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

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.

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.

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

Reaching Chauragarh


Around a year ago, work took me to Pachmarhi. As usual, our organisation was asked by Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Developement Coporation to write a travel guide to Pachmarhi. This is the first step of an elaborate plan that ends in the declaration of Pachmarhi as a UNESCO World heritage site. To be honest, i have only heard mentions of Pachmarhi and had no idea whatsoever of what surprises awaited me. In my initial research, it was clear that it was a hill station of sorts (come on, having spent a considerable amount of time practically next door to Darjeeling, the tag ‘of sorts’ is only fair). What interested me more were the hills on which Pachmarhi was located – the Satpuras.

The landscape is dominated by rugged hills, plunging ravines, and ancient monoliths that resemble the tough hide of some colossal primeval beast deep in an eternal slumber. Dense forest covers the land and paints it in swathes of a thousand shades of green, broken only by the deep brown of some of the most ancient rocks known to mankind. At every possible point in this landscape, mountain streams tumble down the steep slopes to give rise to cascading waterfalls.

Although the main photo-journal of my Pachmarhi trip will come later, i could not resist giving a standalone mention to one of Pachmarhi’s most daunting attractions – the Chauragarh Temple. Located on top of the Chauragarh Peak,at an altitude of 1,330 m, the temple can be accessed after a 3.6 km ling trek. Just when you are thinking that the three-and-a-half odd kms is not really a big deal, let me just tell you that the last kilometer is basically 1,380 steps cut on the sheer rock face.

View of the Satpuras from Forsyth Point. Look closely at the top of the highest hill on the right… what you see as a little pyramid is the Chauragarh Temple, my destination for the day
Wish you were here!

You can take your car upto the Mahadeo Temple, 9 kms from Pachmarhi town. From there begins the trek to Chauragarh. For the first kilometre, you climb up and down a number of small hills till you come to the base of the main hill. See, the thing is, i USED TO be a fit guy when i was in college and played sports regularly. The lesser said about my present state of physical fitness, the better. So i hired a guide (read: porter) who would carry the water and the extra camera. For people planning to go there, please carry your own water as there are no vendors on the way. A few tribals set up shop here and there selling gutkhas, cigarettes and nimboo paani. For the last item, they mostly use a lemon that grows in the wild and makes a nimboo paani unlike anything else you have tasted. Must-have!

Initial stages of the trek.
Signs of His presence

Almost halfway through the trek, you begin to wonder why on earth did so many people spend so much verbal bytes on how difficult the trek was going to be. I was making good time and there was no sign of any challenging climb. At one point of time i was even thinking that MAYBE i was not as unfit as i thought i was…MAYBE i am in fact the superfly and that i would conquer Chauragarh in no time.

Anyway, condescending thoughts aside, halfway through the trek, you encounter a large cave. The opening is rather wide and as one ventures inside, it gets narrower and the roof gets increasingly lower. At the end of the cave was a deep pool full of what seemed like the most sinister looking water that ever was. If i was in a pulp detective novel, this was the kind of place i would find the remains of the victims of a Dahmer-isque serial killer. But that was not to be…all i found was an idol of Shiva!

My guide decides to take a nap while i explore the cave!
Shiva at the end of the tunnel

After the cave, the track finally starts winding upwards. On one side of the road was an unrestricted view of the Satpura valley, most of which is part of the Satpuras National Park and Tiger Reserve. As you trudge on higher and higher, the scenenery begins to unfold under you. At this point of time, you begin to wonder if this view looks stunning, what would the view from top be like.

Onwards…
The valley that was
A little further up

Two-thirds of the way up, i started feeling the pinch of the climb. Heavy breathing graduated into discernable panting and at the first sign of the real climb began to show itself. I was standing at a point where the hill had risen sharply. The moderately inclined road had come to an end and the stairs had started. They were cut into the side of the rock and each of them was almost twice the height of the ones we encounter everyday at home or in office. At some places, the steps were almost vertical it was almost like climbing up a ladder.

This should give you an idea of what i am talking about.
View from almost halfway up the hill.

After the first 300 steps, relief came in the form of a stretch of level road. Chest swelling, muscles aching, i stopped here for a breather. It was amazing how silent it was. Due to the difficulty of the climb, not many people attempt the trek. It had already been almost one and a half hours since i started from the Mahadeo Caves and i had seen not more than a dozen souls on the road. All i could hear was the rustling of leaves and the occassional chirping of a bird.

The rare level road. The little shop sold some very refreshing nimboo paani
Still a long way to go..
It was all very silent
Where the god resides
Halfway up yet another climb

After what seemed like an endless climb, i finally reached a terrace of sorts. It was almost at the neck of the hill, with one final flight of moderately high stairs (for a change) to the top. I rang the bell here in all my earnestness to thank the lord that the ordeal was almost over.

Almost there
The final climb

The temple courtyard is stacked with thousands of trishuls, some weighing over three tons and standing nearly 5 m tall. On the occasion of Nagpanchmi and Mahashivaratri, devotees come here in droves, lugging up these heavy tridents or trishuls as offerings. These are then stuck in the ground around the temple creating a forest of trishuls. It is generally believed that the wishes of anyone who offers a trident here will be fulflled.

