Maheshwar. Almost two kms of the riverfront of Maheshwar has been paved in stone to give rise to a series of ghats.  Of a total of 28 ghats, the most important are Ahilya, Peshwa, Phanse and Mahila

Gateway leading to the ghats
Sculpture on the walls
Ever so faithful
Perfect place for a quiet prayer

Just like a couple of centuries ago, the lives of the people of Maheshwar revolve around the ghats. At daybreak, people throng to the ghats to offer their prayers. The morning air resounds with chants of Om Namah Shivay as people brave the morning chill to take a dip in the holy waters of the Narmada. Locals believe that the waters of the river have purifying properties and hence a morning dip ensures success in the day’s endeavours.

The holy dip
A priest readies himself for the worshippers
While some opt for a more personalised service!
Others busy themselves with the yoga routine…
..and I capture a quick mug shot of the self!

After the initial stream of devotees have taken their dips and have gone on their respective missions, come the tourists. Colourful boats lie moored on the ghats to take the tourists for a cruise on the waters of the Narmada.  There are two kinds of boats available at the ghat – row-boats and the ones powered by modified motorbike engines. While the latter is definitely faster, they create one hell of a racket, which can effectively ruin the ambiance of a quiet  morning. So it is advisable to take the row-boat. Oh, and do bargain beforehand not only about the price, but also the duration of the ride. I hired a row-boat which took me around the river for a good hour and I paid Rs 150. Also, if you can, do tip!

Them tourists!
Leaving the ghat on my beautiful red boat

Many of the temples and ghats of Maheshwar are best viewed from the boat. I shall describe them as we go along:

Located on the Mahila Ghat is Laxmi Bai ki Chhatri. However, do not let the name fool you, as it really is the chhatri of Ahilya Bai’s daughter, Krishna Bai
On an island in the middle of the river stands the Baneshwar Mahadev Temple. It is believed that a heavenly line (an axis of sorts) from the North Star passes through this temple to the earth’s centre
Mid-river bliss
The Narmada is but an ocean
..and all of humanity a mere island.
And back at the ghat

As the day rolls on and the devotees and tourists have long vacated the ghats, come another group of visitors. Predominantly women, they do most of their cleaning and washing on the waters of the Narmada.

One of my favourite shots from this trip!
Done for the day!

On my long walks across Maheshwar, I was accompanied by a local boy, Chhotu, who was acting like my guide. He used to work as a waiter at the Fort Ahilya Hotel and as a result had picked up a spattering of English which he was more than eager to advertise. On the last day at Maheshwar, which I had left for visiting the weavers, he tells me ‘saar, mere paas one more temple hai. Chalein?’.

‘Chalo’, says I

So he leads me on this dusty track by the side of the Narmada. Very conveniently, he had forgotten to mention that we would be walking for around 3 kms, one way. So I did not bother to carry water with me. The river water was full of all kinds of rubbish and was undrinkable. So I walked on in the 40 degree heat without water or shade. We finally stopped at the base of a steep hill which had a small ghat and seven small shrines on it. The shrines, Chhotu says are to the ‘seven mothers’, but refuses to explain further. Their identity remains hidden forever. What I did learn was that this site was called the Sapta Martuka Mandir. On top of the hill in the background, however is a 17th century pre-Holkar Shiva temple known as Jaleshwar Mahadev Mandir. The priest of the temple was kind enough to save mu life with some water.

The track by the river
The shrines of the seven mothers with the Jaleshwar Mahadev Temple rising in the background

This is also the point where a smaller river, called Maheshwar, after the town, joins the Narmada. At the point where the two join is a small hill surrounded by water. On top of the hill is another, even older temple which, interestingly, is heavily fortified. Sadly though, there were no boats here to take us across , so we had to give it a miss.

The fortified Kaleshwar Mahadev Temple

With barely hours left for my bus to Omkareshwar, Chhotu and head off to the weavers’ colonies. A few decades ago, the art of weaving a Maheshwari sari was almost at its deathbed. Richard Holkar, the current scion of the royal family and his wife Sally, while on a visit to Maheshwar realised the need to revive it. So with a paltry grant from the Indian Central Welfare Board, in 1979, they started a weaving project involving the local women and called it the Rehwa Society. Rehwa, or Rewa, is another name for the river Narmada.

Over the next three decades, the number of weavers has gone up to 250 and they operate over 1,500 traditional looms. Inspired by the success of the Rehwa Society, individuals have also taken up weaving and now within the walled city, the stillness of the sir is broken at all hours by the click-clacking of the wooden looms. Though the weavers, back in the day produced mainly saris, the modern weavers have diversified into dupattas, scarves, shawls and dress material.

The traditional loom
The weavers are mostly women
The quaint building housing the Rehwa Society

Maheshwari saris are usually coloured using vegetable dyes, though to bring down prices some weavers do use chemical dyes. The most popular colours used in Maheshwari saris are angoori (grape green), dalimbi (deep pink), gul bakshi (magenta), jaamla (purple), tapkeer (deep brown) and aamras (golden-yellow). The pallav or aanchal of a Maheshwari sari is distinctive with five alternating stripes of which three are of different colours and two are white. The use of zari and kinari is used to embellish the saris which often have a rich golden border and two gold bands on the pallav. The unique feature of a Maheshwari sari is its reversible border. The border is designed in such a way that both sides of the sari can be worn. An original Maheshwari sari can cost anywhere between Rs 1,500 to Rs 5,000. The fine, airy cloth is perfect for hot Indian summers while the blend of silk and cotton makes the cloth float above the skin.

