Roofless palaces

Years ago when we spent several days exploring Mandu we had the time to walk into smaller groups of buildings. One interesting group was the one near Sagar Talao. These are palaces and tombs of people who are not remembered. The structures in the royal enclosure are intact, but here walls have crumbled and roofs have fallen down. Like a beginning student of architecture, I strolled through these ruins marveling at how five centuries can destroy stone walls and flat roofs, while doing little damage to exposed arches until I discovered a little more to the story.

After a while I began to notice more details about these tumbled walls. Most obviously, you see the rubble masonry inside the walls. You can see the ill-fitting stones which would have been held together with mortar. I’d earlier noticed the incredibly thick walls of Hoshang Shah’s tomb. The marble that one sees there cannot have been cut in such thick slabs; probably those are thin sheets covering a rubble filling. In these lesser buildings, there seems to be little cut stone used (see the featured photo). So, once the mortar was weathered away, the walls could begin to crumble. In the foreground of the photo above you see the base of a pillar on the right made with ill-fitting stone. The base of the pillar on the left is made of tightly fitted bricks. This was a surprise. Who built with bricks?

I liked the doorway which you can see in the photo above not just because of the two dogs guarding it. I thought that the sandstone was very well-chosen, with two different colours in the arch. I don’t know whether this comes from the 15th century CE, or a hundred years later. In these centuries the architecture of Delhi did marvelous things with coloured stones. What is interesting is that in its own smaller way, the provincial court of Mandu also tried this out.

The arch in the photo above gives a complete picture of the method of construction. The doorway is beautifully constructed in carved sandstone. It is set into a rubble wall. You can see the mortar which binds the unshaped pieces of stone. The wall was faced with a thick layer of mortar. You can see parts of it still covering the rubble filling. Moss covers the facade. Any cracks in the mortar will lead to water seeping into it, and softening it until it falls away. These lesser nobles could not afford marble or sandstone to cover the whole wall. Inside one of the palaces (photo below) I saw niches made of plasterwork. The floors seemed to be made of mortar rather than the flagstones of the Jami Masjid or the royal buildings.

Even just outside the royal core of the citadel, the history of buildings and tombs are forgotten. Mandu was a center of literature and arts in the days of the Sultanate; its books are known, its histories documented not only by their own court, but also by travelers and neighbouring kingdoms. If you doubted that history is harsh and forgetful, a stroll through these huge ruins will convince you of your error very quickly. There are two structures in this group which have names that we know: Dai ka Mahal, and Dai ki Chhoti Behen ka Mahal. Both are tombs; the first of a royal wet nurse, the second of her sister. Would they be minor nobility or slaves? I never found out which royal was nursed, nor anything else about the persons who were memorialized in these tombs.

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Mandu’s Jami Masjid

The Jami Masjid of Mandu is a grand building. First of all, it is grand in size. Apparently it encompasses 88 square meters. In the thick fog which enveloped it when we came to it, this makes it a mysterious place. At its height Mandu must have held a large population to require a mosque of this size. I’d forgotten that you must climb up stairs to enter since this stands on a high plinth. We did, our tickets were checked, and we entered. The fog was too thick for us to see the grand dome built by Hoshang Shah’s architects, who continued to labour after his death under Mahmud Khilji, until they completed the structure in 1454 CE.

Above the entrance is an inscription which says that the mosque was modeled on the one in Damascus. the early 15th century CE was the era of Islamic internationalism, when the cultural world spread from Al-Andalus in the west all the way to kingdoms of what is today Indonesia. On our earlier visit the fog was thinner, and I got the photo looking west from near the entrance which you can see above. Standing below the dome I looked back at the entrance door and took the featured photo.

The fog converted this grandeur into a mysterious space. There were many other visitors, but they were lost to view, and their voices came to us muffled. As we walked through the southern gallery I took the photo which you see above. The pillars are completely plain; it is the sheer numbers which gives the place its grandeur.

