Maybe it is in our genes, maybe it is due to the complete lack of testing, maybe it is due to the Delta induced immunity, maybe it is due to the vaccine coverage, maybe it is due to Bhabhiji Papad, or most likely it is just the calm before the tornado: as of early December 2021, Omicron doesn't seem to be having the same devastating impact in India as it is having in the West. The eternal pessimist in me was convinced of the worst and decided that now is the time to squeeze in one final trip before the blasted new variant shuts our country for good early next year. Since we just returned from doing a beaten path, we decided to try out the relatively unknown Nimar and Malwa. In case you are wondering, they are the two south-westernmost regions of Madhya Pradesh.
As the rules of RT-PCR test requirement were about as settled as a tailender on a rank turner, we decided to train it to Ujjain, which we reached at the crack of dawn on the Saturday. Ujjain (along with Kashi and Kanchi) was one of the three cities to mushroom during the Second Urbanisation of India and is one of the holiest cities in the Subcontinent. After freshening up in an excuse of a hotel, we headed to Mahakaleshwar, one of the twelve jyotirlingas, the holiest dozen of all Shiva temples. After a quick in and out, we headed to the Harsiddhi, one of the 51 Shaktipeets (the holiest selection of all Devi temples). Then was one of the four viz. Ram Ghat, one of the four ghats where the quadrennial Kumbh takes place. The dilapidated Kaliadeh (palace built by the Malwa Sultans in the mid-15th c) and the intriguing Jantar Mantar (one of the many astronomical observatories that Jai Singh II built around the country) rounded up our morning. The afternoon was spent on a lazy drive to Indore and catching up on the sleep that the noisy train robbed us the previous night.
We got up early the next morning only to be kept waiting by an useless driver. He not only arrived an hour late, but insisted on driving at the speed of an auto-rickshaw, spoiling our well laid-out plans for the day. Only Corona has managed to better him in spoiling travel plans in the recent past. Thanks to him, we reached Asirgarh late in the afternoon instead of noon, as previously planned. At one point in history, Asirgarh was the most important fort in India, separating the Mughals from their arch rivals, the Deccan Sultanate. Who controlled the fort, controlled India and it changed hands from the Mughals to the Marathas to the British making the new occupant the dominant power in the Subcontinent. After gaping at the imposing Jama Masjid and recollecting our emotions stirred up by the sheer history that the fort had witnessed, we headed (as quickly as we were allowed to) to Burhanpur. Asirgarh is up on the ridge where the defender would lock himself up during a crisis. Burhanpur, the town on the plains, 20 kilometres away, on the banks of Tapti, was the preferred peacetime dwelling.
Shah Jahan spent considerable part of his life in Burhanpur guarding the most fragile and the most important border of his empire and he has bestowed the town with what he is most known for, his architecture. We covered the following laundry list of Burhanpur's magnificent edifices on either side of the night: one of the many tombs with the eponym Black Taj: the Tomb of Shah Nawaz Khan (the son of Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana, one of Akbar's navratnas), the breath-taking frescoes inside the Tomb of Bilqis Begum (the daughter-in-law of Shah Jahan), the serene tombs of the Farouqui sultans Nadir and Adil Shah, the magnificent Shahi Qila with jaw dropping views across the Tapti valley, the public baths which would be quite at home in Istanbul, the lavish Bohri Dargah-i-Hakimi and of course, the Tomb of Mumtaz. Yes, Mumtaz lived here in Burhanpur with Shah Jahan, and died here at the Zenana Hammam in the Shahi Qila giving birth to her 14th child and buried here in Burhanpur after her death. Shah Jahan wanted to build her a sumptuous monument. But the marble had to come from Makrana (in Rajasthan). It was hard getting to Burhanpur in this day and age after 7 years of unprecedented vikaas. Imagine the Mughal times. Shah Jahan had no option but to sulk, give up, blame Nehru and construct the marble maqbara in Agra. Poor Mumtaz had to be exhumed, transported and re-buried.
A Formula-One wannabe driving at break-neck speed almost exclusively on the wrong side, (also known as a normal Indian driver), deposited us in Omkareshwar in the early afternoon. Omkareshwar, the largest island on Narmada with a shape that vaguely resembles an "Om" written in Devanagari, is home to another of the dozen Jyothirlingas. Hinduism may be many things, but one thing it is not is unanimous. An example of that would be the Jyothirlinga in Omkareshwar. There is no consensus as to which one it is. Most believe it is the temple on the island, but a significant minority thinks it is the Mamleshwar on the mainland and one has to visit both in order to be sure to strike it off the bucket list. Visiting Mamleshwar was a breeze while the main temple needed a bit of wink and underhand bribery to get to the Garbhagriha. Yours truly, the wannabe historian, was more interested in the Goudi Somnath, a temple on the top of the island, a good 108 giants steps upwards. It is one of the few temples that dates from the Paramara era (about 11th century AD), the dynasty that ruled Malwa before the Sultanate in Delhi turned its gaze southwards. Before the day ended, we did have time to do a paddle (well, being paddled) around the island and watch the sun set and birds roost from the comfort of a row boat.