I am no sari photographer, but still…
Another one

My two days in Maheshwar has been extremely rewarding and at the end of it I was off to Omkareshwar. Predominantly a temple town, the vibe of Omkareshwar would be completely different from Maheshwar. On top of that, this particular trip was planned on a shoe-string budget, which means that all the travelling was done on buses – another experience.

Watch this space for the Omkareshwar chapter of this series. Till then I leave you with two images of the sunset on the Narmada.

Tequilla sunset
The late goodbye

The Dooars Nostalgia – Part IV


Its been a long, long, long three months since my last post on this space. While the primary reason for this hiatus is laziness, there are other factors as well. I have finally changed jobs after almost five years at the first one. I also changed house after five years in the first one. There was some travel in this time and ultimately it came to a point where the backlog was getting higher by the day. Wake up call received, here i am, concluding the Dooars series before moving on  to certain destinations in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh.

At the end of the last post we had explored the beautiful town of Coochbehar and were headed towards Damdim Tea Estate via Maynaguri, Gorumara National Park, Chalsa and Udlabari.

Route Map

This journey, which was little over 150 kms, took us through some of the most beautiful parts of the Dooars. The plains around Coochbehar were planted with paddy and the crop was still green, a month away from ripening. The road resembled a black ribbon in an endless sea of green.

On our way out of Coochbehar
Abstraction

Coochbehar district is surrounded on two sides by Bangladesh. An interesting thing here is that there are certain villages / territories called enclaves belonging to one country, but located in the other. There are 92 Bangladeshi enclaves in Coochbehar District while India has 106 enclaves in three border districts of Bangladesh. While we did not visit any of these enclaves, the road we were on skirted the bleak barbed wire fence that was the border between India and Bangladesh. It is very common for people living in Bangladesh to just cross over and attend haats or weekly markets on the Indian side and vice versa. There were a few villages on the other side. They were so close that the fence was basically where their courtyard ended.

I have this long standing desire to go to Bangladesh, visit my ancestral village in Moymensingh district. I have heard that our house in the village still stands and at present six families live in it! Coming here, i did actually see Bangladesh, where the roots of my family lie.

So near.. yet so far
A very jolly border patrol
Skeletal

Very soon we left the border behind and headed to Moynaguri, where we had some refreshments. Our next destination was the famous Jalpesh Temple, easily the most important religious destination in North Bengal. Dedicated to Shiva, this temple was built in 1524 by one of the Coochbehar kings and renovated several time in the following centuries. The most striking aspect of the temple is its architecture. Like most of the buildings constructed by the Coochbehar kings, it shows a pronounced Islamic influence. This is seen particularly in the bulbous dome over the main garbhagriha. 

The temple is surrounded by a bustling market, which is one of the most important jute trading centers of the region. Here farmers bring their jute and sell them off to merchants who then, in turn, source them off to factories in south Bengal. On the day of Shivaratri though, the jute market is shut and it is replaced by a vibrant rural mela.

Jalpesh Temple
On the way to the jute market
Abstraction – bicycle tire rims on sale at a shop in the jute market
Going to the market – these cylindrical bamboo structures are meant to prevent cows and goats from eating saplings!

After leaving Jalpesh Temple behind, the next town on our route was Lataguri, the gateway to Gorumara National Park. Spread across around 80 sq kms, it has a sizable population of the Indian one horned rhinoceros, apart from elephants, leopards and a few royal Bengal tigers. For the next 15 kms, the road passes through the dense forest and it is advisable to drive slow as animals frequently cross the road. Around five kilometers down the road, on the left is a small clearing where a number of linga shaped stones are placed at the base of a tree. Locals believe that it is a particularly sacred spot and that even elephants come to worship here. We stopped here, not only to see the shrine, but also to soak in the relative silence of the surrounding forest.

Here we met a couple of villagers who were scouring the nearby stream for tiny snails, which are used to make a local adivasi delicacy. They even offered to make us some tea in the makeshift oven they had created by placing an earthen pot  over some stones, between which was lit a fire. We however politely declined the offer.

The shrine in the forest
Chai garam!
The road through the forest
The road again
The snail hunters walking off with their catch – One of my favourite captures

After this break, we drove continuously through Chalsa and Udlabari before taking the turn towards Damdim Tea Estate, our stop for the night. We would be staying at the 150 year old heritage bungalow here. During the colonial period, it used to be the residence of the burra sahib, the manager of the estate. Now the burra sahibs are gone but efforts are underway to restore the bungalows to their past glory and give the well-heeled traveller a taste of the planter’s lifestyle.

Entrance to Damdim
The bungalow – living room
The bungalow – dining room
The bungalow – our bedroom

To be fair, we had not expected the establishment to be as plush as it was. Following tradition, the bungalow had a khansama, a cook, who specialised in colonial dishes like grilled fish, baked beans and sausage breakfast, bread and butter pudding and the likes. And of course there was the tea. Having grown up in the area and coming from a family of avid tea drinkers, i am usually quick to spot the differences in the tea of the hills and the Dooars. Initially we were given what was clearly a Makaibari organic, one of the best tea from the Darjeeling hills, but i asked the khansama to brew me some of the estate’s best. What came was the characteristically full bodied and aromatic Dooars. The colour and the bouquet more pronounced than its cousin from the hills. I’d day this that if you are up on a rainy morning and want something to go with the mellow mood, try Darjeeling. However, if the morning has caught you unawares and you need something to help you get into the routine, Dooars is your best bet. It is, in a very perverse way, the coffee of teas.

