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.

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.

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.

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.