Central Delhi Panoromas


Nahi haal e Dehli sunane ke qabil
ye qissa hai rone rulane ke qabil

Ujade luteron ne wo qasr is ke
jo the dekhne aur dikhane ke qabil

Na ghar hai na dar hai raha ik Zafar hai
faqat haal e Dehli sunane ke qabil

‘Not worth narrating is the story of Delhi
This story is worth crying and wailing

Such places have the raiders destroyed
Which were places to see and praise

Neither home is left nor door,
Only Zafar is there to tell the story of Delhi’

Banished to Rangoon, the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, penned these lines as he bid farewell to his beloved city of Delhi. In the 157 years since his rather unglamourous exit, Delhi has become the capital of India. The demographic of the formerly regional city has been turned on its head at two notable points in history: first, with the Partition, and then, with the opening of the Indian economy in the 1990s.

Like any other metropolis in the developing world, Delhi has its fair share of urban irritants –such as its crumbling infrastructure, slum clusters and the complicated fight against air pollution. The saving grace, however, is the city’s unparalleled greenery.

Conveniently located next to the historic Delhi Golf Course and in close proximity to Humayun’s Tomb, the Oberoi Hotel (particularly its rooftop restaurants) is the one of the best places to observe Delhi’s green lung. At a recent seminar, I took the opportunity to stitch together some panoramic shots of Central Delhi.

(Click to enlarge photographs)

Sweeping view of the Delhi Golf Course
Sweeping view of the Delhi Golf Course
Delhi Golf course, with Lodhi Gardens in the background
Delhi Golf course, with Lodhi Gardens in the background
Looking eastwards, across the Nizamuddin Flyover
Looking eastwards, across the Nizamuddin Flyover
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From Pragati Maidan (left) to Lajpat Nagar (right) – a slice of Delhi

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When it rained in Orchha


After what seemed like a decade (two and a half years, in reality) I was back to Madhya Pradesh, one of my favourite states. My last encounter with Madhya Pradesh was a memorable one. We had explored ancient towns, gigantic rock cut temples that had faded from public memory, a whole gallery of pre-historic rock paintings in the middle of nowhere and a formidable fortress enveloped by the living forest. This time I had no such exploratory pretensions. I was headed to Orchha, a place I had visited before and a place that has for some time now enjoyed mainstream popularity. That however does not take anything away from it. Back in 2009, during my first visit to Orchha, I was on assignment, researching and shooting for an upcoming travel guide on the city. So the charms of the city were somewhat marred by the dark, dank cloud-like deadline hanging over my head.

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One walked on the pregnant Betwa

This time no such thing would happen. I was going to Orchha with the express purpose of feeling the magic of the monsoons. I had heard tales of how the rains works it’s magic on the landscape surrounding Orchha. I have witnessed this magic first hand in other places across Madhya Pradesh; Mandu for example. Monsoons turn this otherwise barren corner of Malwa plateau into the greenest and the most romantic spot on earth.  If the rains in Delhi were anything to go by, I was in for a treat.

We landed in Jhansi station when it was still dark out.  A steaming cup of sweet tea restored our wits and we all (five of us) crammed into one auto and began the 15 km journey to Orchha. The roads were empty and the tarmac was wet. The monsoon induced greenery on both sides of the road was encouraging. The ride was short and sweet and we were in Orchha before you could say ‘photosynthesis’.

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Cliche
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Holy tree
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The fiercest soldier in all of Bundelkhand

Our resort (Yes, you read that right. I have clearly moved up in life) was located right on the banks of the Betwa which had swelled up to almost three times its winter size. The bridge that connects Orchha town to the island in the Betwa was barely visible over the water. The skies were dark and threatening and very soon it started to rain. When it stopped about a couple of hours later, the bridge had gone under totally. This happens every monsoon, I was told.

Orchha, now tiny, was once the capital of the rather large Bundela Kingdom. Orchha is surrounded by forests, which have played a huge role in the city’s relative isolation and the preservation of its monuments. In 1634, even the almighty Mughals had trouble getting to Orchha on account of the dense forests, the craggy hills and the sentient Betwa. The Betwa, or Vetravati as it was known in ancient times originates in the Raisen district near Bhopal and after draining through a large chunk of Madhya Pradesh, flows into the Yamuna at Hamirpur, Uttar Pradesh.  Describing the importance of the river, Orchha’s 16th century court poet writes:

Saat dhar sarju bahe
Nagar Orchha dham
Phool bagh nau chowk mein
Viraje Raja Ram

 (The seven streams of the Betwa converge at Orchha, just as the nine palaces of the sons of Bir Singh Deo converge around the God Raja Ram who sits in the gardens therein.)

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Chhatris in a dream world
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The temples of Orchha
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Painted by the monsoon

It is on the hallowed banks of the Betwa that the five of us – two editors, a rocker, a sitar player and yours truely started exploring this magical city. Like everyone else, we began with the biggest attraction, the Jahangir Mahal.

JAHANGIR MAHAL

‘Whether one admires the exterior for its noble effect of mass or is intrigued by its orderly complexity of its interior, no one can fail to feel that the Jahangir Mahal is a notable architectural achievement’ – Percy Brown, Indian Architecture, Islamic Period (1942)

To get to Jahangir Mahal from  the main square of Orchha, you have to cross an eight-arched bridge that spans a deep moat. It is built in the convention of a traditional haveli (please read this post for a better understanding of havelis, not only as a concept in architecture but also its socio-economic significance) but the similarities stop there. Sure, there is the square central courtyard, but the levels upon levels of rooms surrounding it and the sheer scale of the entire structure are simply mind-blowing. Most of the paint and the plasters that would have adorned the walls have long since vanished. But if you know where to look, you can still see some remnants of the lapis lazuli inlay work on the walls.

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Jahangir Mahal towers over the surrounding landscape
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Viewed from inside
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Climb to the very top, look towards the south west and you will see chhatris poking out of the green and the Betwa
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Look to the south and you will see ruins, forests and of course, the Betwa
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With the Raj Mahal in the foreground
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Who’s who of Orchha: Sheesh Mahal to the right, Raj Mahal to the left, the newly painted Ram Raja Temple in the middle at a distance, to its right protrudes the lofty spire of the massive Chaturbhuj Temple and sitting pretty on a hill far in the background is the Lakshminarayan Temple. All seen from the western edge of Jahangir Mahal
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Remains of Lapis Lazuli decorations on the interior walls of Jahangir Mahal

If you walk up the sometimes steep stairs to the topmost levels, you will be rewarded with stunning views. To the east, past many crumbling ruins flows the Betwa. To the south is a patch of very dense forest and a general undulating landscape through which, once  again flows the Betwa. The terraces on west and north of the Jahangir Mahal will give you a bird’s eye view of the town and its surrounding land. In fact, the views of Orchha as seen in the photographs above are all taken from Jahangir Mahal.

It is generally believed that it took the Bundela King Bir Singh Deo close to four years to build this stunning edifice and at the end of it all was only inhabited for a day by his friend, the Mughal emperor Jahangir. Historians, however question the veracity of this claim. Archaeological evidence unearthed in the palace and its surrounding areas points to the fat that the construction of the palace started during the reign of Akbar, long before Bir Singh Deo came to the throne. He might have only continued with its construction.

It is however a fact that Bir Singh Deo completed the palace and named it after his patron, Emperor Jahangir. Jahangir had earlier bestowed on Bir Singh Deo the official title of ‘Maharaja’ after the latter beheaded Abul Fazal with whom Jahangir shared a tenuous relationship. It is also likely that a lot of the funds used to built this grand palace came from the Mughal treasury.

