Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Smoking Statue of Jodhpur - India Truly Incredible

A gentleman dressed in a suit has clambered up the platform next to this stately statue. The garlanded statue is resplendent in military regalia and a billowing robe. The gentleman lights up a cigarette and holds – yes, it is unbelievable but true – the lighted cigarette to the mouth of the statue. The statue seems to inhale and then lets out a puff of smoke. Few more puffs and the cigarette is gingerly placed in the fingers of the statue’s hanging right hand. I am witnessing another chapter being written in the book of incredibly astounding India.

I am in Jodhpur on the last leg of my solo Great Thar Desert Road Trip through the state of Rajasthan. The plan is to go see the Mandore Gardens and then to devote the second half to the ultimate fort of Mehrangarh.

Musahib-i-Ala of Jodhpur State, Lieutenant-General His Highness Maharajadhiraja Maharaja Shri Sir Pratap Singh Sahib Bahadur (1845-1922), Kacheri Bhawan, Jodhpur, Rajasthan

It is early morning and I stop at a gate with a great red edifice rising just beyond. Jodhpur has everything built of red sandstone, just like Jaisalmer is entirely built of yellow sandstone. There is a smattering of wooden kiosks christened with names of lawyers indicating that I have entered court premises.
Kacheri Bhawan, Jodhpur, Rajasthan
The elegant and magnificent edifice just beyond, with the tricolour fluttering on top, reels me in.  The building with a royal demeanour looks like a palace. The grand porch in the centre is crowned with imposing chattris (pavilions) and a dome.
The Smoking Statue - Incredible India
I arrive at the porch. Wait a minute – am I really seeing this? India often throws surprises but this is something so outlandish that my sleepy eyes pop out. I watch the scene bewildered, rooted to the spot even as few locals on their morning walk, pause, bow their heads in reverence and amble away; as if it is another normal morning ritual.

After the smoking session, the gentleman offers flowers at the feet of the garlanded statue, lights up a bundle of incense sticks and then murmurs a prayer worshipping the statue. A fire on the pedestal completes the picture of a deity you would normally see in a temple.
Maharaja Sir Pratap Singh, Idar, Gujarat

Shri Sumer Singhji Sahib Bahadur, Maharaja of Jodhpur (left) with Sir Pratap Singhji, Maharaja of Idar and Regent of Jodhpur

I find my voice finally. It seems I am committing blasphemy asking these questions. In between the rituals, the gentleman provides some answers. This is Mr. Sampat who has been offering cigarettes and worshipping the statue twice daily for the past twenty years. Why these rituals and this worship and there are no clear answers. It is apparent that the man carved in stone is a revered personality and his actions are worthy of worship.
Related Link on this Blog:
I have found out in the past few days that the royalty in Rajasthan is held in high esteem; revered and worshipped like Gods. At the Bada Bagh royal cenotaphs in Jaisalmer, I had seen Maharawal Girdhar Singh being worshipped by the resident woman priest with a constant stream of devotees paying obeisance. In a country where we worship millions of Gods, an assortment of plants and animals, and cricketers; we still keep looking to add to the list.

Today, I am standing in the porch of the Kacheri Bhawan, currently housing Rajasthan’s High Court, which was built in 1897 during the regency of Musahib-i-Ala of Jodhpur State, Lieutenant-General His Highness Maharajadhiraja Maharaja Shri Sir Pratap Singh Sahib Bahadur (1845-1922) whose statue is still holding the burning cigarette. 

