Lath ki Masjid of Dhar

The eastern entrance

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.

Dhar’s chhatris

When I made a list of places to see in Dhar, the cenotaphs of the Pawar rajas was on the list. It is not marked on maps; I’d made a mental note to ask someone for directions. As we negotiated a maze of lanes in the center of the town, this had slipped out of my mind. Luckily we drove past a high wall above which we saw the elaborate domes which could only be this group of monuments. They stand on the main road which runs south of the Munj Sagar lake in the western end of the town. A line in the British Library explanation of a century-old photo of the chhatris explains “The Chhatri Bagh is a walled garden enclosure containing cenotaphs of rulers of Dhar, which take the form of pavilions (chhatris) set on plinths and crowned with elaborate domes.”

The British Library’s Curzon Collection of photos contains a photo of the entrance gate taken in 1902. We parked the car at the gate, and looked up at this grand structure. In 1951 when the parliament directed the Archaeological Survey to protect a list of important monuments, the possessions of the former Rajas remained as their private property. As a result, they could not be given state protection. The smaller families like the Pawars did not have the means to turn these into the tourist attractions that they properly are. As a result, this group of monuments, like their former palace, and the 14-th century fort which they won, is slowly turning to ruins. The gate house now holds a large family which uses the former garden as its own.

This group contains six chhatris, if my count was right. The domes and adumberations are incidental. Their main purpose is funerary. The pyre of a ruler is covered over by a memorial structure. Often there are votive figures. In the Maratha chhatris the bull, Nandi, is almost always shown kneeling in front of the chamber which contains the pyre. My count of the number of chhatris is based on the number of Nandi figurines which I saw.

The base of a chhatri is notionally the platform on which the funeral pyre was placed. Since I could not locate any contemporary descriptions of the funerals, I don’t know whether the vanity of kings led them to construct appropriate platforms in anticipation of their own deaths. I suspect that the elaborate sculptures here are rather generic, as you can see in the above photo. This makes me suspect that they were created by successors, like the rest of the memorial.

While taking photos of the platforms, I noticed the carved animal heads jutting out of them. They do not seem to be functional elements, although their placement could have fooled me into thinking that they are drains. I like the decorative idea. I wonder how these memorials would have looked if the Pawar dynasty of Dhar had been richer. They are not plain by any means, but they are not as richly decorative as the chhatris in Indore.

The Family found a staircase which could lead us to the terrace with the elaborate domes which you see in the featured photo. But clearly the stairs were not in frequent use. As you can see in the photo above, it was covered in a thick layer of moss. It had rained a little during the day and the stairs were wet. The combination of water and moss dissuaded us from climbing. The lack of care was also apparent in other places if you looked carefully. Some of the jalis were damaged. A piece of cloth was tied around another, an indication of abuse in the recent past.

I did not see any plaque which mentioned the name of the royal being memorialized. Children played in the former garden while a few adults watched us curiously. They didn’t look like they expect visitors. We did not ask why they lived here. Very likely they are the family of caretakers who were given a place in the garden. Before we left I took a photo of the ingenious quarters built into the wall. I suppose this group of monuments continues to be the property of the current descendant of the rajas, but it is said that possession is nine-tenths of the law.

The town of Dhar

On our drive from Indore to Dhar, Suresh, our guide and the driver for the day, informed us “No one goes to Dhar. Let me take you to Bagh.” We politely declined. Bagh would have taken us four hours each way, and even if no one ever goes to Dhar, there are many things to see here. It has been the capital of Malwa at various periods in the last couple of millennia. We expected to see the last remnants of the earthen fortification which it was supposed to have since the times of the Buddha. There was no sign of it. A police officer who briefly talked to us about the town told us that the wall disappeared in the last few years, while Dhar expanded. If we’d known that there was something like this to see when we passed through eight years ago, we would have seen the last remains of a wall which was then nearly three thousand years old.

We entered Dhar through narrow roads which were sometimes paved. By today’s standards it is a tiny place. But it is structured in older ways. Our route took us past a mohalla of musicians, drums drying in the sun, and timber merchants with their large yards full of lumber and branches (photo above). There was even a mohalla which seemed to specialize in weddings. We saw small stables of horses and a car seemingly yoked to a couple of life-sized horses. This is a fixture in small town weddings. This is what put the stables in context for me. Such districts are subsumed into cities like Mumbai and Kolkata, but are lost in the spaces between financial, entertainment and the administrative districts. Here these older professions stood out as the main organizing principle.