A giant heap of divine weaponry
And then some more
The real pilgrim

The temple itself is a half-built modern structure with an idol of Shiva in the garbhagriha. A small hut by the temple serves as the residence for the two priests. A conversation with one of the priests reveals that the hill was held sacred by the local adivasis long before ‘outsiders’ came. An assimilation of cultures let to the identifcation  of a tribal deity with Lord Shiva.

I will not describe in words the view from top. Here, see for yourself:

The view from top. You can clearly see a part of the road leading to the temple.

The climb down took almost a fraction of what it took me to reach the top. I calculated that from start to finish, the entire trek took me around 6 hours. My guide thought that i was rather quick compared to the numerous others he had accompanied. Having said this, he added that this 16 year old nephew was known to do the round trip in under an hour. I wouldnt want to meet the lad though.

on the way back

This remains, to this day the most physically demanding trip i have ever undertake. I am not much of a trekker and given a choice, i would let by Bullet do the walking. But if any of you guys are planning on going to Chauragarh, give me a shout. I might just come along. This was special.

Amundsen..well, almost!

Burhanpur – Forgotten Glory


As promised in the earlier post on Asirgarh, i am back with more goodies, this time from in and around Burhanpur. For those who are joining us here, i was in Burhanpur earlier this month on office work. Its a piddly hick town in southern Madhya Pradesh near the border with Maharashtra.

I have, in the last post established that Burhanpur today is most famous for its Isabgol plant. However some centuries ago, it was a major contender for the site of the Taj Mahal. Had it won the race, the realities would have been different. But then again, who really knows!

Mumtaz died in Burhanpur giving birth to her fourteenth child, Gauhar Begum and was buried here for the next 23 years waiting the completion of her famed tomb, halfway up the country at Agra.

Is it not appropriate then, to begin this post with a photograph of Mumtaz’s hammam?

Paintings on the hammam walls

The hammam was beautifully painted, most of which has survived to this date. It is located in the Badshahi Qila or the city fort, which is the primary attraction in Burhanpur town.

Badshahi Qila

Standing on the banks of the Tapti, the Badshahi Qila is a remarkable structure. The six storeyed structure rises over 175 feet from the river beds and housed over 4,00,000 soldiers. The palaces – Diwan-i-Aam and Diwan-i-Khas were built on the terrace of the structure. The Raj Ghat, that you see in the foreground of the picture above was used as a base for the boats used by the members of the royal family.

Elephant in the water!

Just off the ghats in the middle of the Tapti is a strange rock in the shape of an elephant. To heighten the effect, the locals have even painted it in bright colours. It is said that on moonlit nights, Shah Jahan would take Mumtaz Mahal out on a boat and both of them would then sit on the elephant rock and enjoy the beauty of the night!

Badshahi Qila, again

Long after the Mughals, the Holkar Queen, Ahilya Bai, built numerous temples on the ghats, one of them dedicated to the goddess Tapti.

Raj Ghat
Life on the ghats
Life on the ghats
Life on the ghats

Burhanpur today, is a veritable necropolis. Of the monuments in and around the town, the majority are tombs. Apart from Mumtaz, Burhanpur boasts (!!) of a number of historical notables who have breathed their last here, including Nizam-ul-mulk, the first of the Asaf Jahi Nizams of Hyderabad and Sawai Jai Singh of Amber. After the tombs, the most numerous are the mosques. Lets start off on the grim note of death and the consequent monuments built to commemorate it, The following photographs belong to a complex of tombs on the banks of the Tapti. The two main mausoleums are of the Farooqui kings, Aadil Shah and Nadir Shah.

Twin TombsThe mausoleums house more than one grave. The largest of them belong to the emperor while the smaller ones are those of his wives, children, courtiers, servants, etc. Inside Nadir Shah’s tomb

One of the bona-fide gems of Burhanpur is Bilquis Begum’s Tomb. However, the locals know it as Shah Shuja’s Tomb. In reality, it was Shah Shuja (son of Shah Jahan) who built this tomb for his wife Bilqis Begum. From the outside, the dome of the structure is somewhat melon shaped. On that cue the people of Burhanpur also refer to it as the kharbooji gumbad!

Bilqis Begum’s tomb

The urge to built mausoleums for dead wives seems to have passed on from Shah Jahan to Shah Shuja. Though clearly nowhere comparable to the Taj Mahal, Bailquis Begum’s tomb has a charm of its own. The inside walls are embellished with paintings that even five centuries later continue to mesmerise and dazzle the visitor. Here, i must also thank the Archaeological Survey of India for the great job they are doing with the monuments of Burhanpur.

Details of paintings from Bilquis’ tomb!

Jai Singh of Amber (1611-1666) was one of the most trusted generals of Aurangzeb. After concluding the treaty of Purandar with Shivaji and Co, Jai Singh was on his way back to Jaipur when he mysteriously died in Burhanpur. Some say he was poisoned by Aurangzeb himself, others feel that he died of excessive drinking. I feel that he died of excessive drinking on the wine given by Aurangzeb. Makes no sense? Well, thats historical conjecture!

