When it rains in Mandu, it’s magical. The pitter patter, the ever spatter, and the cool breeze makes Mandu, a small hamlet in western Madhya Pradesh, one of the ultimate romantic monsoon destinations in India. Throw in a tragic love story in the back drop of a few monuments that exude history, and you know that you are in for a treat.
We took a trip to Mandu, many a monsoon back, but the varied hues of green meeting the grey horizon still remain fresh in our minds.
This is a guest post by Rajesh containing excerpts from a post by him published elsewhere.
She was an ordinary village girl, extraordinarily beautiful and blessed with a divine voice. He was a Sultan, handsome, a lover of music and poetry, and content in his small fort kingdom up on a hill.
He heard her singing by the riverside on his way back from hunting one day, and asked her to join him in his palace. She agreed but laid out one condition – the rive Narmada was her goddess and she couldn’t bear to live without seeing and worshipping her. The Sultan consented to build her a pavilion at the edge of a cliff, next to his own palace, so that she could watch the river flowing down in the valley. When the clouds loomed over the hills and the plains, she found it difficult to see the river and would not eat a morsel till she sighted it.
One night, the river goddess visited her in her dreams and told her to dig a tank near her quarters. When this was done, the holy waters come surging up and filled the tank. The queen was ecstatic and lived contentedly with her beloved, till… the dark clouds of a cruel fate gathered over their idyllic land and lives. A powerful emperor sent his merciless general who vanquished the Sultan causing him to flee the kingdom. But before the general could seek out the beautiful queen and make her his own, she chose to die a brave and honourable death by consuming poison.
As we walked up the leafy country lane, spellbound by the tragic tale of Rani Rupmati, we saw the pavilion rise up like an apparition in the distance. In a natural frame of dark, looming rain clouds, it was hard to imagine that the Rani was not up on the terrace, gazing at the eternity of the Nimar plains. Looking at Rani Rupmati’s pavilion on that misty morning, we knew we were in a lost world of romance and tragedy – Mandu!
As he pointed at the chatris in front of us, our guide said in a conclusive tone, ‘…and that is Rani Rupmati’s pavilion, where she lived and loved – her music, her beloved and her Narmada. And when Adham Khan – Emperor Akbar’s general – and his large army attacked Mandu causing Sultan Baz Bahadur to flee his kingdom, the brave and virtuous Rani chose to consume poison and die an honourable death.’
I first read about Mandu in a bold, confident ad that seemed to hold its own among others that smacked of marketing disingenuousness. The reason? The monsoons had just begun, the time of the year that the tourism industry loathes. But the Mandu ad stood out in its honesty, proudly inviting anyone with a love of heritage, and a love of…well, love itself.
But it took a few more monsoons for us to make that trip. Not that we had forgotten Mandu. For one, the visions conjured up in my mind of a fort city shrouded in eternal mist was hard to fade. And, the poignant love story of Rani Rupmati and Baz Bahadur was one that moved us to see its setting for real.
We arrived in Mandu on an August evening when the mist hung heavy in the air and droplets of rain alternately fell and held back in pure indecision. As the climb began from the plains off Dhar, the road became narrower and less crowded. In an hour of taking in the countryside from the growing altitude, the first signs of reaching our destination spread out before us. We were crossing the Kakra Khoh ravine. The deep gorges on either side helped navigate us forward and, soon, the Alamgir gate saw us into the age-old township of Shadiabad, the city of joy, modern day Mandu.
Even in the failing daylight, the silhouettes of Mandu’s icons seemed to tell their tales. Incidentally, the heritage spots here are divided into 3 zones – the Royal Enclave, the Central group and the Rewa Kund group. The MP tourism resort we were booked in was near the Rewa Kund group. With the day almost over, there was just time to catch up on the remnants of a tranquil Mandu evening by the lake next to the resort. The next day would be a pleasantly long one – and we had an appointment with some of the characters of that old story.
Early the next morning, we thought it best to invest in a guide and set off to unravel the mysteries of Mandu. In about twenty minutes and a rendering of the tale, we were standing before Rani Rupmati’s pavilion. At the southern end, near the edge of the hills that fall down over 300 m into the valley below, the Queen’s pavilion looks more like a vision. Originally built as an army observation post, two square pavilions with hemispherical domes were added for the queen – to look out at the Narmada flowing in the Nimar plains on the south, and her king’s palace on the north. From the top, the view is sensational – as though an oil painting were hung from the skies. As far as the eye could see, the plains that were swathed in a rainy film spread out forever, with the Narmada appearing to be more a meandering stream than the great river it is.
We climbed down and walked over to Rewa Kund where an aqueduct from the Narmada sanctifies the reservoir that once united Rupmati with her goddess. The reverence continues to this day. A complete parikrama of the Narmada is said to take 3 years, 3 months and 3 days, culminating in a dip in Rewa Kund. A little way ahead, Baz Bahadur’s palace is clearly a shadow of its once glorious past. A large court with a dried-up fountain adorned the middle as halls spread out on all sides. These were, besides the king’s personal spaces, also used as meeting points for the public and court officials.
