If you ever find yourself in Guwahati with an afternoon to kill, head to the Umananda Temple. Located on an island in the middle of the Brahmaputra, it can be reached by taking a boat from the Kachari Ghat, right in the heart of the city. When I last visited this beautiful city, it was in the winter of 2011. As the waters had receded substantially, I had to walk on sand followed by a nervous balancing act on a bamboo bridge to reach the jetty. The sun had just begun to set over the horizon and the Brahmaputra looked mightier than ever.
From the jetty, a wooden country boat fitted with a makeshift diesel engine takes you to this tiny island, bang in the middle of the limitless expanse of water that is the Brahmaputra. My first encounter with Umananda was a completely different experience, however. Back in 2004, we were visiting the city’s iconic Cotton’s College for the prestigious Manik Chandra Barua Memorial Debate (bragging alert: we won). The day before the debate, my partner and I inexplicably landed up on a boat to the island while out exploring the city.
It was at the very end of the long rainy season and shortly after we set off from the jetty, as far as the eyes could see, stretched the Brahmaputra. To the residents of Guwahati, the island is popular for its ancient temple, to reach which, you need to climb a flight of almost 250 stairs. However, for me, the main attraction was definitely the family of Golden langurs which were introduced here decades ago by a whimsical monk.
After you have walked around a bit, it is time for you to climb down the rocky slopes of the island, right to the water’s edge, and it is here that the river overwhelms you. All of a sudden you come face to face with a force much beyond your comprehension. You sit down on a rock and admire the beautiful shapes made by the river’s churning currents, shapes that appear only momentarily before disappearing or transforming into another. Almost like thought itself. The river, to you, becomes a stream of consciousness.
At this point of time, the river takes over your being. You are hypnotized by its beauty and the sheer monstrosity; then the tide rises. (For all of you who did not know, rivers experience tidal cycles too). First, there’s a hint of a chill at the very end of your toes which are pointing downwards, resting on a sloping rock face. Soon, the chill changes into the feeling of the cold water. As moments go by, the cold water climbs up to your ankles, then to your shin and by the time it finally reaches the knee, you know that the river has had enough of you, sitting by its side, feeling like James Joyce. And you get up and head for the waiting log boat, to ferry you to where the rest of the humanity is.
On the way back, if you are extremely lucky, the Brahmapurta will treat you to a fiery red sunset, like only this river can!
Rajasthan is, in all probability, one of the most visited states in India – both by domestic, as well as International tourists. It has been this way for decades. Given this context, to think that in this oft-visited state still lies a corner that is still relatively unexplored and untouched by the tourism industry, is well, incredible.
The kingdoms of Jaipur, Mewar (centered around Chittorgarh and Udaipur ) and Marwar (Jodhpur) were bigger, richer and almost incessantly at war – either with each other or some invading foe. Hadoti, with Bundi at its centre was tucked away in the corner, on the border with Malwa, away from the path of the invaders from the northwest.
What we now know as the region of Hadoti, started as a kingdom in the 12th century AD. It was, however, not destined to remain united. In 1631, the independent kingdom of Kota separated from Hadoti. The region was further split as Jhalawar became an independent state in 1838. So when Indian gained Independence, the three independent kingdoms of Bundi, Kota and Jhalawar joined the Indian Union.
The modern town of Bundi is yet to spill out of its medieval city walls. As a result, you are treated to a miraculously well preserved medieval town. Most of the hotels / guest houses are converted havelis, while the streets are lined with shops that have been functioning for close to half a millennia. All this, against the backdrop of the remarkable Taragarh Fortress – an impregnable statement in sandstone and granite growing like a beehive on the side of a mountain.
The charm of Bundi is very difficult to put in words. It is the result of a rather eclectic mix of rooftop cafes, blue houses, streets lined with medieval graffiti, farmers transporting milk in brass jars and a vibe that is distinctly wild and free.
It is perhaps this very charm that drew Kipling to Bundi. It is said that it was this town that inspired Kipling to write Kim. Rush to Bundi before the juggernaut that is commercial tourism steamrolls through the city’s incomparable vibes. Go there, take in everything, change nothing and, keep Bundi a secret wrapped in time. Above all, let’s not talk about Bundi, just like the first rule of Fight Club.