Anyway, after the tea and snacks, I decided to go for a walk in the surrounding estate while the boss decided to go in for a nap. Outside it was a riot of colours. The many hues of the autumn bloom stood out perfectly against the background of rain washed green of the tea plants.

A quaint bridge over a tiny stream
The Dooars i Know
The tea fields
Autumn colours
Autumn colours
Autumn colours
Autumn colours
Autumn colours
Autumn colours
Autumn colours
Autumn colours

When i came back to the bungalow, Swati was fresh and ready and we set off to visit another vestige of the colonial era – the Western Dooars Club. Once the hub of the planter’s social life, this once great institution features a teak dance floor, a billiards room, a lavish kitchen, a bar and of course sprawled alongside it, an 18-hole golf club. The burra sahibs and the mem sahibs have left and along with them has gone the glitz and glamour of the lavish balls and the stylish do’s. The inside is dark and dreary and the curtains over the French windows are heavy with dust and spiders. The seemingly endless golf course is deserted and overgrown and watched over by the faint outline of the mountains, visible through the mist like a distant memory.

Western Dooars Club from the outside
The golf course from once upon a time!

By the time we had returned from the club, it had gotten dark. The next day, we would drive back to Siliguri and end the memorable journey we had begun from there a few days earlier. As the crickets sang us to our sleep, i realised it was probably the same sound i had heard as a nine year old kid. Until the next morning comes and  forces us into a flurry of packing and information gathering and shooting and travelling, it was my time. My own time in my very own land.

Until tomorrow, then…

Mumbai Memories


Mumbai could be very unsettling for someone who is used to life in Delhi. My first impression of Mumbai was marred by the nightmarish flight. It was the middle of August and i had added some leaves to the Independence day weekend and come to meet Anindita, who was working here for a media agency. The monsoons were hitting Mumbai with their full fury and we began to feel the effect as the plane began to begin its descent towards CSIA. I had a window seat from where i could see the wings of the plane and i could see them almost flapping up and down. Scared would be an understatement..,i hate flying with all my heart. Every time i need to travel on work, i try and go by train. In my mind i was waiting to hear the captain announce “Mayday!” anytime.

But then we landed and i headed out where Anindita was waiting for me with a broad grin on her face, which did calm me down a little. I was still a bit unsettled, though. But that was taken care of at the Vile Parle station from where we needed to catch a north-bound train to Borivili, where she stayed. So there was my first encounter with the legendary Mumbai suburban train. I finally managed to get into a first class compartment, luggage and all and stood there, sandwiched by people on all sides, Anindita nowhere to be seen. After Andheri, the crowd thinned a little and Anindita materialized magically from behind a fat Marwari aunty-jee. Phew!

This was in 2008 and i have been to Mumbai twice more and come back with more memories. All my trips to Mumbai have never been about exploring the city, although i always meant to. Its been about spending time with my best friend. And in between long walks on Carter Road, boat-rides to Elephanta, Chicken Peri Peri in Inorbit Mall in Malad or simply sitting on the embankment on Marine Drive, i did get a glimpse of the city. Sometimes i hate Mumbai because of the constant claustrophobia, the ever-present crowd and the way the weather reacted to my then long hair, but all said and done, it is also where some of my most important memories are. Some of these memories are good, and a couple of them, not so, but important they are, nonetheless.

Marine Drive on a very grey morning!

I have always visited Mumbai at the same time of the year – the August 15 weekend. Being the heights of monsoons in Mumbai, i have always got bad light and as a result of which i have resorted to shooting in black and white with increased contrast and spiked ISO for the grainyness. At times, the sun did come out and i reverted immediately to colour!

As the waves come crashing by..

We usually hang out at home in Borivili. Anindita likes to go to the movies so we usually average a movie a day while in Mumbai or when she comes to Delhi. The funniest part of the movie going experience in Mumbai is rising for the National Anthem. Works for a Manoj Kumar Movie but not so much for Singh is Kinng!

Anindita!

Sometimes in the evenings we would go to places by the sea to sit and talk. Carter road was nice but i liked Bandra Reclaimation (i think!) even better. Its like a promenade by the sea with a park that runs alongside. To your right is the Bandra-Worli Sea Link while in front of you, across the little bay is the constantly rising Worli skyline. A perfect place to sit and watch the sun go down. If any Mumbaikars are reading this and you happen to identify which place i am talking about, please do tell me because next time i am in Mumbai, i would like to go back there.

Sea-side Lounge
Sea Link

Last year when i went to Mumbai, Anindita took me to Carter Road, again in Bandra. Off the park by the road, a little strip composed of boulders juts out into the sea. We tried to walk right till the end of it, but it was broken at several places. We however, did make use of the ice-cream vendors loitering about the area.

Friends
Can’t lose your way here, can you?
Animated @ Juhu Beach
Piety!
To the Gods above…

In September 2008, Aamir had to go to Mumbai to meet ‘someone’ and since he had no other place to stay in Mumbai, decided to stay at Anindita’s.. and that gave me an idea. In the evening he was leaving for Mumbai, i asked him if it was okay for me to tag along. It was a Friday and all i had to do was call in sick on Saturday. So i bought my ticket in the same flight hardly two hours before the takeoff and in another three hours Anindita found both of us knocking on her door rather than just Aamir.