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The many domes of Jahangir Mahal
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A juvenile Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus), also known as the Pharaoh’s Chicken
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Another view of the rain drenched, beautiful Orchha
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Temples viewed through Jahangir Mahal’s jaalis: Chaturbhuj Temple on the left and Lakshmi Narayan on the right

RAJ MAHAL

Right in front of Jahangir Mahal is the much older and equally ornate palace known as Raj Mahal. Built roughly a century earlier, it differs from the Jahangir Mahal on account of the almost total absence of domes. Another important feature of the temple is that from the outside it looks single storeyed although on the inside it is built on five levels. The past glory of this palace can be guessed by the remains of murals in certain portions of the building.

It was a gloomy afternoon when we entered to explore the palace. The stillness of the air was broken in regular intervals by loud thunderclaps. Very soon, fat drops began to descend from the skies above and confined five excitable people in a 500 year old building. While the rocker, sitar player and wannabe travel writer went ahead to explore the building, the two editors sat down for a nice tete-a-tete that involved sharing of many a scandalous information about people known (or unknown) to each other.

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Raj Mahal, as viewed from Jahangir Mahal
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Brown Rock Chat or Indian Chat (Cercomela fusca) in Raj Mahal
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Rarely before has the monsoons been so beautiful
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When monsoon takes over
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Ominous, yet spectacular
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View of the town from Raj Mahal. You will need a moment to reflect on the sheer scale of the Chaturbhuj Mandir
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And the rest of Orchha, as seen through transmission cables – the kryptonite of architectural photographers

LAKSHMINARAYAN TEMPLE

Lets move away from the centre of the town to the top of a hill barely a kilometre away. Most of my fellow travellers were busy setting up a makeshift bar by the hotel swimming pool where they wanted to spend all day. I understand the sentiment, I really do, but not in Orchha. Not when there are monuments to be seen and bicycles to be rented. I found a kindred spirit in the sitar player and we were off to the bazaar  looking for someone who would rent us a bicycle.

Soon enough, bicycles were found and we were off huffing and puffing, pedaling hard on an uphill road. The temple is beautiful but you will be confused once you explore the structure in details. It is definitely a temple but it is built like a fort. It has bastions on four corners and even canon-slots on top of the bastions. There is however, no confusion on one thing: the view from the temple.

In front of you is a panoramic view of this incredible little town. To the left are the two masses that are the Jahangir Mahal and the Raj Mahal. To their right is the lofty Chaturbhuj Temple in front of which, proud and gleaming with a new coat of paint stands the Ram Raja Temple. Pan further right and you will see the impossibly beautiful spires of the chhatris of the Bundela kings poking out through the monsoon greenery. Scattered around these are ruins of many more palaces, sarais and temples. The modern human has spoiled the party with giant pylons and the numerous electricity bearing wires emanating from them. Modern civilisation does come at a price, i guess.

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The view – as seen from Lakshminarayan Temple
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The Orchha cluster – Jahangir Mahal, Raj Mahal, Chaturbhuj Temple and Ram Raja Temple

Once you move inside the temple, you will come face to face with another aspect of the temple – the murals.  Spanning in theme from the secular to the religious, the murals are, fortunately for us, rather well preserved. The paintings depict scenes from the Ramayana and Tulsidas’s Ram Charit Manas and borrows from other popular Hindu myths.  One stunning frieze depicts the brave Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi leading her troops in battle against the British.

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An artist’s depiction of the fortress at Jhansi
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A beautifully painted corner
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The painted walkways of Lakshminarayan Temple

From the Lakshminarayan Temple we saw this little pathway disappearing over the undulating landscape into the greenery beyond. We locked our cycles and started walking along the path. Many drops of sweat and feral cows later, the pathway led us to what looked like the ruins of a palace. On closer inspection it turned out to be a dargah. The walls were mostly down to the foundations but the main structure looked well looked after (evidence: a fresh coat of whitewash). It was calm, quiet and breezy and hence was an ideal place to sit and ruminate for a while. So we did.

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The pathway leading to the dargah
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Looking back at the Lakshminarayan Temple
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Dargah in the distance
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One of the more beautiful residents of Orchha
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Green invasion
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The town recedes into the distance
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If god is nigh, can goats be far behind?
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Looking towards Jhansi
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The girl with the red umbrella

At this point, we convinced the bums to join us for lunch. After we regrouped, we headed down the road to Jhansi for around 2 kms before we turned off into a gravelly side track. This track ultimately led us to this faux heritage property called Bundelkhand Riverside, built around an ancient hunting lodge used by the erstwhile royal family. To be fair, our less expensive resort was more ‘on the water’ than this one, but with its secluded location and fake but well executed old world charms, this one is definitely worth a shot. The food was good while the dining room struck me as being slightly fanciful.

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The Dining Hall

After the lazy lunch, the bums were in a hurry to get back to our rooms. ‘Afternoon nap’, they said. We were dropped back to the market where we reunited with our (t)rusty old bicycles and set off to explore the rest of Orchha. The previous day while perched atop Jahangir Mahal, we had noticed a whole town of ruins to its left with a track running through it.  So the track was found and we embarked upon exploring the ruins that lay along it. This was obviously not a tourist-favoured part of Orchha and was largely overgrown and empty. We rode our cycles through puddles, uneven rocks and lots and lots of mud.  On the way we encountered a violent rip in my pants, a general and sometimes overwhelming loss of breath (fat guy + rusty bike + uneven terrain + full stomach),  a murderous bull and a palace exclusively for the maids of the royal household.

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Jahangir Mahal, viewed from the non glamourous side
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We were told that these were stables for the royal camels
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Peeking out of the forest
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More ruins
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Another view of Jahangir Mahal. The monsoon greenery gives it a distinct undiscovered feel.
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At the remarkable Palace of the Maids
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Sunburn strikes a pose

CHATURBHUJ TEMPLE

When you think scale, the most imposing on Orchha’s many structures is easily the Chaturbhuj Temple. Its towering main shikhara dominates the landscape and is visible for miles around. The story of the temple is much much more interesting than its remarkable architecture. It was built between the years 1558 and 1573 by Maharani Ganesh Kunwar, wife of the then ruler of Orchha, Raja Madhukar . It was built to enshrine an image of Lord Rama who is believed to have had four hands (chatur = four and bhuj = arm); hence the name.

Legend has it that Rama visited the queen in her dreams instructing her to retrieve an image of his from Ayodhya and enshrine it in a temple at Orchha. There was, however, one caveat: on the journey from Ayodhya to Orchha, the idol could not be rested on the ground/ floor. After the queen finished the construction of this giant temple, she set out to complete the lord’s wishes. Upon reaching Ayodhya the queen located the image and it is said that she carried it all the way back on her head.

When she arrived in Orchha, she set the idol down in the kitchen of her palace right next to the new temple to take a nap. What she did not realise was that even though they were in Orchha, the idol was indeed put on the floor/ ground before it reached its final residence, i.e the brand new temple next door. The deity had mysteriously stuck himself to that very place.

No matter how much they tried, all the queen’s horses and all the queen’s men could not lift the idol from the kitchen floor again. Upon realising her mistake, the queen begged for forgiveness and turned her palace into a temple. Today the palace is known as the Ram Raja Temple and is held in very high esteem by the local population. However, the cavernous and soaring Chaturbhuj Temple remained vacant, attracting an assortment of birds, bats and other critters. Today, the garbhagriha does house a deity but the pomp and splendour of its rituals fade in comparison to the one right next door.