Sir Pratap Bahadur

Sir Pratap Bahadur was a career British Indian army officer and the third son of Maharaja of Jodhpur. Sir Pratap was also the Maharaja of princely state of Idar, in present day Gujarat, which was once part of Rajputana before independence. The Maharajadhiraja, an embodiment of a Rajput Prince, served four rulers of Jodhpur as Chief Minister and Regent. He raised and trained an elite Cavalry Regiment popularly known as Jodhpur Lancers. Later he abdicated his Idar throne in favour of his adopted son and nephew. It is quite apparent that the handsome soldier-prince’s life is a story of magnanimous service and sacrifice.
Anecdotes illustrate the colourful life of Sir Pratap. Upon arriving in London once, he was told that rooms were booked for him and his entourage in a hotel. He promptly goes to Buckingham Palace to meet with the Queen. The Secretary of the Queen asks him what the matter is. Sir Pratap replies, “When Queen visits Jodhpur, where would she stay – in the palace or a hotel? Sir Pratap promptly got an invitation to stay in the Buckingham Palace.

Maharaja Gaj Singh II of Jodhpur wearing the Jodhpur breeches

A favourite of Queen Victoria, he threatened to protest at the doorsteps of the Viceroy if he was not permitted to serve in the war, eventually getting decorated extensively in the battle fields of Afghanistan, China, France, Flanders and Palestine. Even at the ripe age of seventy years, true to his martial traditions of loyalty, he insisted on serving the Empire in the Great War by leading his cavalry unit armed with only swords and lances in the Middle East; in the process covering his regiment with glory. He led India’s first polo team to compete abroad and made Jodhpur breeches, the special riding trousers, popular across the world. At home he continued to provide unstinting support and guidance to the Jodhpur state as Chief Adviser and Regent.

The best known and most popular Indian of his day who had ballads dedicated to him, the battle-hardened swashbuckling warrior, now wants to reminisce about his colourful and fulfilling life in his golden years. The man who worships him daily understands that. There is no better way for the grand old man of Indian Polo than to deeply fill the lungs with the silken acrid smoke to puff it out and watch the swirling smoke create a collage of past wonder years.


Saturday, 17 December 2016

The Ephemeral Cheery Cherry Blossoms

Kohima Delight: Of Cherry Blossoms at Catholic Cathedral

“Are these Cherry Blossoms?” I blurt out to nobody in general. The pink jewel like flowers adorning the branches of this tall tree have left me stunned. Transfixed to the spot, I stand with my mouth agape.

A mother-son duo is passing by. The little kid is bouncing along; like kids do, instead of walking.

“Yes, they are Cherry Blossoms!” The toddler chirps with a twinkle in his eyes. The mother smiles proudly.

The Ephemeral Cherry Blossoms of Kohima
Now I am smiling too. For a minute, I take my eyes off the jewel studded tree and shake hands with the little guy. It is my first day in Northeast India and I am already in love with the beautiful and smiling people. The mother and her son walk away, waving at me as their smiles light up this beautiful crisp winter day.

This is the beauty of India. You can prepare as much as you want, but there are always pleasant surprises that no amount of research can ever prepare you for. All I remember is seeing some photos of the beautiful Cherry Blossoms or Sakura flowers of Japan. Kohima has a painful association with Japan when some of the fiercest battles were fought during World War II between British India and Japanese troops right here in the hills. Today, I just found the most beautiful association. The cherry flowers seem to be Nature’s way of applying a soothing balm on the now healing wounds. 
The Twinkling Stars - Cherry Blossoms
The Catholic Cathedral of Kohima, Nagaland
To this day, I am still bewildered, how my brain was able to dig out the name of these glorious flowers from the deep recesses within, when the only flowers I can possibly identify are the roses! Maybe that is the magic the blossoms cast on the onlookers. I am walking from the Minister Hill to the Aradura Hill that houses the grand Catholic Cathedral when I encounter my first cherry tree and the kid. Little distance away, the church premises have more cherry trees blossoming. 