That weekend was a flurry of activity. Since i had come unplanned, Anindita had to go to the office the next day, while i stayed at home watching TV and cooking. In the evening, Anindita’s friend Ananya came over. I had gotten friendly with him during my last visit and he took me to a nearby restaurant where we feasted on some delicious Marathi mutton curry and biryani. Anindita came back at night and the next day Aamir, her and me roamed around the city and in the evening both of us left on the last flight to Delhi.

The usual reaction to Aamir’s face
My two best friends in a single frame
Conspirators Inc.
Technicolour
Gadadhaari!

Other than this surprise trip, on both the other occasion, i had made it a point to go to Elephanta Island. Other than my personal interest in history and heritage, it was the hour long boat ride that attracted me the most. As you leave the Apollo Bunder and make your way through a large variety of ships of various sizes, the Bombay coastline recedes gradually to the distance and you see what you rarely do in Delhi – a skyline! I usually bribe the boatman to let me sit in the tiny triangular patch right in front of the boat where you can feel the sway the most.

The island slowly comes into view and in a few minutes the boat docks. It usually does so alongside another boat and you cross from one boat to another till you reach the jetty. The most fun thing about Elephanta Island is the tiny train that takes visitors from the jetty to the ticket office. When Anindita and I went there, we were hungry and went to a restaurant for lunch. Time flew by and before long the caves had started closing down. So basically, we went all the way on the boat, took the train from the jetty to the ticket office and then spent like three hours there, but never really saw any caves.

Suspended Animation @ Apollo Bunder
A village in Elephanta Island
Joy-ride, literally!
One flew over…
Anchored in the jewelled sea

When the Portuguese were building their base in India, the island’s jetty used to be dominated by an enormous sculpture of an elephant; hence the name. Numerous attempts were made by the Portuguese to destroy the sculpture, until it was broken down in pieces. The fragments were later transported to the mainland and joined together. Today it can be seen in the Bhau Daji Lad museum in the suburban Byculla.

One of the many caves in the island
The jetty from in front of the caves
Sculptures at Elephanta
Sculptures at Elephanta

As i said already, the best part about Elephanta is the boat ride. In the evenings, when you take the boat back from the island towards Colaba, the sun is usually setting and a thousand other suns dance on the surface of the waves. Here are a couple of images i took on the trip back from Elephanta:

At the end of the day!
Bom Biah: The Good Bay!

On one of the trips, Anindita had to be in office one day and i decided to walk around the fort. I was told that it would be deserted as it was Sunday. So i walked around. I started at VT and walked all across the Fort and the narrow bylanes and following the recommendation of a friend, had lunch at Jimmy Boy Cafe. I dont know if anyone would agree with me, but Fort did feel a bit like Kolkata, albeit better organised.

Someone please help me identify this building. This was near St Xavier’s
Details from VT
Details from VT
Details from VT
Look, a cherub!
The old man of the arch!

Bombay is too hyperactive for me. Everyone seems to be travelling all the time. From home to the station, from the station to catching a bus without any time to spare. I have seen women chopping vegetables on the the train so that they can get home and cook and get a few hours’ sleep before the next day begins at the same pace. I am not that ambitious a person. All i need to have is enough money to tank up my bike and my camera slung on my neck. Bombay does not make any sense to me, but then its my personal, honest opinion.

The customary mugshot

Sometimes, i did feel that i was travelling to Bombay to bring back memories that would sustain me till the time i came to Bombay next or Anindita came here. But i guess after some time, you need something more than memories… you need something that stays in the preset – with you. So Bombay, in a way is synonymous to distance, as far as i am concerned – a place where memories are made, the Chocolate Factory, if you will! Thinking about Bombay does make me feel nostalgic but at the same time makes me realise that there is more to life than nostalgia. There is life itself. Things change, as do people. I know i will go back to Bombay and when i do i just hope i stop manufacturing memories and just be in the moment, at one with the environment.

Its been raining more than ever!

And as Vikram Seth said:

All you who sleep tonight

Far from the ones you love

No hands to left or right

But emptiness above.

But know that you are not alone..

The whole world shares your stears

Some for a day or two…

And some for all the years

And some, for all the years

The Assam Experience – Day 5 & 6


The destination for this leg of the tour was Shivasagar, the ancient capital of the Ahoms. We got up and left when it was still dark and extremely foggy out. On our way would be two significant Namghors (literally, a place to chant the Lord’s name… a temple of sorts for Assamese Vaishnavites).

Foggy January morning!

Barely 5 kms out of Jorhat town, we first stopped at Dakhinapat Satra (satras, or Vaishnavite monasteries had been set up in the island of Majuli in the 15th century by Shankaradeva and flourish to this date. Some of them, however have in recent years moved to mainland Assam due to land-loss on account of erosion).

A young understudy monk at Dakhinapat. He is 11 years old now and has already been in the satra for seven years!
Dakhinapat Namghor

After Dakhnipat, we went to visit the Dhekiakhowa Bornamghor, one of the biggest and most revered in the region.

Dhekiakhowa Bornamghor – assembly hall
Trays to place offerings in. The offerings, usually fruits and other foodstuff is wrapped in the gamosa before being placed in front of the deity. Another use of the gamosa
Dhekiakhowa Bornamghor – the sanctuary. Notice how the deity is covered with gamosas
Lamps for sale outside Dhekiakhowa

Our next stop was at the Auniati Satra.

Audience hall at the Auniati Satra namghor
Auniati Satra – scripture wrapped in gamosa

Shivasagar, earlier known as Rangpur was once the capital of Assam under the Ahoms. Remains from a bygone era are visible in the forms of remains of palaces, some exquisite temples and numerous tanks.

