“You must make your way to the gateway of the Deccan through Malwa,” declared Anu aunty. My husband and I were in her dining room in Indore, gorging on home-made dal baati, a speciality of the region. I was trying not to overeat in anticipation of the hot jalebis being served for dessert. We were there for a few days, and were discussing the turbulent history of the Malwa region of South West MP, trying to map the best route from Mughal Hindustan to the Dravidian Deccan.
Replete with royal legends, battle and blood, monuments and tombs that inspire, India is the perfect stomping ground for any history buff. For centuries the Satpura Range formed a natural border that was considered the southern periphery of Hindustan, and which defined the movement of people, art, culture and trade. The region to the south of the ranges was defined as the Deccan Plateau. The Satpura ranges, known as the gateway to the Deccan, are formidable, with only the Asirgarh Fort, built by King Asa Ahir of the Ahir dynasty, to watch over the only pass that once connected the valleys of the Narmada to the Tapti river in the central plains.
We began exploring in Mandu, about three hours from Indore by bus, once an important outpost on the central India trade route. Today, it lies cloaked in silence, the morning mist dissipating to reveal imposing Afghan-style tombs, palaces and stunning memories of empires that inspired those that followed. In the larger context of Indian history, Mandu is but a blip on the radar, a golden reign which lasted a mere 150 years but left a significant legacy. It is here that an Afghan built his own kingdom, the Ghuri dynasty, whose most famous son Hoshang Shah left an indelible stamp on the region. He is said to have built many beautiful structures including the unusually shaped Hindola Mahal or the Swinging Palace.With broad, thick sloping walls, the Hindola Mahal is unique to the region; it reminded me of the tombs of Egypt, and I wondered if Hoshang had been influenced by faraway cultures. His tomb was built entirely in white marble, a style that was adapted by subsequent Islamic rulers of the region, and is also said to have inspired the mausoleum of Mumtaz Mahal. In the fort walls and the dharamshala by his tomb one can see elements of Afghan architecture seamlessly fused with Hindu stylesandthe classic Islamic style arches that are common in most mosques.
The Ghuris didn’t last long and were defeated by the Khijlis of Turkic origin, who were later replaced by a Gujarati and then an Uzbek, who was subsequently taken over by the Mughals, only to face their downfall at the hands of the Peshwas. They would all leave their architectural mark in Mandu, but before Roopmati’s Pavilion and the Rewa Kund, the pleasure-loving Ghiyas-ud-din Khilji would build the magnificent Jahaz Mahal to house his harem of 15,000, Mandu’s crowning glory. Built to harness the north to south winds, the most beautiful feature of this palace is its elegant pleasure pool. The water drains through a series of beautiful curlicue channels,which are designed to not only be aesthetic but also to slow down the flow of the water so that dirt particles settle there and not dirty the main pool. Baz Bahadur was probably the last great ruler of the Malwa Sultanate, a man devoted to the arts and distracted by his love for Rani Roopmati, building her a magnificent palace overlooking the Narmada plains. Baz Bahadur was enamoured by the queen, and captivated by here beauty and voice, though theirs was a doomed love story for the ages.
From Mandu, we moved onto Maheshwar on the banks of the mighty river that Roopmati was so enamoured by. There is no direct public transport between the two places and to avoid three bus changes, we hired a local taxi to take us the 40-odd kilometres. While Omkareshwar is the more famous of the two temple towns on the banks of the Narmada, Maheshwar, or Mahishmati as it was once known is a smaller, quieter and an homage to Ahilyabai Holkar.
One of India’s greatest, albeit most reluctant rulers, Ahilyabai left a legacy that is still much valued and celebrated. Everything in Maheshwar was either built by or is a tribute to the queen, and her influence can be seen in the simple yet graceful temple adorned with curiously carved figurines with aquiline noses dressed in typical Holkar garb. Unlike other solemn temple towns, Maheshwar has a more carefree atmosphere, and we spent our evenings by the ghats as the sun slowly dipped over the horizon to the sounds of the laughter of children plunging into the cool waters and the chants of women praying by the river. Far removed from the din of modernisation, Maheshwar moves at a languid pace under the watchful eye of the imposing fort.
After a couple of peaceful days in Maheshwar, I was eager to follow in the footsteps of all the rulers whose stories litter Indian history. The gateway to the Deccan was beckoning. About 150 kilometres south of Maheshwar, we finally reached the Asirgarh Fort. Perched 700 metres above sea level, the fort has a strategic commanding view of the surrounding areas, including the border town of Burhanpur. Not much remains except ruins and ghost stories of a fort that was once coveted by everyone from Akbar to the British with a veritable litany of minor rulers in between. With a gurudwara, temple, a couple of pools and a well-preserved mosque, the deserted fort complex has a forlorn air about it, thick with vegetation, the scattered tombs of British soldiers, the occasional tourist and memories of days past.
In a state that is brimming with history and heritage at every turn, Burhanpur is hidden in the long shadow of its illustrious neighbours. This is where Mumtaz Mahal died, and having been to her beautiful tomb in Agra several times, I was curious about the place. A bit macabre really, but history often is. The spot where Mumtaz Mahal was first buried lies forgotten outside the main town across the Tapti, in the centre of lawns originally an aahukhana or deer park in the village of Zainabad. Very little is left of what were once beautiful Iranian-style pleasure gardens except dried water channels and a small decrepit baradari where Mumtaz’s body most likely lay. It is said that Shah Jahan considered building a mausoleum for Mumtaz on the banks of the Tapti, but the lack of quality white marble in the surrounding areas meant that Burhanpur would not house his famed monument of love.
Burhanpur has attracted saints and gurus from all religions over time, partly due to the inclusive reign of the Farooqi dynasty. In the 17th century, the Dawoodi Bohra saint Syedi Abdul Qadir Hakimuddin came to Burhanpur. He is believed to have been able to recite the entire Quran and is buried in a brilliant white marble tomb in the serene Dargah-e-Hakimi. The tomb complex is spread over 125 acres with immaculate lawns and gardens for pilgrims and the curious to soak in the spirituality of the space. The first and the ninth Sikh Gurus also graced Burhanpur, making this little town an important stop for followers of Sikhism. Famous for the unusual mawa jalebi and its largely forgotten stunning frescos, Burhanpur, straddling between the Malwa and the Deccan, still has an air of spiritual history that compels you to explore further.