Britain says that in the history of British Army, the greatest battles of WWII were fought right here in Kohima and Imphal during the spring of 1944. Walking on the Aradura Spur today, I can only imagine the scenes of bravery and horror that were played out and inflicted upon. Thankfully, the guns have fallen silent now. The pleasant looking imposing Cathedral is built in the traditional Naga style and is the main Church of Nagaland. At sixteen feet, the crucifix carved out of wood is India’s biggest crucifix. The church commemorates the fallen soldiers during the battles. An inscription here says that the church has been built with the contribution of Japanese survivors and bereaved families who lost their loved ones during the spring of 1944.
The Cathedral during the blue hours
Today the church premises resemble a wonderland. Set against the cobalt blue skies are the pink jewels shimmering in the sun’s rays. It is not easy looking up the cherry trees so I lie down on the embankment to better admire nature’s miracles. Now that I realise, I haven’t seen such blue skies in a long while. Delhi gets such skies maybe five times a year while for the rest of the year they remain grey and forbidding. But then Delhi has its own flowery marvels when you discovered the evanescent Silk Floss flowers last autumn.
Related Links on this blog:

The smile continues to play on my face. The gentle sun’s rays dance through the swaying branches as I am treated to a celestial event. The flowers high up don several avatars; sometimes they look like jewels and pink snowflakes and then they twinkle like stars.

In Japan, the Sakura (Prunus serrulata) blooms in April for about two weeks. The entire country waits for the whole year looking forward to the annual spectacle.  And when the trees finally bloom, Japanese families gather around the Sakura trees to participate in an ancient ritual called Hanami, which basically means flower watching. Here in Kohima, the cherry tree is a deciduous tree (Prunus cerasoides) which is found in Himalayas and Southeast Asia and flowers in autumn and winters. To me the flowering time seems to be perfect as it coincides with the Hornbill Festival which starts the next day. I will soon discover that the Hornbill Festival, just like these cherry blossoms, is nothing like I have ever witnessed before.

Below the pink cherry blossoms, the red and vivacious poinsettias smile in their full glory. God has intended my first day in Northeast to be full of wonderment. After soaking in the cherry blossoms, I walk around the lawns of the church. The maintenance is immaculate and it seems there is an entire world of flowers here. Tomorrow, Kohima will treat me to more cherry blossoms at the WWII Cemetery and in Kisama.

Up here, on top of the Kohima city, away from the noise and dust, it is absolute bliss. Tiptoeing around the beds of flowers I am reminded of the Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand. Fresh looking pink and white cosmos flowers seem to be basking in the soft sun. First it was stars on the trees and now among the cosmos flowers, I seem to be walking in the cosmos itself. The contrast of the tender cosmoses with the vibrant poinsettias is breathtaking.
The City of Kohima spread on the hills
Walking around the Church I come to the edge of the hill. Another exhilarating scene comes into view - Kohima city is spread out below.  This is surreal. Descending rows of flowers seem to meet the city just beyond. The views, the blue skies and the cherry blossoms all combine to give me the delicious feeling that I have ascended into the heavens. This is the place to enjoy the evening and see the sun go down. 

Evening comes early in Northeast. The western skies are inundated with clouds that change their shapes even as the skies take on different hues every passing minute. Every sunset offers two views: one view is looking towards the red ball of Sun sinking into the ground and the other view is right behind as the landscape gets doused in the golden colour with Midas busy touching and turning everything into molten gold. Another wonderful day is coming to an end in this ephemeral life.

Cherry Blossoms, while exhilarating us with their sublime beauty, also teach us something profound. Cherry Blossoms are known to be ephemeral and transient. They teach us that things in our lives that we take for granted are essentially transient. We might think we are immortal but we are not. We get arrogant with the seemingly perpetual love, wealth or power we possess but just like the cherry blossoms, our lives and everything around us, is in fact, fleeting and deciduous.  Our lives are unpredictable – one moment we could be like the cherry trees, beautiful and abundant and next instance we could be forlorn and sparse. Let us live our lives to the fullest, sparkle like the stars and jewels and show people around us our inner beauty and humanness. When we are gone, like the cherry blossoms petals spread on the path, we will be remembered for our goodness and beauty and people will long to meet us and see us, in the next year and in the next life.
A version of the story appeared in the December 2016 issue of magazine Discover India's Northeast

Related Links on this Blog

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Sanapur Lake - A Visual Wonderland

The incredible pre-historic art of Onake Kindi is still playing in your mind as we make our way through paddy fields and banana orchards. The setting sun has doused the loose boulder hills with gold in Anegundi. Muniswamy, your guide and driver for the day, has planned another surprise for you. It was in Anegundi that the story of one of the greatest kingdoms, the Vijaynagar Empire, began and whose well-known evocative ruins in the village of Hampi across the Tungabhadra River brings in the tourists. But it is here in Anegundi that real surprises await the traveller.