An early morning drive brought us to our next destination, Maheshwar. In the interregnum between the Mughals and the British, it was the Marathas that ruled most of India. After their disastrous campaign at the Third Battle of Panipat (in 1761), the empire split into a series of independent states. The Holkar dynasty ruled this part of the world from Indore and it was started by Malhar Rao Holkar. Its most famous ruler was however his daughter-in-law, Ahilyabhai, who took over after the demise of her husband and her father-in-law. Now that the Mughals were a shadow of themselves, Ahilyabhai took over the daunting task of rebuilding most of temples destroyed by the previous Islamic dynasties. She shifted the Holkar capital to Maheshwar and blessed it with a series of astonishing stone buildings. A fort, a temple and a chhatri make a breath-taking backdrop to the ghats that line the northern bank of the Narmada. The best view point is from the middle of the river and during the boreal winter, the sun shines on the fort complex all day. We took an early morning and a late evening boat rides to capture some of the best pictures of the trip and spent the time in between roaming the complex and yelling at the instagrammers to move away and not spoil our insta-posts, and to shop for the city's most famous export, the Maheshwari sarees.
The following day, we took the long route to Mandu checking out two of the lesser known sites of the region along the way - Bhawanagaj and Bagh Caves. The Jain pilgrimage sites constitute some of India's best kept travel secrets and Bhawanagaj is one such example. The piece de resistance of the place is a gigantic 84 foot statue of Adinath, the second tallest megalith in the nation dwarfing the 54 foot Gometeshwara of Sravanabelagola. A 150 step climb from the parking brings you face to face, well, more like face to the big toe of Adinath. A further 750 steps brings you to Chulgiri, a hill top temple with some of the best views of the surrounding valleys. The temples and the statue of Bawanagaja dates from the 12th century, but we know next to nothing about who commissioned it. Our next site, the Bagh Caves, dates eight centuries further back, to the 5th century AD, or the end of the Gupta era. Rock cut caves are ubiquitous in India, but painted ones are quite rare and Bagh Caves belong to the rarer variety. The caves are massive, all hand hewed supported by gigantic pillars and were once covered with precious murals. Very few of the paintings are found on site today, all of them have been painstakingly removed and moved to the Archaeological Museum in Gwalior for better preservation. There was no electricity when we visited the caves. So the caves were pitch dark and we had to move around with the help of our mobile torches. Stumbling our way through the darkness and have these massive sculptures suddenly appear out of pitch blackness was indeed a surreal and an unforgettable experience.
When the Delhi Sultanate started eyeing the riches of Central India, the Paramaras were ruling the region from Dhar, located on the plains. As Ala-ud-din Khilji started his forays into the region, the Paramaras moved their capital to the highland plateau of Mandu, then known as Mandapa Durga. Khilji soon followed them and took Mandu, installed a governor and strutted straight back to Delhi. After the sack of Delhi by Timur (about a century later), Dilawar Khan, the governor of Mandu declared independence and founded the Malwa dynasty. What followed was an astonishing cultural and architectural revival of Mandu. The city was soon covered with some of the finest examples of Afghan architecture found anywhere in India. We spent an entire day hopping from monument to monument like delirious kids jumping between rides at the Disneyland.
Now, all that was left is to get back to Indore and fly back home. But Indore is no boring city. It was the capital of the Holkars on either side of Ahiyabhai's reign and hence houses, not one, but two Holkar palaces - the older and traditional Rajwada, home to the earlier rulers and the baroque/rococo Lalbagh Palace, the home to later Holkars who wanted to re-create an European royal residence in the heart of India. Close to Rajwada are the often overlooked, ill-kempt, but supremely photogenic Krishnapura chhatris, the cenotaphs of Holkars. The 1905 King Edward Hall, renamed as the Gandhi Hall post-independence, and the Central Museum, housing some eye-catching pieces from the 10th century Mandsaur rounded off our Indore darshan.
On our long way home flying from Indore to Mumbai and driving to Pune, we had enough time to contemplate and digest what we had witnessed and experienced in one of the most incredible travel weeks of our life. No two days were remotely similar. With my limited command over the language, I can only repeat what I have said before. The diversity in India is mind boggling. Mughal Burhanpur, Hindu Ujjain & Omkareshwar, Maratha Maheshwar, Jain Bawanagaj, Buddhist Bagh Caves and Afghani Mandu couldn't be any more different. It is quite staggering to think all of these are found not only in the same country or the same state, but within a day's drive of each other. As if that was not enough, we had not known any of the history and most of the places mentioned here before we started researching for our trip. It is one thing to go visit the Taj or the Pyramid or the Great Wall that you have always dreamed of, but looks exactly like the pictures of them. It is quite another to visit a place where your picture would be the first Google image of it and for a fleeting moment feel like Columbus - triumphantly announcing to the world something the locals have known all along.
Click here for more photos from Indore.
Click here for more photos from Burhanpur and Asirgarh.
Click here for more photos from Ujjain and Omkareshwar.
Click here for more photos from Maheshwar.
Click here for more photos from Bhawangaja and Bagh Caves.
Click here for more photos from Mandu.