Friday, February 19, 2010

Travels in Central India Part 3- Mandu

I had absolutely no idea what to expect from Mandu or Mandav and all I knew was that I had 3 days on my disposal and no definite plan to reach anywhere. I heard of Mandu fleetingly in a conversation and knew that it was known for its historical ruins and monuments. So on bright sunny Christmas morning I took bus to Dhar a town known for Raja Bhoj. Raja Bhoj, a philosopher king is a well known figure in Indian history and Dhar was the capital city of Paramara Dynasty to which Bhoj belonged.

Today, Dhar like many other small Indian towns is congested, noisy and chaotic. Urinal at bus station was dysfunctional and actually had half a dozen people living there and playing cards. Somebody was burning heap of garbage on corner of square in front of bus station and loud advertisement for some local product was blaring from loudspeaker hung on terrace of a bigger looking shop. The policeman posted to control traffic on square was busy talking to a young man on bike, perhaps trying to extract some money in compensation for breaking traffic rule, as rest of traffic was trying to meander its way around a big stubborn cow, not bothered of blaring horns, carelessly passing the road while chewing the cud. Overhead, blue sky could be seen from a maze of hundred criss -crossing electricity wires and all kinds of political and religious banners hung on ropes attached to poles and building on either sides of square. I found a small bus parked in corner of station which was to leave for Mandu. It had a very vocal family seated inside who were eating poha and bananas with banana peels summarily being deposited out of the window. The kids were excitedly talking about going to Khala’s (aunt) place and their dad was telling another man how much children enjoyed during last Id when they visited Ammi’s house. Within few minutes the bus was full and started. A man, conductor of the bus, standing near the Bus door on the foot mat was loudly shouting ..’Mandu Mandu Mandu’, soliciting passengers to Mandu even as the bus made its way slowly through chaos on road out of the bus station and ahead of square. In no time bus had passengers, sitting, standing and hanging wherever possible.

Day 1
After half an hour drive, I could see the plains making way for small hillocks and plateau. It was lovely December morning and when I saw the glimpses of a ruin of what perhaps was a mosque, I knew that I was going to enjoy Mandu. Just before noon, bus finally left me at main square, in front of Jami Masjid and I saw a dozen buses and cars parked and offloading tourists. A big bus with banner of a school plastered on its side had bunch of chirpy kids surrounding it with their teacher trying in vain to get the unruly lot to form a queue The Ram Mandir (temple) in front of Masjid was full of people attending last day of weeklong yoga workshop. I had come to Mandu when it was full of tourists due to Christmas weekend and I hurried to find myself a place to stay. Govt has restricted new construction in Mandu and there are just 3,4 small lodges and Tourism department hotels here. Luckily I got a place to stay in one of better lodge which had immaculately green lawn and overlooked the gorge (kakra khoh) and villages down in it. Bag was deposited, a map bought, a cycle rented and I was on my way. What A day it was. Balmy winter sun, clear blue skies and aroma in the air. Most people come to Mandu on a day long trip, day trippers as they are called, visit some well known monuments and go back by evening. But if you really want to enjoy Mandu , you got to stay here for at least 3 days explore the place on a cycle. Mandu as it turns out , is a natural fort on top of plateau in Vindhay range and has a ruined city spread in around 20 square km , sprinkled with historical buildings and monuments of bygone era. It is also called celebration of love and life in stone and it is quite true, for such is beauty of the place. Built by Hindu Rajput kings of Malwa on a plateau protected by Kakra khoh (deep ravine) on all sides, the fort was won over by Muslims rulers during advent of Mughal empire and traces of it can be seen all around Mandu. One can observe that many muslim buildings have stones and pillars reused from dismantled Hindu temples.