We drove back and stopped at Echo Point for an amazing demonstration of 15th century acoustics in today’s age. Useful, indeed, to convey critical news like the advent of an enemy’s army or the birth of a child. Towards the west, at the edge of a steep gorge is the Hindu shrine of Nilkanth. Pilgrims flock to witness the sight of a stream that flows in into a sacred pond around which a Shiva temple now stands. An example of the strong secular fabric of the times can be seen in the remnants of a palace built by Emperor Akbar for his Hindu wife. On the way back, a strange single storeyed structure, with arches leading into small cells, caught our attention. This was the infamous Chor Kot – the central jail of Mandu where the villains of the times cooled their heels!
We parked outside the Jahaz Mahal and looked in awe. The building looked like a grand ship ready to sail. A museum containing a wide range of ancient sculptures stands at the entrance. All of 120 m in length, Jahaz Mahal is a double storied structure that seems to float between Munji Talao and Kapur Talao. A veritable pleasure palace, this was where Sultan Ghiyasuddin Khilji ruled and lived with his large harem of 15,000 women. Such was the irresistible charm of Jahaz Mahal that even Emperor Jahangir couldn’t resist residing here with his queen, Nur Jahan. And the view from the top gives you an all-encompassing vista of the entire Royal enclave and its rich heritage.
Just beyond, the Hindola Mahal stands in all its uniqueness. Considered an architectural masterpiece, the swing palace gives the impression of the inwardly sloping sides swaying. The perfect setting for a Sultan to hold his durbar. Adjacent to the Hindola Mahal is the Champa Baoli, an architectural marvel that is a network of underground vaults connected to a specially constructed well provides for hot and cold scented water for the inmates of the mahal. The royal hammam, more a sauna bath, gives a glimpse of the sophistication of the times.
A short walk away in the enclave is the cluster showcasing two more wells, the Ujali and Andheri baolis. Another attraction is the Nahar Jharokha which boasts of being the spot where Jahangir was said to have conferred on Prince Khurram the title of Shah Jahan following his victories in the Deccan. A unique, though crumbling, structure is Gada Khan’s shop, the departmental store of the times run by the wealthy and adept merchant, Gada Khan who supplied all materials from the sultan to the masses.
From the royalty, we moved back – to the Central group, with its equally impressive monuments. Inspired by the great mosque of Damascus, the Jami Masjid with its perfectly proportioned domes arrest you in its simple magnificence. As we walked up to an imposing court, the architecture blossomed in the huge colonnades with its myriad arrangement of arches and pillars that spread out in effortless symmetry.
Behind the Masjid stands the building now famous as the structure that moved Shah Jahan to model the Taj on. Housing Hoshang Shah’s tomb, this is the first marble edifice in the country, modeled on classical Afghan architecture. It’s hard not to find parallels here with the Taj right from the perfect domes, the intricate lattice work and the four towers that mark the corners. Inside, it was just deathly silence and the tombs of the Shah and his wives.
In this ancient world, what could be older than these forts themselves? Not far from the royal enclave lies the answer – the Lohani caves that date back to the 11th century AD. Overlooking the expansive valley, the caves are cut out of the rock face and were, supposedly, used by yoginis as shelter. A cistern filled with flowing water has to be negotiated to reach the cave’s entrance. Stone carvings and sculptures excavated from here now are preserved in the museum next to Hoshang’s tomb. Above, there is a sunset point that offers the best of sundown sights in the city of joy.
Despite spending a day in Mandu and gorging on its wealth, there were still stray jewels lying all over that we hadn’t yet seen. With the guide having done with his day’s work, we set off for some sightseeing of our own. Nearer to our resort, we walked past the thick baobab trees and buzzing villages towards a smattering of interesting monuments at Sagar Talao. The Dai ka Mahal used to house the wet nurses of the day; the Dai ka Chhotti Behan ka Mahal nearby; the pleasing contours of the Caravanserai with its many rooms for the traveller of the times; the Hathi Mahal to house the hordes of elephants.
With the failing light of the setting sun falling like a curtain on the sets of a historical play, we staggered amidst the ruins of this ghost town caught in an eternal time warp. The next morning, we were packed and on the road again early. The monuments on the Western Zone sat by like tired, old women clumsily draped in a white cloak of fog. The Royal Enclave seemed to be stirring awake and the Jahaz Mahal beginning its drift to nowhere.
As we exited the Alamgir gate, it was only clear why Mandu is considered poetry in stone, a celebration of love. Passing through the verdant Vindhya range, the sun had come out on the hillsides, leaving behind Mandu in a permanent, heavy mist. And in that surreal world lay the inscrutable mysteries of a dreamland – complete with a beautiful queen, her besotted Sultan, a song of life and an elegy of death.
Mandu had kept its promises. It’s one of those journeys that takes you to that lost corner of the heart that is just waiting to be discovered.
Here is a link to the original article posted at oktatabyebye
What would you do if you had only an evening in Guwahati? Spend those precious hours at the expanse of the calm and unhurried Brahamputra. That’s what we did.
