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.

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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.

Pictures at an Exhibition

I’d never been to the National Museum in Delhi, although it had been on my bucket list for years. For over fifteen years, The Family has had a false memory of the place being very small. So when we had a weekend in Delhi together, we took a couple of hours to walk through a small part of it.

One of the galleries which we visited was of miniature paintings. It is an enormous collection. The range dwarfs every other collection I’ve seen. The beautiful Jain manuscript of which the featured photo is a detail was a style I’d not seen before. I don’t know much about Jain mythology, but it seems to have remarkable parallels to Buddhism, while also being different. The dreams of the mothers is part of the common lore. This was painted on paper in the 16th century CE. The paper and paint are remarkably uniform. Photography is freely allowed in the museum, but then the glass in front of most paintings makes them hard to capture. Some part of the uneven colouration in these photos is due to reflections from the glass.

This picture of the emperor Jahangir is unusual in many ways. Emperor Jehangir with a picture of the Madonna, National Museum, DelhiAlthough Roman Catholic orders were seen in the tolerant Mughal courts from the early 16th century CE, paintings with Christian subjects remained uncommon. This 17th century painting is even more so in that it shows the emperor himself with a picture of the Madonna. There are probably three or four such paintings of the Mughal emperors with the Madonna. I also found this painting a little different from most Mughal miniatures in the very subdued palette: very muted and dark colours.

Another of the paintings which caught my eye was a Persian miniature. It was a fairly common kind of painting, with many different identifiable birds, animals and flowers. Detail from a Persian Miniature, National Museum, DelhiThe reason it caught my eye was the picture of a rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri). This parakeet is said to have been found in large parts of India and modern-day Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, as well as in a wide swathe across the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa and the Gulf. Although there are reported sightings in Iran, it is not usually said to be part of the ancestral range of this bird. Is this painting perhaps proof that it was found in Iran already in the 15th century CE?

I’m afraid The Family and I are not very good museum-goers. We weave back and forth through the galleries and talk too much about things like this.