The Devi Dol on the banks of the Gauri Sagar tank, 5 kms from Shivasagar
An Ahom arsenal on the way to the Talatal Ghar
Yours truely atop one of the structures at Talatal. My gamosa and i were inseparable
Inside the Talatal Ghar
Rudra Sagar in Shivasagar
Rang Ghar – one of the earliest theaters in Asia!
Another view of the Rang Ghar

At the center of Shivasagar is the Shiv Sagar Tank, from which the town derives its name. On the banks of the temple are three spectacular temples. The Shiva Temple, one of the tallest of its kind in the world is flanked by the Vishnu temple (right) and the Devi Temple (left).

Shiva Temple
The lofty shikhara of the Shiva Temple
Devotees lighting lamps at the mandapa of the Shiva Temple.
Vishnu Temple adjacent to the main Shiva Temple

After exploring much of the town, we headed off to the nearby village of Garhgram, which houses a fine palace dating back to the Ahom times.

On the way to Garhgram
The palace at Garhgram
Inside the palace – I
Inside the palace – II
Inside the palace – III

We had to get back to Jorhat on the same day. So after wrapping up at Garhgram, we stopped right outside Jorhat town at Nimati Ghat, on the banks of the Brahmaputra. On the other side we could see, against the setting sun, the treetops of Majuli, the largest riverine island in the world. This time due to the strict schedule we adhered to, we had to leave out Majuli. Next time for sure.

Nimati Ghat
Same boat, different angle!

——————————————————————————————————————————————————

My last day in Assam was the laziest. I woke up earlyish and had a nice, long cup of tea, after which i set forth exploring Jorhat on an auto.

An assortment of Gods!
Saraswati Puja approacheth!
Colonial guest house at Tocklai Tea Research Centre, Jorhat
Colonial guest house at Tocklai Tea Research Centre, Jorhat
Migratory bird in Jorhat town. Can anyone help me identify it?
Doss & Co. One of the oldest departmental stores in India
In the sanctuary of a temple in Jorhat

That takes care of my Assam Experience. Next up, we travel to Chhattisgarh in the very heart of India. I have worked on four travel guides with the Govt of Chhattisgarh and in the process have covered the state extensively. One of the most memorable trips was in October 2008 when we visited the 11th century Bhoramdeo Temple, deep inside the forests on the Maikal Hills. This little-known gem is sometimes referred to as the Khajuraho of Chhattisgarh. The Bhoramdeo Travel Guide was published in March 2009 and is available free of cost from any of the many offices of Chhattisgarh Tourism Board.

Till we meet again…

The Assam Experience – Day 3 & 4


Sleep is the perfect answer to a day marked by hard work and overeating, and sleep i did. I had a long day ahead. We were to leave Guwahati and head across the Brahmaputra to the north bank and follow the National Highway 52 to Tezpur with a halt at the Madan Kamdev Temple. From Tezpur, we were to cross the Brahmaputra again to the south bank over the Kalia Bhomora Bridge and join National Highway 37 to Kohora in Kaziranga National Park.

Route Map

We turned right from NH 52 at the village of Baihata Chariali and continued on a unpaved road for two kms to reach the base of the hill on top of which is the Madan Kamdev Temple. None of the seven temples in the complex are extant and are identifies by their plinth and foundation and the numerous exquisite sculptural fragments. The misty morning air and the strangely golden vegetation made for rather interesting ambiance.

All that remains of the once glorious temples
Lintel of what was once a door jamb
Mist-clad desolation
Loose sculpture
The goddess

After about an hour at Madan Kamdev, we resumed our onward journey towards Tezpur. The roads passed through Assam’s idyllic rural heartland. We kept stopping every now and then to capture the life around us.

I don’t belong here!
Potter on his way to the haat
Mirchi!
And of course there were the tea gardens, reminding me of home
Mustard fields forever!

Tezpur was wrapped up at a feverish pace and we could not wait to reach Kaziranga. We were to stop here for the night and were booked at the Jhupuri Ghor, a resort run by Assam Tourism. The resort consisted of a number of independent cottages built in the traditional style with cane and bamboo. We checked in around 2:30 in the afternoon and took off immediately to the Baghori range for a jeep safari.

At the entrance to Kaziranga
My cottage @ Jhupuri Ghor
Interiors – I
Interiors – II
Welcome to Kaziranga!

The safari took us the the westernmost range of the park, Baghori. When we met the Managing Director of Assam Tourism for dinner on the first night, he had told us that “Rhinos in Kaziranga are like cattle… they graze everywhere”. At first we thought that we was simply building it up for us, but then when we spotted four rhinos from the highway itself, we started getting hopeful.

Across the stream is Kaziranga!
First sighting, Wild Water Buffalo (Bubalis bubalis arnee)
I need a good telephoto…gosh they are so expensive!
Hog Deer (Axis porcinus)
The grasslands of Kaziranga
There he is, the Great Indian One Horned Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis)
One more time, folks!

Rhino spotting seems to be the easiest thing at Kaziranga. I actually saw so many of them that by the end of it i started wondering if there are any other animals except them. At one point of time, i was staring at a field and i could count 26 of them. No, but seriously, it was amazing. Considering this is one of the few places in the world, you can see the Indian, Rhino, may their numbers increase ever so steadily. The Managing Director was right. He was not only building it up for us, but was complimenting himself on a job very well done!