The height of the ceiling decreases from the courtyard to the back wall. In the photo above, you can see the vaulted ceiling over the last row. This kind of groin vault is typical of Indo-Afghan architecture, and seems to be imported directly from earlier buildings in Delhi. The row of prayer niches (mihrab) on the back wall are just set into a curtain wall. The load of the ceiling and roof is taken entirely by the pillars. Another interesting thing that you can see in this photo is the minbar or pulpit. Contemporary travelers compared this decorative minbar favourably with the carved wooden pulpits of the Maghreb or the decorative stone pulpits of Egypt.

This hall was not made of bare undecorated stone when it was new. I looked a little more closely at the main mihrab. The remnant of white and blue tiles can still be seen. It was quite dark, and I could not see any inscriptions here, although they are said to be legible. Six centuries have not been kind to the mihrab. On the other hand, if you compare the wear on the flagstones, the prayer niche seems to be in reasonably good shape.

Another characteristic of Indo-Afghan architecture of Mandu are the stone screens on windows. In these two windows you can see that most of the panels use geometrical designs of octagons and eight-pointed stars. I liked the panels with eight-petaled flowers. Equally interesting are two of the other panels which mix squares of two sizes with eight-pointed stars. Unlike most of the other panels, this design can be repeated over and infinite sheet, and constitutes what would today be called a tiling of the plane. I wonder whether there were stone-masons trained in geometry, or whether the design and execution of these panels were separated functions.

Free birds

Ruins and villages may be closer to nature than cities, but they are not exactly forests. The birds that you see in such places are ones which have adapted to profit from the disturbances that humans create. Around Mandu we saw several birds, but a bird watcher in a city will see most of them. The featured photo shows the green bee-eater (Merops orientalis), common across a huge swathe of sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia: from Senegal in the west to Vietnam in the east. I love this colourful and commonly visible bird. I hadn’t realized earlier that it is appropriate for Independence Day; it has the colours of the flag.

The white-breasted kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) is another common and widespread bird, being found across Asia, from Turkey to the Philippines. It has learned to supplement its diet by scraps of meat from kitchens, and is now commonly seen around human habitation near water. It allows a photographer to get reasonably close, so this shot against the sky is not among the best I have.

The red-wattled lapwing (Vanellus indicus) is not easily visible inside a city. But this large wader is common in wetlands anywhere in southern Asia, from Iraq to the Philipphines. I saw these large birds everywhere in Mandu, even in Jahaz Mahal. This photo was taken in the garden just outside the palace.

Although this is not a high-quality photo, I’m fond of it because I caught two different species in the same shot. The spotted dove (Streptopelia chinensis) is common is various terrains, including cities, across Asia. It has been introduced in Hawaii, California, Australia and New Zealand. The other bird is a coppersmith barbet (Psilopogon haemacephalus) was common in our garden till recently. It is a common Indian bird.

Like the rose-ringed parakeet, the Indian robin (Copsychus fulicatus) is another species which I notice around ruins. I watched this one as it hopped and flew along ruined walls in Mandu. Unlike the parakeet, it does not take to gardens inside cities. We were not really looking for birds, but were happy to have this added extra.

Hollow winds whistle

For someone like me who lives in an expanding city, it is an interesting experience to visit the capital of a vanished kingdom. Mandu is one such; a citadel and its surroundings have fallen to ruin. A capital city has reverted over centuries into a tiny village. That village has begun to expand again as tourists come in, although it will never grow to the size of the ancient capital. Flung away from the central monuments are the forgotten little tombs and crumbling walls, falling slowly into ruin. Far away from the citadel, the fog lifts, although the July sky remains grim and threatening. So far from the center of the city that once was, any tomb would be that of a minor noble, at best a footnote. A person described by T.S. Eliot as “an attendant lord, one that will do to swell a progress, start a scene or two”. Six centuries later, the name of the person buried in this tomb is forgotten.