Our road to the protected site variously called the Kamal Maula campus or the Bhoj Shala took us on to residential areas. These were not the well-organized new districts where the town was expanding, but the old inner warren on roads. The narrowest ones had buildings like the one you see above. Bright blue walls, and a two-story house spoke of relative prosperity, and the external stairs told us that the upper floor was probably given over to a tenant. The road ahead was blocked by parked motorbikes, and little music with horns on the part of Suresh produced no movement. We backed out and took a different route.

We saw more narrow roads, and closed doors. Houses stood wall to wall. The photo above is an example: two houses stand with a common wall between them. It is only the colour of the wall which distinguishes one property from another. Lanes are defined by spaces left between these walls. The car was small, and weaved through this maze without difficulty before coming on to a more well-defined road.

This road marked the beginning of a different part of the town. We later realized that this was the part built during the Maratha empire, and surrounds the Dhar Rajwada. For now our main clue was the building which you see in the photo above. This is in a style common in the later part of the Maratha era, and the beginning of the British times. Quite by accident, Suresh had taken us on a trip through Dhar which cut through its history!

We ended this tour with a sight of a line of brightly coloured houses, rooms really, with a picture of Ganesha painted on the wall. Suresh said that it is a local custom to make such a painting when a couple got married. This was clear from the writing and painting on the walls. I’d come across a custom like this in Odisha. Interesting that the same custom recurs a thousand kilometers away. Could that have anything to do with the fact that a tribal belt joins these two parts of India?

Crumbling palaces in Dhar fort

When we came through the final gate in the ramparts of Dhar fort, we were a little nonplussed to see a little village inside. I’d read about a palace inside; I realized that the palace was probably the small structure at the top of the ramparts which I’d seen from below. A well-trodden path led off to our left, in the direction where I guessed the palace would be.

Right at the beginning of the path was this little gareebkhana. It wasn’t in great repair, although it looked like someone lives in it. An encroachment or an ancient right? When you come to such forts, it is never clear what the legal status is of the people who live inside. The bricks which made up the wall in front of the house looked very similar to those we had seen abutting the bastion outside the gate. This was certainly built in the last two hundred years, and possibly even in the last hundred.

The next thing we saw was this very impressive row of arches made of brick. This looked so much like the Lucknow residency that I was convinced immediately that it was British. I could be mistaken about that, but I would be very surprised if it was not post-Mughal. I’ve not seen bricks of this kind in Mughal architecture. This looked a little like the lakhauri bricks which the architecture of Awadh used. The wall behind this had thick surkhi plaster, another indicator that this was a post Mughal construction.

We walked through these arches and up a staircase just above it. There was a small palace above these walls(photo above) which was in very bad repair. Was this the Sheesh Mahal which was built by Jehangir inside this fort? There seemed to be no plaque which could tell us anything about the history of this structure. On the other hand, it could be a post-Mughal construction. Baji Rao II, the last of the Peshwas, is said to have been born in this fort. Since this palace stood atop the largest post-Mughal structure I saw, I wonder whether this crumbling palace is where he was born.

The crowning jewel of Dhar fort is supposed to be the Mughal era Kharbuja Mahal. That was indeed what I had seen from below the walls of the fort. The fanciful name apparently comes from the Mughal dome atop the building (you can see part of it in the photo above); to some eyes it looks like a watermelon, hence the name. You can see from the photos (above, and the featured photo) that it is in shockingly bad repair. The doors were locked. A closer look showed electrical wires threaded through jharokhas, so clearly some people do step inside. The building is at the edge of a forty foot drop. It had been raining, so I did not venture round the building to see whether there was a way up to the terrace from outside. Probably not, because some of the many young couples whom we saw here would have then made their way up.

Quite in keeping with the bad upkeep was the board explaining the history of this structure. Written in Hindi and English, it has clearly been stencilled over twice with two different stencils. It is hard to get anything out of this board. The Family walked away from the board in disgust. I took a photo thinking I would decipher it at leisure. Now looking at it again, I am ready to give up. Just in case you want to try, I’ve given you the photo above.

Dhar Palace

Nothing had prepared me for the present state of Dhar’s former princely palace. In my tattered copy of Lonely Planet India I’d read a sentence about the Rajwada having been converted into a state-run girls’ school. That book was printed twenty years ago. In the meanwhile, education budgets have declined, with results that you can see in the featured photo.