The cattle of Kaziranga!
Damn them tourists!
Guardhouse, Kaziranga-style!
Sunset @ Kaziranga
Sunset @ Kaziranga
Sunset @ Kaziranga

After the delightful evening in Kaziranga, went to check out some of the local hotels and collect the details for inclusion into the book. One place that stood out was Wild Grass Resort. It had a small hut which acted as a namghor (a place of worship for Assamese Vaishnavites) where a priest was reading the kirtan (devotional hymns). The feel of the place was completely out of the world and i could not resist clicking some.

Worship – I
Worship – II
Traditional murals on the ceiling of the shrine
The Priest!

That was that for the day. Tomorrow we are to head eastwards towards our next destination, Jorhat.

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The next morning, we could afford to conduct our businesses at a more relaxed pace as our next destination, Jorhat was only 97 kms away. But as is the rule, we never travel at one go. We stop for pictures,conversation and most critically, food!

Anyway, our first stop en route Jorhat was a little village on the way. The village was populated by people of the Mishing tribe. They have lived for centuries along the basin of the Brahmaputra and their history, culture and tradition are intricately linked to the great river. The trademark of Mishing people are their unique houses. Built on stilts, the houses help avoid the rising water levels of the river during the floods.

Mishing houses
Mishing House

After the Mishing village we stopped at a little eatery in Bokakhat, the last settlement in Kaziranga and ordered puri sabzi. Interestingly it came on banana leaves and was accompanied by a very hot, and very tasty chilly achar.

Breakfast!
Sometime i wonder if man made god or god made man!
Sweet-maker!
Finally someone clicks me…with the boss, that too! Notice how i put the gamosa to good use. I will demonstrate more uses for this wonderful piece of fabric in subsequent photographs.
Basket shop!

Around 25 kms from Bokakhat, after the town of Dergaon is a small village called Negheriting. It is home to a dol (derived from deul, meaning temple) built in the 17th century by the Ahom kings in the panchayatana ( where the main shrine is accompanied by four subsidiary shrines, usually in the four cardinal directions) style. Located on top of a hill, the main garbhagriha enshrines a shivalinga while the four subsidiary shines were dedicated to Durga, Vishnu, Surya and Ganesh.

Negheriting Shiva dol
Sculpture on the northern walls of the dol
Imprisoned by faith? Temple priest at Negheriting
This is interesting! The round red chillies you see here are supposed to be the hottest in the world. Locals call it Bhoot Jholokiya (one that makes you see ghosts). I was very pleased with myself when i finished an entire chilli over lunch a few days later!

By the time we reached Jorhat it was well past 2 in the afternoon and we decided to go pay a visit to the Hoolock Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary, 20 kms from Jorhat. As the name suggests, the park protects India’s only ape, the Hoolock Gibbon. We did not see any apes but i got some interesting pics.

Hoolock Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary
The region has seen an influx of migrants from Nepal. Many of them stray into the forest to illegally collect firewood. One such expedition was underway, but hearing us approach, the people fled, leaving behind these huge stacks of wood.
Someday i shall find employment as a gamosa model!
In my defense, i was unaware of the moment this pic was taken.
This is perhaps one of my favourite pics of the entire trip. We were returning to Jorhat  and the sun had started to set. I was in the back-seat of an Innova when i noticed the hues in front of me on the road. I took this shot, zoomed in through the glass. Personally, i feel this is the perfect explanation why ‘dusk’ in Bangla is called godhuli (a time when the air is full of dust [dhuli
My room at Hotel Paradise, Jorhat. Could it BE ( a la Chandler Bing) more tacky?

Well, folks, that is as much as i got for you this time. Next up, we discover more of Jorhat and the amazing Shivaagar.

Till then…

Conquering Asirgarh


Work comes to the rescue once again. Just when i had started to settle down, began spending more and more time under the comfort of the razai, comes the trip to Burhanpur. I am sure, most of you, just like me,  have not heard about the existence of such a town. Its only claim to fame, Parvati, my colleague tells me is that  Isabgul is made here.

Geographically, Burhanpur is located on the banks of the Tapti, 180 kms south of Indore in Madhya Pradesh. Its location is such that it is surrounded by Maharashtra on three sides. Its a very sparsely populated part of the country. The landscape is arid with either sal forests of low shrubs. Every now and then there are chains of low hills which at some points create quite a few breathtaking montages.

22 kms northeast of Burhanpur, in the middle of dense forests, one particular hill rises more than 2,300 feet from bare ground. This hill protects within itself  a number of perennial pools and the summit commands, on a clear day, a stunning horizon looking over hundreds of kilometers of the Nimar plains. The Farooqui rulers who reigned over the region before the Mughals, fortified the hill at three levels. The lowest level of fortifications was called the Malaigarh. Further up was Kamargarh, the second level of fortifications. Crowning it all was the unassailable Asirgarh.

Asirgarh rises over the surrounding landscape

Legend has it that this fort can never be conquered by force. When we went to the fort, we witnessed for ourselves the meaning of the word “impregnable”. Each level of fortification was a fort in itself. The walls run all around the hill and are riddled with sentry points at every nook and cranny. Not even a fly could have passed unnoticed. Then on top of it, to get to the king who would have been stationed at Asirgarh, you had to conquer not one but three forts.

Road to the top

Even the greatest of the Mughals – Akbar, had to face his match here. After six months of incessant warfare, he realised that he could not win the fort by direct millitary attack. The fort’s canons, stationed high on the hill were out of range for the Mughal guns but rained fire and brimstone  on Akbar’s army. So he tried a different tactic. He retreated with his army just out of range of the Farooqui canons, surrounded the hill with his 5,00,000 men and laid a siege. within a year supplies of the garrisoned troops in the fort ran out and a mass surrender followed. As it transpired, the royal family along with a handful loyal and brave warriors had managed to escape through an unknown route and were never seen or heard from again.