Jahaz Mahal (Ship Palace) is most popular attraction and is quite impressive. It was used by Ghiyas-ud-din-Khilji as his harem and is surrounded by two artificial lakes. One can stand here and imagine how it must have been in its day of glory when Sultan would visit his women who were housed in naturally air conditioned quarters around Champa Baoli (water tank) , whose waters it is said used to smell of Champa flowers. Many parties and orgies must have taken place in Hindola Mahal (Swing place) in front of Chmpa Baoli, which is quite unique in its architecture. There is a large courtyard in one corner of palace which was ostensibly used for royal dance parties under starlit skies. I met a small girl here, whose mother is employed with keeping place clean, who told me that at night courtesans who are buried nearby come alive and she said that she knows because she has seen them many times. I thought she was a very interesting kid to talk to. Around 10 minutes away from Jahaz Mahal are Lohani caves and sunset point. Lohani caves are small chambers cut in a rock face on one of the cliffs overlooking Malwa plains. Caves have a water cistern filled from natural water source and were used by Buddhist or Hindu mendicants and later by Mughal sentries protecting the fortress . The sunset from this place is quite amazing and one of the sights that I cherish from Mandu. As the night fell, I cycled back to my lodge. The night was still and silent and I could hear croaking of creatures of night interspersed by laughter of merriment carried from a distant hill by gentle breeze.

Day 2
There is something in bright sunny mornings. There is something in sun when it is not at its ferocious avatar. It gives you warmth which percolates inside you into your soul. Is that the reason that sun worship was so central to Hindus! It was one such morning and I took my cycle on my way to another popular spot called Baj Bahadur’s palace and Rani Rupmati's pavilion. It is around 6 km from the Jami masjid and on the way I stopped at many ruins along the road. Dai ka Mahal is quite interesting building. It was built by a poor woman. It is said that during its zenith, Mandu did not have any poor and every new citizen was provided with gold coins by residents and this is how Dai , a poor woman could build a palace for herself. Overlooking Dai's Mahal is echo point which was used by mughal sultan's sentries to shout to Dai whenever one of Sultan's women was to deliver a baby .She must have been very busy women considering the big harem of women the sultans had and absence of reliable birth control devices during those times.

Baj Bahadur's palace is the place where you get the essence of Mandu. The palace is build near Rewa kund (pond) which itself was built by Baz Bahadur to supply water to his consort and lover Rani Rupmati's pavilion which is situated on a hillock , some 500 meters away from Baj Bahadur's palace. When you stand atop Baj Bahadur's palace you can clearly see Rupmati's pavilion and it is said that in evening Rupmati, would sing for her lover and Baz Bahadur would hear her sitting in his palace. Baz Bahadur and Rani Rumpati's love story is extraordinarily unique. Baz Bahadur was a muslim king and Rupmati was a hindu shepherd woman who worshipped Naramada very dearly. After Baj Bahadur met her during a hunting trip, he married her in accordance with Muslim and Hindu rites. When Adham Khan, during battles of Deccan marched on the Mandu fort, Baz Bahadur confronted him with his small force and was defeated . Instead of falling into Adham Khan's hands, Rupmati poisoned herself and thus ended Baz Bahadur and Rupmati's love tale. Rupmati's Pavilion is on top of hill which overlooks Narmada river flowing in its glory in Nimmar plains. So on one side Rupmati could see her beloved Narmada , on other side she could gaze at her lover, Baj Bahadur. Rani Rupmati's pavilion is one of most scenic places in Mandu and on a clear day , one can see vast Nimmar plains. I find Baz Bahadur and Rumpati tale both fascinating and poignant , steeped as it is in times of music, poetry, love, wars and tragedy. Sarojini Naidu's beautiful poem "An Indian Love song" comes to my mind when I read Baj Bahadur and Rumpati's story, considering that both of them were from two religions which were at loggerhead at that point in history and yet found love for each other. Love after all conquers all divides:

Lift up the veils that darken the delicate moon
of thy glory and grace,
Withhold not, O love, from the night
of my longing the joy of thy luminous face,
Give me a spear of the scented keora
guarding thy pinioned curls,
Or a silken thread from the fringes
that trouble the dream of thy glimmering pearls;
Faint grows my soul with thy tresses' perfume
and the song of thy anklets' caprice,
Revive me, I pray, with the magical nectar
that dwells in the flower of thy kiss.
How shall I yield to the voice of thy pleading,
how shall I grant thy prayer,
Or give thee a rose-red silken tassel,
a scented leaf from my hair?
Or fling in the flame of thy heart's desire the veils that cover my face,
Profane the law of my father's creed for a foe
of my father's race?
Thy kinsmen have broken our sacred altars and slaughtered our sacred kine,
The feud of old faiths and the blood of old battles sever thy people and mine.
What are the sins of my race, Beloved,
what are my people to thee?
And what are thy shrines, and kine and kindred,
what are thy gods to me?
Love recks not of feuds and bitter follies,
of stranger, comrade or kin,
Alike in his ear sound the temple bells
and the cry of the muezzin.
For Love shall cancel the ancient wrong
and conquer the ancient rage,
Redeem with his tears the memoried sorrow
that sullied a bygone age.

