A guest post contribution by Svetlana Baghawan of Maverickbird. In this post, Svetlana shares about her impromptu shopping trail in a historical town of Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh, India – a shopping trip that led her to discover the local (and spooky) legends associated with the town.
Have you ever been to a place which is full of ghosts…tragedy, intense drama, desolation, rich heritage, scattered beauty, and yet most overlooked and unkempt? The historical town of Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh in India had all that and it evoked a variety of feelings which ranged from awe, disappointment to downright spooky. Located on the borders of medieval Indian states of Malwa and Bundelkhand, Chanderi thrived from the trade routes of Central India and was close to the arterial route to the ancient ports of Gujarat as well as to Malwa, Mewar, Central India and the Deccan. The strategic importance of its location, also made the town evolve into an important military outpost and its history goes back to the Mahabharata period.
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Shishupal was the ruler of Chanderi during that time and many local legends are associated with him. Such was the importance of the heritage town, that throughout history, Chanderi has been mentioned in the travelogues of many foreign visitors like Alberuni and Ibn Batuta. The town also underwent many rulers and from the Delhi Sultans, Rajputs, Mughals, Malwas, Bundelas, Scindias to the British, Chanderi had seen them all. Quite understandably, all of them had left their mark on the small town with a huge history and Chanderi bears tale-tell remnants of their monumental glories.
Sadly, not much of Chanderi‘s heritage has remained intact at present and the once important historical town has slipped through the cracks of time. Today, it bears a neglected, dejected look and is clearly missed out by most travelers on a Madhya Pradesh heritage trail. Though nearly every Indian recognizes Chanderi by its name, few have any idea of the mega-importance the town once held.
I too have been in love with Chanderi, even before I visited the town. Sounds odd, but Chanderi and beautiful silk sarees are so deeply enmeshed that most people enamoured by the gorgeous textile, tend to overlook the charms of this hidden gem of Madhya Pradesh. An impromptu shopping trail in 2013 lead me to Chanderi and it was the lure of the famous saree which took me there. I was paying Gwalior a brief solo visit when a Madhya Pradesh tourism brochure caught my eye and on one morning I left the princely city of Gwalior for Chanderi. It was not an easy destination to access by public transport and the combination of a local train ride to Lalitpur along with a long bone-shaking autorickshaw ride finally helped me reach Chanderi.
My first impression of the history-steeped town was one of a heavy disappointment since on the face, it was like just another nameless Indian small town. In fact, the autorickshaw drive through Madhya Pradesh hinterland from the train station seemed prettier and the lush verdant hills surrounding Chanderi were very pristine. Obviously, not many travelers ventured into such depths and Chanderi and its green surroundings remained happily offbeat. Since I arrived there around late afternoon, there was not much time on my hands to explore the historic town and I experienced as much of it as possible on foot.
The old part of Chanderi was bordered by a crumbling battlement wall and several gateways ran along its length. The town lay in a bowl among a ring of rolling hills and a fort loomed over it. This was the famous Chanderi Fort, which offered best views of the town and most of the heritage monuments were cocooned within its mighty walls. Built in the 11th century by king Kirti Pal, the fort is also referred to as the Kirti Durg, though not much of the original structure remained at present. Since Chanderi changed many hands over the period of time and many different rulers had the fort rebuilt and modified according to their tastes. They all left their distinctive marks on the grand monument and its magnificent heritage carried some of their most horrific secrets too.
The most famous one was the Khooni Darwaza and that place really gave me the creeps. One of the three massive and the only standing door of the Chanderi Fort, the Khooni Darwaza had a horrifying tale associated with it. Loosely translated as the Blood Soaked Gate, according to the local legends, prisoners were tossed down the Khooni Darwaza during the rule of Sultan of Malwa. Their battered bloody corpses used to be displayed at this gate and it quickly gained a reputation of having a supernatural presence.
Strangely, Chanderi Fort‘s bloody reputation did not end there and it also housed the infamous Jauhar Smarak. A monument dedicated to the tradition of self-destruction of the local Rajput women, a stone plaque on the spot described the harrowing historical details. This tragic event occurred in 1528 AD when the Mughal emperor Babur defeated the local Rajput ruler of Chanderi, Medini Rai. The women of Chanderi who preferred death over being taken captive by the enemy soldiers committed mass suicide in the name of pious Jauhar.
Chanderi Fort‘s intensely tragic history belied the town‘s rural India tranquility and it seemed to be history‘s favourite playground. The reality could not have been closer to this statement and Chanderi seeped myths, legends and historical anecdotes from every nook and corner. The crumbling mansions, gateways, stepwells, and walls told many stories and one of the sweetest one was the legend of Baiju Bawra.
A musician of par excellence, Baiju Bawra was born in Chanderi in 1542 and he reputedly defeated the grand master of music of that time, Mian Tansen. After that, the mighty Mughal emperor became Baiju Bawra‘s lifetime patron and he showered the artist with much wealth and patronage. Though an obvious scintillating star of his time, Baiju Bawra too like his hometown has been forgotten and his house in Chanderi has turned into a ruined jumble. This disturbing unkempt desolation was a distinctive feature of Chanderi and sadly, most of its heritage was in very bad shape.
This was also clearly visible from the hilltop view of Chanderi from the fort and the lone standing Badal Mahal Gate looked like a headless armless architectural torso. A ceremonial gate built by Sultan Mahmud Shah Khilji in 1450, Badal Mahal Gate was believed to be once studded to a beautiful palace, though nothing of it remains anymore.
Beautifully manicured gardens surround the solitary gate and the fort overlooks it from the hill. All around stepwells, ruined frames of noble men‘s mansions, old tombs, and lush greenery lay as far as eyes could see and the domes of the Jama Masjid speared into the sky. If beauty could be found in bizarre ruined archaeological setting, then Chanderi would be the poster child of it and I found the town to be unsettlingly magnificent.
It was a kind of beauty which you had to recreate and conjure up from a puzzle of ruins which told stories of a glorious past, while a mesmerizing, yet disturbingly desolate atmosphere pervaded. In fact, my most vivid memories of Chanderi are of the town and its local life, which seem to move like water around the important ruins. They flowed past, circling the historical edifices which were scattered amidst their sugarcane fields, thatched huts and guava trees flecked with parrots. Local Chanderi women in dazzlingly embellished sarees queued to worship in the holy Laksham Temple, their bold colours shimmering on the Parmeshwar Taal.
That was my last memory of Chanderi, and I left the town after purchasing a few of its famous silk sarees. Another long bone-rattling autorickshaw drive took me back to Lalitpur station for a train back to Gwalior and during the entire journey, only one statement flashed through my mind. “How the mighty have fallen”, seemed to have been written for Chanderi and it is a heritage destination waiting to be discovered.
*Text and images belong to Svetlana Baghawan.
Svetlana is a cloud gypsy, a storyteller and a Maverickbird. She is also a mother, writer, entrepreneur, traveller, foodie and an animal lover. A former flight attendant recently moved from Cologne, Germany to Cairo, Egypt, Svetlana has explored more than 35 countries as a solo woman traveller. Her collection of travel tales is shared in her blog, Maverickbird.
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