<Road Trip> The Other Left – 2500 kms Self-Drive with Parents -Malwa-Ajanta-Jhalawar

#1 Jan 5th, 2013, 01:25
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The Other Left – 2500 kms Self-Driven Road Trip with Parents.

My Dear fellow Indiamikers, every year my firm forces us indentured slaves to take time off during the last week of December. It is about eight to ten days of vacation during the busiest tourist season of the year. Every year I make a plan, usually an elaborate one, trying to see a little bit more of my country. The mix is fairly simple – lots of historic sights, some good vegetarian food, some wildlife viewing, and possibly a sea beach or a riverside thrown in to soothe the nerves from all the traveling. It was going to be the same this year.

So, dutifully, around end- October, I drew up a fairly comprehensive Gujarat itinerary that would cover most of the Saurashtra region. We were set to arrive in Ahmedabad via Rajdhani express and then proceed by road to Palitana to climb up the amazing Shatrunjaya teerth. We would then go to Gir for two safaris, to Junagadh for another climb on Mount Girnar and onwards to Somnath for the Jyotirlinga. This would be followed by a drive along the coast to Dwarka and a day or more at Jamnagar for visiting Narara bet. We would then end up in Ahmedabad at our relative’s place. The plan was fairly simple and looked all set. I wanted to be sure of getting the reservations in time as my parents are in their mid-sixties and have their own set of health issues.

However, as the days passed, the trip started looking more and more uncertain. It kept getting shortened by a day at a time and alternates were thought up. “Perhaps we could Kutch for five days? Ok, how about Bhopal and surrounding for four”? Each was shot down as more data emerged – IMer Kutch confirmed that the Rann festival was likely sold out and HV Kumar confirmed that the road between Biaora and Bhopal was a nightmare.

Anyways, sometime in mid-December, I cancelled the entire plan, called up the people in Gujarat we were supposed to meet, stay with or be shown around by (the last one is a naturalist) and stopped looking at the multiple forums on the net that I was gleaning information from to retain my sanity. I even borrowed a book from the library that chronicled two millennia of conflict between Asia and Europe to fill up the time created by the cancellation. I was just about soaking in the book and the sunlight at my parents' home in Jaipur, thinking 'This isn't so bad, we'll relax at home...'

Abou then, that afternoon of 23rd of December, my parents consulted the physicians one last time and just as Europa was being serenaded by Zeus, the trip was OK’d. My parents put forth two conditions: “Let’s go wherever we can get a reservation and where the roads are good. We can leave on the 25th”. Yeah, right! It seemed so daunting a task that I continued flipping pages till Xerxes bridged the Hellespont (I wondered if he had to reserve anything in the last week of December, who would he have whipped?).

On the night of 23rd, I did some last minute research on driving down to Gujarat but that was ruled out as the main attractions – Palitana and Girnar involve significant climbing and my mother had a bad knee. She is also dead against going up any teerth in a ‘doli’ (a palanquin). So, the final alternate, the one we had not taken very seriously till then was agreed upon largely based on reports about road conditions.

We would drive to Indore!

Gorgeous Indore – the home of pharmaceutical factories and my relatives!
My ever crafty brain refused to give up and I asked that maybe we can go to Ajanta and Ellora? “Papa, It’s just over the state border from MP!” Once again, my parents were game and I logged onto the MTDC booking engine and to my great surprise, plenty of rooms were available in the MTDC Ajanta (the resort at Phardapur). So, just before going to sleep on 24th of December, I actually got myself a reservation – didn’t matter that it was about 900 kms from home and we had just two days to get there.

When we left home on the morning of the 25th, I had every intention of returning no later than the 30th of December – a total of six days. I had also thought of sticking to the two major destinations – Ajanta and Ellora with a couple minor destinations (from my perspective) of Ujjain thrown in as a break-journey while returning and Indore while going forth. The road was expected to be excellent four-lane for most of the way and good two lanes for less than a quarter of the distance. The car would be a Suzuki Swift D’zire – an Indian mid-sized car in good condition and I’d be the principal driver with my father sharing as much as possible.

Clothes for a six day journey were packed as was some dry food-stuff. In the hurry to leave from Delhi, I had missed packing the road atlas I trust and my mother picked up a few maps we had lying at home from the cupboard. Oh, and I had to write some CDs of my favorite songs – it was going to be a long road trip after all.

When we came back home, the odometer showed us that we had driven 2500 kms and it was 10:30 pm on the 1st of January (eight days). We surely enjoyed all the side trips and getting lost. A sneak peek of what we saw is below:

Ghats of Maheshwar:

Portrait of Padmapani - Ajanta:

Tree lined Roads of Maharashtra

Ellora - Mahishasur Mardini in Rameshwar Cave:

Sleeping Buddha at Ajanta

General view of Cave number 26 at Ajanta:

Kailasa Temple - cave number 16 - Ellora:

.... more to follow.

I'm starting this TR here and it will branch off into another forum at the appropriate time.
Last edited by vaibhav_arora; Jan 8th, 2013 at 19:02..
#2 Jan 5th, 2013, 23:20
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Day 1 - Jaipur to Indore

We woke up at five and set off at seven in the morning from Jaipur and were cruising on the excellent six lane Jaipur-Kishangarh highway after just about thirty minutes. Shortly before Kishangarh is the diversion to Bhilwara that’s so large so as to make it impossible to miss unless you’re asleep at the wheel.