The Atmospheric Sanapur Lake near Anegundi, Karnataka
And then you hear the water sloshing. We are driving along an embankment when a wave crashes over the wall and splashes the motor cycle rider in front! After walking through episodes of Ramayana, pre-historic men and ancient history now is the time for some R&R. Has Muniswamy brought you to sea-side in the middle of boulder strewn hills in Central Karnataka?

Climbing the embankment, you are greeted with the most incredulous sight. Gently lapping waves catch the hues of the setting sun. Similar looking boulder hills in the distance create a scintillating setting that you have grown to love around Anegundi. Tungabhadra River that meanders around the boulders, creating picture post-card scenes at every bend, was the only water body you had seen here. Tucked out of sight among the hills is the Sanapur Lake, created by the reservoir of Tungabhadra Left Canal. The scenes are to die for – on one side is the golden sunset over water and on the other side rolling paddy fields with the boulders forming a common brilliant backdrop.

Sanapur Lake, Anegundi
The road further up winds around big irregular shaped boulders lining both sides of the road. Warnings are painted on the rocks prohibiting visitors from swimming – there could be crocodiles in the waters! At this point the lake flows downstream through a barrage. The road going to Rangapur village continues ahead and soon disappears among the boulders.

For incredible photos of Sanapur Lake, please visit the link:

You are in a visual wonderland. Every way you look, the sun, the waters, the boulders merge to create a harmonious alliance. You are in the middle of a visual symphony that changes colour and form every minute. Wonderstruck you sit on a boulder as the visual strains fill the evening sky. The water has turned into molten gold. All around it is supremely peaceful and serene. There is just the sound of lapping water and a divine setting for company. This is not the world you come from.  This is the time when the mind goes silent on its own and nature takes over.

Few locals have arrived for fishing. Downstream, amid the upturned coracles, the indigenous contraptions used as boats, lines are cast with live worms as bait. You are reeled in by the unfolding scenes. Humans have entered the orchestra of nature. The symphony is in its third movement form.

The excitement levels are just going up a notch. In the eastern sky, the moon has tiptoed into the symphony. Things are rapidly turning even more wondrous. The lake in the west is golden while the stream in the east is turning silvery.  Elements are entering the symphony even as it reaches its last movement to a triumphant finale. You are witnessing a glorious evening in your favourite village of Anegundi.

The evening darkens. It is time to say good bye to Sanapur and Anegundi.  You feel a connection to Anegundi and its times from mythology to present times. Anegundi is a wish fulfilled that was never wished for. You look up to the sky to say thanks. Wait a minute – is that a shooting star? This is the magic of Anegundi – the wish gets fulfilled even before asked for.  

Getting There: Anegundi is across the Tungabhadra River from Hampi, the site of evocative ruins of the glorious Vijaynagar Empire. Sanapur is about nine kms from Anegundi on the way to Hospet in Karnataka.

The story appeared in the December 2016 issue of Rail Bandhu, the on-board magazine of Indian Railways

Related Links on this Blogpost

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Heads or Tails – Udupi Coin Museum is a Winner

Money makes the world go round but it is also making you walk barefoot spellbound among beautiful displays in a museum loaded with yes, lots of money. There are coins seemingly made of gold that glint and currency notes so large that you wonder how big the wallets were in the past. This is Haji Abdulla Memorial Heritage Museum housed in Corporation Banks’s Heritage Museum and Financial Research Centre near the famous Krishna Temple in old Udupi.

