Psychopomps

The only thing I remembered from a visit eight years ago to the Krishnapura chhatris in Indore was the sandstone figures. I wrote about the chhatris yesterday, and I wanted to show you these memorable figures today. The featured photo shows the beautiful contrast of the red sandstone figures and the dark slate on which they are placed.

The two panels above show the range of activities which is depicted in these figures. I’d remembered the soldiers around the base of the chhatris. Maybe I hadn’t looked up on my earlier visit, but this time I did not miss the figures of musicians, scribes and ascetics which decorate the upper parts of external pillars. You can see a musician and a soldier in the photos above.

A psychopomp is a person who guards you in afterlife. Typically one thinks of such a character as a spirit guide. Since scribes and scholars, musicians and ascetics can guard rulers against falling into error, the collection of figures here are psychopomps for the dead rulers. In the photo above they guard the steps which lead up to the platform where the pyres of the kings were lit.

The two figures in the photo above are clearly court functionaries. There were very few courtiers here. Although the lives of the royals would have been hemmed in by such people, their presence is measured. I liked the balance that the design has between different walks of life. These are memorials to rulers in settled times; this shows in the choice of professions and the weight given to each.

The figure in the photo above is clearly from the early 20th century CE. The musket with a bayonet and utility pouches in various belts are clearly modern. But there is an air of dressiness in the breeches and leggings, and the non-utilitarian headgear, which speaks of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I don’t know the exact date on which this chhatri was completed, although it could not have started before 1908, when Shivaji Rao Holkar, who is memorialized here, died. Very likely the chhatri was completed before the start of the first world war. This soldier would have been a contemporary figure.

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Cenotaphs of Indore

On our earlier visit to Indore we’d hurried through the chhatris, but they left little impression on me; just a vague memory of small terracotta soldiers. I wonder whether it was the lack of time, or the fact that before their restoration they were not very easy to access that blanked out my memory. The chhatris stand close to the rajwada and right on the Saraswati river. The town and the river have been cleaned up, so the ambience may be closer to what it was when the funeral pyres of the old rulers were lit, and the chhatris erected over the ashes.

The oldest chhatri is the westernmost (photo above) and commemorates the death in 1849 of Krishanbai Holkar. The larger structure (featured photo) is a double chhatri, the western end in memory of Tukoji Rao Holkar II who died in 1886, and the eastern part of the cenotaph for his son and successor, Shivaji Rao Holkar who lived till 1908. It was pretty late in the day when we arrived, and the weak sun was close to setting. In spite of this, the spires of the chhatris looked very colourful: a dark slate, red sandstone, and white marble. There is also a smaller and more plain marble cenotaph raised on 1954 to the sister of the last king.

Funerals are traditionally performed next to a river, and this place close to Indore’s rajwada is an obvious location for the memorials. Unfortunately, that means that one has to look at the spires from very close, so foreshortening the view, or to walk across the river to get a perspective. Unfortunately, it was too long a walk, and it would be too dark by the time we got to the other side.

I climbed the steps up to the platform of Rani Krishnabai’s memorial. As you can see from the photo above, the elaborate roof and pillars are largely made of sandstone. I am certain that this is hard to maintain in the traffic fumes of the busy neighbourhood. On the base and pillars you can see the terracotta molded figures which I will describe in a later post.

The pillars on the platform are stunning in detail. There was a minor fashion shoot on even at this late hour, and I pirated their lights to get shots of the details of the stone work. This oldest memorial has the most elaborate carvings, and I wished I’d climbed into this first. The light was really low now, and I only had harsh artificial lights to work with.

There is a sense of calm here which many locals wander in to enjoy. Once you are inside it is easy to forget the mad traffic whirling past just outside the small compound. I seem to have startled such a person from his rest by trying to take a photo of the double cenotaph from inside the queen’s memorial.

The cores of the cenotaphs are guarded by doors. The remains of the queen’s pyre lay behind the finely carved marble screen which you see above. The other door, guarded by a Nandi and flanked by two statues, stands outside the remains of Shivaji Rao. One of the two statues is a representation of the king.

No large monument in a city is complete without blue rock pigeons. I spotted two of them here. The one half hidden in the darkness above the head of the statue seems to be a little bit of a giant.

Lalbagh Palace

Lalbagh must be one of the more common names a palace or garden, although perhaps not quite as popular as a Mahatma Gandhi Road. When I read about the late 19th century palace built by the Holkars of Indore the associations that popped into my mind were in Mumbai and Bengaluru. A search immediately threw up many more red gardens.

