Thursday, 17 April 2014

Chanderi Charm – of Baiju Bawra, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and 1200 Baolis

All you knew about Chanderi was that it is famous for its namesake sarees and possibly the presence of a fort in the town. You always had a feeling that there was something more to the place. The past year has been lucky as you have been getting chances to visit places that you had always dreamed about – Hampi, Mandu, beaches on East Coast, temples of Northern Karnataka. And pretty soon enough another dream of Chanderi visit started crystallising – though it would need some planning and some luck. Getting to Chanderi could get tricky as the launching pad will have to be Lalitpur in the badlands of UP’s Bundelkhand. The nearest railhead Lalitpur falls on the Delhi-Bhopal rail section and quite a few superfast trains stop here. A few calls to old friends and there was a car waiting at the station. In the meantime some research had started revealing that Chanderi was another jewel box among many in MP just waiting to bedazzle you.

Chanderi - Attractions Map - the town has excellent signage and is a heritage bonanza

The road stretch from Lalitpur to MP border will unhinge your joints. You cross into Ashoknagar district of MP over the downstream water channel of the Rajghat Dam. In rains water flows over the causeway. The landscape turns pretty with Vindhyachal hills and intermittent lakes making their entry. The early rains have made the hills lush with greenery. The beauty was enough for Babur to go ga-ga in his memoirs Babur Nama. The road after crossing into MP is a breeze and soon you see signs of the local Municipal Corporation welcoming you to the historic city of Chanderi. You are surprised to find the town clean with good roads and amazing signs for the tourists. Just looking at the densely packed attractions on the map confirms that Chanderi indeed is brimming with all kinds of monuments – tombs, mosques, gateways, palaces, temples and innumerable baolis.

Chanderi lies at the edge of Malwa Plateau and Bundelkhand and was strategically located on major trade routes of Central India and also on the routes to Malwa, Mewar and Deccan. Chanderi provided a launchpad as a military outpost from where campaigns in Deccan could be launched. And so Chanderi attracted all major powers from Pratihars in 11th century to Delhi Sultanate, Mughals, Bundels, Scindias and British fascinated with the city with abundance of water, forests and fertile land.

Chanderi finds mention in Mahabharat when Shishupal ruled Chaidnagar or Chanderi. Chanderi’s documented history goes back to the 11th century when it was ruled by Pratihars. Later it changed hands from Delhi Sultanate’s Balban to Alauddin Khilji. Ibn-Battutah with his shoe tucked under his arm came visiting the town on his way to Malabar where he had to take the ship to China under Mohd-bin-Tughlaq’s order in 1342. He was suitably impressed with the economic prosperity and cultural splendour of the city.

As Delhi Sultanate’s power waned in the aftermath of Timur’s invasion, Malwa Sultanate rose ruling initially from Mandu and then later from Chanderi. Most of the construction in Chanderi happened during this era. Chanderi as a trophy kept changing hands from Rana Sanga of Chittor to Babur and then to Sher Shah Suri. In 16th century Chanderi passed into hands of Akbar. According to Abul Fazal, the author of Akbarnama, it is said that at this time the city’s population was 50000, with 14000 stone houses, 61 palaces, 380 markets, 360 caravan sarais, 1200 mosques and 1200 baolis. Later Bundelas held Chanderi after which Scindias took over. Chanderi played an important role during the 1857 uprising. During the war its population was reduced to about 2000 people and later Chanderi passed into British hands.
Chanderi Fort - Battlements & Navkhand Palace

Chanderi Fort - Way to Khooni Darwaza

The first stop is the Chanderi Fort or the Kirti Durg, built on Chandergiri hill. The fort was built by Pratihar king Kirti Pal in the 11th century after moving from the earlier capital of Budhi Chanderi or Old Chanderi 18 kms away. Later Khilji, Babur and Bundels added their own contributions to the fort. On the west is the Khooni Darwaza. It is said Malwa Sultans would throw prisoners down the gate and hang their bodies here and later during Babur’s invasion blood practically flowed down the gate.

Naukhand Palace - Before and After Restoration

Kirti Durg or Chanderi Fort - Navkhand Palace Courtyard with Fountain & Tank

The most prominent structure in the fort is the Navkhand Mahal built by the later Bundel king Durjan Singh in probably 16th or 17th century. The three storey palace is guarded by high walls and bastions with watch towers. The central courtyard has a tank and fountain.  Photos exhibited inside the palace show the great work undertaken by ASI in restoring the ruined palace to its original splendour. An appreciation mail has been duly sent to the Bhopal ASI circle.

Chanderi Fort - Mosque Mihrab

Next to the palace is the mosque built by Khilji. The mihrab has amazing stone carvings. There is a balcony beyond possibly called Hawa Paur that gives a breezy look of the city below. 

