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Friday, December 25, 2015

The forgotten monuments of Bajirao Mastani...

          Out of the mists rising off the lake, the monument loomed : dark, huge, and imposing. It lay at the far end of a lake, impossibly far, and yet, incredibly, unmistakably, out of history, out of another time, another context. 

        The highway ran next to the lake, and for kilometers, you could see the monument, dominating the green countryside.

          The state government officials with me were not sure what it was : they consulted each other, and announced, "It's the Chattri (Cenotaph) of some king or the other" . These were local officials, those who belonged to the area. For them, the fact that the structure was the material fact and outcome of the friendship between two of the greatest heroes in Indian medieval history, was immaterial, and irrelevant.

        For, the cenotaph was built by the Maratha military genius, Peshwa Bajirao I in honour of his father-in-law, the equally famous Maharaja Chattrasal, the founder of the Bundelkhand State, which he carved out as the Mughal empire waned.  Chhattrasal, who was the father of the famous Mastani, the heroine of the historical Bollywood Bajirao Mastani, the daughter born of his marriage to a Persian lady.

        Grateful to Bajirao for coming to his help in 1728, when he was beseiged by Mughal forces led by Mohammed Khan Bangash, Chhattrasal is said to have given his daughter, Mastani, to him in marriage, and one-third of his kingdom (though there are dark mutterings that Bajirao would not leave without these prizes....well, these secularists -)). The story of Mastani is now encased in legend, and the romance between Bajirao and Mastani has come down to us, in both oral and written history.

       Well, when Chhattrasal passed away three years later, Bajirao constructed the huge cenotaph in his memory. Thus, one hero paid homage to another, and this medieval history has come down to us, nearly four centuries later.

     I finally made my way to the Cenotaph, to find it  in a bad condition, great slabs of masonry beginning to break off, bat-droppings everywhere, slip-shod repairs by civil contracters obliterating the original decorations. Sadly, I realized : though he is arguably the greatest hero Bundelkhand had produced in a thousand years, and founder of the Bundelkhand state, the state government and the district administration had neither the inclination, nor the money, nor the regard for Chhattrasal, to keep his cenotaph in good condition.
   The photos below do not show the true extent of the dilapidation, nor the fragile state of the Cenotaph, yet I am reproducing them, to show the magnificence of the structure.

Below is the octagonal raised platform at the center of the Cenotaph, where presumably, he would have been cremated, and a few more photos, including one of the author, to show the scale of the gates.

The octagonal platform at the center of the Cenotaph

A view of the Cenotaph from the side

The imposing gateway to the  tomb,
with the author in the foreground

Long-range shot of the Cenotaph

Another side view of the Cenotaph

Tomb of Chhatrasaal's Queen

The tomb of his Queen, located in almost as imposing a structure, is in a even worse condition : it looks totally forgotten and overgrown with algae and grasses.

Nearby, in Dhubela, where Maharaja Chattrasal's palace is located, is the museum, which is in a much better shape. Here, as a child, Mastani must have played, and grown up, in the harem, under Chattrasal's watchful eye, inculcating the virtue and loyalty for which she became famous as Bajirao's wife. 

When I went to the palace, I was the only person there, and the keeper of the palace/museum told me that visitors were rare there.

Therein lies the irony : millions of people in India and abroad would fork out money to see the film, with its plaster-of-paris monuments and palaces, and the actual palaces, and tombs, and the forts of the real people who were in the story are neglected, falling to pieces, and will be lost, for the lack of money, and interest, and respect for our past.Bollywood would live, and Bundelkhand's heritage perish....

Yet, the architecture would live on : Lutyens and Baker, when they built the magnificent edifices that adorn modern New Delhi, would remember the great architecture of Bundelkhand, and incorporate it in North Block and South Block, paying tribute to the great architectural traditions of India. India's own architects, meanwhile, would turn their back to this great tradition of architecture, and build steel-and-glass buildings straight out of Rotterdam - the same attitude which leaves them indifferent to Chattrasal's Cenotaph and other centuries-old buildings rotting away in the rain and heat.