We were at the fag end of our 21-day sojourn through the north eastern states. We were in Guwahati for just a night before catching our flight back home.
From the hotel we hailed a rickshaw and said “Ghat”. Looking at us and seeing that we were not locals he raised his eyebrow and said “Suruj “. Yes, we wanted to see the famed sunset on the Brahmaputra River.
We were dropped at the Fancy Bazaar Ghat. A few boats were anchored to the shore, swaying to the lullabies of the waves. A few others, probably the last ones of the day, were trying desperately to get back to the shore. It was only 4.30 pm, but the sun was already down to its brightest red.
The river completely mesmerized us. Not only with its beauty, but also with its sheer size and huge expanse. How can you call something so vast like Brahmaputra, a river?
Brahmaputra looked more like an ocean – a moving one. It’s so different to sit by a river, who is addressed in the masculine gender. Brahmaputra, Son of Brahma, the only ‘Nad’ (नद) in India. You get a different kind of vibe from ‘him’; you can feel the strength and energy, the hidden danger lurking inside the depths, often expressed when he comes to full strength, during monsoons.
Brahmaputra is the life line of Assam. More than the religious importance, this river evokes a sense of pride in the people. At the same time people have suffered when the river has come full throttle.
“Luitor Bolia baan, toloi koloi nu dhapoli meliso, hir hir sowode kal roop dhori loi kaak nu bare bare khediso.” [Jayanta Hazarika]
“Oh the maddening floods of Luit, where are you heading this time. Whom are you chasing again with the frightening sound of your waves.“
We walked along the banks to get a better view of the sun. The banks were not without the usual share of the city’s grime. Did we hear a silent scream? “Clean me and preserve me for posterity”. Did we miss his pain in our relentless effort to capture one of his golden moments in our cameras.
Was he calling to us silently, welcoming us to explore the deep waters. The smallest river island – Umananda Island – in his midst beckoning us to the shores. We didn’t venture in.
Why, if the water that flows through the river beds is the same, does this river take many a name in its course. Originating as Yarlung Tsangpo from Kailash Manasarovar in Tibet, in Arunachal Pradesh, Brahmaputra is known as the Siang River. In Assam, Brahmaputra River is also known as ‘Luit’ or the red one.
But what’s in a name, right? I could be anyone you would want me to be.
It was finally time for our journey back to reality. The magic of Brahmaputra was coming with us. Just like the music of Bhupen Hazarika, whose popularity traveled thousands of miles beyond these shores.
And as we flicked the sand off our clothes and made our way to a waiting rickshaw, we turned back for one more time to look at him. He didn’t let us down. Brahmaputra still glistened like gold in the setting sun.
Photo credits: Rajesh
Let’s first put a few realities on the table. Not many tourists have Arunachal Pradesh on their travel agenda. Which is just as good for those of us who want to keep their special discoveries all to ourselves!
Half a century ago, India suffered its worst military attack, and subsequent defeat, throwing open a gaping hole at the border, and proving how unprepared India was, militarily and politically. On the 50th anniversary of the Chinese invasion, this post is dedicated to some of our bravest soldiers who fought, who died, and who went missing during Indo-China War, 1962.
In November 1962, TIME magazine paid a tribute to the Indian soldiers who fought in the Indo-China War in Walong. It said, ‘At Walong, Indian troops lacked everything. The only thing they did not lack was guts’.In October 1962, when the Chinese planned their incursion into the north-eastern sector inIndia, a region they would later call the “Tiger’s mouth”, they exposed the unready state of the Indian military. At the same time, what stood out was the heroic resistance of the Indian soldiers. The tragic bloodshed took place around the hills in Namti , near Walong, which has a special place in the history of India’s battles.
From 22 October 1962 till the fall of Walong, on the 16th of November 1962, soldiers from the Sikh, Kumaoni, Gorkha and Dogra regiments fought a common enemy, shoulder-to-shoulder, in this unknown territorry. Ill-equipped and totally under prepared for such battles, some of the soldiers had to withdraw, crawling through the treacherous terrain. The rest of the soldiers never received any orders. Totally cut from their battalion, the soldiers fought it out to the last bullet, to the last man, till there was nothing left.
When the firing was over, and cease-fire declared, the army returned to the inhospitable terrain only to find that the Chinese had marked the positions of the dead. The Indian bunkers showed the dead where they had last manned their weapons. The Chinese had at least paid respect to their dead enemies – all the bodies were covered.
It is not uncommon to find the remains of the war, even now. Burnt pieces of army uniforms, fire arms, live ammunition, and other personal items lie scattered under rocks, tall grass and pine trees on the mountains.In July 2010, the Border Road Task Force found a circular identity disc, PIS No. 3950976, and a silver ring, while clearing landslides in Walong. When the army checked the war records, they found that the disc belonged to Sepoy Karam Chand Katoch of the 4th Dogra Regiment. The local army unit then dug the area and found the remains of Karam Chand, along with a fountain pen, dilapidated pay book and a few ammunition. His mortal remains were flown to his home in Palampur, in Himachal Pradesh, from where, as a 19 year old soldier, he had left home to fight for his mother land. Before they flew his mortal remains, he was given a full honor salute at the War Memorial in Walong.