There were no sight-seeing stops planned for the day and other than the dampener that the CDs I had cut the previous evening didn’t work, the drive was quite pleasant till Chittorgarh. We turned for Nimbahera and left the four lane highway behind to cross over the state border. The stretch between Nimbahera and Neemuch is not in good repair and there is constant truck traffic. Still, we crossed over into Madhya Pradesh shortly before 1 pm, having clocked 400 kms in a little less than 6 hours.

We were even more pleasantly surprised that the freshly laid NH3 is even smoother than the NH8 (Jaipur-Kishangarh-Bhilwara) that we swear by.

Mustard fields were in bloom all over and the yellow cover was a treat for the eyes.

Around half past two, we stopped the car for a good tea break at a nondescript shop by some onion fields. The tea-stall wallah was a good man who followed the instructions of making sugarless, strong tea very well.

The tea was very good thanks to the natural sweetness of the milk used. My mother guessed that the milk must be sourced locally, and lo and behold, right behind the shop was the source (the chai-stall-wallah confirmed this) ! A half dozen cows with bright blue horns were tethered.

The cows were clearly well fed and that was reflected in their generous output (image below captures the onions behind as well to provide for a size comparison).

While I was busy photographing decorated cows and their rather oversized output, my father, a retired botanist, exchanged notes on onion farming with the farmer.

I asked him later if there was something interesting he learnt. His response 'You go around nosing into other peoples' affairs taking photos, it doesn't look nice. Atleast talk to them'. (So, he was covering for me, as always!) We continued to race to Indore and were at a toll plaza where the toll operator advised us to go via Ujjain. My mother opened up the India road map she had managed to pull out of the cupboard last minute. It showed the route to be via Ratlam.

Just to be sure, we stopped again at a turn and asked a truck driver which route to take? He said ‘go via Ujjain’; road is ‘tapu-top’. I was to hear ‘tapu-top’ so many times over the next week and to describe road surfaces of such disparate quality that I reckoned people in MP use it to describe a road when they just want you out of their hair quickly.

Since the map showed a highway via Ratlam, we followed the map and the road appeared perfectly fine till we reached a place called ‘Lebad’. We were only forty kms from Indore and while it was five pm I was confident of making it to our relative’s home by sunset (around 6 pm). At six pm, we had managed to reach no further than Pitampur thanks to the moonscape that goes for a road in Lebad. We were also hopelessly lost in the industrial area of Pitampur and driving at a few kilometers an hour next to an under-construction flyover. Several calls to our relatives didn’t help as we didn’t know exactly where we were (which turn or road) and we eventually pulled in at their residence at exactly seven pm – a total travel time including breaks of twelve hours.

The Encyclopedia Britannica published in 1856, mentions Indore as ‘a town of Hindustan, and the capital of the possessions of the family of the Mahratta chieftain known under the name of Holkar. It is an ill-built town containing a few mosques and several brahmanical temples of no architectural pretentions.’ This, coupled with the fact that this would be a repeat visit to Indore, there was no sightseeing planned in the city.

The evening was full of laughter and lovely food. The ingredients used in cooking in Madhya Pradesh differ ever so subtly from ours back home in Rajasthan; if not in their inclusion then in the order (e.g. the beaten rice flake dish called ‘Poha’ does not have onions added while cooking, raw ones are put on top as a garnish, as I was to find out). The relatives also pointed out that the route via Ratlam is far worse due to the bad road conditions near lebad and pitampur though four laned. The route via Ujjain is good though from the turn at Badhnawar it is two-laned till Ujjain.

So I dug into the map only to find that it showed an undivided Madhya Pradesh (no Chattisgarh), that the phone number for MPTDC holiday resort at Khajuraho was all of two digits and that a country called ‘USSR’ existed to the north of India.

As there was no point referring to the map from then onwards, I eased into bed and flipped back a chapter in the book to understand what Darius the Great had been up against during the battle of Marathon.

Having been up since five that morning, Pheidippides, the runner of Marathon was exhausted after the 700 km drive. The last 40 kms between Lebad and Indore was the killer. His stomach full from the sumptuous dinner, he rolled over and died.

He was dead until the morning after.
#3 Jan 5th, 2013, 23:24
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  • theyyamdancer is offline
Is this the Persian Wars or the Indore Bores ?
"Language is a weapon, it's not for shaving your armpits."

- Mahashweta Debi, Bengali author and activist.
#4 Jan 5th, 2013, 23:28
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The Persian wars, TD. We didnt allow Indore to bore us!
#5 Jan 5th, 2013, 23:35
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Whenever we asked for tea without sugar in India we got very strange looks. The idea of tea without milk seemed to be just about acceptable but it had to be sweet.
#6 Jan 6th, 2013, 22:14
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Day 2 – Indore to Maheshwar

The Muezzin’s voice wafted out of the mosque loudspeakers. 'Xerxes', king of kings, woke up with a start and jumped out of bed – it was just about dawn. He was under no obligation to keep fit unlike his Spartan opponents – he was a divine king, not an elected one. Thermopylae would be won by subterfuge and not through bravery. Still, he went for a run at Shri Batukeshwar Dutt Udyan, Indore before commencing his day’s campaign.