Natural defences – the hill-face carved into a bastion!

Today, the fort can be accessed by a variety of routes. For those climbing with vehicles, it is advisable to use the old British road (yes, the British occupied it too).  We had decided to take the car up as far as possible and then climb down later using the original paved pathway hacked on the surface of the hill by the Farooquis. You can gauge the height of the fort by the fact that the road from the base of the hill to the makeshift parking at the neck of the hill measures a full 7 kms.

Gateway to Kamargarh

The car stops at Kamargarh from where you proceed on foot to Asirgarh, which housed the citadel, the best of the soldiers, stables, a jami masjid and a temple.

Looking up at the Asirgarh walls from Kamargarh
The stairs that take you from Kamargarh to Asirgarh
Gateway to Asirgarh
Looking down at the Kamargarh gate from Asirgarh
... in Asirgarh
… in Asirgarh

One of the main attractions in the fort is the Jami Masjid. Perched on one edge of the cliff, the twin lofty minars can be spotted for miles around. While we were approaching Burhanpur in the train the minars could be seen from the window of the train. It is a mammoth structure built with black granite – a mark of Farooqui architecture. It looms large over you as you approach it. Of all the buildings in the fort, only the masjid and the temple have survived almost intact. Providential?

through the hole in the wall
Through the hole in the wall
Approaching the Jami Masjid

Built on a platform that is almost 8-10 m tall, the mosque built of huge blocks of granite gives off an air of solidness. So hard are its rocks that even time seems to have collided against it and stopped. Most of the mihrabs, both on the qibla as well as the north and south walls were once faced with intricate jaalis. Very few have survived.

View from the south

You follow the road adjacent to the southern side of the structure and it winds left to lead you to the east-facing gateway to the mosque. You enter through three tall arches. You cannot help but feel dwarfed by the scale of the structure around you. The grand, lofty arches, the soaring pillars and the eerie silence – all add to the intrigue that is Asirgarh.

Entrance to the mosque!
Entrance – closeup

The minars rose against the backdrop of clear blue sky, dramatised even further by thin, wispy clouds. It could not have been any better!

Minar (left)
Minar (right)

The sanctuary of the mosque is composed of four isles of pillars topped by arched capitals – a hallmark of Farooiqui architecture.

If you ever go there, please remember that you can climb up the minars through the spiralling staircase in them. Avoid using the left minar as it is structurally weak. As we climbed up the right minar, we first stopped on the roof of the masjid. From the edge of the roof, it was a clear drop of 2,300+ feet. From a distance, as you can see in the following pics, it looks as if it were a platform suspended in mid-air.

Just like i said, a platform suspended in mid-air
I dare not go any further

The view from the top of the minar..well.. takes your breath away. You are so high up that your stomach begins to churn. You can see the fort down below and notice how it is a vantage point to keep an eye on the vast rolling plains all around you.

View from the top of the minar
Look where the minar casts its shadow!
The stairwell in the minar
The road we used on our way up!
Where eagles dare, i guess!

Also in the fort is a temple, built beside a baoli. By the looks of it, it seems that the temple was buile in the later half of the sixteenth century, roughly corresponding to the years of Akbar’s occupation. Local guides, however, will insist that the temple is over 5000 years old and was built by Ahwatthama of the Mahabharata. They will further claim that on many a moonless night the spectre of Ashwatthama can be seen walking odown the steps of the baoli to the temple. However incredulous it might sound, one must not take the words of the guides lightly, because had it not been for these fantastic stories they weave, my job..nay, history itself would have been rather drab.

The inside of the temple was dark, except for a thin light like sensation that helped us to make out the mouldings and the corners inside the shrine. A couple of long exposures revealed that the interiors of the temple were once painted.

A shot in the dark – notice how you can see the remains of the paintings that once adorned these walls
A shot in the dark – a niche in the temple

From the temple we carried on with the walk along the ramparts. We were following the high outer walls of the fort and that ensured that we covered the entire complex in one huge circuitous route.

Mountainside hacked and chiselled to act as walls!
What a brilliant day it was!

The primary reason why the fort came up on this hill was the presence of a number of natural and perennial sources of water – a key requirement in maintaining a garrison. The two talaos directly in front of the British barracks are known as Mama-Bhanja. Again, our guide, Sat Narayan ji came to the rescue and added an anecdote to these otherwise green water bodies. According to him, if any real life mama and bhanja go in for a dip in the waters of either of these talaos, they will never emerge alive. Sinister, very sinister!

Mama Talao

Half a kilometre further from the twin talaos is a little cemetery for the British officers and their family members who died in the fort. We were surprised to find the earliest grave dating back to 1810.

Gilbert Grierson Maitland lies here…
…and the tombstone reads…

From the cemetery, we went back to the gate which let us into the fort. As decided earlier, the car had gone down and would be waiting for us at the tea stall in the3 village down below. We would be walking down using the path that the Farooquis had built more than half a millennium earlier.

On the way out

As we climbed down the pathway, which was largely a long staircase, we were thankful that we had taken the car on our way up. The steps were huge and even while descending, we were frequently feeling breathless (doesn’t say a lot about our fitness levels, either). With every turn in the road, the fort above our heads kept receding to the skies. The real sense of enormity and vertical distance was becoming more and more apparent.