Udupi Coin Museum

Museums have been a mixed bag in my travels ranging from some of the disappointing government run archaeology museums to the scintillating ones in Kurukshetra and Shillong. Few minutes ago, the guard at the gate had politely asked me to come in but not before taking my shoes off. The curiosity was certainly piqued by several notches.

Udupi has been serving surprises all right. While it is common knowledge that Udupi lends its name to the neighbourhood restaurants serving cheap and hygienic South Indian food, what is not widely known is that Manipal, the El Dorado for students across the country, is a next door neighbour to Udupi. And the big surprise is that apparently Udupi is the banking cradle of the country. Corporation Bank, Karnataka Bank, Syndicate Bank, Vijaya Banak and Canara Bank - where you still remember the manager in New Delhi’s Chanakya Puri branch counting the coins you had saved to open your first bank account - were all founded in Udupi.

This museum with an old world charm is actually beautiful and lovingly put together. Under the wooden beam ceiling, exhibits glint in soft light. The neat exhibits of coins are a numismatist’s delight and for anyone who has ever carried currency notes or coins in their pockets and purses. All the exhibits are painstakingly researched and their explanations displayed. I am joined by the earnest curator Mr. M. K. Krishnayya whose passion for the museum and its contents is seen to be believed. In addition to being a numismatics expert, he is also a thematic philatelist. The curator’s rich stories of money come pouring out like the rains all morning here today in Udupi. The history and story of money is indeed interesting.

The Coin Museum has a heart warming story just like the several philanthropic stories heard across the country. The halls housing the museum were once the home of Corporation Bank’s founder Haji Abdulla Saheb Bahadur. He established Corporation Bank in 1906 to fulfil the long felt needs of banking for the people, to free them from exploitation by the money lenders and to inculcate the habit of saving. It is said that Saheb Bahadur would donate his wealth – a little every day – to the poor. And when there was nothing left to give, he chose to take his own life. The founder’s lofty ideals and ethos seem to echo as we walk barefoot in the halls. Yes, the practise of walking barefoot is prevalent since the times when everyone took off their shoes while walking through the lane in front of Haji Saheb’s house.

We are on the money trail. The coins date from 400 BC and run through times and dynasties of Mauryas, Shakas, Kushans, Satavahanas, Guptas to assorted Sultanates, Mughals, Marathas and the British. Mahajanpads of early historic times like Gandhara, Kuntala and Kuru issued their own punch-marked coins called Puranas. The coins of different shapes and sizes are made of gold, silver and copper. Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth made her appearance on coins as early as 2nd century BC. You can see coins with symbols, motifs, scripts, legends and images of rulers and deities. The prized possession of the museum is one-rupee silver coin weighing 11 gms called Rupaya which was introduced in 1540 by Sher Shah Suri who besides building the Grand Trunk Road also ran Humayun out of the country. 

Photo Courtesy Nita Bhosale

As money evolved from barter system to where currency was introduced as metal pieces, the evolution of terminology of money from the Mughal times to independence is pretty interesting.  Three Phooti Cowries made a Cowrie – yes, there actually was money that was called phooti cowrie made of sea-shells and is believed to be the longest and most widely used currency in history; ten Cowries made a Damri; two Damris made a Dhela; two Dhelas made a Paisa; 64 Paisa made 16 Anna and 16 Annas made 1 Rupya! You can certainly recall proverbs where these names for money have been used or in the movies where the father threatens the heir with not deserving a single cowrie, dhela, paisa or rupya as inheritance; the nomenclature changed over the years!

The museum has currency notes too some in the denominations of Rs 5000 and Rs 10000. One exhibit has profiles of all Governors of Reserve Bank of India. The curator is a distinguished stamp collector too and some exhibits display his love for philately. One of his favourite themes is stamps with flags. There is an exhibit that shows how our Tricolour evolved over the years. The museum is indeed multi-dimensional unlike a two-sided coin.