Malwa’s best kept secret are not the Caves of Bagh. It is actually a spice called ‘Jeerawan’ . It’s used universally, on curry dishes, in chaat items and on breakfast, that day after Christmas, it was spread over Poha (beaten rice flakes, soaked and lightly sauted). The genius of this approach is that it allows everyone on the dining table (and there were nine gaggling relatives aged between eight to sixty five present) to spice up breakfast as they please.

After some frothy hot milk, hugs, family photos and goodbyes, we were on our way around 10 am out of Indore, south-bound on the Mhow road. Exiting Indore was an easier task as the said relatives had provided us better directions for our way out than they had for our way in (I have realized it only today as I write this). We quickly got onto the excellent four lane road rushing into Nimar district - a land so dry that the mere sight makes you feel thirsty. A welcome sight for the sore eyes was a gigantic reservoir that was perhaps two kilometers across on our left and then stopped for topping up on petrol. A truck driver at the pump, with a Maharashtra number plate described that the route to Ajanta can be either via Dhule and Chalisgaon OR Khandwa and Burhanpur. Both roads are ‘tapu-top’.

The road south of Indore passes through hilly tracts covered in teakwood forest. It’s called a ‘ghat’ section and is full of slow moving truck traffic. Each truck would bob up and down as it appeared on top of a ghat and then went down again. They were like ships ahead on waves, alternately appearing and disappearing from sight. 'Xerxes' was impatient and wanted to speed up but couldnt.

Going via Khandwa had one distinct advantage – we could stop over at Maheshwar for a short while. My mother was a tad worried that the road from the turn at Dhamnod and all the way to Phardapur is two lanes. I tried to sell Maheshwar to her by talking about Mahehswari sarees but that didn’t go anywhere as she mostly relies on Salwar suits now. However, my father agreed for a stopover and off we went to Maheshwar.

After the turn from Dhamnod, the road became more and more crowded till we reached a board that said on the right, ‘Ahilyabai Fort’ and pointed to the right. So we continued to drive towards the inner city.

As the road got narrower and narrower, 'Xerxes' realized his folly of cramming his entire armada into the narrow bay at Salamis. Cows and tractors and locals on foot bearing sugarcanes would prove lethal even for the best of Persian ships, and all he had was a tiny Japanese car.

Luckily a local played traffic cop, and we pulled into the parking lot of the Holkar fort exactly at noon.

The first sight of the maingate of Holkar fort, the feeling was of creeping disbelief. Is this really the place? There were fruit sellers at the gate and the view, as I peered inside, was of a newly built hotel (I was looking to my left from inside the gate that you’d see below).

Still, we all continued to walk inside and while I stayed back a bit, my father came back from some distance to tell me to hurry up as the main temple inside would close at 1 sharp.

So we hurried up and after the whitewashed walls of the Holkar palace (Rajwada) were past us, the view of the Ahilyabai Chhattri (cenotaph) was a clear indication that this was a very special place. It appeared medieval from the first sight. I rushed down the stairs of the fort and entered the door and the first look of the cenotaph is one of beautiful symmetry. The eye follows with ease the symmetrical pillars till it is broken by gently sloping eaves and then there is a three window pavilion at the first floor level in the front and neatly matched pavilions on the right and left side. Statues of gods and goddesses act as false corbels while true carved corbels support cornices. The impression one gets is of a small palace.

I started taking photos while circumambulating the structure like a pre-programmed robot. As one enters the gate, to the right and the left are two oversized ‘deep-stambhas’ (Lamp-stands) – like gigantic Christmas trees in black deccan stone, awaiting their decorations and the blanket of the night to cover them. The stands are lit up with lamps on important occasions.

The Chhattri faces east and walking around the north edge, I noticed on the exterior a statue of possibly Sri Ram (see below) along with a water spout shaped like a cow.

The ‘parshwadevata’ (literally – the god behind) in the niche on the western end is empty and the alcove on the southern edge has another statue. The more interesting statue though, is on the southern face, high up between the sanctum and the mandap walls, at the corbel level. It appears to be a yama depiction or perhaps just a warrior. The caretaker couldn’t identify this statue either.

The cenotaph is a fantastic example of Maratha architecture and it appears stylistically very similar to the scindia cenotaphs at Shivpuri with the added twist of smaller pavilions on the first floor level on the east, north and south edges of the mandap (see below the view from the south end). It combines elements of a nagara style temple for the sanctum and pavillion like structures for the mandap . Further, there is a small nandi at the door of the cenotaph facing the deity (siva lingam) in the garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum) – Ahilya Bai was a devout Saivite.