I stopped the car to take some photos. I had half a mind to walk up to the ruins, but the ground seemed too squelchy after the rains. I walked along the road and took a couple of photos. The Family resolutely ignored me and remained deep in communion with her phone. The half dome on a drum over a ruined base was very much in the style of the Indo-Afghan architecture in Mandu. Ruins of this kind always bring to my mind one or another English romantic poem. Byron’s words about Newstead Abbey ran through my mind, “Through thy battlements … hollow winds whistle, thou … art gone to decay. In thy once smiling garden the hemlock and thistle have choked up the rose which once bloomed in the way.” It wasn’t too appropriate; there were no battlements, and the vegetation was different, but the spirit seemed about right.

The tomb of Hoshang Shah

One of my most vivid memories from a previous visit to Mandu was the tomb of Hoshang Shah, the second sultan of Malwa. He is primarily responsible for building up the citadel of Mandu, where his father, Dilawar Khan, had decided to move the capital from Dhar. He ruled from 1406 CE to 1435 CE. I’d seen his tomb in a dense fog. Now, when I reached Mandu again, I was impatient to get to this tomb. Again, a dense fog had descended on the citadel. We entered the main gateway and saw before us the north face of the luminous structure which deserves to be much better known than it is.

In the last few years a few more signboards have sprouted in the small lawn in front of it; a garbage bin is strategically placed to appear in every photo you take. But the white marble tomb remains as well maintained as the version in my memory. The grounds around the tomb are not very extensive, so every photo you take of the structure distorts it a little. Finished in 1440 CE by Hoshang Shah’s successor, Mahmud Khilji, the tomb is famous as the first marble structure built in India. The structure stands on a pedestal which came up to my head, a little less than 2 meters. The mausoleum has a square plan, with the walls rising 9.6 meters high. The main dome is surrounded by four minarets.

A photo taken in 1882 by Raja Deen Dayal seems to have been taken from further away, so that the distortions of modern photographs are gone. The harmonious proportions of the building can be more easily seen in this old photo. Remembering this photo, I turned and took a photo of the gate from inside. As you can see in the photo above, the gate and wall could be a structure erected in the hundred and forty years since Raja Deen Dayal brought his camera here.

The only entrance to the tomb is from the south. To the west is a pillared gallery, which we walked through. This has doors leading off to the side, as you can see in the photo here. I ducked through a door into a room, and saw a further door which opened out to a field on the other side. Was the gallery also built recently? An ASI board tells us that this is called the dharamshala. Until the 19th century, there was an annual pilgrimage (urs) here on the anniversary of Hoshang Shah’s death, so a dharamshala would be natural. But Raja Deen Dayal’s photo is taken from a distance to the north-west. So I guess this gallery was built after the photo was taken. It must have been built before the Archaeological Survey was given custody of this site, because the ASI does not do large scale constructions. I wonder who built it, and where these pillars and stones were scavenged from.

Above is a photo of the eastern boundary of the plot. The wall is the western wall of the Jama Masjid, and the domes which are faintly visible in the fog belong to the masjid. These structures are seen in Raja Deen Dayal’s photo. The ASI constantly carries out repairs and restoration. Work was in progress this time around. A framework of steel tubes was being dismantled inside the tomb, and nets were strung out to prevent accidental damage to the structure. I talked to one of the workers, and he said that a leak in the dome had to be repaired.

So I switched to using photos of the interior which I took eight years ago. There are three graves within the mausoleum. The central one belongs to Hoshang Shah. I could not find who are the others buried here. The door lets in little light, but the three screens in the northern wall admit enough light to see the interior clearly. We paced around the interior, and thought that not only is the ground plan a square, but each of the walls is a square. So each side of the chamber must arout nine meters long.

As a result, the shape of the building is like a cube with a hemisphere resting on top of it. When you look from outside, the sphere seems to have has a diameter smaller than a side of the square over which is stands. However, when you look at it from inside (photo above) it seems that the hemispherical dome sits atop a square whose side is equal to its diameter. The difference between the outside and the inside views must be the thickness of the wall. That is quite a bit, as it must be to support not only the dome but the minarets above it.