The crowded little square fronting the former palace was not exactly the boundless and bare plain of level sand around the stump of Ozymandias. Perhaps that fantasy is a little overblown for the smaller Maratha house of the Pawars of Dhar, although they came from one of the most distinguished and early line of Maratha chiefs. The East India Gazetteer of 1828 (Volume 1, edited by Walter Hamilton) says briefly, “On account of their high birth, and being officers of the Satara Raja (not of the Peshwa) they always claimed precedence over Sindia and Holcar, which the latter were forward to acknowledge at the very moment that they were robbing the Dhar rajas of their territories. In 1817 when the British troops entered Malwa, Dhar was the only possession that remained to Ramchunder Puar (a boy twelve years of age)”, before going on to give an account of the meagre earnings of the remaining estates of Dhar.

Even locals do not always remember the palace correctly. Our driver brought us to the impressive gate which stands at one end of the Rajwada square and said “This is it.” From the inscription over the gate, it certainly wasn’t. But the confusion is understandable. After all, the local government still uses it as a records office, and even a government dispensary runs out of it. It is also more impressive, and being of the colonial style, it is easier to associate it with the seat of power. I looked around for the seat of the Pawars, and realized that the long building off to my left must be it.

By all accounts, Maratha pomp and ceremony did not extend to clearing the surroundings of their palaces and planting gardens. So the marketplace in the square is probably the only thing that the Dhar rajas of old would recognize, were they to pass through here again. The Family and I took a short circuit of the square, clicked a few photographs, and got back into the car to drive on to our next destination. It is barely two centuries since the end of the Maratha empire, an eyeblink in history, and their extensive remains are being lost daily.

Dhar Fort

The Indore highway runs close to Dhar’s fort. We parked next to the road and walked in past a recent wall. I was to read later that the government is trying to prevent encroachments on the fort, somewhat half-heartedly according to reports. One of the measures is to forbid construction 300 meters from the fort walls. As a result we had a clear view of the red sandstone ramparts and bastions (photo below) as we walked up to the entrance gate. It was interesting to see a part of an abandoned cannon still pointed at the ramparts.

A rather wonky web page by the state tourism department claims that the fort was built in 1344 CE. This fits with the known history of the era. The town of Dhar and the kingdom of Malwa had been annexed by the Delhi Sultanate in the 13th century CE, and passed on to the Tughlaq dynasty in the 14th century CE. Muhammad bin Tughlaq, the infamous 2nd sultan of the dynasty, spent the years from 1327 CE fighting breakaway generals and kingdoms. In 1338 CE he put down a revolt in Malwa, and nine years later lost the region south of it to a rebellion by his own general Bahman Shah. The putative year of the construction of this fort agrees with the period when this region would have been in the thick of war.

We walked in through a gate which stuck out of the line of the rampart and looked quite different (photo above). I guess this was built to commemorate a visit of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir in 1664 CE (1075 AH). Past this we climbed three or four steps and came on the original door built into the ramparts of the fort (featured photo). The stone looks dark here, but I think it is just algae growing on the original red sandstone. In parts where the growth has been scraped off, you can see the colour of the sandstone. The brick walls abutting the bastion here must be a later construction.

Paths into forts never go straight. A couple of youngsters in school uniforms pushed their bicycles past us through the gate. We followed. Inside was a little vestibule, and then another gate. A description in the East Indian Gazetteer (Volume 1, by Walter Hamilton, 1828 CE) says “The fort is entirely detached from the city, standing on a rising ground about forty feet above the plain. The walls are about thirty feet high, fortified by round and square towers.” We passed through the inner gate (photo above, courtesy The Family) into the keep.

Very little stands inside here. Our first view was of a pasture with cows and a little village beyond (photo above, courtesy The Family). I hadn’t understood the descriptions of the fort when I read them earlier. The palaces which stand inside the fort are small. We found them soon enough, but the village explained why there were schoolchildren with bicycles climbing into the fort. When the governor of Malwa, Dilawar Khan, rebelled against the Delhi Sultanate and declared himself Sultan of Malwa in 1401 CE, the fort must have been an important possession. There must be detailed histories of that time, but I haven’t been able to locate any, so I don’t know whether there was a village here at that time. In any case, during the war of independence in 1857, troops garrisoned here rebelled. The fort was taken back by British troops less than a month later, and the village inside was burnt down although the rebels managed to flee. The village we saw is clearly a more recent development.

We climbed up the ramparts and saw before us the spreading town of Dhar. A photo of the fort was taken in 1892 by Raja Deen Dayal, and shows empty land all around the fort. Today, the fort is no longer “entirely detached from the city”. The town is still not very large, so you can see the very pleasant rolling contours of a typical Malwa landscape beyond the houses, all the way to the horizon and the looming windmills.