The structure was constructed in an area measuring 100’x50’ and in many ways represents a complete antithesis of AhilyaBai’s philoshophy of not spending anything more than necessary on herself. Made of Deccan Trap, the structure cost a whopping crore and a half rupees in the early 1800s and took 34 years of hard labor to complete. Also, puzzlingly, the cenotaph’s mandap displays (one above the top of each pillar) a distinct avatar of Vishnu. This Vaishnavite influence is attributed to Krishna Bai Holkar who constructed this current cenotaph structure over a small and austere Shivalaya (Shiva-temple) that Ahilyabai holkar used to regularly worship at.
I asked the caretaker (the priest of the shivalaya inside was missing) whether photography is permitted inside and the answer was a strict no.

As 'xerxes' was not used to taking a no for an answer, he whipped out his zoom lens and shamelessly clicked away at all that he could. Seen below is oen of the avatars of Vishnu displayed in the Chhattri - Krishna with Gopis.

The cenotaph lies parallel to the ghat and one can view the deep azure waters of the Narmada below from the pavilion on the southern edge.

Walking back to the main door of the peripheral wall of the cenotaph, there is a beautiful, small Ganesh perched on top of the door flanked by two Maratha Dwarpala (door-guardian) statues.

As I looked out of the door (my back to the cenotaph and facing east now), I saw the other Chhattri of the Ahilya Fort complex – that of Vitoji – the younger brother of Yashwant Rao Holkar (1798-1811). It is a fine two-domed structure, facing west, that stands in a courtyard of a slightly larger size than the one that Ahilya Chhattri stands in.

Coming down the stairs of the Ahilya Bai Chhattri, I noticed on the left side that there were several ledges carved with decorated elephants as well as scenes from daily life in the holkar times. One notices men wrestling, smoking a hookah, a woman combing her daughter’s hair and a couple smiling.

I went around to the north-side of the Vitoji chhattri and noticed a beautiful frieze of caparisoned elephants, no two of which were alike. This relief sculpture is done in bas-relief for all bus one elephant. As your gaze floats from left to right it is suddenly broken by elephant in the middle carved in high-relief so that it alone suddenly appears to be lifting his head.

I continued around and reached the eastern edge (backside) of the chhattri and noticed that the pavilion that runs on three sides around the chhattri had a small gajalakshmi sculpture.

There are many other interesting sculptures on the pillar tops of the pavilion – dancers and musicians playing stringed, wind and percussion instruments, krishna with his consort radha (the playful girlfriend as opposed to his dutiful wife rukmini) – the sculpture in question still being worshipped by the locals, and even an Englishman!

Under the pavilion, there were just a few young men lazily enjoying the winter sun and one could see the ghats abuzz with activity down below. Continuing eastwards, the door of the fort was to my left and I couldn’t help notice that a fair bit of the population of maheshwar – old women, young children as well as a goat were all coming down the other door on the right.

I walked out the main door facing south and leading down to the river. Before I started walking along the ghats though, I turned around and looked again at the south facing gate I had just passed through. It was a stunning sight. The doorway is flanked on either side by three dwarpalas (door guardian) statues atop each other – totaling six. Further, the pavilion on top has a row of lovely statues as corbels.

A little further down, I was able to capture this view that shows steps running down southwards as well as to the left and the right, making for a truly regal entrance.

Those who arrive by boat at Maheshwar usually go up this way. With those thoughts, I continued to go towards the Ghats of Maheshwar …
#7 Jan 6th, 2013, 22:45
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  • theyyamdancer is offline
Brilliant post, "xerxes", with beautiful pics.
#8 Jan 8th, 2013, 13:06
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Thank you TD.

I certainly had a great time reading up all the conflict between Europe and Asia (usually in the evenings) and counterbalancing it with the conflicts on the road that we faced all day!
#9 Jan 9th, 2013, 21:53
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The Ghats of Maheshwar

I had had the first glimpse of the ghats of maheshwar from a pavilion near Ahilyabai Chhattri. Even from that height, one could make out that the Ghats of Maheshwar is where the lives of its people revolve – late in the afternoon with the sun shining high the place was abuzz with activity and locals outnumbered tourists with a ratio of perhaps three to one or more. The sapphire blue was so alluring that I felt like jumping down from that very place I was standing in on the rampart – but better sense prevailed and I chose to tamely walk down the stairs.

Walking out of the south gate of Ahilya fort, my eyes adjusting to the bright light slowly, I could notice octagonal shapes jutting out in the water at regular intervals and a flight of stairs leading down and into the water – these stairs made up a ghat. There are twenty eight of these in Maheshwar supposedly. As I walked westwards, away from the gate, I was getting closer to activity I had sensed from a distance - people bathing and washing clothes. Men take off their clothes completely unmindful of the women around, some boys jumped sportingly into the water- honing their diving skills. A few women tourists on the right, oblivious to the young man taking off his jeans haggled with a bead seller (there were many of them on the ghat). Further in the distance, a white tent canopy obstructed the view of more temples.

Some were praying at the many shrines that dot the ghats - each one lovingly anointed with vermilion and sometimes with fresh flowers. Narmada is considered so sacred that even Ganga, in her human form, laden with all the sins that she washes away off the faithful is said to come here, to cleanse herself again. Every now and then, I had to avoid stepping on a siva-lingam, before whom kneeled a faithful nandi.