(Please click on any photograph to open the slideshow)
Bundi’s centerpiece – the sentient Taragarh fortress
Quintessentially Bundi – Fresco in a little lane
Guess who’s coming for dinner
Much like the town itself
Milk delivery, Bundi style
A temple ceiling
A medieval town crumbling in slow motion
Rani ji ki baoli. Spooky if you are the only one inside. In my case, spookiness was ruined by loud American tourists
Bhabai ki baori
Bhabai ki baori
Taragarh Fort is lit up at night.
One of the best way to spend an evening in Bundi is to stare at the illuminated fortress from one of the rooftop cafes
View of the town, palace and fortress from the highway
The TV tower sticks out as a massive eyesore
Bundi Palace and the Taragarh fort crowning it
Graffiti, Bundi style
Something Mehrangarh-ish about this
Hathi Pol. Obviously
The city stretches on into the fog
The medieval city, viewed through a medieval portal
The palace viewed from the path to Taragarh. Serious work getting there if you are fat. Like me.
From Bhim Burj, the highest point in Taragarh Fort. Views are spectacular
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.
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’.
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 baheNagar Orchha dhamPhool bagh nau chowk meinViraje 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.)
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
People who follow this blog will know of my love affair with Madhya Pradesh. I have been to the state a countless number of time and each trip has been a revelation. Its been exactly a year that i came back from this trip, which, incidentally happened to be my last venture into this magical state. So needless to say, this post has been a long time coming.
In late 2010, we were commissioned by Madhya Pradesh government to publish a travel guide on three of the least known districts of the state – Neemuch, Ratlam and Mandsaur. These three districts, located on the westernmost edge of the Malwa Plateau are surrounded by Rajasthan on three sides. So little is known about the region, past its main cities, that we often went along without any preliminary research, stumbling upon unknown places and palaces one after the other.
I was accompanied on this trip by colleague and friend Parvati Sharma (now a published author who had previously accompanied me to other equally exciting destinations in MP like Burhanpur and Asirgarh), who basically did most of the research and writing while I hung around, clicked a photograph or two, supplied the evening whiskeys and ran into hyenas (oh yes, but more on that later).
We took a train from Delhi and on a slightly nippy February morning, reached the small big town of Ratlam. Its claim to fame is the fact that it is a major railway junction and that a small village in the Western Ghats was passed off as this dusty town in the hit film Jab we Met. We shall deal with crowded Ratlam and its charming surroundings at a later blog post. For now we skip over to our next destination, Mandsaur. One look at the map will tell you that the three towns of Ratlam, Mandsaur and Neemuch are linked together by the spanking new, four-laned State Highway 31. We however were barely on it. From Mandsaur we embarked on a circuitous journey through the badlands of Madhya Pradesh to Neemuch. This post deals with the first leg of the journey from Mandsaur to Darmarajeshwar via Sitamau.
Mandsaur, the smallest of the three towns is also the oldest. According to some sources, the great Sanskrit poet Kalidasa was born here, and Mandsaur – or Dashapura as it was known for much of its history – is mentioned in his best-known work, Meghdoot.
Most of the town is still packed inside the medieval city walls and as a result, it is quite a job to manoeuvre even a small vehicle in its many crowded lanes. Just outside the city walls, and on the banks of the tired looking river is the Pashupatinath Temple, the biggest attraction of Mandsaur. The temple complex, which is rather modern has been built around a unique shivalinga which has four faces carved on the four cardinal directions.
Mandsaur, unlike many other walled cities in India has only just started to spill over the traditional boundaries. The main markets, and indeed most of the residential colonies are still within the confines of the medieval walls. After the temple, we went back into town, entering through an arched gateway in search for a haveli that was supposed to contain 300 year old frescoes. When this search yielded no reasults, we headed over to our next destination in Mandsaur.