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The cacophony of the cables and the temple in the background
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Jahangir Mahal, as seen from Chaturbhuj Temple
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Patterns on the ceiling
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Jahangir Mahal and surroundings seen from the terrace

The entrance to the temple is at the end of a long flight of steps and faces the Jahangir Mahal across the road. At this point (the above pic), you are already taller than the tallest building in the market below. You enter through two sets of arched gateways to arrive in a cavernous space, not unlike the nave of a large cathedral. The ceiling, at least 70-80 feet above you is adorned by a simple floral pattern while on the other end of the hallway is the sanctum which was supposed to enshrine the image of lord Rama.

Here, you can ask for the chowkidar of the temple and for a small fee (Rs 50-100) he will lead you, through a series of very steep and sometimes very dark staircases to the upper levels of the temple (strongly recommended. Carry torch). On every level there are passages that take you all around the structure. The higher you go, more stunning the view gets. After two levels (if i recall correctly) you reach a wide terrace at the base of the temple spires. At this point, you call command a spectacular view over the town and its surroundings.

I guess one can climb up further along the temple spires, as evidenced by a surprisingly large number of men perched all over them, keeping a keen eye on you, not unlike the gaze of some griffon vultures that nest on the inaccessible parts of the spire. The keenness is particularly severe on the females, so if you are a female and find yourself on the roof of the temple, consider yourself warned. We had a train to catch later in the evening and we still had the chhatris to explore. So we beat a hasty retreat, returned our cycles and proceeded on foot towards the chhatris.

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View towards the south. We did not have time to visit these temples
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The soaring spires, as seen from the terrace
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Another view of the spires, adorned with strange men
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The high street of Orchha and Jahangir Mahal in the background
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Where the lord remains enshrined today – Ram Raja Temple
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Lakshminarayan Temple in the distance

THE CHHATRIS

Orchha was a rich and powerful state under the Bundelas and nowhere is their dominance over the land more palpable than along the ghats of the Betwa river. It was here, from the 16th to the 18th centuries 14 of Orchha’s rulers constructed their cenotaphs, or chhatris. These towering, temple like structures represent places where the kings were cremated.

Most of the chhatris are grouped together in an enclosure, surrounded by manicured lawns. Right outside this enclosure and on an island on the Betwa itself lies the largest, wildest and the most distinct of Orchha’s chhatris. In all fairness, the island was a temporary one as the monsoon laden Betwa has risen up and inundated the little causeway that connects this chhatri to the others. The monsoons had also swallowed the low bridge that connects this part of the town to the other side of the river, thus not allowing us to view these spectacular buildings from the other side. If you are keen on birds, like I am, you might want to scan the spires for nesting griffon vultures.

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The main cluster, set in a beautiful garden
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Too close for one frame
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The wild one
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Another view of the wild one
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An arch, through an arch, through another arch, through yet another arch

After the chhatris, we just had enough time for a quick beer in the pool before we boarded our auto for Jhansi. It was a lazy Sunday evening and the roads were empty; so we found ourselves standing in front of Jhansi station in no time. I know I speak for everybody when I say that all of us were thoroughly refreshed and rejuvenated – some of us on account of the sights we saw, others due to the hours spent in the pool drinking!

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The ragtag bunch of travellers, tourists, pleasure seekers and dreamers

Our train to Delhi was on time and I soon cosied up with George RR Martin’s much underrated The Armageddon Rag. Outside, a monsoon dusk was fast descending. One of those overcast dusks that lasts but the blink of an eye but leaves the sky illuminated for a while like the bittersweet aftertaste of a chocolate infused liqueur.  After about 20 minutes I look out of my window to see another great vestige of the Bundela Empire float past in the distance – the monumental Bir Singh Palace of Datia. I whip out my camera and take a couple of blurry shots. As I put my camera back in the bag, it starts raining outside and a steady stream of sideways travelling water droplets obscure the building from my sight.

Bir Singh Palace - an enduring flotsam of a distant Bundela tide
Bir Singh Palace – an enduring flotsam of a distant Bundela tide

A slice of Shekhawati: Nawalgarh


To the initiated, Shekhawati is Rajasthan’s open art gallery. For those who have not heard about it, Shekhawati is a term used to denote a region in northern Rajasthan comprising of the districts of Jhunjhunu, Sikar, Churu and Nagaur. Apart from a long and eventful history, this region has also produced some of India’s best known business families – the Dalmias, thye Murarkas, the Goenkas to name a few.

Oh histories and havelis

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Marwari merchants moved to and prospered in India’s new commercial centres – Bombay and Calcutta. They sent the bulk of their vast fortunes back to their families in Shekhawati to construct grand havelis – to show their neighbours how well they were doing and to compensate their families for their long absences. As more and more merchants prospered, it soon became a competition to build ever more grand edifices – homes, temples, step-wells – which were richly decorated, both inside and out, with painted murals.

Haveli walls, particularly at the entrance, in the courtyards and sometimes within some of the rooms, were frequently painted by the  from the ground to the eaves. Often the paintings mix depictions of the gods and their lives with everyday scenes featuring modern inventions, such as trains and aeroplanes, even though these artists themselves had never seen them. Hence, Krishna and Radha are seen in flying motorcars and Europeans can be observed inflating hot air balloons by blowing into them, or travelling in trains, the compartments of which look like English cottages. On these walls, fact meets fiction, the popular meets the chaste and in some unfortunate cases money meets bad taste.

These days most of the havelis are still owned by descendants of the original families, but not inhabited by their owners, for whom small-town Rajasthan has lost its charm. Many are occupied just by a single chowkidar (caretaker), while others may be home to a local family. Many of the better known ones have printed brochures and booklets which give an insight into the history of the family and the architecture of the haveli in question. Though they are pale reflections of the time when they accommodated the large households of the Marwari merchant families, they remain a fascinating testament to the changing times in which they were created. Only a few havelis have been restored; many more lie derelict, crumbling slowly away.

Nawalgarh

In February, i followed my friends Rohit and Sriparna to Rohit’s parents place in a tiny village, around 10 kms outside Jhunjhunu. The idea was to relax for a few days in the village, take long walks, and if possible visit one of the towns and check out the Havelis. After much deliberation, we decided to head to Nawalgarh.

Nawalgarh, founded in 1737 by Nawal Singh is almost at the centre of Shekhawati. Nawalgarh is quite compact, and most of its havelis are centrally located and easy to reach on foot. We started our tour from  Morarka Haveli which is a good point to start your tour as most guides (you will need one) congregate here. Please remember that most havelis have individual tickets .

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Paintings above the doorway
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Krishna and his gopis
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The caretaker explains to us the finer points of the haveli
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No one lives here anymore
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The upstairs balcony
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Jesus Christ! No, really.
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View from the upstairs balcony
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Details of the absolutely stunning work on the haveli walls
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More intricate artwork
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Details
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Stained glass and paintings decorate the entrance to the baithak.
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One last shot: View of the main entrance of the Morarka Haveli

Understanding the Haveli

Haveli is a Persian word that means ‘an enclosed space’. But contrary to its literal meaning, the architecture of the haveli did much more than simply enclose space; it in fact provided a comprehensive system that governed the everyday lives of its inhabitants.

Most havelis are entered through a massive arched gateway, protected by a solid wooden door. While most of the times the larger door is locked, a smaller portal carved within the larger door allows people into the first of the many courtyards.  This outer courtyard is known as the mardana (men’s courtyard). More often than not, on one side of the mardana is a baithak (salon) in which the merchant of the household could receive his guests. In order to impress visitors, this room was generally the most elaborately crafted and often featured marble or mock-marble walls. Here, you’ll frequently see images of Ganesh, god of wealth and good fortune. The baithak usually came equipped with a manually operated punkah (cloth fan). Opposite the baithak is often a stable and coach house, called nora for accommodating camels, horses or elephants. A turn of the century garage, if you will.

