I get off the bus one stop before the bus terminal and head straight to the main Jain temple of town. This temple goes by the grand name of Shri Digamber Jain Atishaya Kshetra Choubeesee Bara Mandir. A couple of women get off the bus with me.
‘Our house is on the way to the temple. You can come with us,’ says the older woman. The younger woman walks with a toddler who is obviously her son. ‘Can you carry this for us?’ adds the older woman and points to me a large bag.
Instantly I am turned into a porter, a position I willingly accept. We chat as we walk through little lanes bordered by old houses. Some of these are built of stone, a true indication of their age. Chanderi is truly one of those towns with a glorious history, seen even today in medieval monuments that stand here and there across town. Yet it remains a forgotten town of modern India. Essentially, it preserves its beginnings without modern fanfare. This is exactly the sort of town a traveller dreams of visiting.
I take leave of the women at their doorstep. They invite me in for a cup of tea but I decline and move on to the temple. There is a dharamshala run by the temple and I step into the office to seek accommodation.
The man at the desk shuffles the pages of a large ledger and eventually comments, ‘There is no room tonight but a VIP room has just been vacated. It’s a large room. Normally we don’t give it to singles.’ He mulls the problem for a few moments and decides, ‘If it’s okay with you, you can have the VIP room.’
I begin to wonder if VIP room will be within my budget. I ask a little hesitantly about the price.
Dharamshalas are a great place to stay. The room is large. So is the bathroom and the toilet which are in separate spaces. This is the high level of hygiene practised by Jains. As is usual in these places, you need to have your own lock and key for the room. I catch up on my writing. I wash my clothes and put them on a line to dry. There is no electricity but I am hoping it will come on in the evening. Finally I step out to visit the temple next door.
‘Quick, quick. We are closing,’ says the priest at the door. He has already started to close the main doors. I wish I had come earlier.
He points, ‘This is the Bara Mandir. The Choubeesee Mandir is inside. Hurry up.’
The front portion of the temple is the older one. The Choubeesee Mandir derives its name from the 24 Jain tirthankaras venerated in Jainism. Uniquely in this temple, all the tirthankaras are installed as idols in their own colours of stone. I quickly walk the corridors and have darshan of each of them. It is such a quick visit that I don’t get time to study much of the temple interiors. From the outside, a shikara stands over the shrine of each tirthankara. This is the most beautiful view of the temple.
I return to the dharamshala for lunch. As luck would have it, the lunch hour is over and usually orders are to be given a couple of hours in advance.
‘What about dinner? Can I order now?’ I ask.
‘We usually don’t serve dinner. Kitchen closes early,’ replies a staff at the office.
I simply have to find a place to eat in town. For lunch, I settle for some bread and cornflakes I have with me. The sun is not hot. This rural town is usually quiet but has grown even quieter in the afternoon hours. It is the perfect time to explore in leisure the sights of town.
I walk through little lanes, some of which are stone cobbled. I pass lots of shops selling colourful sarees with zari work forming beautiful designs. Chanderi sarees are renowned all over the country. I think of buying one for my mom but I hestitate. What would be a reasonable price? Do I have enough money? I don’t think they accept debit cards, do they? I’m okay to buy an ordinary saree but definitely not qualified to buy an expensive Chanderi saree.
I come out to the main road by a pointed arched gateway that stands next to an old bastion. Clearly I am staying inside an old fortification. I walk past vendors and follow a drain. I see walls stacked up as bare stone blocks. These stones have been cut in almost perfect rectangles. There is no mortar or cement used in these walls. I pass a slab of stone carved with a high relief of a beautifully bridled horse. Then I come to a tank where villagers are either bathing or washing clothes. A whitewashed temple stands on the other bank. I walk by the shore, take a small path and arrive at the first historic monument of my visit.
Chanderi is a small town surrounded by hills all around. This gives the town an isolation and feel of rural India. The monuments of Chanderi are not cleaned up for tourists. They are in a natural state of ruin. There are octogonal towers with missing balconies. Brackets stick out without the chhajjas that they must have once supported. Tufts of grass cover half-missing domes. Full trees seem to take root in the height of domes and stick out their leafless branches like the horns of a deer. If you love historic ruins in a natural setting, Chanderi is the place to be.
Shahzadi Ka Rouza is one of the most significant monuments of town. It is a two-storeyed building. It must have once supported a dome with corner chhatris. Today only one corner chhatri stands at the top next to the crumbling base of a dome long gone. On both levels are chhajjas which are preserved without much repair. The chhajjas are supported by corbelled brackets and lower with serpentine brackets which are only decorative in purpose. These serpentive brackets are ornate and their details are superb. Singularly they give grace to the monument which otherwise might have remained simple and austere.