Brightly painted boats with three rows of seats in each were moored and I climbed into one to get a better view of the fort – the Ahilya Chhattri was to the left and the ramparts of the fort and the turret was visible clearly. In the center was the south gate that i had just descended and the carved pavilions on either side. In front was yet another nandi and Sivaling, awaiting devotees.

The boats themselves are a bit of a letdown thanks to the outboard motors that are quite noisy. I’m told there are a few boats still left that are propelled the old fashioned way – with oars – but I really couldn’t find any at that time.

A little further down is the women’s ghat, where they have separate changing rooms (tin structures, painted a bright, light blue). Here the ladies do a fair bit of washing as well and it’s all kept out to dry – the color of these drying quilts made for a beautiful contrast with the dark Deccan trap underneath as well as the shining blue to the right.

Nearly where this series of ghats comes to a logical end, I noticed two women washing clothes and the water was so alluring that I couldn’t help snap it up. Far in the horizon (the Narmada is a kilometer wide at maheshwar at any point), if you look carefully there’s a small structure jutting out of the water – something I didn’t have time to visit. It is the temple of Baneshwar, an especially holy place for the Hindus.

I turned around to witness a sadhu so deep in his thoughts of devotion that he completely ignored what happened around him. He was in 'service' of his lord - Hanuman. He lovingly washed the statues legs and then bent down touching its feet with his head.

Walking back, the white tent structure was to my left and I walked closer and noticed that at regular intervals there lay a round board, from which jutted out a siva-lingam made of river clay and surrounded furthermore by dozens more.

I asked a devotee sitting on the floor under the tent as to what it had been erected for; and he replied that the structure was for a special prayer ceremony that was sponsored by someone who has had his wish fulfilled by asking the ‘Ma’ Narmada for a boon. The devotee was busy constructing a similar looking tray of Siva-Lingams. I asked him if there’s a specific, auspicious, number he aimed for and he shook his head and smiled benignly before adding, ‘the more I can build on this round board, the better it is’. Post the ceremony, all these boards (there were about fifty of them) would be given back to the “Ma Narmada”, from whose womb these shapes had come into being.

Further closer to the fort stand the ‘chhattris’ of Sanyogita Bai Holkar and Chandrawati Holkar (the Chhattri of Krishna Bai Holkar is further down, past the Ladies Ghat). Behind these is a very lifelike statue of the lady that built Maheshwar into what it is today – Ahilya Bai Holkar. The Maratha strongwoman, much revered in her time is still held in high regard by the locals. The statue is not old and belies her diminutive size (the statue is about twelve feet and made of shining metal). Next to the statue is the ‘samadhi’ or the cremation spot of Ahilya Bai Holkar.

Back at the eastern most point of the ghats, as I cast a glance one last time on the many siva-lingas, each with a devoted nandi kneeling in front; the cool river breeze brought a sense of calm that was missing badly in the marathon drive.

I also realized that there were no people around on this ghat bathing or washing clothes. I turned around to read the reason why all others had avoided this particular ghat – it said ‘Khatarnak (dangerous) ghat’ – do not take a bath here. I walked away …

The ghats are an especially peaceful, relaxing place to just sit down and while away hours. Even if you’re not religious, just basking in the sun, looking at the glittering blue of the Narmada, like a Maheshwari saree floating in the wind one can spend hours. While I couldn’t find many people doing that, there was a creature whose thoughts, at that time, were perhaps the same as mine. She was smiling as well!

#10 Jan 9th, 2013, 22:05
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  • JuliaF is offline
Lovely photos and descriptions Vaibhav. Maheshwar is really a special place. Many changes - bead sellers , soft drink stalls , new metal Ahilyabai statue , boats with motors (they were new the last time I was there and I agree they ruin the ambience), but many things still the same. So much of life happens on the ghats!

I am glad that white tent is a temporary structure only.
#11 Jan 10th, 2013, 13:37
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Thanks Julia! Indeed, I felt Maheshwar was a special place and deserved more time. We were on a roadtrip so moved on nonetheless. It was actually good to visit the tent as the devotees sitting under it were carrying on with an ancient tradition called 'Parthiva Linga' pooja (note that the devotee is wearing a 'bhasma' (ash) mark on his forehead as prescribed). Details here: http://www.hindu-blog.com/2011/12/pa...ut-of-mud.html. They could have and am sure would have done it under the direct sun but it was kind of harsh that day.
#12 Jan 11th, 2013, 16:54
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  • Duronto Jajabar is offline
Reading your TR is like traveling on screen, vaibhav.

An unique narrator are you really.... loved very much.

[Poha- we Bengali, call it 'chida/chide', love to take it in so many different ways!!!! With onion- both raw and cooked, without onion, with card, milk ....you may wonder ]

So many beautiful statues are there .... and Ghats of Maheswar are awesome. Lovely sets of photos, Vaibhav.

aamar payer tolai sorshe...(I have wheels under my feet)
#13 Jan 11th, 2013, 22:48
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Ahilyabai Holkar

After climbing back in the south gate and moving up the stairs of Ahilya Fort, I was back at the road level, close to the Ahilya Chhattri area and spotted the entrance to Rajwada (Royal Abode).