A wall separates the outer mardana from the inner zenana (women’s courtyard).  Between the two courtyards there was often a small latticed window, through which they could peep out at male guests. Sometimes, there was also a screened-off balcony, known as the duchatta, above the mardana for them to spy on proceedings. Entry into the inner courtyard was restricted to women, family members and, occasionally, privileged male guests.

The zenana was the main domestic arena. Rooms off this courtyard served as bedrooms or storerooms, and staircases led to galleries on upper levels, which mostly comprised bedrooms – some of which were roofless, for hot nights. The courtyard arrangement, together with thick walls, provided plenty of shade to cool the inner rooms, a vital necessity in this sun-scorched land. The haveli thus provided everything for the women and there was no need for them to venture into the outside world – and in Shekhawati these were spectacularly gilded cages.

In the wealthiest of families, there were far more than two simple courtyards, some havelis enclosing as many as eight, with galleries up to six storeys high. This meant plenty of wall space to house the elaborate murals that wealthy Shekhawati merchants were so fond of commissioning.

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Art, in Nawalgarh,  restricted not only to the havelis
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Sweet-making
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Rasgullas.

Half a kilometre and a walk through an amazing Nawalgarh bazaar are the Ath Havelis. Although ath in Hindi means eight, there are in reality, six havelis. The havelis were finished around 1900 and are painted both on the inside and on the outside. Most of the havelis are rented out for marriages and parties. As a result these century-old paintings are facing not only neglect but also, what can be best described as senseless vandalism. As is widely known, most of the havelis belong to some of India’s richest industrial families. While the Morarkas clearly spend some time and money looking after their havelis, it is not the case with Ath Havelis. Case in point, the following photograph:

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Detritus
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Artists who painted this train had clearly not seen one in real life.
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The entrance of one of the havelis
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Details
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Paintings on the exterior walls
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Can you spot the Rohit?
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Beauty
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Back to the exterior walls and to the neglect
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Another train. This time slightly more realistic
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Ghost of paintings past
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Just another house along the street
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Somewhere in the main bazaar
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Neglect. Senseless neglect.

Our next stop was Bhagton ki Chhoti Haveli. Located at the end of a narrow lane, off the main bazaar, this haveli has one of the most striking doorways. The frieze on top is a gallery of portraits depicting both locals and Britons. This haveli felt more compact and personal than the others we had seen so far.

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Gallery
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An European man with a cane and pipe and what appears to be a small dog on his shoulder
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The dandy rahaj keeps an eye on the melancholy Englishman playing the accordion
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These doors and windows were fascinating. Couldn’t stop clicking them
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Guess who?
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A city full of havelis as seen from the terrace of Bhagton ki Chhoti Haveli

For our last haveli, we came back to Morarka where we had started the walk from, and walked past it to Dr Ramnath A Podar Haveli Museum. As the name suggests, not only is this a haveli but it is also a museum on Shekhawati and  Shekhawati’s culture. This is one of the best preserved havelis around. In fact at times, one tends to feel that maybe it is a little too looked after. Various rooms of the haveli have been converted into individual galleries displaying musical instruments, models of forts of Rajasthan, headgear, etc.

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Read the board!
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The exquisite doorway to the haveli. The caretaker will point out (with much pride) that an image of the gateway was once adorned the cover of Air India’s in-flight magazine!
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The details are simply mind-boggling
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A closer look at the doorway
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Another attraction of the haveli – an elephant made entirely of ladies!
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Painted walls of the baithak
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Looking into the inside courtyard
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Painted niches depict the playful nature of Krishna
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The inside courtyard
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First floor corridor
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Some frames just make themselves
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Beautiful afternoon light streams in

For each haveli we managed to visit, we skipped two. It is amazing how this corner of the country produced so many families with so much wealth. In the post, we will look at some photographs from the rural (not that Nawalgarh can be called ‘urban’) part of Shekhawati. Expect colours!

The Untold Story of MP: Bhanpura, Chaturbhuj Nala and Hinglajgarh


This post is about the tiny town of Bhanpura located in a forgotten corner of Madhya Pradesh. This post is a celebration of how small places like Bhanpura, a name you might never have come across, can hold such a wealth of history and natural beauty, yet be so far removed from public vision. But then places like these come as a blessing for travellers like us, who can go to great lengths for that ‘two streets over’ feel. Although the history of Bhanpura and its immediate surroundings go back thousands of years (as we shall soon see) it rose to prominence only in the 19th century, when it was ruled by the Maratha king, Yashwant Rao Holkar (1776-1811). In this post we will look at various facets of Bhanpura and its surrounding areas, including the Gandhi Sagar Dam and sanctuary, numerous shelters with prehistoric cave paintings, inaccessible forts and fabulous Maratha architecture. This satellite view of the region will give you an idea of the area in question (right-click and open in a new window for better view).

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Bhanpura (bottom) and its surroundings. The blue expanse on the left is the reservoir created by the Gandhi Sagar Dam

In the larger story of Bhanpura, Gandhi Sagar Dam also plays a short but interesting cameo. The foundation stone of the project was laid on 7 March 1954 by the then prime minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and electricity production started in 1962. Originally, most of the area around the dam was uninhabited except by a few villages of Bhil tribals. However, once the dam was built and began operation, employees of the project settled in a cluster of eight small townships (known simply as Gandhi Sagar No 1, Gandhi Sagar No 2 and so on), all within a few kilometres of the dam. Each ‘village’ has its own rest-house, and visitors may get permission to stay here from the Chambal Valley Project authorities.

We were lucky to be booked into the rest house in No 2 where we arrived after a fabulous adventure on a dark February evening. Sleep was aided considerably by a few drinks and a hearty dinner. I wanted to get up early as I wanted to capture the sunset over the lake. Also as I had arrived in the dark, I had no idea what kind of landscape I was in. I woke up just as the darkness was fading away. By the time I stepped outside, a faint dawn had broken. What surrounded me was a desolate expanse of rocky land, broken in places by large bushes and clumps of cactii. Around half a kilometre ahead of me, I could make out the recess in the ground through which flows the Chambal, one of India’s most enigmatic rivers. So I started walking towards it.

At this point of time I could make out three shapes approaching me from the direction of the river. In a couple of minutes, as the shapes drew closer, I could make out the faint outline of three dogs. But then with every step the dogs kept getting bigger and bigger. Wait a minute, dogs, especially of the stray variety are usually not this big. Also dogs don’t have stripes. Only then did it dawn on me that they were not dogs but a pack of hyenas, possibly returning home after a night of hyena-ing. The moment I realised what I was facing, I froze on the spot and the hyenas coolly disappeared behind a thicket. At their closest, they were barely 30-40 feet away from me. I did not dare raise my camera to take shots but got a couple of shaky ones from the hip. Caught two of them in the act.

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Hyena #1. Excuse the pic quality. This is the best I could do given that I was crapping my pants at that very moment.
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Hyena #2. Slightly better pic as I was done crapping my pants by them.

After the Hyenas had left and I had collected myself (which was a lot of collecting ), I continues on towards the river. Eventually i did reach the edge of the cliff and there was the Chambal, showing off its greenish blue hue. Dam was around 6 kms to my left and to my right was the oceanic expanse of the Gandhi Sagar Dam. Just a note, in case you ever find yourself here and are tempted to cool off in its inviting waters: Traditionally, the Chambal river has supported a large crocodilian population. And although their numbers have reduced substantially, crocodiles are still occasionally spotted in the river and on the numerous islands in the Gandhi Sagar reservoir. Now dont blame me if you are attacked and killed.