I come here to look at the little details. Take the two wonderful screens above. One has alternating panels of hexagonal and octagonal symmetry as you go from top to bottom. The other contains a surprise: between the hexagonal and octagonal panels is one which shows seven-fold symmetry. The construction of the heptagon by distortions of hexagons is quite amazing. These artists were not interested in more modern concerns like tiling an infinite plane with repeating motifs. Within the limited scope of a design contained within a finite panel, they solve these problems very elegantly.

It has long been claimed that this tomb was one of the sources of inspiration for the Taj Mahal. The claim is based on an inscription carved into the right hand lintel of the entrance. I cannot read the script, but if you want to try, the photo is given above. In reality it is very faint, and you might have to take a rubbing to see it clearly. I’ve tweaked the contrast to make it more legible. Fergus Nicoll, in his book Shah Jahan writes “The influence of this simple monument, much smaller and absolutely plain, on the core design of what would become the illumined tomb of Mumtaz Mahal was later clearly stated by a small group of Shah Jahan’s architects. Passing through Mandu on their way in 1659, not long after the completion of the [Taj Mahal], they had a simple tribute carved into the right hand lintel of the tomb’s only entrance.”

Ustad Hamid had this tribute carved a little more than 200 years after the tomb was finished. Another 200 years, and a little more, would pass before Raja Deen Dayal brought his bulky cameras and plates here and took his photo. Somewhat less than 200 years later, The Family and I came by and fell in love with it.

Chhappan Dukan

When I was planning our weekend in Indore, the street food came highly recommended from many bloggers. The food shops in Sarafa Bazaar open late in the day. We walked through the area one evening when they were just setting up, and decided we would come back the next night. Things worked out otherwise. We had three wonderful sit-down dinners in Indore, and had to miss the night bustle of this bazaar.

We decided to drop into the famous 56 shops of Indore. In my imagination it was something between a covered market and a food court. Visually Chhappan Dukaan is disappointing. The shops line a wide street (featured photo). It was as clean as it is reputed to be; Indore deserves its tag of the cleanest city in India. One side of the street contains the stand up places, the other all the sit-down places. Three days of eating had not left us much appetite, but we decided to sample the best that we could.

One simple technique that we’ve honed over decades of traveling around the world is to watch where the locals go. They led us first to a shop where samosas and kachoris were being fried. The Family asked for advise. A young father with a child told us what to have if we wanted to eat only one thing. There was only one of that left. We split it; crisp, flaky covering with a wonderful spiced filling. Our advisor had disappeared before we could thank him. Next door was a sweet shop. My friend pointed out a sweet that could have been savoury by looks. The Family knew it by name: ghevar. The crisp covering held a filling of mildly sweetened mawa mixed with nuts. We walked along to the next knot of people. “Johny Hot Dog” was plating up a version of burgers. The Family asked for a veggy burger and my friend and I opted for a mutton burger each. Soft, lightly warmed bread with a good layer of butter covered a wonderful kheema patty.

We crossed the road and sat down in Bittu’s. That menu is something special all right; the specials are written in Hindi. Everything else is presumably not special, and can be in English. We ordered three of the special written in bold fonts: dahi vada. A lifetime ago this was just emerging from the south of India, and was a hit with my friends from school whenever they came home to eat my mother’s interpretation. Now it has spread beyond India. The version we had came in square melamine bowls with a liberal sprinkling of chili and jeera powder over a mildly sweet yogurt. The vadas had melted into the dahi. This was as much as we could eat.

My friend had one more stop to make. We crossed into a tiny shop selling namkeen. It stocks ramdana laddus made with jaggery instead of sugar. This was a novelty for us. The shop had only one packet of this left. So we split the packet for later tasting.

So here is a call back to my original guides: Selcouth Explorer, Taste Memory, Megha, and Follow the Eaten Path. Thanks for introducing me to a great experience.

Backstreet Bandra

Take a sleepy neighbourhood. Add some builders. Shake well. Let the lucre float to the top. Let it stand for a while. Then you get Bandra. Hip bars and cafes turn over as fast as the would-be fashion designers’ signature stores. They don’t quite put the car repair shops and vada-pav stalls out of business. On a walk down Waterfield Road I passed Bora Bora, Chocolateria San Churro, Farhan Electricals, Flutter Clothing, Israr Auto Air-conditioning, Zest, Subhash Vada-Pav Stall and other establishments.