Perched on a hill to the south of the walled city are the remains of Dashapura Fort. According to the Imperial Gazetteer, this fortress was probably founded by Alauddin Khilji in the 14th century. At any rate, Mandsaur and its fort played some part in both medieval and modern Indian history. It was here that Humayun fought and defeated Bahadur Shah, the sultan of Gujarat, in 1535; Akbar settled the headquarters of the Mandsaur government after capturing the Malwa region; and, in 1818, a treaty between Sir John Malcolm and Malwa’s Holkar rulers ‘settled’ the region firmly in British hands.
Located in the south of town are some overgrown bastions and a gate that leads into a colony of cattle and concrete houses. Inside is a half-ruined mosque, a grave known as the Mamu-Bhanje ka Mazar, an akhada (traditional wrestling school) and the dargah of a saint known locally as Mitthe Shah. Here’s what you will see:
About 30 kms east of Mandsaur is Sitamau, once the capital of a princely state that was almost the size of Ratlam. In a surprising expanse of open space reached through narrow, busy lanes is the citadel of the town which houses the Sitamau Palace. Though a little blackened with time, the palace is still in a fair state of preservation – so much so, indeed, that it is currently occupied by the local branch of the State Bank of India. It is quite a sight to see air-conditioners peep out of the delicate jharokha windows on the palace’s first floor. While there is no restriction whatsoever on photography within the premises of the palace, a rather irate watchman might claim otherwise. It is a good idea not to pay any attention to him. I didn’t.
A 10-minute drive from the Sitamau citadel and located alongside another palace of Sitamau’s rulers is the Natnagar Shodh Samsthan, the passion and brainchild of a woefully underrecognised
if greatly erudite and committed Raja of Sitamau, Dr Raghubir Sinh. Dr Sinh, a student of the eminent scholar YD Sircar, and recipient of the first DLitt awarded by Agra University for his thesis titled
‘Malwa in Transition’, accumulated a veritable treasure of books and manuscripts on central India. Natnagar Shodh Samsthan forms the core of the research institute he founded.
Today, it has over 35,000 books, 6,500 manuscripts and over 17 lakh letters, in Hindi, Marathi, Persian, Urdu, Sanskrit and English. Maintained by a small but committed staff, the library has served generations of scholars from India and abroad, and remains open to anyone who walks through its doors.
Both the palace as well as the library are enclosed by a beautiful garden. Also in the compound is a small but rather deep baoli
Around 4 kms south of Sitamau is the tiny village of Laduna. Located on the banks of a large lake, Laduna Palace was built as an alternative to Sitamau in case the latter succumbed to Maratha attacks – a routine phenomenon in this region at the time. This beautifully conceived palace was built by Fateh Sinh, who assumed the throne of Sitamau in 1752.
Still occasionally inhabited by Fateh Sinh’s descendents, Laduna Palace has a square Radha-Krishna Temple that abuts into the lake and is half-submerged every monsoon. Unfortunately when we visited Laduna, the lake was dry. But a little imagination, and you can clearly see how beautiful the place would have been had there been water.
Every now and then in the life of a traveller, you embark on a journey of discoveries. While Mandsaur and Sitamau were quite unexplored, what came next was stuff of legends. Sixty kilometres north-east of Sitamau, and a little over 100 kms from Mandsaur, is the magnificent, hill-top, rock-cut temple of Dharmarajeshwar (earlier known as Dhamnar) with miraculously preserved, ancient Buddhist caves carved into the same hill.
The nearest village, called Chandwasa, is located at the foot of the Dharmarajeshwar hill to the west. Cut into, and out of, the hill, the temple complex bears some comparison to the rock- cut marvels of Ellora, in Maharashtra. The site is protected by the Archaeological Survey of India.
We had no idea what to expect at Dharmarajeshwar. We just knew that it was a rock-cut temple, in the style of Ellora and barely anything more than that. We had no idea how big it was, or how ornate it would be and since it is cut into the rock, we had absolutely no idea what we would see until we actually went through a gateway. When we did go through that door, we stood face to case with the complex. The main temple and a few subsidiary shrines occupy a depression the size of half a football field carved into solid rock!
The main shrine in the 8th-century Dharmarajeshwar Temple complex was originally dedicated to both Vishnu and Shiva, and an image of Harihara – the combined form of both Vishnu (Hari) and Shiva (Hara) – is found in its garbhagriha. However, it later became a Shiva temple, so the garbhagriha also houses a shivalinga, and today Mahashivratri is the main festival celebrated here. There are five smaller shrines within the temple complex, one of which is empty. The others are dedicated to Panch Devi, Chote Vishnu, Bade Vishnu and the Dasavtaras.