The Holkars derive their name from the village of ‘Hol’; kar being the Marathi word for ‘from’ – hence Holkar translates to ‘from Hol’. The dynasty was established by Malharrao Holkar, originally a shepherd from the village near Jejuri, he was the first in the family to take up a martial line of service. Malharrao was a prodigy of sorts, he was commanding armies at the age of 26 and by the time he was 30, he was one of the three direct commanders under the Peshwa (the head of Maratha Confederacy). More importantly (in relation to this touristic visit), in the year 1747, Maharaj Holkar began construction of the Rajwada at Maheshwar.

After Malharrao holkar, the dynasty continued to rule over a significant portion of malwa for nearly two hundred years. At its height, their kingdom measured larger than the state of Vermont or nearly as large as the country of Israel!

The state of Indore (under the holkars) enjoyed a 19 gun salute (21 locally) – amongst the highest honors available to any princely state in British India. Today the only canon in the vicinity lay firmly cemented outside the entrance about fifteen feet away from it. At the time of our visit, it was clearly not scaring anyone at all.

A sign at the main door of the Rajwada reads ’leave your footwear outside; photography prohibited’ so it was with some hesitation that I asked the wiry framed attendant if I could take a photo or two. He measured me with his gaze and after the perfunctory ‘from where have you come’ question nodded in yes.

Yes? Yes! I was overjoyed as the same attendant had, moments ago, stopped an ipad toting teenager from taking any photos at all.

(Xerxes was pleased to note that amongst the haughty Hellenes, there still were a few who recognized the divine in the god-king and accorded him the regal treatment that was his birthright. He slung his camera bag on his back and magisterially strode inside to ‘meet’ the Holkars.)

I stepped inside to find a courtyard of no more than fifty by fifty feet square. Two small stories (ground and first floor) of building run in all four directions, the ground floor was an open verandah supported by wooden pillars, topped with fluted corbels and carved cornices. The first floor comprised of the living quarters and it was topped by a sloping roof of red ceramic tiles.

The only decorative elements are some corbels shaped like elephant heads and others like peacocks!

The yard has a small artificial pond, on whose whitewashed wall stood an image of Krishna playing the flute while leafy green trees provide the much needed cover from the direct sun overhead. On special days, the ladies of the household would bathe the little Krishna with love and affection not unlike what is accorded to a living child.

To my immediate left was a verandah that had a long thin cotton mattress spread on the floor, covered with a spotless white sheet. One edge of the bed was decorated with bolsters. Behind a few bolsters, inside a wooden display, sat a saree clad figure of Ahilyabai and next to her stood the last monarch, yashwantrao holkar the second. Ahilyabai’s saree was spotless white and she wore a fresh marigold garland (a mark of respect for the deceased). Another portrait of Ahilyabai, also, rested near one of the bolsters. A small suitcase lay on the side.

In a moment that seems to be inspired by Madame Tussaud’s, the management of Holkar fort has created for its visitors the glimpse of her life the way it used to be. Portraits of the holkar family hung from the overhangs inside and there was little else by way of decorations in this verandah, save a few lamps. The white of Ahilyabai’s saree further accentuated the austerity of the room. She is said to have owned and worn only three of those sarees, all handwoven by the queen herself during her lifetime. The entire arrangement struck me as reminiscent of a ‘baithak’ – the principal living cum drawing room where much of the family conversations would happen in an Indian household of rank a few generations ago. It was distinguished and yet very intimate. The fresh flowers and the white add to the illusion that someone in the family has passed away only very recently (and not well over two centuries ago)

The ambience of this 'baithak' is better appreciated once you look closely at the portraits. Of the fourteen Holkar kings who ruled over the kingdom for a total of two hundred odd years, thirteen were men. Most of them are portrayed with a sword or a shield – perceived signs of honor and ability to rule in medieval india. Ahilyabai, the lone woman is displayed carrying a Sivaling in her hand. While she did lead armies, it was never her preferred course of action. As a widow, white was the color that dominated her life and in Siva, she found solace. (Note: In the photo below, three of the more important holkars from the perspective of this narrative - Malharrao (the founder of the dynasty), Malerao - Ahilyabai's husband and Ahilyabai herself are seen - from left to right, respectively.)

Ahilyabai didn’t assume the reign by choice. After the death of her husband (accidentally) in the siege of the fort of Kumher, she was contemplating committing Sati. It is said that she was dissuaded by her father in law, Malharrao holkar. After she lost both her father-in-law (d. 1766) and her son Malerao (who reigned for only one year and died in 1767), she assumed control of the kingdom.

Ahilyabai was dutifully installed as queen in Maheshwar in the year 1767. She ruled for a total of twenty eight years from this very ‘palace’. How religious a queen ahilyabai was is amply clear if one looks at the signboards displayed on one of the walls that extoll the pious deeds of this unique ruler. It reads thus - Construction of a total of seventeen temples; Reconstruction of five; Eleven ‘dharamshalas’; Eleven temples benefited from her funds for carrying on Pooja; Construction of wells and temple-tanks in eight location; constructions of two other tanks and finally, a section of the grand trunk road was laid under her auspices!

It’s a stunning realization that no major Siva temple from Amarnath in the north to Rameswaram in the south and Somnath in the west was bereft of her beneficent nature. Another sign-board near the entrance has a list of twenty nine such places marked on a map of India.