From Rupmati's pavilion I cycled my way to Fort of Sonagarh which is around 7 km. There is nothing much left in fort expect for its door but I enjoyed cycling to it. The afternoon was so beautiful that I could live there forever. On way to Soagarh, is temple of Nilakanth which is a Shiva temple clinging to a steep hillside and is unique because temple facade has a look of a mosque and has Persian inscriptions on it from the time when Akbar visited it during his stay in Mandu. The village kids around the road to Sonagarh would wave to me and shout "Hi, whats your name, which country!" Every second kid asked exactly same question. I guess they are used to seeing foreigners on cycles and perhaps thought that I was also one. Apart from well known monuments there are many other ruins which one can stop by. There is a very impressive Cavern building which was built in European style, and around Dai's Mahal is a ruin of mosque where one can clearly see use of temple pillars. On intersection of Rupmati road and Sonagarh is Hathi Mahal, a deserted place , perfect to get siesta under its tree covered courtyard. Jami Masjid is another beautiful building, built in year 1450 after a famous mosque of Damascus. Adjacent to it is Tomb of Hoshang Shah . Tomb is architectural marvel and it is said that architect of famous Taj Mahal in Agra had paid a visit here and used this white mausoleum as blueprint for building Taj Mahal. I must say that ASI (Archaeological survey of India) has done a good job of maintaining ruins of Mandu and must be commended in a country which is known to deface its historical legacy. In evening I cycled back to Sunset point and interplay of lights before the sun set was mesmerizing again. Just sitting on a hill side and watching the night fall on ruins is one amazing moment.

Day 3
Next morning was the most beautiful. I could understand why Mandu became city of pleasure. In rainy season it is said it becomes entirely green replete with vegetation and hundred natural streams that start flowing from plateau down to kakara khoh. In winters it is pure heaven, days are comfortably warm and evenings are cooler mixed with aromatic breeze. Summers are not as harsh as in towns of Malwa and in plains of Nimmar. There are many ruins and buildings one can explore. Gada Shah's shop has an impressive facade and is must visit. But the place I liked the most was little known and almost skipped by day trippers; Chisti khans's place. Take a book there, soak in sun with none to bother you, hear distant faint voices from tribals working in their fields down in kakara khoh (Kakra gorge or ravine), pure heaven. I thought of going down the hill to tribal villages but then love of cycling won over and I decided to cycle my way to a Fossilarium, around 7 km away from Mandu and outside the fort. The road is littered with ruins again, Zali mahal, some old temples, Delhi darwaza, etc. Fossilarium is small and can be seen from a distance due to two massive stone statues of Dinosaurs in its compound. Mandu is considered to be part of ancient Gondwana continent and places around it and Narmada valley are considered to be geologically very significant. 100 fossilized dinosaur eggs were found in Dhar region including Mandu in year 2007 and some of them are displayed in Fossilarium. Millions of years ego before kings and sultans made Mandu a pleasure resort, before love and songs reverberated in ravines around it ,Mandu was home to these gigantic creatures.

“Origin of self initiated System of Systems resulted in the existence meaningful enough , that is being Shiva- According to Hindu mythology”

Domed mausoleums Mughal palaces, mosques, ruins crumbling beside medieval reservoirs and precipitous ravines, a place where love roams in air, where tragedy lies buried in sands, a place where stones tell stories....that is quintessential Mandu or Mandav. And at the end , all I could say was "Incredible India".

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Travels in Central India Ujjain - Part2

Ujjain was one place I was really looking forward to see as I had rather romantic notion of it. Shyam Benegal's Discovery of India , every Sunday afternoon used to be my favorite TV program and names of cities like Kosala,Maghada, Avanti, Ujjaini had stuck in my mind. Ujjain is one of oldest cities of India and traces its history to ancient time. Ujjain saw its golden period during Gupta empire when it became a centre of Hindu leaning, art, science and trade. But the city finds references in book like Ramayana, so one can imagine how ancient it is.

