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?

The landscape of Malwa

The lush monsoon-watered landscape of Malwa unfolded before us as we traveled from Dhar to Mandu. This road was familiar to us from eight years ago. We came to a halt near a park-full of fibreglass dinosaurs. The area around the museum of fossils had been converted to a children’s park. There was a wall around it, and several food stalls. Quite a change from the emptiness I’d remembered. As I approached a turnstile, a young man appeared and said “Five rupees for entry and another twenty five for the camera.” The museum was locked, but a lot of people were taking selfies against the dramatic background.

The Malwa landscape is mostly flat, as you can see in the photo below. This is one place on the Malwa plateau where the landscape indulges in a bit of drama. A little stream has cut a deep gorge into the plateau, showing that this is part of the Deccan traps. You can see the characteristic layer-cake appearance of the gorge, created by a few lakh years of volcanism (that’s a few hundred thousand years) which killed off the dinosaurs and created some of the fossils which you can see in the museum. The layers are formed by clay trapped between successive flows of lava. Above the basalt you can see the last 65 million years of strata.

If the land is old, human civilization here is also old, as humans go. Archaeology has yielded up Paleolithic hand axes, Microlithic arrowheads, and Chalcolithic tools, leading up to the recorded history of the immediately pre-Buddhist era. The earliest records talk of large cities and vast trading networks which connected the known world, bringing Central Asian and Greek pilgrims to this region of the world, and surely sending some questing abroad. It is easy to forget the depth of this history when you talk to the locals who cater to tourists. The farmers who till this monsoon-lush, but otherwise dry, landscape will hardly believe that slightly deeper tools could turn up the remnants of soil laid down in the time of Vikramaditya. Increase the length of the tool a little more, and you could be exposing the soil that Buddha’s contemporaries walked on. But that you would have to dig twenty feet to get to Paleolithic remains. Deep history is so deep.

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.