'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Chitrakoot - Shah Jahan's Shadow

"Lovely Sita, behold the hill of Chitrakoot, as powerful a presence as a virile bull in heat - with the roar of its innumerable waterfalls for thunderous bellows and cloud fragments resting on its rocky pinnacles for mud sticking to the horns after a vigorous assault on a mud bank!

And yonder, like a pearl necklace, the Mandakini meanders away, her abundant waters having begun to clear after the surge of the monsoon"

- from Kalidasa's 'Raghuvamsam'.

Chitrakoot (literally 'beautiful hill') is where Lord Rama, Sita and Laxmana spent the first few months of their forest exile. It comprises several sites including the Ram Ghat area that straddles both the river Mandakini and the UP-MP border and the Chitrakoot hill proper - this hill also goes by the name Kamadgiri - that lies a few kilometers within MP. I got to spend a few hours there on a crisp and clear November morning(*).

You can walk around Kamadgiri - a 5 kilometer walk around its wooded and out-of-bounds core. The trail is paved and studded with temples. I saw no towering peaks or tumbling waterfalls here. But not far is the more rugged Hanuman Dhara hill which might possess both.

And there are several other sacred sites in the area - I visited none.

Not far from Chitrakoot is the historic fort of Kalinjar; it has the distinction of being the only Desi site that saw the death in action of a Delhi-based 'Sultanic' invader. The sad part is that the invader in question was easily one of our very best rulers - Sher Shah. I left it for a future visit.

Chitrakoot and the surrounding region of Bundelkhand has a very thin (by northern standards) Muslim presence - census figures reveal a population share of under 5%. Even invasions-wise, there wasn't much. Akbar conquered the area but Aurangzeb pretty much lost most of it to the vigorous warlord Chhatrasal. Chhatrasal in turn had to face and survive a siege from the Bangash Afghans of Allahabad. To my limited knowledge, that was about that as far as clash-of-religions politics went in these parts. And there don't seem to be any noteworthy Muslim monuments in this area. Then what is the deal about Shah Jahan who probably never came this side?

Indeed, as we shall presently see, the builder of the Taj has managed to cast a much realer and far richer shadow over Chitrakoot than his ancestor Babar has over Rama's birthplace Ayodhya. So here begins our main story...

First some recap: Back in 2009, fresh from a visit to Delhi, I wrote here:

"At the Red Fort in Delhi... I was particularly impressed by the compact marble edifices and their beautifully proportioned arches. I overheard a guide telling people how the liberal Emperor Shah Jahan embellished Islamic buildings with Hindu-style arches (he meant the ones formed by several small arcs with a sharp outward point in the center ). Indeed, it is generally said that arches with just the outward point in the middle (and no arcs) are more purely Muslim and the ones with many arcs plus the central outward point are more Hindu.
The idea of constructing a *structural* arch from appropriately cut stones was never implemented in India until the advent of Muslims. And even when the arch was adopted (after some initial resistance, it appears) into temple-designs (both Hindu and Jain) and into secular buildings such as palaces (mostly around Rajasthan), the many-arcs-within-the-arch pattern appears to have been so heavily favored and the single-outward-point one was so totally excluded (both for rather mysterious reasons) that the above 'communal divide' came about. Anyways, *both* patterns were (almost certainly) originally Muslim innovations..."
(Both these types of arches feature in the pics at the bottom of this page)
A much better-informed treatment of the same subject is here:

The above page also informs us that Shah Jahan is often credited with inventing the 'Hindu' arch - the arch with many cusps and a central outward point.

Now, let us look at some pictures gathered from Ramghat and the Kamadgiri circuit. On seeing them in succession, doesn't a clear pattern emerge?

Make no mistake, every single structure above is a Hindu temple or shrine or ashram or Dharamsala but none looks anywhere like the stereotypical north Indian temple. I mean this kind of object:

One can't but infer that most Hindu buildings in Chitrakoot are basically very Muslim - teeming as they are with hemispherical domes sitting on square or octagonal bases and ornate arches - Shahjahani and otherwise ( and those glorious blue domes and walls bring to mind Samarkand or Isfahan!). Indeed, I would prefer to think of the place as a gallery of joyous vulgarizations of the best of Mughal architecture, lacking the absolute precision (**), stateliness and regal grandeur of the latter but imbued with an authentic local flavor and absolutely unfettered spirit. Here are some more specimens - I am sure Shah Jahan wouldn't mind them:

Note: on either side of the main doorway above can be seen wall niches very reminiscent of those I saw at Khusro Bagh, Allahabad - had mentioned them in a post here last year.

Note: The above pic is of the facade of a dharamsala run by an organization representing the 'prajapati' caste. The central figure shows Brahma molding a pitcher - the prajapatis are traditionally potters.

I don't mean to say every edifice at Chitrakoot is exclusively Mughal-inspired. See this:

Nowhere else have I seen such a smart and perky Siva bull:

Inspiration has come to Chitrakoot from overseas as well. For instance, here is a building with a quaint coat of arms displayed prominently:

As a certain Smart Alec pointed out to me, the central portion of the coat-of-arms (ie the portion after leaving out the Desi Garuda and Hanuman) features a lion and a *two-horned-unicorn* - just like the British 'Dieu et mon Droit'.

Questions: No serious building in present day Chitrakoot (possible exception: those twin domed pavilions up above) appears to be more than a couple of centuries old and this is a place that has been holy even before Tulsidas stayed there and made a practice of applying a Tilak to every approaching devotee (16th century). So, where are the old temples? Is the trajectory of Chitrakoot similar to that of Banaras - total annihilation and regeneration? Did Sher Shah, on his way to Kalinjar (he wasn't that type, really) or someone else flatten it? Or was Chitrakoot just a jungle Tirtha like say Laxmanjhoola (Uttarakhand), an outpost where temples came up much later than in cities?

Tailpiece: IAS man and sholar Raju Narayanaswami has to his credit a slim and deeply felt volume in Malayalam: 'A visit to Chitrakoot - on a new moon day'. Many years back, I had read and liked the book (although I could not connect with the 'new moon' therein since all his travel and site-seeing happens in broad daylight on a summer day) but forgotten most details. The other day, I reread the book and was struck by one simple fact - I missed most of what Swami had seen and Swami had ignored practically everything that I focused on.
(*) I was visiting Allahabad and planned a day trip to Ayodhya. But then, I was told very unceremoniously: "You are not going to Ayodhya; no, not even anywhere near there!". Chitrakoot was my plan B - and a happy one at that.
The 130 odd kilometer drive from Allahabad, cutting deep into Bundelkhand, took nearly 4 hours - the highway condition was mostly bad and frequently pathetic. The villages we passed were dusty and impoverished, teeming with frail-looking children. Agriculture is the mainstay but the fields had a tired and poorly fertile look. Towards the end of the journey was some rugged ravine country and finally just before the destination, the straggling town of Karvi.
And we saw written on perhaps over a hundred walls all along our path, advertisements for a certain 'Hakeem Rehmani', expert conjurer of virility-enhancing Unani medicines.
(**) indeed, I am curious as to the units of length and angle the Mughal master-builders used; beauty apart, the dimensions and alignment of the red fort buildings have a near preternatural precision. See these:


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