How tragic that the selfless acts of bravery goes unknown to the majority of Indians?
The next morning, up early, we drove further east. The first stop, just outside Walong town and past the Army complex, was the memorial built by the Lohit Brigade to salute the brave and selfless sacrifices made by the Army men during the 1962 war. Known as the ‘Hut of Remembrance’, here the names of each of the martyrs who had laid down their lives in defence of the Lohit valley in 1962 is etched in marble.
We spent a few minutes walking around the black marble plaques, reading the names of the young soldiers who fought on the rugged mountain tops, suffering from extremes of cold, hunger and thirst, only to lay down their lives for our better tomorrow. It was a sombre moment for both of us.
The war memorial and epitaph that I mentioned in the previous post stands on the Namti Plains, by the Lohit River, to commemorate the exemplary sacrifice of our brave soldiers.
But before visiting the war memorial we had to take a detour to Tilam. Just 4 km out of town, Tilam is known for its hot springs that, reportedly, have medicinal properties. On the banks of the springs a brand new circuit house was getting readied. We parked in front of the circuit house and walked down to the springs. Though a bit dirty, the water was boiling hot.
We walked a bit further over a hanging bridge to where the climb up to Dong village begins. Overlooking Burma and China, this village has cornered the distinction of being the Indian habitation to catch the first rays of the sun. It’s a climb of an hour and a half hour which needs to be commenced at 3 in the morning, and not without a guide or a local.
It was in the turn of the last millennium when flocks of tourists swarmed to the hill top here to catch the first rays of the first sunrise of the 21st century light up the Dong valley and, in time, the rest of the country. We wanted to walk to ‘Millennium Point’ at Dong but we had to take permission from the Indian Army and without a permit no one could go.
Promising that we would take the walk to Dong the next time, we climbed back into our vehicle. Our next destination was Kaho. On the climb up to Kaho, there was little traffic. The Namti plains stretched before our eyes, pretty and pine laden. After a brief stop at the war memorial we proceeded further.
With every turn, the mountains on the Chinese side grew larger in view. The settings were so surreal. I was trying to imagine the place about 50 years back. A yellow board reminded us of being on the eastern most road in India.
We crossed a few metal bridges and were now driving along the Lohit River. Jayantoda mentioned that all these bridges had been replaced recently from the traditional ones. A ‘traditional’ one still hung precariously a bit further. We were standing in front of what the Mishmis call a ‘bridge’. In reality, it was just a lot of planks tied together that straddled both the banks of the Lohit. At that great height, the uncontrollable swing of the bridge and the turquoise water raging down below, a walk up to the other end and back needs some steely nerves. And I had to do it.
Mission accomplished, we drove into Kaho, a small village on the eastern most border, situated in a small valley surrounded by towering mountain peaks, most of them on the Chinese side. Kaho has around nine households. Cutting into the serenity of this small village is the constant presence of the Army all around and after all, the Line of Actual Control is not too far from here. Besides the village school, a monastery and a small tea shop cum PCO, Kaho is all about silence and the virgin beauty that the landscape offers.
We walked in to the Lohit Goodwill school and said hello to the children there. The teacher, apologetic about the poor attendance – the school had just reopened after Dushera – showed us into her class rooms. There were only four children, five were absent. The teacher herself had reached the previous night from Tezu, her home town, after the holidays.
From the school we walked up to the monastery only to realize that it was closed. A short climb up from the monastery is an Indian Army outpost and we paid them a courtesy visit. The two jawans at the look out were gracious enough to point out where the border lies and the various peaks on both sides and allowed us a quick peek through their binoculars at Chinese side.
“I can see a house with blue paint”, I said triumphantly. “Well, the Chinese can see the print on your dress, Madame”, one of the jawan said teasingly. “They have a binoculars powerful than ours and they are constantly monitoring the civilian traffic in our area. If they see more traffic, they get stressed out and if they get stressed out, it indirectly affects our sleep”. For civilians like us this journey is just a picture in an album, a page in a book. For the army its the whole volume.
On the way back, we drove up to Kibithu, currently the brigade HQ of the Indian Army.
Here civilian entry is monitored if not entirely restricted. We had to give our details at the check post. The helipad here used to be an attraction for the great views it offered. Presently, it is out of bounds for anyone who is not army and photography is not permitted.
We stopped for lunch in one of the small restaurants there. I never knew that the humble 2-minute Maggie could be so delicious.There was one more place to visit before we drove back to our guest house. Equally touching and another must-see point in Walong is the Helmet Top, 18 kms by road above Walong. A patriotic pilgrimage of sorts that every Indian needs to take, Helmet Top was once a vantage point for the Indian army. During the war, a few of the Indian soldiers were stranded here. None of their counterparts back at the headquarters were aware of this. Exposed to the cold, suffering from hunger, thirst and frost bite, the soldiers were left to die. It is said that, after the battle was over, all that remained of the gallant Indian defenders were their helmets. Today, a memorial stands in a grim reminder of their courage and commitment. We started our climb up to Helmet top. The air got cooler, and the houses and the river got smaller and smaller. The road was concrete for around 10 km or so, after which it was all gravel and sand. Jayantoda had to get down at a few places to remove a stone which must have rolled down or a fallen tree branch.
