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.