Walking along, another edge housed some unknown figures (the attendant couldn’t help with the identification either) and the last one housed the holkar’s palanquins, arms and few other personal accouterments. A signboard, near the entrance as I was leaving caught my eye and kept ringing as true much later, till date as I write this.

The last point I visited was a few meters from the Rajwada, a parapet from where Ahilyabai used to view the Narmada. I looked down and saw that her cremation spot (the dark stone topped cenotaph) is not far from the river that she devotionally worshipped throughout her life.

It was time to move and we got into our car and started driving towards a nondescript town in Maharashtra – Phardapur.
#14 Jan 13th, 2013, 17:13
Join Date:
Oct 2012
  • schumifactor is offline
Beautiful writing and photographs Vaibhav. Enjoyed every bit of it.
#15 Jan 14th, 2013, 15:12
Join Date:
Dec 2008
Cloud Cuckoo Land
  • vaibhav_arora is offline

via Khandesh

There are two routes that one can take from Maheshwar in current day Madhya Pradesh to Phardapur in Maharashtra. The newer, four lane highway runs from the turn of NH3 near Dhamnod till Dhule and from here one turns on the Great Eastern highway and continues till Jalgaon, finally turning south again towards Phardapur. This route is about 345 kms and is rated at a drive time of 5 and half hours. In reality, our estimate was it would take about seven hours as some parts are two lanes only.

So we decided to take the lesser known route. Some quick conversations with two taxi drivers, one with a Maharashtra number plate on his car and the other who was from Madhya Pradesh, revealed that the shorter route is via Barwaha and Khandwa. I already had a fair inkling of what to expect post Khandwa courtesy the phone calls made to Mr Sumiran Caprihan of Hotel Grand Barrack, Khandwa. I must thank Mr Caprihan for being very patient with my queries regarding road conditions between Indore and Khandwa and onwards to Burhanpur and even alternate routes between Harda and Khandwa. The road quality is excellent.

It was half past two in the afternoon on the 26th of December 2012 when we were on the road towards Omkareshwar. Shortly before Omkareshwar we crossed the narmada, her sapphire blue glimmering under the afternoon sun.

The ‘Encyclopedia Metropolitana, or the Universal Dictionary of Knowledge by Edward Smedly, pb. 1845’ speaks of the area that we were traversing as ‘Khandesh’ and that we had just left Malwa. The same book opines that the area is named after the Sanskrit word ‘khani-desa’ i.e. land of mines or Khand-Desa i.e. land of Sugar. Given the number of sugarcane carts we crossed on the road, I’m inclined to accept the latter as the more probable origin. The boundaries of Khandesh vary depending on which source is consulted. Some take the northern boundary to be the Narmada River (or Nerbudda, as many British sources refer to the river by); others take the northern boundary to extend as far as Harda and Hoshangabad. All sources refer to the land as being extremely fertile and capable of producing vegetables and fruits of the finest quality, especially grapes. It was indeed so and my father could identify cotton, sugarcane, lentils and even fennel seed amongst the crops that were growing in the area (the botanist in him never having retired).

This map, drawn by Lucas Fielding, Jr in 1824 CE and sourced from the David Rumsey Historical collection (Free download from the website post registration) shows Khandesh or ‘Candish’ bound on the north by the Malwa province and on the south by Ahmednagar and on the east by Berar (other sources show the western boundary to be bound by Gujarat). The Encyclopedia Metropolitana also calls Khandesh as the northernmost district of Southern India. We were far from home!

In the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, Khandesh was of great importance of the Maratha (or Mahratta) confederacy – a loose association of semi-independent kingdoms all recognizing the suzerainty of the Peshwa but headed by unrelated Maratha chieftains. It was the site of many wars, important British conquests and outposts and hence finds much description in books of that era. The importance of the area as excellent farmland, capable of producing multiple cash crops per year continues intact into the twenty first century (seen below is a car for farmers' assistance that has a hotline number!).

It is bounded on the south by the Satpura (British spelling: Satpoora) mountains. Soon, we were to pass over the ‘ghats’ (or passes) of these mountains that were described in ‘a Gazetteer of Territories Under the Government of the East India Company’ (by Edward Thornton, pb. 1858) as ‘Bold and romantic in their outlines, rising into lofty peaks and swelling into shapes that would induce the beholder from a distance to consider them as primitive’. The scenery did live up to the reputation. The road was shaped like the undulations of a python’s back – smooth but never straight. The scenery on either side turned from irrigated, green fields to forlorn scrub land.

As if to provide some comfort, there were occasional plantations of teak that lined the road on either side.