We must have covered around 15 km, and the white war memorial building was visible through the pine trees up above. But luck seemed to evade us. A big rock now lay in front of us blocking the whole road. We didn’t even try to move it, it was that huge. Jayantoda said if it had been a kilometer or so we could have tried walking to the top. But this was a risk. We were trying to find the positive side in it. What if the rock had fallen after we had passed that way? We would have had to spend the night at Helmet Top. Dejected, we decided to turn back.
On the way down we stopped at a small water fall and plucked a few wild oranges that could not have been more sour.
We decided to walk around the town before sun down. We met the same kids we had seen yesterday and they insisted on not only taking a few more photographs of them but also seeing the pictures we had taken yesterday. In return I was presented with a few wild flowers.
The sun was going down and this was our last night in Walong. When I closed my eyes, trying to sleep, along with the mountains and valleys that came rolling by, a small poem composed by a Walong veteran kept ringing in my ears.
- The sentinel hills that round us stand
- bear witness that we loved our land.
- Amidst shattered rocks and flaming pine
- we fought and died on Namti Plain.
- O Lohit gently by us glide
- pale stars above us softly shine
- as we sleep here in sun and rain.
We had to come back another time, for we had promised ourselves a sunrise at Dong and a prayer at Helmet Top.
In 2011, in the month of October, we spent 21 days in the north-eastern states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. I am publishing a few posts this October to mark the anniversary of our travels on those lesser trodden paths. It is a year since we traveled to the north-east, but there is not a single day that we are not reminded of the beauty and the magic of the place.
On a cold night in the month of November, way back in 1962, when the whole of India was slumbering under a cosy woollen blanket enjoying the early winter temperature, a few weary soldiers were battling with whatever remained of their last energy trying to fend off the enemy from the north-eastern most corner of their mother land. The ‘Battle for Walong’ was about the worst of fighting conditions – cold weather, treacherous terrain, outnumbered troops, ‘orders’ that never reached and a slimy enemy – all weighing heavily on the Indian soldiers. For 22 days, they gallantly fought with limited resources, but with unlimited ferocity and aggression. Eventually, the Chinese crossed the Lohit River and completed the ‘Fall of Walong’ on the 16thNovember, 1962.
We were standing in front of a newly built memorial that the Lohit Brigade had constructed on the Namti plains, overlooking the Lohit River, where most of the crossfire had taken place 50 years ago. The black granite stone tells, in a poignantly written tribute, the story of the “bloody nose” that the Indian Army gave the enemy and the pledge that “Walong will never fall again”.
The previous day we had started early from Tezu, the district headquarters of the Lohit district. Leaving behind the shaded avenues and the spacious government quarters, we took the road out of Tezu to Demwe. It was only past 7.00 am, but was warm enough for us to throw away our sweaters. We passed the road that wound up to the Tafragam village and passed hordes of school girls on cycles making their way up to Vivekananda Kendra Vidyalaya in Tafragam.
Just before the Demwe bridge we passed a map of Arunachal Pradesh that had been elaborately painted on to a wall by the Border Roads also known as GREF in these areas. Before our journey to Arunachal we had scoured the net and book stalls for maps, but never did we come across such a neat map. The map showed the distances from Demwe to most of the major villages and towns across Arunachal Pradesh. According to the map, we had 190 km more to cover to reach our destination – Walong.Further up the road, another sign reminded us that the ‘hill sector’ had started. We reached a Y-junction. Here the NH 37 coming up from Chowkham via Parasuramkund joins in on the journey. We climbed up the road, moved ahead of the the Hawa pass and reached the Hawa army camp. Just above the army camp was a view point.
We got down from our Scorpio to spend some time at the viewpoint. The views from here were amazing. The panoramic view of the magnificent Lohit valley spread across our eyes. Aptly named the Lohit view point, Jayantoda said that this place was best known for the sunset and sunrise. The Lohit River lay there glistening in the early sunlight.
There was very little water in the river and the white sand banks stood out in contrast with the numerous shallow water channels. Further left we could also catch a glimpse of the Parasuramkund and the newly built bridge across the river. That bridge led to Wakro, our home away from home.
Lohit is the farthest eastern most tributary of Brahmaputra. The Lohit River originates from the Tirap Phasi ranges in Eastern Tibet and enters India through Kibithu, a small village lying at the border. After entering India, the river traverses though the Mishmi hills of the Anjaw and Lohit district and joins the Brahmaputra after travelling for about 200 km through the red laterite soils of the Lohit basin, thus giving it the name – the ‘river of blood’. On our journey to Walong, we would be tracing the Lohit River back to Kibithu where it enters into the territory of India.