Inside the Shahzadi Ka Rouza is something really wonderful – the four squinches. Each squich is a triple arched recess decorated at the center with a floral roundel. This triple arched scheme is repeated in the four sides of the inner space as well. Above the level of this octogonal formation is a 16-sided polygonal strip decorated with a rich decorative motif. The circular base of the now missing dome sits above this polygon. While the arches of the squinches are blind, those of the sides frame stone jalis, beautiful creations on their own but mostly broken. In monuments as this, it always a pleasure to study how the monument stands as a rectangle on the outside but on the inside it transforms itself in slow degrees into an octogonal space that rises to a circular dome.
I walk to Kandargiri, one of the hills 1 km from town. The high cliff face has some Jain sculptures. I climb up by well-laid steps to access some of the caves on this hill. Inside are beautiful sculptures of Jain tirthankaras. The smooth polish on some of them recall Mauryan polish of Ashoka’s times. The grains of rock on these sculptures add a natural beauty. It is apparent that these caves were used more for worship rather than for meditation by Jain monks. A notice tells visitors to close the doors to the caves. Monkeys are problem here and no one wants them entering sacred places.
The view from the hill is wonderful and picturesque. I come down and take to small paths passing through farms and fields. I pass by ruined fort walls and monuments that now remain in sparse crumbling masonry. At one point I surprise a villager squatting in a shade with his dhoti held up.
‘I have come to see,’ I blurt out without thinking. He springs up and brings down his dhoti. Before he can say anything back I correct myself, ‘I have come to see the monument over there.’
I point to the monument across the field. He nods. I move on. Back in town I pass a monument with three arched bays on each side enclosing a central space above which a dome sits. Another monument sports trabeate pillars instead of arches and has the same serpentine brackets seen at the Shahzadi Ka Rouza. Further down I visit the Jama Masjid, a monument with three domes. The jambs at the entrance are superbly sculpted. In the inner courtyard I see the same serpentine brackets. A quick shower drenches the mosque. I take cover and wait for the rain to stop. It does after a few minutes. The sun comes out quickly and just in time for sunset. The landscape glows in the dying light. I climb up to the terrace and take in wide views of Chanderi town. I can see the fort standing on a high hill behind old town. I will visit it in the morning.
Near the mosque and across the road are continuation of what remains of the old fort walls. I go inside. Workers are maintaining the lawns. On the far side is a medieval gate that apparently leads to nothing. Called Badal Mahal Gate, it stands without its palace. With two tapering round towers and a high arch in between with wonderful designs in stone, it is one of the highlights of Chanderi. I come out from here and walk to a stepped tank nearby. It is a beautiful tank with two domed pavilions flanking one of the approach stairs. Everywhere I turn I see something of interest in Chanderi.
There is only one hotel in town. There seems to be a wedding going on tonight. People are busy.
‘Can I get dinner here tonight?’ I ask at the hotel. It is a new hotel and not everything seems to be in place.
‘I don’t know. Wedding is happening,’ he says. ‘Might get something at eight.’
It is only five. I return to my room which is quite a long walk from here. I take rest and think about the variety of things I have seen today. It has been quite a good day. By seven, it is pitch dark. There is no sign of electricity coming back. Someone says it might come back at eight. People at Chanderi have become used to this. They walk the old lanes under torchlight. I settle for my good old cornflakes for dinner and have an early night.
Early in the morning, I visit the fort high up on the hill. The fort is quite basic and its location is its greatest advantage. The round bastions and fort walls are a little too well restored for my taste and appreciation of ruins. There is the Koshak Mahal in its ruins. Repair work seems to be underway but the workers haven’t yet arrived on the scene this morning. Apparently this palace was commissioned by Mahmud Khilji of Malwa in mid-fifteenth century. There is a recently erected memorial that commemorates johar, a brave tradition of women jumping into fire when their husbands died in battle. The memorial, like many hero stones, is composed of three panels – women consumed by the flames on the lowest level, men at battle in the middle level and couples doing puja to a linga at the top level.
What I really like about Chanderi is how people today live in settings that link them directly with the past, how old ruined buildings contain or stand beside living quarters, how monuments spring at you unexpectedly at corners and how the wider landscape retains the essence of medieval air.
I return to my room in a hurry, check out from the dharamshala and walk to town for a bus to Lalitpur. I don’t realize at this point that I would have to wait for more than an hour for the next bus.