Launched in 2011, the museum is the fruit of labour of two employees. Most of these over 1500 coins belong to Mr. Radhakrishna Kumble, who has collected these coins over a period of 25 years through his own salary while the stamps belong to Mr. Krishnayya. The Udupi Coin Museum has put love of museums back in my life. The museum is a glowing example in today’s cynical world where two selfless individuals carry forward the legend of their bank’s founder. This is all about passion which thankfully no amount of money can buy.

The Museum Curator Mr. M. K. Krishnayya’s contact number is 9945271614

A version of the story appeared in the Spectrum supplement of Deccan Herald on 15th Nov 2016

Decoding the Past Through Coins

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Gossamer Magic – Raas Leela of Manipur (a Photoessay)

So while the Manipuris punch above their weight in the boxing rings – as in, Mary Kom and Dingko Singh - here they weave silky magic with their delicate and gracious moves. You have carried these images of dancers with their bamboo basket like skirts from the sepia days of Doordarshan. And then on a breathless smoggy day, the dancers step out before you in all their colourful glory.

You are attending the North East Festival for the second time in two years conducted in the heart of Lutyens Delhi at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). And then these women dressed in delicate veils step on the stage to display one of the most gracious dance performances that you have ever seen.

The dance takes the breath away – let the photos do the talking

Raas Leela from Manipur at North East Festival, IGNCA, New Delhi
Krishna with gopis at IGNCA New Delhi
In the tradition of Vaishnavism of Manipur Raas Leela is depicted within the classic Manipur dance

A detailed story on the dance will follow soon - until then feast on the photos!

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Asirgarh – Key to Deccan

The road lazily winds through the hills as you leave the fringes of the Yawal Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra behind and enter Madhya Pradesh. You are making your way to the impregnable fort of Asirgarh beyond the historic town of Burhanpur on border of Maharashtra and MP. As we negotiate another turn the view ahead is both arresting and overpowering.

Jami Masjid rising over the Mama Bhanja Talao - Asirgarh in MP
This ridge rising high over the other hills has unmistakable fortifications on the scarped edges. And if this was not intimidating enough, you can discern twin minarets soaring into the blue skies. The saying ‘building castles in the air’ has just lost its meaning. A tingle runs down the spine. Forts and that too little known ones have this effect on you. The fort plays peek-a-boo at every turn heightening the excitement into the red zone.

Dramatic View of Asirgarh from the approaching road
Asirgarh built on a spur in the Satpuras range and rising to 850 feet above the hill base commanded over the road from Hindustan or Northern India to Deccan during the medieval times. The kings of Faruqi Dynasty turned the hill into an unassailable fort as they ruled over Khandesh since the dynasty’s inception in 1382. Twenty kilometres to the south was their capital city of Burhanpur on river Tapti; the Gateway to Deccan. In the sixteenth century Asirgarh was regarded as the strongest fort ever built; its reputation further attested by travellers from across the world who had not seen a fortress so strong which had enough provisions and ammunition to withstand a long siege. Asirgarh was the coveted Key to Deccan and the Faruqis were not going to hand over the key yet. Not even to the Mughal Emperor Akbar.

You love the signage put up by MP Tourism across the state
Directed by the excellent MP Tourism signs you are making your way up the hill even as the fearsome battlements keep peeping through the tree cover; never letting you out of sight. Every metre on the way up it seems you are being watched from the battlements. Not a stretch of the road goes that is not visible from the bastions above – if not from the main fort but then from the intervening two additional levels of concentric fortifications. If this was not enough, some outlying hills with names like Koria Pahar and Nawara Dongar or the Bridegroom Hill have been scarped into natural bastions. No wonder King Bahadur Khan felt safe in the fort even as the 200,000 strong Mughal army kept up the artillery barrage. But then he should have known that rock fortifications and cannon balls are no match for human deception and betrayal.