Fashions change fast. The shops seem to know they won’t last long, so they don’t even bother to paint both sides of plywood sheets. A shifting cast of characters throng the streets, each looking for the next big thing. Some live there, some pass through. Taking street photos is easy, with everyone’s eyes glued to their cell phones. Now and then you come across a fabulous bungalow which a crotchety old couple still refuses to sell out to a builder. I was looking for an espresso, but didn’t find one on this road.

Tales told by a spider lily

In the garden behind Baz Bahadur’s palace someone had laid out beds of spider lilies. I wondered whether this was anachronistic. The genus Hymenocallis comes from South America. This particular flower belongs to the species Hymenocallis caribaea, from the Caribbean islands. Could it have reached Mandu by 1555 CE, when Baz Bahadur became the sultan? Perhaps. After all many wonders from the new world reached the Mughal court by Akbar’s time. On the other hand, Mandu was a relative backwater, not the capital of a large and rich empire. Unless someone discovers a manuscript or painting from that era showing spider lilies, “perhaps” is the best answer we will have.

The spider lily tells a much older tale. The genus is most closely related to the Agapanthus, flowers which are called Lilies of the Nile. This is a misnomer, because these flowers originate from the west coast of Africa. How is it possible that a west-African genus is the closest relative to a Caribbean and eastern South American genus? The answer is in continental drift. 550 million years ago, Africa, South America, India, Mozambique and Australia drifted together to form the super-continent called Gondwana. The ancestors of these two kinds of flowers would have developed in the center of this continent. 130 million years ago, a rift created the south Atlantic ocean, separating the common ancestors of these flowers. Their descendants in the now separated continents of Africa and South America are now these two genuses.

A macro that I took of a flower eight years ago is a reminder of the deep history of the earth.

Baz Bahadur’s Palace

If Sultan Nasiruddin Shah of Mandu were alive today, he may not have been very pleased with the name by which the palace he built in 914 AH (1508 CE) is known. It is called Baz Bahadur’s palace, after the last sultan of Malwa, who ruled from 1555 till his defeat by the Mughal emperor Akbar seven years later. The central feature of the palace is the cistern you see in use in the featured photo. It was full of rain water when I photographed it in the monsoon many years ago. But in the past water was raised using a water wheel from the nearby Rewa Kund.

According to a story in Romila Thapar’s book called “Indian Tales”, the Rewa Kund (photo above) is linked to the story of Baz Bahadur and Roopmati. In the story, Roopmati refused to go to Mandu with Baz Bahadur until he could bring the river Rewa (another name for the Narmada) up to the citadel, thinking this was impossible. But Baz Bahadur found a spring in the hill from which water flowed down to the Rewa, or so he claimed. Roopmati’s remaining condition was that she would come to the citadel if she could see the Rewa and her lover from her palace. Roopmati’s pavilion, the Rewa Kund, and Baz Bahadur’s palace are within sight of each other.

A formidable set of stairs led to the central courtyard where the boys were swimming in the tank full of rain water. We climbed this, looked at the inscription above the door naming Nasiruddin Shah and the date of construction of the palace. Unfortunately neither of us can read the Persian script, so we have to depend on translations. The courtyard was full of tourists on the day we were here.

The upper terrace was less crowded and we saw a collonnade which had a wonderful view of Roopmati’s pavilion. On the other side of the terrace were rooms where part of the roof had collapsed. The whole citadel is now under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India, which has a reputation of keeping structures sound. The terrace is now completely safe. We sat here and contemplated the enigma of Baz Bahadur, whose story we know only through Mughals accounts. Abul Fazal runs down a defeated enemy in Ain-I-Akbari with the words “Baz Bahadur did not concern himself with public affairs. Music and melody were regarded by this scoundrel as a serious business, and he spent upon them all his precious hours. In the arrogance of infatuation he wrought works of inauspiciousness.” If we saw these works, we did not recognize their inauspiciousness.