So after his death, he was cremated on a lovely spot on the Tapti, 20 kms south of Burhanpur. Aurangzeb later erected a simple but beautiful chhatri on this spot. It is today popularly known as Raja ki Chhatri.

Raja ki Chhatri

The most dramatic of Deaths in Burhanpur was that of Mumtaz Mahal in 1631. She was initially buries in the king;s hunting lodge on the other side of the river from Burhanpur. Ahukhana, as the building is better known, stands to this day and perhaps as fate would have it, is the favourite haunts of the city’s love-lorn couples.

Ahukhana

From the house of the mortals we now move to the realm of God. Generation upon generation of Islamic rulers have resulted in the cityscape of Burhanpur being dominated by many a soaring mosque minar. The most prominent however is the town’s Jami Masjid. Also one of the oldest in the city, the Jami Masjid is located in Gandhi Chowk, at the very heart if the old town.

Has there ever been a better place to sleep?

It was in fact the first place we visited in Burhanpur after we had dumped our sacks in the hotel. It was a lazy afternoon and the mosque was quiet. A number of people were actually asleep in the sanctuary. Had work not being pressing on me, i would have considered a little nap myself!

It is easy to get lost in Burhanpur, a veritable city of mosques. Everybody who was anybody, anytime in the long history of this town, has left behind a mosque. Finding them in the present cityscape is a different adventure altogether. You have to get lost and wander in its labirynthine alleyways before you stand face to mace with a medieval mosque.

Beautifully sculpted mihrab at the Jama Masjid
A minar of the Tana Gujri Masjid, reflected in the waters of its hauz
Crumbling ruins of the once splendid Biwi ka Masjid
Close up of the love extant minar of Biwi ka Masjid
Remains of a sarai just outside of Burhanpur, at Zainabad
Perforated domes of the public hammam near the Anda Bazaar Chowk.
Bangles for sale outside the Iccha Devi Temple, 25 kms from Burhanpur
The delightful pleasure palace of Mahal Gulara
A solitary cupola on the roof of Mahal Gulara
Picknicking children invent a game at Moti Mahal, Asirgarh

Well, people, that was as much of Burhanpur’s secret as i could divulge. Needless to say, i could have gone on with the picture-play a bit longer but i feel that some of the intrigue should be left from the book.

Next up, is a multi-part series on Assam. So, watch this space for more.

[PS: I will have to admit that pressing schedules at work and at home has forced me to assemble this blog piece over a three week period. I would not be surprised if some of you find it a bit disjunctive and jumpy at times. Apologies!]

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

Ujjain – The land of God(s)


Work took me to Ujjain earlier this week. We are doing a book for MP Tourism on this most ancient of cities. I am, as per office policy, not allowed to put up work related pics ahead of the completion of the project, but the snaps that you see here have been reduced in size and resolution. So technically speaking, apart from this space they are pretty useless!

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Harsiddhi Mata Temple. I love moments… moments like this

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The Paintings on the interior of the Harsiddhi Mata Temple. Real kitsch is what i mean!

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The idol of the deity in the temple!

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A sadhu outside the Kal Bhairav Temple. I think sadhus make for very nice pics. Though the subject is highly overdone and has been  a cliche for ages, its still remains very appealing.

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Friends strike a pose at the ghats outside the Mangalnath Temple

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Patience is a virtue!

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How many things can rise to the sky at the same time?

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Man doing yoga on the waters of the Shipra river near the Navagraha Temple. Look at the finesse…he is just floating there…such is his skill and balance that even the ripples in the water are perfectly symmetrical

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Worshipping under the old Banyan Tree

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Ah! This pic… it has got to be one of the best i have clicked so far. There is something about the frame…something in the room, in the man’s eyes that makes me stare at the picture for several minutes at a stretch.


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Coming to think about it,  this one is quite well framed

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Kalideh Palace, just outside Ujjain. The durbar hall has been converted to a Sun Temple and this is the sun god himself. He needs peotection though and is surrounded by a grille. Tried to frame him through one of the grille patterns.

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It was such a quiet place. I could hear the creaking of the wheels of this bullock cart, long after it disappeared from sight!

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To beat the summer heat, the Mughal governor of the region made a palace and surrounded it with water in the form of channels, nullahs and tanks. The locals wash clothes, cook and worship here now-a-days.

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The Ram Ghat. This is where the Maha Kumbh Mela is held every 12 years! The ‘magic’ evening light!

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This was by far the highlight of the entire trip – the Sandhya Arati on the Shipra. This young priest was on my side of the ghat. On the other side there were two priests. There were groups of people on both sides playing kettle drums and banging cymbals in unison. It was a very powerful moment.

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I love this pic, i love the soft glow of the lamp on his face!

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….and on the other side of the river!

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A Shiva temple on the ghats.

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The curiously modified bus that took me on a Ujjain Darshan!

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Falahari Baba! He has lived only on fruits for the last 45 years!

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I was trying to click the red potlis in the background but this man walked into the frame and started observing what i was doing…i shot the man!