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At the edge of the cliff, looking towards the dam
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The depth of the gorge would have been at least double of what you see here prior to the construction of the dam.
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The sun rises. An exciting day awaits

By the time I had returned from my early morning adventure, Parvati was up and about and breakfast was ready.  Post breakfast, we visited a  beautifully-appointed Circuit House overlooking the endless turquoise blue waters of the Gandhi Sagar reservoir – a vast body of water that covers 2,280 sq kms. in February 2011, plans are underway to convert the Circuit House to an MP Tourism Hotel, to boost tourism in the area.

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View of the Gandhi Sagar Reservoir from the circuit house
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Interesting rock formations

The massive wilderness surrounding the Gandhi Sagar Dam and the reservoir has been designated as the Gandhi Sagar Wildlife sanctuary. It was notified in 1974 and further enlarged in 1983. Most of it is covered by stunted shrubs, dry deciduous vegetation – including tall, graceful trees such as Khair, Dhawda, Tendu and Palash, the last of which is known for its bright orange flowers – and flat arid grassland. Apart from the hyenas, the forest is home to leopards, sloth bear, various species of deer and antelope, hispid hare and monkeys. But on this particular day, we were going into the forest not in search of wildlife but for a rock shelter, adorned with pre-historic rock paintings – Chaturbhuj Nala.

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Inside the Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary
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Trying something different
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Inside the Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary

Deep within the sanctuary, along a sinuous, perinneal stream called the Chaturbhuj Nala (sometimes also referred to as the Chaturbhujnath Nala) are rock shelters stretching in a 5-km long ‘gallery’, with thousands of figures painted on its walls. The first 700 m of this gallery is easily accessible to visitors. Historians believe that the paintings here from the pre-pastoral (over 6,000 years old) to at least the early medieval age (circa 10th century AD), these have every qualification to be declared a World Heritage Site – like the rock paintings of Bhimbetka, also in Madhya Pradesh. Named after a small modern temple, Chaturbhujnath Mandir, located on the northern bank of the Chaturbhujnath stream, this site was discovered in 1977 by a local school teacher called Ramesh Pancholi, and his friends.

We approached Chaturbhuj Nala on a day that was as clear as its waters. Apart from Bhimbetka, all the other rock paintings that I have seen have been in isolated, smallish shelters. Here, there was a channel of overhanging rock fringing the left bank of the stream for as far as i could see. The water of the stream was still, crystal clear, and almost mirror-like in its reflections.

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Approaching Chaturbhuj Nala
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Glad to have reached the destination
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Chaturbhuj Nala
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Chaturbhuj Nala at its reflective best
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Perfect setting for a history lesson. Whatsay?

Contrary to popular belief, these paintings are not the result of a sudden efflorescence of creativity, but are the culmination of the evolving human ability to both perceive and depict. This is a process that began over 1,00,000 years ago, as is evident from the 500-odd cupules pecked into solid rock at Dar Ki Chattan, near Bhanpura (discussed later).

Most of the paintings in Chaturbhuj Nala have been executed in shades of red, ochre and, in rare instances, white and black.  It is also likely that many hundreds of compositions were made on the outer surface of the rock shelters, all of which have been erased by sunlight, wind and rain. Moreover, although it is likely that, over the millennia, many individual artists demonstrated their artistic prowess on these rocks, no artist can be individually identified, since all followed the styles of their clans.

So let’s have a look at the paintings:

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Rhinos appear in some of the oldest paintings
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A woman carrying stuff on a stick.
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Hunters chasing what looks like a herd of bisons
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Men riding hump-less cattle
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Humped cattle
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Dance
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Deer hunt
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Motifs and designs – Hallmarks of pastoral art
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Weird head and weirder feet
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Parvati checks a click
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Man on cattle wielding a huge axe
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Decorated cattle
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A procession
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A dagger
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Horns
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Melee
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More cattle
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Headgear means that the man depicted here was a clan chieftain.
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Camels
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Chariot
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A board game.
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A ritualistic dance. The wild figure in the middle is a spirit. Or thats what i think.
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March of the warriors
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Markings, old and new
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A cattle herder with his flock
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Warriors on a chariot followed by a man with a giant flaming torch
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Chaturbhujnath Temple, after which the gallery gets its name
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The idol of Vishnu in his sheshashayi mudra, enshrined in the temple

Twelve kilometres from Bhanpura on the road leading to Gandhi Sagar, a road branches eastwards to the ancient fortress of Hinglajgarh, named after the goddess Hinglaj Mata. Once off the main road, the metalled surface vanished almost immediately and was replaced by a dirt track that snaked through for 18 kms through wild landscape, desolate villages and a particularly tricky stretch that consisted almost entirely of rocks that suggest the ruins of a flourishing city now long gone. It was almost like the stones that were once used to build great mansions had come loose and were strewn all over the place. On reaching the high gates of the fortress, you may well feel some of the  exhaustion, and elation, of a medieval explorer. Just like we did.
This torture of a road ends on a plateau. On three sides, the landscape is dominated by rolling hills covered by the forests of the Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary, while on the fourth are the high walls and thick stone bastions of the Hinglajgarh Fort. One cannot, in words convey the location of the fort or the wildness of the surroundings. Take a look at this Google Earth screengrab and decide for yourself.

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Hinglajgarh is located on the narrow tongue of land (to the right of the green arrow), surrounded by deep forested gorges.
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Close up of the fortress
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The monster road. Not comfortable in a car, especially if it has low ground clearance. Would have loved to come here on the bike.
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Parvati posing with the fort in the background
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Our driver was very enthusiastic. The car, not so much.

Although the fort’s ancient history is unclear, it reached its zenith during the Paramara period (10th-13th centuries). After the decline of the Paramaras, the fort was occupied by the Chandrawats of Bhanpura until, in 1733, the Holkar queen Ahilya Bai defeated Lakshman Singh Chandrawat and occupied the fortress. The fort has thus been built and rebuilt several times and to this date one can see carved and sculpted stones – obvious remains from previous structures – embedded in the walls of the fort.

Spread across several small hills, Hinglajgarh has four gateways – Patanpol, Surajpol, Katrapol and Mandaleshwaripol. Today the only access to the fort is through Patanpol. There are numerous water sources in the fort, chief among which is Surajkund, a tank that still exudes some of its former glory and is revered by the Bhil tribals of the region.

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Sculptures from an earlier period used to rebuild the fortress
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Walls of Hinglajgarh, viewed from inside the fort
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Walls of Hinglajgarh, viewed from inside the fort

At the height of its glory, Hinglajgarh was known for its exquisite sculptures. Some of the finest specimens from this period have fortunately survived to this day and are displayed at the Archaeological Museum in Bhanpura. The Department of Archaeology, Government of Madhya Pradesh, also has a site office within the fort where several loose sculptures and temple fragments are preserved.

At the western end of the fort, are two temples, one dedicated to Hinglaj Mata and the other to Shiva. Incidentally there is a famous shaktipeeth in Balochistan in Pakistan dedicated to the goddess Hinglaj Mata that is one of the most significant pilgrimages especially for Hindus from Kutch in Gujarat.