With a couple of hours to kill before our flight, I quickly looked at the small list of places we had not yet seen in Indore. The choice was between a 20th century temple, a mid-19th century mosque and this palace. We chose the palace; unfortunately. The Holkars have moved out of this sprawling building, leaving behind a few chandeliers and bulky pieces of furniture for tourists to gape at. You can pay 20 rupees for the pleasure of walking through nearly empty rooms. The mosaic floors and high ceilings are of some interest if you like late 19th century architecture, but the emptiness told on us. We escaped quickly to the desultorily maintained gardens. Clearly the locals make good use of the huge spaces. We came across lovers, cricket teams and people having a nap. We came to patches of lilies which were over-running their borders, but since they were all in bloom I guess the gardeners forgive them their audacity.

We were at the airport early.

Dusk in Sarafa Bazaar

We found ourselves walking between the chhatris and rajwada of Indore at dusk on a Saturday. I love markets at this time. The monsoon sky was a beautiful shade of blue, and the lights of the markets were coming on. For a few moments the earth and sky are nearly balanced in terms of light. Looking down a road I could see the Bhumija spires of the chhatris against the century old once-grand buildings of the bazaar. Some of these are in really dire need of repairs, but it is easier to replace them by prefab frontages which attract many shoppers. Some downtowns have escaped this fate, and reached a stage where renovated old buildings are newly fashionable. I hope this part of Indore is not entirely replaced by these cheap 21st century structures.

The mixed traffic was very heavy. The crowds made walking difficult. It was okay with me. I could pause and look at the mansions which may (or may not) become grand again. This lovely building from the early 20th century CE is something that I hope can be saved. I liked the clutter in the sky matching the crowds on the road. We walked slowly past to a rajwada closed for repairs.

A garden with sculpture

Someone from the museum in Mumbai had recommended the Indore museum very highly. “Small, but wonderful collection” she said. I remembered later that she also said “Some of it is very well curated.” It was not clear to me whether the garden behind the museum was well curated. Some wonderful stone sculptures were on display there, but not everything was legibly labeled. Most of the pieces in the garden seemed to have been carved sometime between the 11th and 13th centuries. Some of them are in the slideshow below. As always, you can click on one and scroll through if you want a closer look.

The beautiful four armed female goddess in tribhanga pose was hard to identify; one hand holds a kalasha (pot); the only other hand which remains holds an enigmatic symbol which I cannot identify. The featured image was labelled as being from the 12th century CE. It seems to be part of a longer panel. The part that one could see was a little jewel. There were two attractive memorial pillars from Mandsaur made in the 13th century CE. The one which was more complete is topped by a padmashirshaka, or inverted lotus. Above the lotus is a broken piece, perhaps the remains of a kalasha which would traditionally complete the top. Right at the back of the garden was a part of a bracket or wall which showed some disembodied limbs. These were so beautifully carved that I would have liked to know more about it.

It had rained hard at night and parts of the garden were quite wet. I negotiated the damp patches in the path, looking as much at squirrels which ran over the sculptures as at the pieces themselves. The brilliant green of monsoon and the somber gray stone went well together. I wonder whether this is how the classic Paramara era temples looked when they were in use: stone structures in the middle of growth and nature.

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.

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.

Chaus theory

I stood in a building near Indore, overlooking a parking lot surrounded by tall grass. My camera was already packed away in my backpack. Something moved through the grass, and my colleague said “That’s a jungle cat.” I caught little glimpses of it as I fumbled to take the camera out of the bag. It was large, and moved quietly with many pauses to look carefully at its surroundings. The camera strap was stuck around something. I had to look away to disentangle it.

I dropped my backpack on the floor, and raised my camera. The cat had disappeared. My friend pointed to a pile of rubble and said that the cat had gone behind it. Strangely, it had drifted in the direction of the parking lot. It sprang up on top of the heap of rubble and I tried to take some photos, one of which is featured. The cat quickly jumped off the pile and disappeared into the tall grass. It had given me a short window of opportunity, and I’d fumbled it!

What was it? It was big, perhaps a little less than half a meter off the ground at the shoulder. Because of the size, I thought first that it could be a caracal. This was unlikely, I knew, because the caracal is nocturnal. Moreover, its ears end in an elongated black tuft. This one didn’t seem to have such a fancy ear. So it must have been a jungle cat, Felis chaus, but a big one. What an unexpected sighting.