‘The historic town of Chanderi is famous not only for its crafts but also for its charming old monuments’
Pretty, gossamer-like Chanderi fabrics dexterously woven by nimble-fingered craftsmen have placed this eponymous town on the fashion map of India. But there’s so much more to this quaint, charming little historical gem that lies in the Ashoknagar district of Madhya Pradesh. With gentle-undulating slopes of the Vindhyachal range in the distance, we are enjoying our drive past the serene waters of the huge Rani Lakshmibai Sagar Dam, an area that was once a stronghold of the Bundela Rajput and Malwa kings.Shafi, a youngster who offers to take us around, says that the town’s proximity to the trade routes of Central India as well as to the ancient ports of Gujarat made it an important military outpost in medieval times.
We stop close to the beautiful Chanderi Fort that stands on a low, flat-topped hill, and commands fine views of the countryside around. Talking about the main entrance called the Khooni Darwaza, Shafi takes us to another impressive doorway called the Fakir Darwaza, a simple yellow stone edifice enriched with pretty carvings, and the Dilli Darwaza, built in stone that has a carved panel inspired by the tiger motif that can also be seen at one of the gates of Delhi’s Old Fort. Chanderi also boasts of the Ramnagar Palace that houses a museum maintained by Madhya Pradesh’s Department of Archaeology, Museums and Archives. It is believed to have actually been built as a hunting lodge by Maharaja Durjan Singh Bundela way back in 1698. Uneven stone blocks used in its construction indicate that these were perhaps sourced from older monuments and ruined structures in the vicinity. On display are pieces from Hindu temples, idols of deities besides some well-preserved Sati stones, dating from the 9th to the 18th centuries.
It’s interesting to note that most monuments of Chanderi reflect both Muslim as well as the Rajput styles of architecture. Although time had taken its toll on most of them, the state archaeological directorate is doing its bit and looking into the restoration work of many of the town’s chattris, darwazas, masjids and grave sites. While travelling, Badal Mahal Darwaza gripped our attention. Built during the reign of Sultan Mahmood Shah Khilji I in the 15th century, this tall, elaborate arch is a stand-alone structure – with no building either in front or behind it. Its beauty has ensured it a place on the town’s seal. So, while Delhi boasts of its India Gate and Mumbai its Gateway of India, Chanderi takes pride in its Badal Mahal Darwaza.
Though Chanderi is a small town spread over barely four to five kms in area, it houses over 1,250 mosques. Look out for the Jama Masjid built in the local Malwa tradition that has interesting, convoluted eaves brackets inspired by the local architecture. Among several other monuments that deserve a dekko, one is the beautiful two-storey Shahzadi-Ka-Rauza near the Parmeshwar Pond, built on a 12-feet high platform. As we admire the unusual, serpentine brackets that support the eaves, we are told that this 15th century structure was built by the then governor in the memory of his daughter Mehrunissa who was in love with the chief of the Chanderi army. “Not happy with her choice of husband, the governor conspired to have his daughter’s beau killed. When Mehrunissa learnt of this, she too took her life,” says our guide. Realising his folly, the heartbroken father had no choice but to bury the two lovers together and build this tomb in their memory.
No visit to this charming little town can be complete without a look at the age-old tradition of its fabrics. As we drive towards the picturesque Raja-Rani Mahal, our guide tells us that this palace, once lying in ruins, was restored to house Chanderiyaan, an organisation that works for the benefit of Chanderi weavers. A few years ago, interest in Chanderi craft had dwindled considerably, but with the encouragement from various organisations, popular retail outfits, top fashion designers and the government, these fabrics have now got a huge boost and a flourishing market all across the world. Some years ago, even actor Aamir Khan helped the cause when he stopped over in Chanderi while on a film’s promotional tour. People here will proudly tell you how Aamir had even tried his hand on a loom. And it sure was something that made them take to the art of their forefathers with renewed vigour.