Elsewhere in the Ain-I-Akbari, Abul Fazal made a list of singers, claiming that “a detailed description of this class of people would be too difficult.” The list starts, as expected, with Mian Tansen of Gwalior, whose like “has not been in India for the last thousand years.” But Baz Bahadur, ruler of Malwa comes in ninth amongst the thirty five names. Abul Fazal contradicts himself by describing him as “ruler of Malwa, a singer without rival.” We found a local singer who demonstrated the acoustics of the palace by standing in a niche in one of the halls around the courtyard. His voice filled up the hall. I did not recognize the song, but the man said that it was composed by Roopmati.

When I try to refresh my memory by looking at the photos I took that day I seem to recall a long and leisurely morning spent walking around the palace. I have photos of arches and rooms, an Indian robin hopping from parapet to terrace, spider lilies in the rain, and of The Family and me in the palace, with Roopmati’s pavilion in the background. The Family was in blue, and I have several photos of her against the dusky pink sandstone of the palace.

For me, the photo that sums up the charm of this later group of buildings in Mandu is the one you see above. The pink stone of the building, the dome over the terrace, and the rain water pooled in the cistern at the center of the courtyard. The full domes of Indo-Afghan architecture, the plaster work and arches, the care with water, are all part of the charm of Mandu.

Roopmati’s pavilion

When we first visited Mandu almost a decade ago, The Family and I had just read a book where the sultan Baz Bahadur of Mandu and his queen Roopmati make a fleeting appearance. Enchanted by the fable of a singer-shepherdess marrying a musician-prince, we decided to start our trip from the very end of the citadel, where a former guard post had been converted to the private quarters of the queen. Baz Bahadur was the last independent ruler of Mandu, and ruled in the middle of the 16th century CE.

Walking up to the pavilion, it was not hard to believe that this could have once held a garrison of soldiers. Looking out at the view, it was not hard to switch frames of mind and believe that it could have been a queen’s palace. Perhaps the most definitive evidence that a singer queen could have lived here are the two domed structures, one of which you see in the featured photo. I am no singer, but acoustics under this dome could almost make me sound like one.

Little seems to be known about the queen beyond the obviously embroidered love story. Comparing versions of her story from the early 20th and 21st centuries shows how the legend of Padmini has now been mixed up with the story of Roopmati. Even a cursory reading of a paper on her shows the degree of confusion amongst professional historians. Her story seems to have been first written down more than thirty years after her time, and copied from one manuscript to another until the middle of the 18th century CE. The painting of the couple which you can see in Delhi’s national museum was executed a century or so after their death. Some songs are ascribed to the queen, but they were first collected decades after her death, and may have been added to in the later manuscript which comes down to us.

We looked out on the enchanting green landscape, a photo of which you see above. The green land around the citadel is watered by low hanging monsoon clouds. It struck me that the weather in the time of Roopmati was very different. The monsoon was well below today’s levels in the 14th and 15th centuries, leading to widespread droughts. Even as late as the 16th century, monsoon rains continued to fail in central India. Roopmati, if indeed she stood in these pavilions, would have looked out on an arid land, with the glint of a distant stream providing the only water in view.

The concern with water management and harvesting is very clear in Mandu. The multiple tanks and step wells are just one sign of this concern. We descended to the basement of Roopmati’s pavilion to look at water cistern there. My personal trawl through those photos threw up forgotten images of The Family and me walking through the wonderful chiaroscuro of the basement. The photo which you see above is the only one which does not contain us.

The cistern is a terrific water harvesting system. Rain falling on the pavilion and around it drips into the cistern, presumably to be used by the garrison or the household of the queen. A paper on the water systems of Mandu says that the water was filtered through coal and sand; that’s the same principle as the charcoal and zeolite filter which gurgles away in a corner of our kitchen, five centuries on! In the brief two centuries since the little ice age the improved monsoon and irrigation systems have led to an amnesia about water harvesting. That period of plenty could come to an end soon, and the now-obscure methods could have a resurgence.