As the shadows got longer, my eyes were searching for something that I had read about and heard the name many times of, a fort that had a reputation to be impregnable – Asirgarh. Built by Assa Ahir, a Hindu chieftain, Asirgarh has been referred to as the ‘gateway of the Deccan’. The description I had read spoke of a fortress visible from miles away and sitting atop a crag and occupying a hilltop a mile across. Philip Meadows Taylor in his ‘A student’s manual of the history of India’ (pub: 1872) speaks of ‘Aseergurh’ as ‘a huge mass of basalt, rising seven hundred feet above the plain, with perfectly precipitous sides’. It further goes onto tell the tale of how a close friend of Assa Ahir, Mullick Rajah, knowing very well that the fort was impregnable, thanks to a water supply inside the fort, asked the ‘Hindoo’ prince shelter for his family. Trusting the Rajah, the ahir, hereditarily a cowherd, allowed several palanquins to be brought inside the fort, only to be treacherously murdered by the troops that were hiding in those palanquins that supposedly were carrying the Rajah’s family.

Taylor goes on to describe that ‘This act of ‘victory’ was considered so important that ‘Zein-ood-deen, a celebrated saint came expressly from Dowlatabad (near modern day Aurangabad) to tender his congratulations upon ‘the victory over the infidels’ and the town of Zeinabad’ on the left bank of the Tapty, was founded in his honor and Boorhanpoor on the right bank. ‘

I kept looking and then noticed that the moon was out in the sky and suddenly, we were driving past a wall that may have been related a fort. ‘I pulled over, got out and clicked one of the most memorable photographs. I like to call this ‘The Moon and Asirgarh’.

Looking a bit further ahead, and raising my gaze, I on the left of the road, there lay the fort that looked formidable enough to justify all that I had read about it – Asirgarh. Situated about 20 kilometers before Burhanpur, the fort requires the better part of the day to visit properly so I had to be content with several photos from down below.

I was so caught up in my own thoughts taking photos of the fort and the lengthening shadows that while taking the photo given below, my mother called out loudly to watch for the incoming traffic (a truck sped past from my left, on the road that I hadnt expected to be in working conditiion). (Xerxes had to retreat and march on the double as the sun would set soon)

Having got a good enough warning from her, I got into the driving seat and in the next thirty minutes we were negotiating the in-city traffic of Burhanpur – a city that I had read a fair bit about and definitely wanted to visit. ‘An Introduction to the Geography and History of India’ by Charles Alfred Browne speaks of ‘Boorhanpoor’ as being ‘situated in a fine plain of the Tuptee, one of the largest and best built cities in the Dekkan and abundantly supplied with water’. As we got into town we were so dismayed by the amount of dirt and filth in the streets. It appears today that the town has been slowly decaying for centuries. The wall that surrounds the old city is very impressive and runs for miles (literally) but is often broken in pieces and sometimes wholly so for several meters.

We continue to move past burhanpur on the road that was to join the MSH8 (Maharashtra State Highway 8) south and south-west now.

Night crept up quietly.

Successive toll booth operators on the lovely MSH8 had advised us to stick to the road that went towards Edalabad, but post burhanpur, we were asked to go towards Jamner and then ask about the way to Phardapur. At this point, I also called up Mr A K Sayyad, manager of the MTDC resort at Phardapur where I had a booking. He tried his best to help with directions but we figured that driving in the dark in unknown territories, it was best to ask around as frequently as needed.

At around seven we were on a road through some of the most desolate territory we encountered in the entire trip. It was pitch dark on a two lane road and not a single car was in sight. My mother was especially worried but I continued driving and suddenly we reached a well-lit, four lane highway. It turned out to be nothing more than the state border and the area was an octroi post with large truck lay-byes giving the illusion of the road having grown an additional two lanes. We had entered Maharashtra. After this, the road was again, two lanes and dark with no reflectors for most of the way. I pretty much drove in the middle of the road, pulling to the left only when an occasional bus came up from behind.

The next ray of hope came when we saw a stream of lights from a great distance, as if the horizon was lit again! As we reached closer, we saw it was a four way, unmanned road junction where motorists and truck drivers alike were following an unforced rule of letting the person who reached the junction first, go first. The person who reached first would dip his headlight twice in quick succession and go. This heart rending display of common sense and civility in an unlit road crossing in the middle of nowhere in India was very touching.

As I was waiting for my turn, I read the large green sign across the road after the crossing - it said ‘Ajintha Leni’ ahead. So we were now set to cross great eastern expressway and were clearly on the right path. Delighted, I sped up, jumped my turn and the crossing, causing the heart of many a civil truck driver, patiently waiting for perhaps half hour or more to skip a beat or two.

I stopped the next time on a three-way where the left turn went to Malkapur and the straight to Jamner (to confirm that we were going in the right direction). After an hour plus of hard driving in pitch darkness, we pulled into the MTDC Fardapur resort at 9 pm sharp. My estimate is it had taken me about three hours to cover the 120 kilometers between Burhanpur and Phardapur in night conditions (6 pm to 9 pm). It had taken my father about three and a half hours to drive between Maheshwar and Burhanpur in daylight - a distance of 180 kms including diversions.

We got into our room quickly. There was only one more room that was occupied in the AC wing (quite unnecessary at that time of the year, thought Xerxes, but Darius had insisted, bringing out points such as ‘quality of furnishings’ and other non-essentials). The photo below is of the rooms – each is an independent condominium style room with enough parking space out front for your own truck.

We hurriedly went for dinner in the large, efficient cafeteria that was surprisingly abuzz with activity at that hour, quite unusual for a place of Phardapur’s size. Alu-Gobhi never tasted so good!!

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