From here on, the route snakes up and there is not much for company other than the high-ceilinged mountains and the feisty Lohit river playing a constant consort all the way up to Walong and beyond. And there are a good 200 km of near empty road ahead all the way to our destination. Occasionally, we came across the odd jeep – this is not classic car territory – or a bike. Tourists are a rarity in these parts and most of the Sumos and Scorpios are busy ferrying locals from the many far flung villages higher up to Tezu and Tinsukia and back. We were ourselves in good hands with both our Scorpio and its driver, Jayantoda, as seasoned as the other. The one other traffic of note was the small convoys of Army trucks that were, customarily, given the right of way.
Whenever an army truck came against us Jayantoda would ask the driver at the head of the convoy, with a gesture of his hand, the number of trucks in the convoy. And the army driver would, in turn, gesture with his hand the number of trucks in the convoy.
We crossed the ‘Udayak Pass’ and then came to a small shrine that was built by the road side. A place where accidents occurred frequently, the locals had built this shrine so that the travellers could pay respect to all the Gods and Goddesses before commencing on their journey to the eastern most part of the north east.
We prayed and paid our respects, to all those Gods and all those nameless fellow travellers who had lost their lives, for our safe journey. By 9 am we rolled into a small village, Salangam.
Jayantoda had planned our breakfast here. And moreover the next big village was Hayuliang, 2 hours and 46 km away. After a simple breakfast of ‘roti-dal-onion-chilly’ we were on the road again.
There was something very odd about the vegetation in these areas. Every tree, plant, shrub and undergrowth looked as if they were on steroids. The ferns looked liked palm trees and the humble bamboo thickets were giant in size. Were the cattle on steroids as well? Right in front of us stood a fat cow-buffalo hybrid species. Our Scorpio came to a sudden halt and Jayantoda with all his enthusiasm pointed out and said ‘Mithun’.
I was not expecting Mithunda, of all people, to groove to the tunes of ‘Disco Dancer’ in a remote village in Anjaw district. Well, our Mithun was munching away on a green patch on the road side, totally unaware of its new found attention.
The Mithun are reared for meat and are highly preferred among the tribal people of North-East. Mithun is also used as a ceremonial animal in sacred traditional functions and as a gift to the bride in weddings thus playing an important role in the social and cultural life of the tribal people of North-East.
Leaving our Mithun behind, we drove further. Other than Hawai, the district headquarters of Anjaw district, Hayuliang is the biggest town en route to Walong. We stopped at the small fuel station at Khupa near Hayuliang to tank up our vehicle for the remaining 100 km drive up to Walong.
All along, Lohit was playing a loyal companion. Gushing loudly at times showing its true blue colours, turning a more paler turquoise on a few occasions, changing to a more greener hue and gelling well with the verdant surroundings, and on a very few occurrences turning to a more slaty black in the many whirlpools.
On the way we came across a lot of construction workers sweating themselves, toiling in the sun, trying to pave a better road for travellers like us.
We made a pit stop near the bridge to Hawai. The district headquarters of the newly created Anjaw District, Hawai is situated on a hill across the Lohit River. Promising ourselves that we would visit Hawai on our way back from Walong, we took a few snaps and continued on our journey to Walong.
Walong was about 50 km from Hawai. All throughout, the route was interspersed by sturdy metal bridges. A lot of these modern bridges are built by the Indian army and Border roads organisation. Other than these nondescript bridges, the many hanging bridges across the charging Lohit river are bound to catch one’s attention. We stopped at a couple and tested our guts and our resolve. Some of the hanging bridges we crossed were made of bamboo and wooden planks, apart from the metal cables that run along the side and connect it to the ends.
Leaving behind my acrophobic partner with Jayantoda, I tried crossing a fairly long hanging bridge. The floor of the bridge was creaking under my clumsy step and the entire bridge swinging in tandem. Below, through the gaps of missing wood planks, the mighty turquoise Lohit river was gushing and rushing loudly, leaving me breathless. And then a couple of school children came running along the bridge looking queerly at me and perhaps amused at my discomfort.
Well, practice does make one perfect. But what about fear of heights? Must be non-existent in these places. We drove into Walong by 3 pm but it looked as if it was just before sundown. In the muted evening sun, however, there was enough of the town to catch a glimpse of.
The first thing you would notice here is the silence. Other than the odd shout from a bunch of kids playing nearby, all we could hear was the unrestrained gurgle of the Lohit in its mad rush from the Chinese mountains up above. The small town of Walong is all about the settlement on either side for a few hundred metres. There are shops in a row on one side of the road and houses complete the line up on the other. The smattering of small structures apart, the only major signs of habitation is the large army base here.
The road splits and one led us up towards the side of the hills and to the Circuit House above. We were lucky to get a booking here for there is virtually no accommodation option otherwise. For the lone stay option, the Circuit House is delightfully good. The location, for one, couldn’t be better. From the vantage point above the Walong town, the rooms looked out on to the mountain peaks all around and the valley below.
