August 16, 2016 – CN Traveller UK
Madhya Pradesh, which roughly translates as ‘Heart Land’, is both superlative and peculiarly untouched. In the state’s eastern wilderness, peacocks wander wild through teak forests and tigers prowl through several of the country’s best wildlife sanctuaries. To the north, the 10th-century temples of Khajuraho, covered in ecstatic erotic sculpture, are reminders of India’s ancient artistic heritage and rich history of sexual diversity, so different from its conservative present moment. In the centre are grand mosques and holy rivers, millennia-old Buddhist monuments and Paleolithic cave paintings – so much of the subcontinent’s unimaginably long history compressed into a single, vastly under-appreciated region.
It wasn’t exactly quiet out on the Narmada River, but then India rarely is. Men in white loincloths bathed along the broad stone ghats that lead down from the palace walls to the holy river. Children ran beside cusped arcades, laughing as their mothers shouted after them. Women, the colours of their saris intensified by the water, emerged from the river drenched and cleansed, and holy men – some genuine – sat silently, frail palms extended toward whatever beneficence the day might offer. I floated downstream past a small island temple, crowded with devotees. The temple tower (or shikhara) and the high walls of the Ahilya Fort – once the residence of the Holkar kings, and since 2000 one of central India’s most elegant hotels – watched themselves, still as narcissus, in the river’s dark mirrored surface.
The royal riverside town of Maheshwar dates from the 18th century when the Holkar queen, Ahilyabai, moved her capital here from the nearby city of Indore. By then, Maheshwari weavers had been turning out simple cotton saris and turbans for centuries; under the patronage of the Holkars these delicate cottons, patterned with motifs taken from the surface of the river and the ornament on the palace walls, became sought-after commodities.
Like any town in India connected to a good road, Maheshwar is changing and dynamic. The old bazaar is mostly concrete – some of the old wooden houses still stand in the quiet lanes leading toward the water – but it remains frenetic and bustling in the way that only Indian markets are and, one imagines, always have been. Take a boat out on the water in the late afternoon; come to the palace walls in the evening for a drink (a nightly ritual for guests at the Ahilya Fort) when the sun sets and the temple bells chime and the last bathers emerge quietly from the river. Time here isn’t so much frozen as folded back on itself repeatedly, like the pleats in a sari.
Mandu is a marvellous tombstone of a place: a great ruined city, silent and still on a steep bluff, an hour’s drive north of Maheshwar. The city reached its pinnacle in the 15th and 16th centuries as the capital of the Malwa Sultanate, a great Afghan dynasty. Today, its austere monuments – pleasure palaces and hilltop pavilions and mosques and tombs and caravanserais, all built in cloud-grey granite – populate the forest like ghosts.
Those ghosts have stories. Baz Bahadur, the last Sultan of Malwa, ruled in the 16th century. One day while hunting for deer along the banks of the Narmada River, he heard a melodious voice in the jungle. It belonged to a Hindu maiden called Roopmati, whom he married and built an open pavilion for on the edge of the fortified city, overlooking the plains, with a palace at the foot of the hill below. When the Mughal emperors invaded and overtook Bahadur’s army, Roopmati poisoned herself in a gesture of devotion that ends so many medieval love stories – which seem not to count as love stories at all if they weren’t also tragedies.
But romance, not tragedy, pervades the atmosphere at Mandu today. At the northern end of the site, the grand Jahaz Mahal, or ‘ship palace’, overlooks a seasonal lake, its roofless vaults reminiscent of abandoned Scottish abbeys, its baths and pools, fed by elaborate, frivolously curled stone channels, small follies among stern walls.
Rent and a bike and the most remote monuments, silent in the jungle, become accessible. Mosques and tombs and caravanserais lie empty; in the wet monsoon season (the best time to visit) they’re surrounded by lush greenery and shrouded in mist. Shepherds lead their flocks from the old gates and through its empty tombs. The Malwas may have failed to defend their capital against the powers of the outside world, but that defeat gave Mandu another kind of victory.
Few travellers pass through, let alone pause to explore, Madhya Pradesh’s capital city of Bhopal. Its Old City is a kinder, milder version of Old Delhi’s impenetrable urban morass. In the knotted web of bazaars, vendors sell fabrics and sewing machines and stacks of fresh-baked bread. Late into the night, tiny canteens, many of them decades old, turn out creamy pasanda made with pounded goat meat and salted Sulaimani chai that tastes of burnt caramel. Nineteenth-century mosques and palaces, built by a succession of four powerful woman rulers (the only matrilineal Muslim dynasty in Indian history), rise over the gracious lakefront where young men and women stroll on cool, breezy evenings.
The post-Independence city is also surprisingly rich. Bharat Bhavan, designed by renowned modernist architect Charles Correa, houses a beautiful (if ill-displayed) collection of paintings from the Gond tribe, the original inhabitants in this part of central India. The Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum, which opened in 2014, reproduces tribal art forms in a theatrical space created and maintained by local artists.