The last few kilometres climb up the dirt track is thrilling as the hill fashioned into a bastion keeps any eye on you
It was the twilight of Akbar’s glorious career. He had to take care of some unfinished business in the Deccan. In the beginning of year 1600, Akbar rolled into Khandesh from Malwa. The Faruqi King Bahadur Khan refused to pay tribute to Akbar and duly took position inside the impregnable Asirgarh. After taking over Burhanpur, Akbar returned and the Mughal forces laid siege to the fort in April while Prince Daniyal was engaged in quelling Chand Bibi in Ahmednagar. The emperor could not bear the defiance of a small king on the all important route to Deccan. Intelligence confirmed that the fort had ample supplies of water, food and ammunition. Akbar knew subjugating the fort will take time and time was one luxury he did not have. He will have to employ trickery and intrigue.

The minars peep
Akbar invited the King Miran Bahadur Khan for negotiation. Despite his officers’ concerns, Bahadur Shah accepted Akbar’s invitation to meet in August. However, despite assurances and oath that no harm will be inflicted, the King was seized. But still the princes in the fort did not capitulate and the siege continued; the siege was now six months long. Akbar knew that the siege could continue for years while Prince Salim threatened to take over the Empire. He had to return to Agra but not without completing the conquest. So when treachery failed it was time for bribery. The garrison officers were bribed with gold and finally the fort capitulated in January 1601 after a siege and intrigue games that played out for ten long months. Akbar returned triumphantly to Agra but soon died in 1605 without realising his dream of reclaiming Central Asia of his forefathers or conquest of Golkanda and Bijapur.

The exhilarating views of the track and the plains beyond from top of Asirgarh
You are finding the going as hard as Akbar. The narrow metalled track soon turns into an even narrower dirt track seemingly hanging by the side of the hill along with your car. And then there is a loud pop. Was that a canon shot? Have you just time travelled? Apparently, the front left tyre had burst hitting a pointed rock on the shoulder. The fort will have to wait as the wheel is replaced.

The parking lot at the third level of Asirgarh
Twenty minutes later you are at the car parking. Just beyond a gateway opens up to spectacular vistas of Nimar below; Nimar being the south-western region of Madhya Pradesh that has been carved into modern districts now. A long series of narrow steps brings the visitors from the plains below to the first level of fortifications called Malaigarh and then here to the central level of fortifications called Kamargarh through a series of five gateways. This was the original entry path into the fort which was later augmented by a road built by the British and where you just had the tyre burst. It is time to climb a few vertical flights of steps to enter Asirgarh, the greatest fort of the sixteenth century.

Walking through the overgrown path to Jami Masjid
The monsoons have turned the fort into an overgrown riot of greenery. But is the looming structure in front that reels you in. The structure whose minars acted like beacons to bring you up in this sixty acres fortified campus protected by walls that soar to 120 feet over the formidable hill looks imposing.
Also Read: Aurangzeb in Love

The Imposing Jami Masjid of Asirgarh

The Jami Masjid, built by the Faruqi King Raja Ali Khan, is a handsome structure with stone steps leading to its high three-arched entrance. Inside, the courtyard is flanked by cloistered halls or arched passages. The west facing qibla wall has thirteen decorated mihrabs with lattice screens, most of which have been lost. Flanking the western hall are two slender minarets that have kept you company as you approached Asirgarh on the highway.

The resident snake of Asirgarh
You sit here for some time enjoying the breeze and the vistas spread before you. As you look down at the ramparts on the southern side unfurling right below, you are taken aback. A huge snake is sunning itself on the wall. Sensing your movement the snake slithers into its hiding. This is the first time you are encountering a snake in a fort. But then you did have a feeling someone was watching you on your way up! Well the snake sighting means that you will have to be careful walking around the fort in the tall grass.