In the distance, by its banks, the army settlement was a constant reminder of how sensitive a place it still was, despite all its serenity and beauty. As with all circuit houses, the warmth of the staff and the homely taste of the food is what sticks with you. But unlike many, it was uncharacteristically clean with spacious well appointed rooms with an uninterrupted power supply!
We had not had our lunch, so we went in search of food, as the kitchen was not yet open at the guest house. After buying the staple food of bread, jam and butter, we walked along the sparsely populated main road of Walong – a few shops were still open, a PCO, a provisional store, a tea stall and a barber shop. Men and women were seen huddled together around chatting, kids played in groups and the sun kept going down.
On the bank of the river, the army quarters spread out, the helipad standing out in contrast with the decorum of the camp. We climbed back to the circuit house through a short cut from the market, climbing up a steep flight of stone steps. As the last rays of the sun lit up the mountains and the river, the first electrical lights of Walong came on.
All night long, the chirping of the crickets and the gush of the Lohit completed the background score. We had a busy day tomorrow. For we had to pay our respects at the War Memorial, visit the hot springs at Tilam and travel on the eastern most road in India and visit the villages of Kaho and Kibithu located further ahead near the border. Before we knew, sleep and fatigue caught up and we dozed off.
After lunch, we resumed our journey through the busy bylanes of Bijapur. It had been an eventful first half and we were getting to know this heritage city better.
On the way, Mohammad Anwar explained how difficult it was to maintain a horse with such a paltry amount they got from the tourists. A lot of his fellow tonga riders had migrated to bigger cities for better prospects only to end up on the streets doing menial jobs. “The city’s tonga population is fast dwindling with a very few left.” he said. “How many tourists do you get a day?” I asked. “You need a whole day to visit all the monuments. I hardly get to take a couple of tourists a day and make around Rs. 200 to 250. The foreigners are ready to pay more, sometimes giving me a Rs 500 note. They even offer me food or invite me to the restaurant for lunch. They enjoy tonga rides and they just love talking to the drivers. But, sometimes we are harassed by local policemen and traffic cops and we have to part with a percentage of our earnings.”
I told him about the revival of the tonga carts in Lucknow, Agra and Old Delhi and how these carts would be used to take tourists to the historical sites with guides. A smile spread on his face for the first time. “The government should start this in Bijapur too. Madame, why don’t you write to someone about this.” I nodded my head. I did not know what else to do. Mohammad Anwar smiled again, his eyes fixed on the road. I knew his mind was elsewhere. Dreaming about that White Kurta and Lucknowi Jooti.
We got down near a board that said ‘Malik-e-Maidan’.
‘The Monarch of the Plains’ was no ordinary ruler. An Iron Man – this was the largest medieval cannon (whatever that means) in the world. According to the ASI board, about 4 m long, 1.5 m in diameter and weighing 55 tons, this canon was brought back from Ahmadnagar by Muhammad Adil Shah as a war trophy. It took 400 oxen, 10 elephants and thousands of soldiers to get the beast to Bijapur.
The canon was perched on a small tower, called the Sherzi-Buruz or the Lion Tower, named after the two lion sculptures carved at the entrance. We climbed a sprial staircase to reach the canon.
And there it lay, gleaming in the sun. The canon was an alloy of copper, iron and tin. The muzzle looked like the mouth of a tiger with open jaws with an elephant on both sides crushed by its sharp teeth. It is said that the sound from the canon was so deafening that the gunners would submerge their heads in water before firing.
The canon had a few inscriptions in Persian or Arabic embossed on to the surface. Not to mention the numerous people who had taken effort to deface this national treasure by carving in their names and even postal addresses. What a shame!! And it is said that if you touch the gun and make a wish, it will come true! But the poor canon had a heavy price to pay.
If this canon had found its way to the Crimson Drawing room in Windsor Castle in England with a “Presented by the Adil Shahi Emperor” tag, would it have been treated so shabbily? Yes, my friends, the British had planned to heave this canon to England, but dropped it for obvious reasons.
It was time for our next destination – the Uppali Burz. Built as a watch tower this 25 m high tower is reached by a winding flight of stone steps. We started climbing the steps amongst hordes of giggling school girls who were finding it difficult to control their skirts flying in the winds.
It was very windy at the top, but the view at the summit was breathtaking. You could make out most of the monuments of Bijapur from here. At the top of the tower, two long canons lay.
Our next sight seeing option was Bara Kaman.
Bara Kaman is the unfinished mausoleum of Ali Adil Shah II. The monarch had wished to build a mausoleum for himself that would be one of the best in planning and architecture. As per his plan, twelve arches were to be placed vertically and twelve horizontally surrounding his own tomb, thus giving the name Bara Kaman – 12 arches. The mausoleum was left incomplete with only a few vertical arches raised, however, twelve arches placed horizontally were completed.
The story is that Ali Adil Shah was murdered by his father Ibrahim Adil Shah to prevent him from constructing this magnificent structure. Ibrahim Adil Shah feared that Bara kaman would surpass the popularity of his Gol Gumbaaz. If completed, the shadow of the Bara Kaman would have fallen on Gol Gumbaaz.