Day 1
Today's Ujjain is a different city, though still very important and holy for Hindus. One of its major attractions is temple of Mahakaleshwara, which is seat of one of 12 jyotirlingas in India. Reaching Ujjian from Indore is very easy as there are constant buses plying from Sarvate bus stand in Indore to Ujjain and it takes just about 2 hours to reach. Mahakaleshwara was the first place I visited and comforting sight was that temple didn’t have long winding queues which are often the case with famous temples. Temple itself is not very glamorous or impressive in its architecture or setting and I didn’t feel particularly spiritual either. There is some amount of jostling one has to sustain during darshans of Shiva lingam as you are pushed, pulled and manhandled by dozen others in pursuit to touch the holy stone. I don’t get it. Do people think that if they touch the shivalingam long enough or from a particular angle , it is going to eliminate all their pains and give them instant salvation! May be this urge to hold the shivlingam arises because Mahakaleshwara is supposed to be self-manifested and one of rare lingams which is south facing. Anyway, I spent couple of hours in the temple and then walked around other temples;and there are too many here, bada ganesh, chotta ganesh, wrinmukta ganesh, rudraganesh and normal as we know him ganesh.

The place I wanted to really see was ghat of river Shipra, so I asked someone around and set off in that direction and came across a water body which looked stagnated, covered with moss and place around it was garbage dump of some kind with open drains overflowing into it. And my heart sank. This was not happening. Ujjain was to be glorious city of Kalidas and navratnas where pundits and Brahmins walked on streets, where lofty conversations on art and religion were held under banyan trees. And all I was seeing was garbage lying around roads, poor emaciated cows and beggars. I cursed myself and felt pangs of sadness. So is this the Holy city of Ujjain! What is holy about it beyond legends? keep the faith I told myself. Be patient.

So I walked down and reached ghats of real Shipra river. This was better place . Only slightly. Thankfully it wasn’t crowded and I sat on the ghat and watched dozen people coming , worshipping , offering, getting naked and bathing in the river. Women with saris, portly men with half of their body fat hanging out…. Shipra let everyone in. Among the crowd which was gathering for evening prayer, I met this old farmer Bhagirath who was on a 300 km padyatra around holy places along river Narmada. Illiterate but wise and interesting and yet so simple man was such a delight. He made me see Ujjain, Shipra, ghats and about to start evening Aarti in a different light. There are millions like him, simple and humble men who still carry the flag of our culture which is not blind rituals and apathetic symbolism most have started indulging in. Evening aarti on the ghat where prayers are offered to holy Shipra was fantastic experience. First time for me, unique experience of music created by cymbals and bells and drums and chanting of mantras along with incensed lights just as the day was fading into laps of darkness. So I bid farewell to Shipra and walked back to main city and into its narrow streets. The bazars at night were brilliant. There was a fragrance in the air. There were streets which look hundred years old with equally ancient buildings and shops and with equally old shopkeeper selling equally old wares. Large section of the bazars are owned by muslims. Ujjain being one of holy cities for hindus was always under attack by invaders and signs of those time can be seen around. I walked around the city until city started shutting down and then...

Day 2
Next day I woke up early, googled what else was an attraction in Ujjain, asked locals and set to Bhartrihari caves. I have read story of Bhartrihari in my school days including some chapters form his seminal book called Bharithari Shatak. Bhartrihari for me is an important figure in Indian history, but so little known . He represents man's two eternal quests- enjoying the material world and looking for metaphysical . It can't be said whether his story with Rani Pingala was real or a legend but one thing is certain that he was a man who enjoyed pleasures of life to hilt before renouncing it for quest of ‘truth’. His shatak has 3 volumes or sections, Shringar Shatak, Niti Shatak and Varagya shatak. Roughly coinciding with his phases in life when he was lover of women ,a king of Ujjain and when he renounced and became a Yogi. Sample this very crude translation of one of his couplet from Shringar shatak:

"There are only two ways worth living,
either roaming in valleys of woman's body
or exploring valleys of Himalayas."

Bhartrihari Caves are around 5-6 km away from Mahakleshwara temple and situated on banks of Shipra river. But river here is dirty and stagnated. This makes me very angry. Same people who worship river in evening with flower, also offer it all our civilizational garbage. I reached there early morning with no tourists around and spent time in chamber under huge stone where he meditated for 12 long years. The place has vibes. Sit there with eyes closed and meditate for some time to know it. Three sahdus from Pir sect (I thought so looking at their big black ear rings) who live there were smoking holy pot and trying to get enlightenment. One of them high on substance exhorted me to donate for "service of cows" but all I could offer was my middle finger.