Except for the priest and his apprentice, the rest of the fort is entirely uninhabited. Food is brought in from neighbouring villages (the nearest one is about 10 kms away) while water is fetched from a mountain stream in the valley below. A steady stream of people – both locals and the occasional tourist – trickles in every day, and the quiet is regularly broken by the roar of cars and motorbikes conquering this rocky, desolate landscape. Near the two temples is an arched pavillion inside a walled compound. It is locally known as the kachehri, or court, but may also have been part of the royal durbar hall. As most of the fort is spread over a series of heavily forested hills, it is difficult to pinpoint all the structures still extant here. One can, however, still marvel at the sheer magnificence, and isolation, of this remote fort.

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The Shiva temple inside the fort.
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The fort walls as seen from the roof of the Kachehri
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The priest welcomes me with a much needed cool glass of water
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Surveying the ruins

Less than 5 kms north of Bhanpura and overlooking the town is a hill popularly known as Dar ki Chattan. Halfway up are two Shiva temples that date back to the period of Yashwant Rao Holkar. The larger of these is called Bada Mahadev and the other Chhota Mahadev. The hill was the site of the ancient fortress of Indragarh, a city that flourished as a major trading post in the Kushan period (1st-2nd centuries AD). The real attraction of Dar ki Chattan, however, is marked on the walls of a narrow and deep cave on its northern side. These walls are marked with 560 cup-shaped depressions.

Known as ‘cupules’, these are said to be the earliest attempts at artistic expression by human beings, predating the rock-paintings of Bhimbetka and Chaturbhujnath Nala by thousands of  years. Scholars have suggested, in fact, that these cupules are anywhere between 1,00,000 and 2,00,000 years old. Many hundreds of thousands of years ago – even before the continental shift, when the Indian Plate split from the primeval continent of Gondwanaland and collided with the Eurasian plate to form the Indian subcontinent as we know it today – the region that became Bhanpura was under the Tethys Sea. As the land was pushed up, sedimentary rocks, like the ones that make up Dar ki Chattan, were formed, interspersed with pebbles of harder metamorphic rock, which were much older. Scientists conjecture that ancient humans used these harder pebbles to make depressions on the cave walls.
Archaeologists who tried to recreate the cupules using these prehistoric techniques found that it took over 700 blows to form even a shallow indent. Obviously, great time, and patience, went into the creation of these concave depressions, but scholarly consensus about their purpose is yet to be achieved. In spite of a lot of research, it is not clear why early humans chose to make these cupules. There is no dearth of theories. Some think that the cup marks are actually the positions of stars plotted on a wall, pothers believe that the sound of the stone hitting the cave walls was a means of communication. Maybe someday we will have an explaination, but for now it remains a mystery

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Dar ki Chattan
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Climbing through the forested slopes
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Approaching the cave
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What we came to see, cup marks, or ‘cupules’. Perhaps the oldest form of human artistic expression
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Closer view of the cup marks
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Inside the cave
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Christopher Parvati discovers the new world

The story of Bhanpura cannot be complete without a mention of its great hero. Sometime in the early 1990s, Dr. Pradyumn Bhatt – a  schoolteacher by profession and amateur archaeologist by calling – had climbed to the peak of Dar ki Chattan to inspect the remains of an ancient temple. With him were two friends, Mr Agarwal and Mr Gaur. At about four in the evening, the friends noticed the sun’s rays gleam on water accumulated in small cups on the ground. All three had seen these little ‘bowls’ countless times in the past, but something about the beauty of light playing with water focussed their gaze, and they noticed, for the first time, how the cups were made in two straight lines. Suspecting that this could not possibly be a natural occurrence, the friends began exploring the hill for more cupules and so, eventually, a veritable treasure of 560 cupules was found.

Over the last 20 years, Dr. Bhatt has worked tirelessly to bring these cupules to the attention of paleontologists and archaeologists both within and outside India. He has also fought to protect the cave from the less welcome attentions of vandals, going so far as to reforest the hill to dissuade any but the most dedicated visitors from accessing the cave.

Already, however, the rock art that decorated parts of this hill has faded; and Dr. Bhatt and his friends need all the help they can get to ensure the cupules are not similarly lost in obscurity. Dr Bhatt is also a poet. If you find yourself in Bhanpura, talking archaeology with Dr Bhatt over a cup of tea, chances are he will gift you one of his volumes.

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Dr Bhatt in conversation with Paro in Dar ki Chattan

Another of Bhanpura’s attractions (albeit from a time much more recent) is Yashwant Rao Holkar’s chhatri. It took 30 years to complete and was designed to look like a temple. Built by his wife, Maharani Tulsibai, the memorial stands on a solid plinth over 2 m high. Within is a square mandapa, its ceiling embellished with intricate sculptures. The mandapa leads to the garbhagriha through a short antarala. In the garbhagriha there are marble images of the king and his two queens, Kesarbai and Tulsibai.

The chhatri is enclosed within a walled compound and is entered through an imposing gateway to the east. The compound walls have pillared cloisters, which have now been converted into a museum by the Archaeological Survey of India. The open-air Bhanpura Museum houses invaluable sculptures, mainly from the nearby fortress of Hinglajgarh. Even to this day, people in surrounding villages stumble upon priceless sculptures while ploughing their fields, digging a ditch or even washing their clothes on the river-bank.

Many of these have been found to be both exquisite and valuable, and several of these loose sculptures are displayed here. The collection starts from as early as the Gupta period (3rd-5th centuries AD) and includes exhibits from as late as the Maratha period (18th-19th centuries). The real gems, however, date to the Paramara period (9th-12th centuries). This was the time when the Paramaras occupied the Hinglajgarh fort and local artisans produced some of the most beautiful sculptures of all time.

Most striking among these are two images of Uma-Maheshwara and one of Nandi, the primary vahana  (vehicle) of Shiva. The  anatomically precise Nandi, the bull, is shown sitting down while a group of ganas (divine attendants) offer him a plate heaped with laddoos. Nandi is adorned with beautiful  ornaments, which historians conjecture, may have been gilded in the past.

The Uma-Maheshwar sculpture, on the other hand is a study of the divine family. Uma (or Parvati) is shown seated on the lap of Maheshwar (Shiva), who is in turn seated on Nandi. The divine couple is accompanied by their four children – Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartikeya – depicted in a diminutive form compared to the relatively larger images of their parents.

Both these sculptures have been exhibited in various international exhibitions where they have won critical acclaim. The museum’s caretaker, a brave man who has battled antique smugglers armed with nothing more than his lathi, is quick to point out that when the Nandi left the country for India Festivals in France and the United States, it was insured for the sum of 2 crores!

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The grand Chhatri of Yashwantrao Holkar
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Dr Bhatt poses with the famous Nandi
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A closer study of the Nandi
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Close up of Uma-Maheshwara
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A view of the courtyard of the chhatri. In the centre of the frame is the ornamental gateway
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The cloisters of the chhatri stores precious artifacts and also serves as the open air museum.
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Perspective.

Travel is a great leveller. A few months back I had no idea that a place called Bhanpura even existed. And now it has taken my breath away. I have done my share of travelling but never has a place had this air of ‘forgotten’ about it. I hope people do visit Bhanpura. I hope some of you do have that cup of coffee with Dr Bhatt or have your bones rattled on the way to Hainglajgarh. And above all I hope you explore, dream and discover.

Till I see you again.

Delhi: Frames of the Past


A few months back, our organisation, Good Earth Publication received the bid to produce a coffee-table book on the monuments of Delhi from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). At the behest of the protectors of Indian antiquity, the book was to be very imaginatively titled “Monuments of Delhi”. It was to be released on the occasion of the Commonwealth Games, and possibly was the only project that was completed and delivered well before the start of the event (if it takes off at all, that is).