Nobody knows who the architect was but some records point to Malik Sandal, who had built the Ibrahim Rouza. To build the arches he had used an innovative technique. He had built solid walls in the shape of an arch and then had the inner part toppled so that the outer arch remained. Some of the walls were found intact to prove this point.
The Bara Kaman looked unlike any monument we had seen. It looked more like the ruins of a Tudor church, only the tombs gave an indication that this was a mausoleum. We walked among the arches, taking photos of one meeting another at the corners. A single intact tomb had been raised on a platform and the rest were on ground level, some of them in ruins.
It was time for our final stop, the Gol Gumbaaz.
Gol Gumbaaz or the round dome, the mausoleum of Mohammad Adil Shah II, is a masterpiece of Islamic architecture and synonymous with Bijapur. Known as one of the largest domes in the world, Gol Gumbaaz is also unique in the fact that the dome is not supported by any pillars.
It was the last stop in our ride around Bijapur and also time to bid farewell to our excellent guide cum charioteer. Though we requested him to pose for a snap, he excused himself and suggested we click his horse instead.
The second largest dome in the world now stood before us. We still had a couple of hours for our train back and intended to make the most of it at the Gol Gumbaaz.
The complex was brimming with tourists. Probably this was everybody’s last stop on their itinerary. Right in front stood the Gol Gumbaaz in all its grandeur. The monument was partially hidden by a two-storied building with tall windows in the shape of arches. This was the Archaeological museum; we decided to gave it a skip seeing the serpentine queues. School children were jostling against each other to get inside the museum.
We followed a blue board that said ‘Way to Gol Gumbaaz’, rounded the museum and reached a single storey building. Passing through it we got our first unobstructed view of the Gol Gumbaaz.
This was one of that occasions when you wished you had a ‘wider’ angle lens. Sometimes your lens just doesn’t want to go back, far enough. But with glass that starts at 17 mm, we should not be complaining.
The massive brick dome is supported, as earlier mentioned – not by pillars, but by a system of eight intersecting arches that create an interlocking system that bears the load of the dome. This system of interlocking pendentives is not commonly found in India. On all the four sides of the monument were seven storied towers with arched windows. These towers held the spiral staircases one had to climb to reach the top. Now only two remain open, one for the climb up and the other for the climb down.
We entered the monument and checked out the tomb first. On a platform at the centre of the dome chamber lie the tombstones of Mohammad Adil Shah, his two wives, his son, his daughter and his mistress. The monarch’s tomb was covered by an ornamental wooden stand.
Their real graves lie in a chamber under the gallery. And thank God for that!! For all these centuries, these resting souls have had to endure something very horrendous that would probably be waking them up from their deep slumbers. For the Gol Gumbaaz is more famous for its “Whispering Gallery” which has now turned into a “Screaming Gallery”.
As we looked up to see from where the sounds or rather screeches were coming, we could see the rim of the gallery, near the ceiling of the dome, and people looking down, resembling a few ants on the wall.
We lined up behind a group of students for the hard climb up the seven stories to the whispering gallery. The stairs were narrow, spiral dark and claustrophobic. With every passing floor, we could hear the noise from up above rise. At first, it began as a distant drone but by the time we had heaved ourselves to the top, it was a blaring roar that seemed to echo itself many times over. Ten times over – to be precise.
Because of the dome’s remarkable acoustic properties, the faintest sound made at one end of the gallery can be clearly heard at the other end. Every sound echoes 10 times and reverberates for 26 seconds, the longest known reverberation count for any building.
We stepped out from the dark stair case and found ourselves on the roof of the monument and at the base of the dome. The view from the top was magnificent and a bit scary too – if you are afraid of heights.
The cacophony was getting louder and as we stepped into the dome it seemed as if the whole world was trying to prove a point – that every sound echoes 10 times. We heard all kinds of sounds we had never dreamt of hearing. Sreams, screeches, whistles, claps, hoots, growls, roars, monkey noises – I wonder how the emperor and his family are resting in peace.
The look down from the gallery is not for the faint-hearted. The wall of the gallery was dangerously low and as we looked down at the entrance of the gallery from where we had started our climb, the people near the tomb chamber seemed liked ants, again.
The guard at the entrance said the best time to visit the gallery was during the early hours in the morning. We promised ourselves that we would stay in Bijapur the next time and experience the “Whispering Gallery”.
It was time for our journey back.
Bijapur was a revelation. A treasure trove for those who love history, architecture, heritage and symmetry. There were a few monuments we had to give a miss. Gagan Mahal, Asar Mahal, Saat Kabar, Jal Manzil, and many more. But there is always a next time.
As we started our walk from the Gol Gumbaaz to the railway station, we scanned the roads for Mohammad Anwar, our companion for the past few hours. He was nowhere to be found. But there were others, some waiting for their customers, others trying to look for a prospective one.
But we decided to walk anyway. The tonga ride had to wait till another visit.