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.

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.

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.

Ship in a storm

We had no plans to go to Mandu. Eight years ago we had spent three days walking around that wonderful medieval citadel. But we ran out of ancient remains in Dhar very early in the afternoon, and decided to push on to Mandu. It is about an hour’s drive, and the landscape is spectacular in this season. Mandu stands barely 75 meters above Dhar, but all the clouds in this land seem to descend and envelope these romantic ruins. The Family remarked “We’ve never seen bright sunlight here.” Maybe we should come back one winter to see how the place looks when there are no clouds, but we find Mandu so very charming in this season.

Our first stop was the spectacular Jahaz Mahal (literally, the Ship Palace), so named because the long building between two water bodies is supposed to look like a ship. The building is really long, close to 110 meters, and only about 15 meters in width. A gusty rainstorm enveloped us as we walked in. I hadn’t zipped up my raincoat, and I was wet immediately. The Family fared better in her poncho. We hesitated at the entrance for a while, and after the storm peaked walked into the long building. It was built during the reign of Ghiyas ud-din Khilji of Malwa (1469-1500 CE). The state tourism department’s web site repeats the incredible story of the Sultan keeping his harem of 15,000 women in this palace. If these numbers were right, it would mean each member of the royal harem would have less than a one foot by one foot space to herself. Hardly a pleasure palace!

In the driving rain I could not take photos of the architecture I’d admired almost a decade back. I took one shot of the domed roof and the arches looking out at the countryside obscured by the storm. This is beautiful Indo-Afghan architecture, among the best examples of this style. When the rain let up a little, we climbed up to the terrace. Eight years ago we had met a crowd of girls from a local school who posed for photos with The Family. Now there was a wonderful mist which turned the terrace into an enchanted area (see the featured photo). Ghiyas ud-din’s reputation as a pleasure lover is based on the beautifully illustrated cookbook called Nimatnama (Book of Pleasure), now in the British Library. Fifty portraits of the sultan illuminate recipes for delicacies like khichdi, biriyani, samosa and halwa made of fresh ginger. These may be the first in the genre of Indian miniature portraits.

In the rain we could hardly recognize Jahangir’s description of this palace when he and his empress Noor Jahan celebrated the feast of Shab-e-barat in this palace in 1616 CE. In Jahangir’s words, from his memoirs Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, “They lighted lanterns and lamps all around the tanks and buildings. The lamps cast their reflections on the water and it appeared as if the whole surface of the tank was a plain of fire.” On our earier visit we had taken a leisurely stroll around Jahaz Mahal, and walked down to one of the step wells. The well was more full this time around, but the steps were slippery with rain water and moss. We did not dare to climb down. Some things may be easier if one comes here in winter.

Lath ki Masjid of Dhar

Lath ki Masjid is named after a broken iron pillar whose three pieces are now on display on a little platform near the north-eastern corner of the mosque. Ahmad Shah, sultan of Delhi after Ala ud-din Khilji, appointed Dilawar Khan as governor of Dhar in 1390 CE. Two years later he declared independence and established the short-lived kingdom which gave us the wonderful architecture of the new capital of Mandu founded by his son Hoshang Shah. But during Dilawar Khan’s five year reign some beautiful structures were also built in Dhar. The Lath ki Masjid, completed in 1405 CE, was one of these.

Dhar had seen a long and stable rule by the Paramara kings in the previous millennium. That dynasty was brought down by the Chalukyas of Gujarat, who sacked and looted the then-prosperous city of Dhar in the 11th century CE. So this is one of the oldest structure that one can see in Dhar. It uses pillars scavenged from older temples, and adds newly carved mihrab (prayer niches) and minbar (pulpit) in the western vestibule. The jalis, some of which you see in the photos here, are clearly Indo-Afghan, and refreshingly different from the Mughal jalis which are seen all over India. The grand entrance on the eastern facade is a wonderful example of Indo-Afghan architecture. The iron pillar is supposed to have an inscription commemorating Akbar’s visit in 1598 CE; I didn’t have the energy to climb the platform to look for it.

This was one of the best preserved structures I saw in Dhar. The Archaeological Survey of India was entrusted with its maintenance by an act of Parliament in 1951 CE. The organization has done its work well. As usual, you can click on any of the photos in the collage above to get to a slide show.

Phadke’s Studio in Dhar

We had first visited Dhar almost exactly eight years ago. One evening the lady running the hotel told us about a sculptor who settled in Dhar in 1933, ran a studio and trained students for forty years, until his death. She told us that the family still had some of his unsold pieces, and that she could arrange a visit to the studio if we wanted. We did, and she talked to someone on the phone and sent us along. This is the place now called the Phadke Studio of Dhar.

Raghunath Krishna Phadke was famous enough in his time that in 1961 he won the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian awards. If you entertain the vain hope that the awards website of the government will have some information on him, click here to be disappointed. Wikipedia has more information, such as his year of birth (1884) and date of death (17 May 1972). I got some more information from a ten year old a blog post by Anil Gulati.

The studio was an interesting experience, busts in an academic style lined up in rows. After seeing these, I guessed that Raghunath Phadke would have been educated in the J. J. School of Arts in Mumbai, which, by 1891, had a department of sculpture and modelling. I asked the caretaker of the studio, but he did not know. It seems that Mr. Phadke was instrumental in founding the Government Institute of Fine Arts in Dhar and obtaining an affiliation with the J. J. School. This small institute opened on 24 November, 1939, and continues to award a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts even today. The caretaker also told us that Mr. Phadke’s own personal legacy of arts can be seen in busts installed in public places in Dhar, Indore and Ujjain. I’m afraid I did not look carefully for statues which could have been by the premier artist of Dhar.

The Secret Garden of Nek Chand

We had an evening in Chandigarh before we left for the Falachan valley. On the road from Delhi we talked of what we could see. Although I’d been to the city on work before, I’d seen nothing of it. So, when The Family said she wanted to see Nek Chand’s rock garden, I was happy to go along with the idea. The Young Niece had been there, done that, on a school trip earlier in the year, and she agreed that it was a wonderful place to go back to.

Nek Chand’s story is fascinating. An untaught artist, he atarted creating a dream world exactly sixty years ago, illegally on land which belonged to the city. About fifteen years later, it was discovered, and the works would have been destroyed, had it not caught the imagination of the residents of the city. It remained as a project caught in a limbo between official acceptance and resentment, until the mid 1990s, when a trust was formed to take care of this art project.

“Rock garden” is an inadequate description of this sprawling open art work. I thought of it as an imagined land. Partly landscaped waters and pavilions, partly peopled with fantastic beasts and people made from broken tiles, bangles and other scavenged materials. There were parts of this land which seemed completely abstract, for example the wall made with broken electrical fittings from the 50s. I thought that the nearest thing to this that I’d seen before were Gaudi’s works. This was partly accidental, because Nek Chand’s artistic vision was shaped by nature. But it was also partly because of the medium used: the use of trencadis, for example. The short time we spent here seemed inadequate, and we plan to be back on a longer trip to Chandigarh.

Rickshaw art

The highway to Dibrugarh passed through the small town of Moranhat where we were planning to stop for breakfast. In the little towns of the eastern states, cycle rickshaws are still the main mode of transport. I wasn’t surprised by them, but by the artwork each of them sported. I was itching to jump off the car and take photos.

I had my chance when we stopped for breakfast. I stood by the road and tried to photograph each rickshaw which went past. This was naive art, some better than others, but each made a statement. I loved the rural bias in the pictures, but was happy to see the one modern theme as well. I’d last seen these kinds of rickshaws in Tripura. Rickshaw art must be a genre in all of the north-east.