Forgotten by time

In trying to refresh my mind about what we had seen of Dhar on our visit in August, 2010, I found photos which reminded me of an interesting museum that I’d completely forgotten about. Driving from Dhar to Mandu we saw a fiberglass statue of a dinosaur in the middle of a barren landscape. As it came nearer, we found a track leading off the road towards a small building at the foot of the dinosaur. We turned off and approached what we realized was a little museum of fossils.

Outside the building were several slabs of stones bearing fossils. I’d never seen a fossil dinosaur’s egg, and this one embedded into the rock was a wonderful sight (photo above). I’d always thought of them as round, but this was distinctly egg-shaped. if you place an egg on the kitchen counter and push it, it will tend to turn in a circle. The shape keeps it from rolling too far. I guess the same evolutionary pressure acted on dinosaurs. In fact, now that we know that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs, I should not be surprised by the shape of the egg. It turns out that theropod dinosaurs, which include the ancestors of modern birds, had eggs of this shape. If this was a theropod egg, it must have been less than 250 million years old.

The museum looked closed. But as we admired the fossils outside, a young man came along and said he could open the museum if we wanted to take a look. Inside we saw some more eggs embedded into a rock (photo above). These were more nearly round. I wonder whether that is because I was looking at it along its length, or whether it was genuinely more spherical. If it was spherical then it could belong to other groups of dinosaurs, and, possibly, be older. In any case, all this is mere speculation. Since the museum was a little short of documentation, you could let your imagination run wild.

The Family and I walked along the short aisle, looking at all the different fossils on display. Someone had made an effort to make an interesting display on geology and the history of the earth. The keeper (photo below) also had been trained, because he gave us a small lecture on the ages of the earth, and the different kinds of dinosaurs. The Narmada basin yields huge numbers of marine fossils. We saw an ammonite on display (featured photo). There were also beautifully patterned globular fossils which must have been the remains of marine animals.

There are infrequent reports in newspapers of fossil finds in this area, although it is known since the 18th century that this area is rich in fossils. Unfortunately, there is no agency to protect fossils in the field, so inevitably they are removed and lost. Even then it was clear that not much money was being spent on the museum; even the keeper’s salary was clearly not very good. Now, almost a decade later, I read that the museum is dysfunctional and uncared for. A pity, since fossils such as these could tell us much more about the geological history of India than is now known.

Indore plans

Some years ago, The Family and I went for a very short holiday to Mandu. The way lies through Indore. We spent only a couple of hours in the town on the way back. I remember seeing some cenotaphs (chhatris) of the 19th century Holkar rulers (photo below). We walked through a place called the Sarafa Bazar and found it interesting but less than spotlessly clean. Today Indore is ranked the cleanest city in India. There’s an interesting story behind this transformation. It is also something that made us think of going back to see the city.

Perhaps as a result of this clean up, the street food scene in Indore is something that gets lots of attention on blogs. I saw blogs by Selcouth Explorer, the former Dilliwali Taste Memory, the local expert Megha and the wonderfully named Follow the Eaten Path rave about street food, but naming very different things to eat. There is clearly a lot of variety when it comes to street food of Indore. Two places which crop up over and over again in stories about food in Indore are Sarafa bazar, which is apparently open till two in the morning, and Chhappan dukan in New Palasia, which has 56 different food stalls. I guess the question of where to eat will become an issue in Indore.

Historically, Indore rose with the Maratha empire. In the first third of the 18th century the Nizam granted rights to the Malwa kindom over to the Peshwa, who then handed the town of Indore and the district of Malwa to the Holkar chieftains. Indore remained the main garrison town although Ahilyabai moved the capital to nearby Maheshwar thirty years later. The palace complex of Rajwada was built in 1866, after this move. I discovered some photos from our visit (the door above, and the featured photo) which turn out to be of Rajwada. The Family and I have no independent memory of having been here: so I guess we will go back to see it. The Lalbagh Palace, which also seems to be one of the major sights, was built by a Holkar well after the final defeat of the Marathas in 1818. We have certainly not seen this. Nor have we seen the Jain temple made of glass, the nearby Jama Masjid, the three century old Khajrana temple, or the less well-known British era red and white churches.

Indore is the gateway to several interesting places nearby. The Family and I have already been to Mandu and Maheshwar. I visited Omkareshwar a while back. So there are few other places to see nearby. Is Dhar interesting enough to make a one and a half hour drive? If we have to take one trip out of Indore, would we rather go to Ujjain, which has been continuously inhabited since 700 BCE? This means that I have to read a lot more.