Bhopal makes a good staging ground for trips to some of the region’s most ancient sites. At the Paleolithic rock shelters at Bhibetka – about 90 minutes’ drive from the city – I lay entirely alone on cool damp outcroppings of stone, my face two feet away from the herds of sheep and giant boars painted there 30,000 years ago. North of the city are the hilltop ruins of Sanchi, an immense dome of stone erected in the 2nd century BC over a relic of the Buddha, ringed by an elephantine stone fence and four tall gates, each magnificently carved and impossibly well-preserved.
The town of Bhojpur is renowned for its unfinished 12-century temple, and the nearby village of Ashapuri houses a miniscule ‘museum’ – really just a concrete room and an open yard scattered with marvellous statuaries from the ruins of a 12th-century temple complex called Bhoothnath, lost in the jungle until a few years back. It’s in places like these that the physical and temporal scale of India really strikes you: that you can find yourself alone, exploring this ancient country’s wonders as though you were the first person ever to see them.
I arrived in Orchha on its monthly festival day. Pilgrims from the surrounding country were flocking to the Ram Raja temple at the centre of town, flooding the banks of the Betwa River with bathers and revellers, and filling the usually sleepy market where women sold earthenware pots, children hawked cheap plastic toys, and streetcarts served up nigh-perfect aloo tikki.
The town of Orchha had its heyday three centuries before Bhopal’s visionary Begums erected their grand sandstone monuments along the lake. The town was founded in 1531 as a new capital for the kingdom of Bundelkhand by Raja Rudra Pratap Singh, who embarked on an ambitious building campaign that would grace the town with its pair of austere palaces, the soaring spires of the Chaturbhuj Temple, and the parade of cenotaphs along the banks of the Betwa.
An hour to the north, the village of Datia contains the last and most impressive of the Bundelkhandi palaces, rising seven ominous stories over the squat, scrubby townscape. Inside, the palace is a maze, almost perfectly symmetrical, a mirror to itself and to the foolhardy opulence of the kings who built it. The attendant at the gate told me that the Bundelkhandi kings had built the palace to be used just once by a visiting Mughal emperor. The idea of this hulking palace, an exercise in voluptuous rigour, lit for one night of revelry is romantic – perhaps beyond belief.
Beyond the cenotaphs are fields, punctuated here and there by nameless ruins where shepherds wait out the hottest hours of the day in the shade as their flocks graze. Temples dot the jungle, some now used as stables, still others, hidden but for the very tops of their shikaras, completely cut off and lost.
On that first evening in Orchha, as the crowds returned on foot back for their villages, some hundreds of miles away, I went to the highest ramparts of the Jahangir Mahal palace, and watched a rose-gold sun setting over the spires of the temples that puncture the jungle canopy, casting their last long shadows toward the distant hills in the east – the same hills and forests that inspired Kipling’s The Jungle Book, my favourite movie as a kid. In Orchha, I’d found the India of that child’s dreams.
For centuries Madhya Pradesh lay at an important crossroads where spices and silks passed on their way toward Central Asia and Gujarat. Few towns profited more handsomely from that trade than Chanderi. In the 14th century, the town was important enough that the famous Muslim traveller Ibn Batutta stopped there in his peregrinations. By the 16th century, when many of the town’s lovingly preserved palaces and mansions and step-wells were built, Chanderi was a thriving metropolis of 100,000 people.
Today the population is less than half that and Chanderi is a happily forgotten backwater, barely connected to the outside world. Within its 15th-century gates, huddled below the ramparts of its hilltop fort, the town remains almost miraculously intact. Shopkeepers sell silver and gold, aluminium kitchen utensils that glint madly in the afternoon sun, stacks of old paper, and all manner of bric-a-brac of obscure provenance and even more obscure utility. Narrow alleys lined with silent mansions and whitewashed, stacked-stone houses open onto small squares built around deep stepwells. Tombs covered in bas-relief lie hidden behind delicately carved stone screens.
Chanderi today is, not unlike Maheshwar, a weaving town first and foremost. Weavers stretch their silken warps down empty back alleys that echo with the wooden clatter of hidden looms. In the Rani Mahal palace, more looms turn out gossamer saris and scarves (you can buy them in the cooperative shop). There are thousands of weavers in and around Chanderi, continuing their work as the rest of India wrings its hands over the twilight of the handloom industry. There’s hope here in this royal ruin.
In the Rani Mahal I bumped into a man who promptly extended his hand and introduced himself as Kallu Bhai, the only official guide in the city. We drank tea and sat on a brick wall overlooking a sunken courtyard a storey below where three teenagers played cricket. We talked about his family’s 700-year history here and his efforts to restore Chanderi’s marvellous buildings and monuments.
The sun had fallen behind the frayed heads of palms and the staunch palace towers. The stiff crack of a ball bouncing off cold stone walls splintered the evening calm. This palace isn’t a ruin, after all, I thought. Here in Madhya Pradesh, in India’s heartland, it’s not even old.