Chanderi Fort - Baiju Bawra Memorial

The first of the many surprises is the memorial to Baiju Bawra built in the fort premises. You remember Bharat Bhushan playing the titular role in the movie Baiju Bawra during the early days of Doordarshan. It then seemed that the movie crawled from one song to another but it was Baiju Bawra who was lighting oil lamps, making rain fall and bloom flowers by singing different Raags. Baiju Bawra or Baijnath Prasad (1542 – 1613) was a musician in the court of Raja of Chanderi and later in the court of Raja Man Singh of Gwalior. He was a contemporary of Tansen and was crazily in love with a local dancer earning the epithet of Bawra. Later he defeated Tansen in a competition in the Mughal Court. Baiju was born here and died here in Chanderi.

Chanderi - View of City from Chanderi Fort
From the ramparts you can see the town rolling out to the east. Everywhere you see is baolis, havelis and chattris. It seems like a miniature Mandu is unfolding before your eyes. Hypothalamus is pumping endorphins into your blood stream. You have felt that before - it is time to hit the town.
Chanderi - Badal Mahal with the Fort as Backdrop

Badal Mahal - Lotus Medallions, Ogee Arches and Jaalis
You drive down the fort and see a complex guarded by outer fort bastioned walls. Inside surrounded by immaculate lawns rises Chanderi’s most defining Badal Mahal against the backdrop of the fort. The two ogee arched gate with tapering turrets on each side glints like gold in the afternoon sun. The gate is crowned with finely carved stone lattices. The 15 m high gate was built in 1450 by Malwa Sultan Mahmud Shah Khilji probably to commemorate some special occasion as there is no palace around. Ogee arches and carved lattices are a common theme in Chanderi’s monuments.

Jama Masjid - Extravagant Carving on the entrance to Chanderi Jama Masjid

Chanderi - Jama Masjid's Prayer Hall with Mihrabs and Minbar

Chanderi - Jama Masjid Courtyard with Serpentine Struts

Just opposite the Badal Mahal is the Jama Masjid. The mosque was built by Delhi Sultanate’s Naib Balban to celebrate taking over of Chanderi in 1251. In proportions the mosque matches the smaller little known mosques in Delhi like Qudsia Mosque, Mohammadwali Mosque and Masjid Moth. The entrance of the mosque built later in the 15th century is lavishly carved. Three domes rise on the top. The Qibla wall has twelve mihrabs and minbar (pulpit) from where khutbah (sermon) was read on Fridays and special occasions. The Jama Masjid boasts of the unique Chanderi architectural element – the serpentine brackets or corbels supporting the chajja or eaves above. Just below the chajja are ogee arches curving like the letter S.  

Mazar Khandan-e-Nizamuddin

Chanderi - Exquisite Jaali Screens at Nizamuddin Complex

Nizamuddin Mazar at Chanderi - A Carved Mihrab
Chanderi - Mitsubishi Screen Panel at Nizamuddin Mazar

Nizamuddin Mazar - Amazing Geometric Patterns on Jaali Screens

A little walk away brings you to the biggest stone carved surprise called Mazar Khandan-e-Nizamuddin. The grave complex was built in 1425 during the time of Malwa Sultan Hoshang Shah. The complex has some of the most eye popping stone carvings ever seen in your visits to tombs. If the Jamali Kamali Tomb in Mehrauli Archaeological Park and Ahmad Shah Tomb in Bidar dazzled you with their colours, this complex will overpower you with the innate beauty of carvings. The complex contains graves of disciples and family members of Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya. Some graves lie in the open while some are ensconced in enclosures. The black stone graves with motifs; enclosure walls with intricate lattice work; mihrabs with signature ogee arches; all combine to exhilarate you. You wish you could just sit here all afternoon soaking in the stone lyrics and at the same time being bewildered by the surprises India’s heritage keeps springing on you. But you wrench yourself away – there is so much more to see.

Parmeshwar Tal and Laxman Temple
Chanderi - Bundel Kings Chattris

Parmeshwar Tal is a short drive away. A friendly local is accompanying you as a guide. It is believed that Kirti Pal the founder of Chanderi was cured of a disease, possibly leprosy, when he took bath here. On the western edge is the white Laxman Temple. The eastern edge of the tal has two imposing but disintegrating chattris belonging to Bundel kings. The fields around have more chattris or open pavilions. One pavilion has a tree growing on its roof.