Slowly rising into the bright blue sky!
further…
and further…
and then some more…
Malaigarh, Kamargarh and Asirgarh – all in one frame!

Asirgarh was definitely the high-point of our Burhanpur trip. But my dear travellers, it is definitely not all that you see in Burhanpur. The city and its immediate environs are literally dotted with historical monuments small and big, taken care of and neglected. Watch out for a sample of the Burhani flavour in this space. Till then…

A house in Asirgarh village

One Sunday Afternoon in November


The cold is beginning to set in on Delhi. While the days are still warm, the evenings have this endearing way of reminding you that its time to enjoy Delhi to the fullest.  Sadly, Sundays are all i have to soak in the warmth of the winters… load my mind with fresh memories to last me through the next summer. Yesterday, i woke up at 1 in the afternoon feeling rather cross with myself for having wasted almost a half of this precious 1 day i get to myself.

Saturday was lost in a haze of dust and smoke. The entire city lay shrouded with the depressive smog and i kept wishing that Sunday would be better. As soon as i woke up on Sunday, i rushed out of bed and stuck my head out of the window to look at the tiny patch of sky visible between the lane cramped with buildings. And i saw blue…however faint it was, blue nonetheless. It was time for me to head to Aadilabad. It is THE place for me in Delhi. I still remember the time in my second year when i stood on the ramparts of this deserted, overgrown fort and said to myself  “God, i love Delhi”.

Very few people are in fact aware of the presence of Aadilabad. Located on the other side of the road from Tughlaqabad, it can be reached by crossing the dust bowl, full at this time by youngsters enjoying a nice game of cricket. At first sight, it looks monstrous and overgrown…intimidating and foreboding to some…but for me, it is a place where i thrive. Thoughts fall into place, and i find myself in the ‘zone’ as i stand and stare from the high ground, across the plain on to the tomb of Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq and the epic backdrop of Tughlaqabad.

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Aadilabad was borne out of the whims of Muhammad Bin Tughluq. After the death of his father Ghiyasuddin, he decided to build his own citadel. For this, he chose the hill directly facing Tughlaqabad, the fortress his father built. At that point of time in the middle of the 14th century, what is now the dust bowl, was a lake. He had his problems with his father, but now they lie in the eternal sleep under the same roof, exactly midway between the citadels they built.

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You can take a bike up to the base of the hill and then proceed to climb over the rocks to reach the main entrance.

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Tughlaqabad is built on a much larger scale, but lacks the appeal that Aadilabad carries. The absence of a road leading up to it, the creepers growing through the rocks, no names on the walls… alright, very few names on the walls, and most importantly, SILENCE – this is Aadilabad.

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The Archaeological Survey of India is undertaking some renovation work on the fort. The workers on the projects live in these little hutments inside the outer walls of the fort. Funnily enough, go back 700 years and the same people would have lived in the same way (minus the plastic sheets), in the same part of the fort. The inner citadel was no place for squatters.

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Squatters of a different kind.

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The old, naked, disembowelled walls…How i love them!

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Friend, bitch, reluctant partner in crime(s).

PS: Tughlaqabad walls in the background.

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This is where i always sit!

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Looking inwards into the fort. Where we are is a giant bastion. In front of us lies the ruins of a great palace. Still discernible are a large hall full of arches, a pillared hall, several chambers and the foundations of what can only be an elaborate hammam. At one point of time this was one of the finest palaces in the world. At least Ibn Batuta thought so!

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This picture was taken from the bastion looking onto the squatters’ village. The kid was walking around in between the huts and stopped just short of a junction of two tracks left by passing livestock. The wild hedges, the littered garbage and the dusty kid made it look like life had been annihilated of the face of the planet and she is the lone survivor, surveying the remains of the day!

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There is a method in madness, order in chaos, beauty in squalour and a hearth in front of a home.

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The thing about plants is that they dont need an excuse to grow. I want to be a plant!

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I have lost weight and i dont own a belt. So i put my hands in the pockets so that it does not fall down.

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Khandahar!

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This side of the fort was less crowded. It was away from the road, the cricket-bat wielding crowd and the voices in my head. We sat here on a rock and stared at nothing. Yet we saw everything. Then suddenly a muezzin sang the Azaan. If somehow you minus the jhuggis outside the fort, the jets passing overhead and the distant honking of horns, you can actually go back in time. The fort would have been the same 3oo years back. So would have been the language, tune and appeal of the Azaan. All you need to do is block out the inconsequential, the mundane, the ephemeral.

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Come with me… lets take a walk on the wild side!

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Kids are always a joy to watch and photograph. The one on the right found the cricket ball in one of the thickets and that made his day! This frame, i think, defines friendship.

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Then they turned back to look at Imroz and me.

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When they saw the camera, they called out some names and out of nowhere more little boys materialised for a photo. …and i thought that the fort was deserted. Over the next half an hour, we became very good friends. The kid with the ball would even let us play ‘catch-catch’ with it. We parted after exchanging locations of secret hideouts in the fort and batting techniques.

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Imroz has ugly hands.

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One thing i hate about winters is the short days. I could have happily spent a couple more hours here. On one hand was the fading daylight and on the other was Imroz going on and on about how we are only wearing tee shirts and the later we leave the colder its going to get. What do i do with this guy?

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Thats him stepping outside the fort. The field stretches ahead. Games are being wrapped up and goatherds return home with their flock. We would go back hime and wait for the monday to come and drive the blues away!