Coins of Malwa

The Indore museum is not large but has a very interesting collection. The Family and I spent a couple of hours wandering through it. One of the first rooms we entered had a collection of coins. I have seen some wonderfully curated collections, and others which are haphazardly put together. Since I’m not fanatically excited by coins, I tend to pay attention only when the collection is curated well. This was surprisingly interesting.

I’ve written about the history of the Malwa region over several posts. The earliest coins in this collection came from the time that Ujjain was a republic, and after the time of the Buddha. Soon after this time the republic was incorporated into the Mauryan empire. The next coin was strictly not a coin of Malwa, but one which certainly circulated here: that is the golden coin in the featured photo, from the time of Chandragupta II. At this time Britain was a Roman colony. The copper coin of Narvarman Parmara is the next in historical sequence. He ruled around 1100 CE. In the larger world, the Hoysala empire was reaching its peak around then. The next two coins come from the age of Mandu: one from Hoshang Shah, the builder of the citadel, and one from Baz Bahadur, its last Sultan. The last two coins are from the end of the 18th century, during the reign of Maratha queen Ahilyabai.

The coins of the Ujjain janapada are close to the origins of coinage, before the round shape of coins became an established convention. I wonder about the significance of the elephant symbol on these coins. A hundred year old publication says more about the weights and measures of the coins of Mandu. The square coins were common in Mandu, and several other parts of north India, having been adopted from the coinage of Ala ud-din Khilji. Interestingly, the coins of Ahilyabai seem to use the Persian script.

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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.