A coffee table book means more photographs and less words but sadly i was given the task to shoot only the smaller monuments while the task to capture the more significant ones like Humayun’s Tomb, Qutb Minar, Red Fort etc, were given to reputed free-lance photographers. But i toiled, nonetheless, in the pre-monsoon sun, which is one of the worst times to shoot monuments. Everything is dirty and the sky, for most part of the time remained a dirty shade of white. So every time there was the rare pre-monsoon shower, i remained on the tenterhooks, scooting off as soon as the rains ended and the clouds cleared to reveal a bluish sky.

 

My first destination was the tombs of Dadi and Poti. They are amongst the many tombs in Green Park, an area north of Hauz Khas village. Set side-by-side on a slight elevation along the road that leads from Aurobindo Place to Hauz Khas, the tombs of Dadi and Poti are well-preserved, though the identity of those buried within remains unclear.

The larger of these buildings is known as the tomb of Dadi (grandmother) or Biwi (mistress), and the smaller as that of Poti (granddaughter) or Bandi (maid-servant). Both tombs are built of rubble and plastered, and both follow the square pattern characteristic of Lodi tombs: with openings to the east, north and south, and their façades broken into a semblance of ‘storeys’. The western walls of both tombs are closed with mihrabs, but only the tomb of Dadi rests on a plinth.

The tombs of Dadi and Poti
Remains of the exquisite facade that once adorned the entrance to Poti’s Tomb
Graves inside Dadi’s Tomb

My next assignment took me to Begumpur Village, near Sarvapriya Vihar. It has has two Tughluq era monuments of immense archaeological significance. Of these, the Begumpuri Masjid is best preserved, while the ruined palace known as Bijay Mandal is unfortunately dilapidated.

Over the years, the village of Begumpur has been engulfed within New Delhi’s ever expanding city limits, but the Bugumpuri Masjid remains quite spectacular still.

Sanctuary of Begumpuri Masjid through its arched eastern entrance

It is generally held that Begumpuri Masjid is one of the seven mosques built by Khan-i-Jahan Junan Shah, the prime minister of the great builder and restorer, Firuz Shah Tughluq. Its large, paved courtyard is enclosed by arched cloisters to the north, south and east. To the west is the sanctuary of the mosque, which is three aisles deep. The entire structure rests on a high plinth. Begumpuri Masjid, to this day remains the largest mosque in Delhi after the Jami Masjid in Old Delhi.

The courtyard, photographed from atop the cloisters on the southeastern side
Pillared cloisters surround the courtyard on three sides
The sanctuary
A part of the sanctuary that has not survived time

The façade of the prayer hall is broken by 24 arched openings and is flanked by tapering minarets. Of the arches, the central one is the highest, and the building’s most prominent feature. The prayer hall’s central compartment is surmounted by a large dome, while smaller and lower domes rise along the roof from the central aisle and from the corridors.

The main entrance to the mosque is to its east, through a domed gateway, reached by a flight of steps. Within, the Begumpuri Masjid has five mihrabs, and it has been conjectured that it might have once been connected to the Bijay Mandal.

Children playing in the mosque posed for this one!
View of Begumpur Village from the dome of the mosque
Bijay Mandal, from Begumpuri Masjid

Lal Gumbad, an elegant Tughluq-period structure, is located south of Panchsheel Park, on the road leading to Malviya Nagar. Dated to about 1397, this is the tomb of Shaikh Kabiru’d-Din Auliya, a disciple of the Sufi saint Shaikh Raushan Chiragh-i-Dihli, whose dargah is in the urban village of Chiragh Delhi, barely a kilometre east of Lal Gumbad.  Chiragh-i-Dihli himself was a disciple of Shaikh Nizamu’d-Din Auliya, whom he succeeded as the head of the Chishti sect.

Built on a plinth about a metre high, the tomb consist of a square chamber whose walls are faced with red sandstone. The building is surmounted by a conical dome that rises on an octagonal drum. This dome is reminiscent of the one in Ghiyathu’d-Din Tughluq’s tomb. The dome was once topped with a golden finial, which was stolen. Thieves used iron rings (called rakab) to scale its western wall, thus giving the tomb its popular name of Rakabwala Gumbad

Lal Gumbad is entered through a pointed arch on the east, decorated with marble bands, which faces the mihrab on the western wall. Within, its northern and southern walls are adorned with intricate sandstone jaali screens. East of Lal Gumbad is a smaller domed building, which probably served as the gateway to the tomb enclosure.

Lal Gumbad
Remains of smaller contemporary structures in the Lal Gumbad complex

The Khaljis came to rule Delhi in 1290, and so turbulent were these times that only six years later the third king of this dynasty, Alau’d-Din Khalji, ascended to the throne, and was responsible for building the second city of Delhi.

This was the city of Siri, which Alau’d-Din Khalji began building in 1303, and it was also the first originally Islamic city of Delhi. Little remains of it now because the city was destroyed by Sher Shah Suri, who used the rubble to build his own city, Shergarh. What survives are some stretches of thick stone walls near Panchsheel Park, the Asiad Village and Khel Gaon Marg.

These walls still have some bastions, some holes through which to shoot arrows, and battlements shaped like ‘flames’, a feature that makes its first appearance here. Nothing of the palaces within has survived, though there are a few derelict buildings in Shahpur Jat, a village near the Siri Fort Sports Complex, from this period.

All that remain – Ruins of the walls of Siri

The nearby Hauz Khas reservoir (later in the post) was dug by Alau’d-Din Khalji, and originally called Hauz-i-‘Ala’i. Its waters served the needs of Siri’s inhabitants.

 

According to the medieval traveller Ibn-Battuta, Alau’d-Din Khalji was not just a great builder but ‘one of the best of sultans, and the people of India are full of his praises’. Besides Siri, Alau’d-Din Khalji also built the beautiful Ala’i Darwaza near the Qutb Minar.

On the peripheries of the old city of Siri is a monument that dates to a much later period, when Delhi was ruled by the Lodi dynasty from 1451 to 1526. Set within an enclosed courtyard, the Muhammadwali Masjid can be found just north of the entrance to the Siri Fort Sports Complex. There is a gateway made of dressed stone leading into the courtyard. Within, the prayer chamber of the mosque has three bays, the middle one of which is domed.

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Dome of the Muhammadwali Masjid from the inside
Remains of beautifully engraved niches

The eastern façade of the building contains arched niches in red sandstone and one can still see vestiges of the blue tiles that once decorated the wall. Further decoration remains on the ceiling, which has patterns of intersecting red bands on it. Originally, the mosque had chajjas (eaves) as evidenced by some extant brackets.

When Alau’d-Din Khalji built the city of Siri, in 1303, he also excavated a vast tank to provide water for his subjects. Originally named Hauz-i-Ala’i, it is now called Hauz Khas. A medieval alcove surrounded by modern bustle and construction, Hauz Khas is located just off Aurobindo Marg, south of Green Park.

Half a century after Alau’d-Din built the tank, Firuz Shah Tughluq gained Delhi’s throne, taking great pains to restore and expand many of the monuments built by previous dynasties. Not only did he de-silt Hauz Khas but he also erected several buildings along its eastern and southern banks.

Hauz Khas and the surrounding architecture
Hauz Khas and the surrounding architecture -II

So great were the proportions of Alau’d-Din Khalji’s tank that even the conquering Mongol, Timur, who blazed through Delhi at the close of the fourteenth century and pitched camp by these waters, was impressed. It is ‘so large,’ he wrote, ‘that an arrow cannot be shot from one side to the other’. A century after the tank’s construction, it was still fulfilling it’s original function, for Timur went on to note that it ‘is filled with rainwater and all the people of Delhi obtain water from it year round’.