From caves I moved to temple of Gadkalika where great poet Kalidas is supposed to have worshipped. I found wild berry trees around temple more interesting. It is such a pleasure of life to be able to collect berries form lush and full trees and pop them in your mouth. I could have spent entire day eating berries, lying on grass and sleep. Men are after all evolved from monkeys. Around 15 minutes walk from Bhartrihari cave, on a small hillock is Pir Matsyendranath. This is supposed to be samadhi of adi-guru Matsyendranath who , as legends have, had learnt from Lord Shiva the art of Kriya Yoga and then taught to his more famous pupil Guru Gorakhnath. Samadhi which was in Muslim control for long time, now has a sadhu as its keeper and he was very happy to see me. He told me that there is no place more powerful than this. He gave me a prayer’s mat and said go and meditate near his samadhi and see for yourself. So there on a brilliant sunny day, with noise of gentle crows nearby and fragrance of slowly burning wild herbs (I forgot what it is called but it is amazing) I sat and closed my eyes ,said "OM", took my breath and mind down in my spine hoping to raise it further up and invoked great guru Matsyendranath. I don’t know what it was but I couldn’t keep my eyes close. They started fluttering uncontrollably. Guru was telling me "Go son, you ain't ready yet. Your heart is full of sin. You have debts of hundreds unfulfilled karmas and you are carrying guilt on your soul." I spent 2 hours there and promised to sadhu that I will come back one day and stay him. Incidentally, Pir Matsyendranath is skipped by religious tourists who flock to temples and holy trees and pujas where quick shortcuts for a better afterlife or material prosperity are in offer. I will have to come back here.

From Pir Matsyendranath, I moved to a holy banyan tree called Siddhavat on banks of Shipra which ostensibly doesn’t grow or die for centuries and even after Some Muslim king tried to murder the holy tree under tons of stones. I sat near the tree for some time watching complex rituals being performed enmass and then moved on and went to Kaliadeh Palace which is also on banks of shipra and is in ruins now. A good site to visit but could be better developed from tourism point of view. The palace was ostensibly sun temple but with nobody looking after it , it has now become a dating place for dogs. From here I rented a Jugadu local transport for 50 bucks which is called tempo. I agreed with driver that I will pay him fixed 50 rupees for 4 sites with added incentive that he is allowed to seat any lonely female looking for lift midway. This is monster of a vehicle, runs on a diesel engine with a thousand years old starting mechanism (priming the engine with rope) ,makes noise like a woman delivering baby and can seat 100 people like in one of those fevicol advertisement. My next stop was Kal Bahirov temple the god which is fond of alcohol. Temple is again thousand year old and nobody knows where does all the daru which is offered to deity goes. I theorized with a vendor selling trinkets that there might be secret chamber under the temple but he found it to be too sacrilegious. Anyway, I bought a small bottle of whiskey and offered it to Bhairov which it drank without saying cheers. I had strong urge of joining this friend of Bacchus but preferred to keep my vow of no alcohol while touring the holy city.

From here with my trusted Tempo and a very verbose driver I moved to Temple of Mangalnth which is, Ripley's believe it or not, a birthplace of planet Mars. Yeah right there was planet Mars born before it ejected out to outer space. Oh by the way, driver also showed me a temple in a distant field which he said is right on top of centre of earth because line dissecting the earth in two equal halves passes right through that field. After meeting Mangalnath I moved to Sandipani Ashram where lord Krishna had studied. There is a water tank there which is called Gaumti kund where Krishna used to clean his slate (so it is called Aksharpat).A little Shiva temple there is unique for two reasons if you like subtleties, 1.) Nanadi is standing (usually Nandi facing Shiva is always sitting) 2.) Temple has a Shri-ynatra made in its roof. There I met an interesting man who claimed to be direct descendent of Guru Sandipni himslef!! Incidentally he also said that he worked as a software engineer at one point of time.He told me some interesting things like why Krishna needed to study if he was all -knowing incarnation of Good! Or why we never take full circle of shiva. By now I was getting into spiritual mood of Ujjain and city was growing on me but so was the darkness around. So I bid goodbye to this amazing city with a promise to return sometime and boarded my bus back to unholy Indore.