Zinnia flowers bloom under the brilliant sun and blue skies
Leaving the mosque you make your way on the faint trails. The crisp sunny day with blue skies and wispy clouds is excellent for photography. All around here are the unmistakable ruins of colonial structures.  The fort along with the Faruqis, Mughals and Marathas has British connection too. British soldiers and their families stayed in these barracks and houses with chimneys. Such houses are common in the railway colonies of small towns across India. There is a cemetery too here with several tombstones of soldiers who probably died storming the fort as they tried to wrest it back from the Marathas.

Through the overhanging branches you come to the twin water tanks popularly known as Mama Bhanja Talaos. Getting to the edge of the tanks is treacherous and you try to stay away from the edges. It was these water tanks that supported a population of almost 40000 people that came out of the gates of the fort when the fort fell. You can see paths leading to underground structures that probably were used as granaries.

Since there are not many built structures here, you focus on the skies and on the ground. After the past few days of grey monsoon skies, the skies have turned cheerful blue even as the clouds create lace patterns on blue sheet. Inching my way to the edge of the escarpment, the views are dazzling – the hill and the rolling plains are awashed in brilliant green even as the lace embroidered skies seem to be in easy reach. The dirt track can be seen inching through the tree cover. All around on the ground studding the luminescent green grass are the purple balsam and pink zinnia flowers swaying in the breeze. Standing under the shade of a tree this is a brilliant day to be out here on a fort which has been witness to a long history of bravery, deception and yes, the fort has connection to mythology too.

Looking towards Nimar plains
Firishta, the Persian scholar, attributes the original construction of fort to Asa Ahir, a local chieftain.  Historians call this incorrect as the name Asir is mentioned by the Rajput poet Chand. The name Asir could have originated from the Asi or Haihaya kings who ruled over the Narmada river from Maheshwar. In 1295, Alauddin Khilji returning from one of his sacking tour of Deccan killed all the ruling Chauhan Rajputs of Asirgarh. The Faruqi Dynasty, an offshoot of the Bahmani Sultanate, ruled until the aging Akbar decided to show up on his last conquest outing. Later in 1803, the fort under Maratha occupation by captured by General Wellesley’s army in the Second Anglo-Maratha War.  

Temple where Ashwathama comes to pray to Lord Shiva at Asirgarh
There is one last thing to do. Walking through the ruins I run into two men who are frequent visitors here. They lead me to the Shiva Temple with connections to Mahabharata. The temple is supposed to be Mahabharata character Ashwathama’s temple. Ashwathama, according to popular folklore, who has been condemned to eternal roaming by Lord Krishna, comes to the temple every morning to pray to Lord Shiva or Mahakaal to relieve him from his misery. Fresh flowers are reportedly found inside the sanctum every morning. Taking off your shoes you descend into the step-well where the temple is built along the side. In the small sanctum, Nandi looks reverentially towards the ling. You have just stepped into the times of epics.

Hitch a ride, drive, walk, or come piggy-back riding - just get to Asirgarh in Madhya Pradesh
Asirgarh has been a revelation. You have a feeling you will be back here, perhaps in a different season to uncover more subterranean structures and connect with even more stories. And next time, you will take the steps from Kamargarh to get down through the fortifications. But now Burhanpur beckons where the love story of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz played out on the moonlit nights over Tapti.

Getting There:
Asirgarh in Madhya Pradesh is 160 kms from Indore and 30 kms from Burhanpur. Aurangabad in Maharashtra is 240 kms away.

What else to see:
Burhanpur to the south is a veritable treasure for heritage lovers. It was in Burhanpur that Mumtaz Mahal died giving birth to her fourteenth child in the Shahi Qila and was buried in Ahukhana just outside the city while her grand mausoleum was being built in Agra by a heart-broken Shahjahan. And in another little known episode, a much married middle aged Aurangzeb fell in love with a girl in Zainabad near Ahukhana.

Khandwa, 50 kms to the north, is the birthplace of the famous playback singer Kishore Kumar where a memorial has been built for him.

A version of this story appeared in the October 2016 issue of the Go-Getter magazine which is the inflight magazine of Go Air Airline