The tank that exists today was built by the Delhi Development Authority and, though pleasing and inhabited by a variety of waterfowl, bears little resemblance to the original and almost a quarter of its original size.

The most prominent structure in the Hauz Khas complex is Firuz Shah’s tomb, a square chamber built on a low plinth and surmounted by a lofty dome. The tomb’s entrance is to its south, while its northern and western walls have narrow arched openings leading to adjacent buildings. Its eastern and southern façades are each broken by an archway, which acts as a door.

Over the southern doorway, there is an inscription dated to 1507 AD, when the then ruler Sikandar Lodi ordered some repairs to the tomb. There is also a courtyard outside the southern entrance, surrounded by a stone fence that is typical of early Buddhist stupas, and has here been elegantly mingled with features of Islamic architecture.

Although the tomb is fairly austere in appearance, the severity of its construction is broken by a decorative panel of red sandstone and marble, and carved battlements. Within are four graves, of which the central one is believed to be that of Firuz Shah, and two others of his son and grandson.

Firuz Shah Tughuq’s Tomb
Chhatris around Firuz Shah Tughuq’s Tomb
Chhatris around Firuz Shah Tughuq’s Tomb

Contiguous with the tomb, to its north and west, are a series of two-storeyed buildings rising along the banks of Hauz Khas. These were built by Firuz Shah as a madrasa (or school of theological learning); and to their north is a mosque. An unusual feature of this mosque is that the obligatory mihrab on its western wall is pierced by arched windows.

The madrasa, which once attracted both students and teachers from across the Islamic world, is designed in an L-shape, and its many chambers are decorated with latticed windows, medallions in stucco, lotus motifs, painted ceilings, projecting balconies (jharokha) and deep niches. An independent building to the south-west served, in all probability, as the principal’s residence. The principal during Firuz Shah’s reign was Sayyid Yusuf, who is buried in the courtyard of the college.

There are several other tombs in this area. It is not know who is buried in them, but archaeologists believe that at least some must belong to teachers of the madrasa.

Today, Hauz Khas village is a pleasant labyrinth of narrow lanes, many lined with boutiques and popular restaurants. The village also has a Deer Park, which contains the beautifully preserved Bagh-i-Alam ka Gumbad, an early sixteenth-century Lodi tomb.

Firuz Shah Tughuq’s Madrasa

While most of previous assignments were in south Delhi, this one took me to Central Delhi. Within the premises of Delhi Golf Club on Zakir Husain Road, are two tombs collectively known as Lal Bangla, or the ‘red bungalow’.  The larger of these tombs is supposed to contain the graves of Lal Kunwar, mother of Shah Alam II (Mughal emperor of India in the latter half of the eighteenth century) and Begam Jan, his daughter. It is uncertain whether the monument derives its name from Lal Kunwar or the profuse use of red (lal) sandstone in the structure.

Laid on a similar plan, both tombs consist of a square central chamber with square rooms on the corners connected by halls. Both structures are surrounded by arcaded verandahs, while the smaller tomb, though built on a less elaborate scale, has a disproportionately large double dome.

The main gateway to the tomb enclosure is to its south. It is decorated with arched niches, sandstone brackets and octagonal chhatris on either side.

The bigger of the two banglas!
Unnamed tomb in the Delhi Golf Club

One of my favourites…

Peacock on the gateway of Lal Bangla

Najaf Khan’s Tomb is located southeast of the tomb of Safdar-Jang, opposite the Safdarjang Airport. Najaf Khan came to India in the early eighteenth century from Persia when the Delhi throne was occupied by the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah. Later, Najaf Khan entered the service of Shah Alam II and attained a high position in his court.

The tomb, constructed by Najaf Khan in his lifetime, is set in the centre of a large enclosure, which has a gateway to the east. The enclosure was landscaped to a Mughal-style charbagh (explained later) garden and has been amazingly restored by the ASI. The mausoleum has bastions on each of its four corners and is entered through a projecting arched entrance on its eastern side. From here, a vaulted passage leads to the central grave chamber. The tomb’s two marble cenotaphs are inscribed and belong to Najaf Khan and his daughter, Fatima, who died in the early nineteenth century. The real graves, however, are in one of the two chambers at the core of the platform on which the mausoleum stands.

The austere tomb of Najaf Khan sits in a beautiful garden
A close-up of the tomb

The Mughal tradition of erecting a grand mausoleum in the middle of a garden that started with the Humayun’s Tomb would end in the tomb of Mirza Muqim Abu’l Mansur Khan. Better known as Safdar-Jang, he was the viceroy of Oudh (modern Lucknow) under the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah (1719-48).

According to an inscription on the eastern entrance to the tomb, it was constructed in 1753-54 by Nawab Shuja’u’d-Daula, the son of Safdar-Jang. The sprawling square garden, which measures 300 m on each side, is enclosed within high walls. These walls, with channels over them to carry water to the various pavilions, contain a series of recessed arches on the inside. On four corners are octagonal towers, covered by hemispherical domes (chhatris). Following the convention of the Mughal charbaghs, the garden is divided into four squares by wide pathways and tanks.

Safdarjung’s Tomb – Shot from the western side
Safdarjung’s Tomb srom the main entrance.

The complex is entered through an impressive double-storeyed gateway at the centre of its eastern wall. The mosque on its second storey, built of red sandstone, was added much later. At the centre of the other walls are several multi-chambered spacious pavilions – Moti Mahal (north), Badshah-Pasand, or the ‘king’s favourite’ (south) and Jangli Mahal (west).

Safdar-Jang’s tomb stands at the heart of the enclosure. This double-storeyed structure, measuring 18.3 m sq, is built of red sandstone and is lined with white marble. The central chamber of the tomb, directly under the dome is square and is surrounded by eight apartments. The corner rooms are octagonal while the remaining are rectangular. While the central chamber has one cenotaph, the underground chamber directly beneath it has two graves. The other grave is presumably that of Safdar-Jang’s wife. The building is capped by a bulbous dome that rises from an octagonal base.

The mausoleum rests on a high platform which is faced by a verandah lined with arched openings.
Another view. Notice the towers on four corners of the tomb

On each corner of the tomb are polygonal towers, inlaid with striking designs in white marble and covered with chhatris. The four facades of the tomb are built on similar lines. They have a central cusped arch, framed in marble and red sandstone, through which the tomb is entered.

Ceiling of one of the entrance chambers of Safdarjung’s Tomb
A closer view
The main dome of Safdarjung’s Tomb from the inside

Incidentally, the marble and red sandstone used in the tomb of Safdar-Jang were pillaged from the tomb of Abdu’r Rahim Khan Khan-i-Khanan, located around a kilometre south of Humayun’s Tomb. With its large garden enclosure, Safdar-Jang’s tomb is laid out on the pattern of its prototype – Humayun’s Tomb, but is set apart by structural differences. The tomb has often been described as ‘the last flicker in the lamp of Mughal architecture in Delhi’.

And this is to go..

Drama!

Ramzan in Delhi


Last Ramzan (August-September 2009) Aamir and I along with some other friends from Genpact (where i used to work earlier) went for an iftar mission to Old Delhi. Lucky for me, i decided to take my camera along. I took some shots and while i sat and looked at them, the desire to do something different with them became increasingly stronger.

I have always been inspired by graphic and comic book art and one of my very few regrets in my life is that i cant draw to save my life. Even in the digital domain, my knowledge is immensely limited. So i summoned up whatever knowledge i could and worked on the pics. Here are my first baby steps to graphic-city

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Until we meet again, friends…

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!