Shahzadi ka Rauza - Doomed Love
Shahzadi ka Rauza - Beautiful Serpentine Brackets
Shahzadi ka Rouza - Chamber with Pretty Arches and Squinch

Chanderi Architectural Elements at Shahjadi Ka Rouza - Jaali, Ogee Arches and Serpentine Struts

A paved walkway on the north through fields brings you to another Chanderi gem - the pretty and desolate Shahzadi ka Rauza or Tomb of the Princess. The rauza was probably built in the 15th century and is believed to house the graves of a grieving princess and her doomed commoner lover. The square building has two levels of chajjas supported by exquisitely carved serpentine brackets or struts. R. Nath describes the serpentine brackets as slender hands of a fair damsel supporting a purna kalasa. To him, the brackets look like hair curls falling on a fair face! Outside on the frieze you can see traces of glazed tiles.  The dome has collapsed and only one chattri of the possible four survives. Inside there is single level chamber with two graves in the centre; again lavishly carved. The sombre tomb sitting alone among green fields reflects the mood of the circumstances of its construction.

Chanderi - Bada Madarsa
Bada Madrasa - Exquisite Jaalis

Bada Madrasa - Black Stone Carved Cenotaphs

Just off the new bypass road to Pichore is the Bada Madrasa or Shahi Madrasa. The so called madrasa was built in the 15th century. The monument cannot be a madrasa since there are two heavily carved cenotaphs inside. The chamber is square with the dome missing again. Remnants of four smaller surrounding domes are seen on the top. As in other monuments there is a profusion of carved lattices on all sides of the chamber. Outside a pillared colonnade runs on all four sides.
Chanderi - The Overflowing Battisi Baoli (Courtesy Vipin Gaur)
Chanderi is known for its baolis. It is said that once there were 1200 baolis for each of the town’s mosques. As Chanderi flourished and its population grew, there was a need for water sources and hence the proliferation of baolis across the town. Exploring the major baolis can take an entire day. The most magnificent is the Battisi Baoli few kms from the Bada Madrasa. The baoli is four storeys deep and has thirty two steps leading to the water and hence its name.
Koshak Mahal - Entrance Gateway

Chanderi - The Imposing Koshak Mahal

Kushk Mahal - Magnificient Arches

Koshak Mahal - One Quadrant of the Palace
On the south-western end of the town just beyond the museum rises the imposing Koshak Mahal or the Koshak-i-Haft Manzil, the palace of seven storeys. The enormous proportions of the palace blow you over. The edifice looks truly majestic and looks fresh as if built yesterday. The huge blocks of buff sandstones remind you of similar stones used in India Gate. In fact the palace was built in 1445 by Malwa Sultan Mahmud Shah Khilji probably dedicated to his wife Koshak on the birth of their child. It is said that originally it was a seven storey building but today only three and incomplete fourth storeys survive. The palace looks splendid situated at the end of green lawns; almost as if a castle in an English countryside setting. Workers are hunched over to sweep away leaves from the stone platform. All monuments here in Chanderi are pampered by the dedicated workforce. The palace is made up of four square blocks all interconnected with towering arched passages. Each floor has series of arched doorways opening into the passage inside. You have not seen anything like this before. You just can’t help being in awe of the architect and his master. Percy Brown describes it as the most vigorous architectural treatment of Malwa style.  Bold sweeping arches, niches and balconies all combine to produce a true architectural masterpiece.

It is dusk when you bid goodbye to Chanderi and it turns dark when you reach the Lalitpur station. There is a train pulling away – which one you don’t know – presumably to Jhansi two hours away. You are still in Chanderi reverie and do not care. You have just spent four hours in Chanderi and have barely scratched the surface. You missed seeing the Kati Ghati, the baolis, the crumbling havelis, the Bundel palaces, even older Buddhi Chanderi, Jain temples and remnants of ancient temples spread all across the hills and woods. Chanderi deserves another trip and busloads of tourists. Things are already looking up after your visit. Since Sep 21st 2013 Shatabdi Express is stopping at Lalitpur to give the town easy reach for some tourism impetus. But then you are not sure if it is the absence of tourists that lends the old world charm to Chanderi.

Come to Chanderi if you want to fall in love with India’s history and its offerings. You know you will be back for Chanderi’s charms.

Getting There – Chanderi is 36 kms west of Lalitpur, the nearest rail head. Chanderi has a MP Tourism hotel and few other budget hotels. With its dazzling monuments and culture, Chanderi deserves at least two days to explore the monuments and spend time with the weavers spinning the exquisite sarees. To see the neighbouring temple ruins and Old Chanderi, it might need a couple of days more. All monuments are unticketed and are lovingly cared for by an army of attendants, gardeners and workers. When in Chanderi, try to get hold of Muzaffar Ahmad Ansari aka Kalley Bhai (9425381065), tourist guide, who is the authority on Chanderi, its history and who continues to discover temple ruins in the vicinity.


  1. Informative post. Enchanting pics.

  2. Thanks! Chanderi is truly enchanting. Do take out couple of days and go visit!