Carved into the rough laterite rock of the hill-face, a few minutes’ walk from the temple, are a series of Buddhist caves, dated to the 5th century AD. These caves were discovered by James Tod, an officer of the East India Company in the early 19th century. Although Tod described these as Jain caves and said there were 170 of them, this was disputed by later scholars, including Alexander Cunningham, who identified the caves as Buddhist and their number as about 70.
It is believed today that there may be up to 300 caves all around the hill, hidden amid the chiral, ber, tamarind and neem trees that rustle when the occasional gust of wind disturbs their branches. Only 14 caves, however, are open and accessible to visitors. These include an unnamed enclosure that contains five seated Buddhas (locally believed to be the five Pandava brothers), three larger-than- life standing Buddhas and a beautifully elongated depiction of the Buddha’s parinirvana.
The largest cave here is called Bhim Bazaar, and it contains a chaitya (or shrine) enclosed within what is probably a vihara (living quarters for monks). Each row of small cells in the vihara has one cell that contains a small chaitya. No matter what the temperatures outside, light filters gently through this porous stone and a sense of peace pervades these now-deserted halls.
There is also the Badi Kachahari, a large chaitya hall, which may once have been decorated with painted plaster, though only some traces of carving remain today.
A day that started so remarkably in a town that has managed to retain its medieval flavour was coming to an end on top of a hill, surrounded by flotsam of an age long gone by. The sun was about to kiss the horizon and the bare rocks of Dharmarajeshwar were set aglow by the magic afternoon light. Around me was the evidence of an age where two religions made this tiny piece or rock their home and most importantly, home to their Gods. It was an important day, because the travel guide that would reasult from this trip would be the first stage in building tourist infrastructure to this area. It would be great to see this place bustling with tourists (responsible tourists at that) which in turn would bring in the much required capital to the local economy.
If this scheme were to succeed, I would take pleasure in the fact that I have had a miniscule part to play in it.
We left Dharmarajeshwar just as the sun disappeared over the horizon. We had to cover a distance of almost 80 kms over questionable roads that ran through a vast wilderness. The roads, as it turned out were surprisingly good (with some bad patches) and we reached Gandhi Sagar No 2 (more on this in the next post). Where we were booked in the PWD bungalow. It was a single storeyed structure with high ceilings, set in the middle of nowhere. At this point of time, I must point out that the entire settlement of Gandhi Sagar No 2, is a mere collection of a few houses and a couple of shops selling the basic necessaries. The room was big enough to accommodate three people but it made up for it by the toilet, which was barely fit for use. But one cannot complain after a day of amazing discoveries and looking forward to a night of peaceful sleep.
If this experience was wild, the next day’s adventure would be taking it to the next step. Watch this space for more.
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.
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.
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.
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’)
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.
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.
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.
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.
From the simple to the plush. Here are some snapshots of the Fort Ahilya Hotel in the palace:
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
Many of the temples and ghats of Maheshwar are best viewed from the boat. I shall describe them as we go along:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
Harsiddhi Mata Temple. I love moments… moments like this
The Paintings on the interior of the Harsiddhi Mata Temple. Real kitsch is what i mean!
The idol of the deity in the temple!
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.
Friends strike a pose at the ghats outside the Mangalnath Temple
Patience is a virtue!
How many things can rise to the sky at the same time?
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
Worshipping under the old Banyan Tree
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.
Coming to think about it, this one is quite well framed
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.
It was such a quiet place. I could hear the creaking of the wheels of this bullock cart, long after it disappeared from sight!
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.
The Ram Ghat. This is where the Maha Kumbh Mela is held every 12 years! The ‘magic’ evening light!
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.
I love this pic, i love the soft glow of the lamp on his face!
….and on the other side of the river!
A Shiva temple on the ghats.
The curiously modified bus that took me on a Ujjain Darshan!
Falahari Baba! He has lived only on fruits for the last 45 years!
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!