The Real Chanderi

While the name does indeed conjure up images of the famous gossamer fine Chanderi sarees, which are named after Chanderi, a town in Madhya Pradesh synonymous with its weaving tradition that occupies pride of place in any conversation about Chanderi.  But side by side with its gorgeous sarees, the town also offers interesting historical legends and some of the best—preserved architectural structures in India.

Chanderi, the town which looks so peaceful has had more than its fair share of wars and over the years. Located strategically on the borders of Malwa and Bundelkhand, it was an important military outpost. Dominated by the trade routes of Central India, it was connected to the ancient ports of Gujarat as well as to Malwa, Mewar, Central India and the Deccan. Mentioned in Mahabharata and the writings of the Persian scholar Alberun, who visited India in 1030, it also finds mention in Mughal Emperor Akbar’s autobiography, Ain-e-Akbari as the Sarkar in the ‘Subah of Malwa’.

The colossal fort that looks down on the old town of Chanderi, stands at a height of 71 metres on a hill called Chandragiri. A splendid piece of architecture—5 km long and 1 km broad surrounded by picturesque hills, lakes and forests—the Chanderi Fort is situated in the Ashok Nagar district of Madhya Pradesh.

Inscriptions excavated from the fort—presently displayed at the Gwalior Museum— it was built by Raja Kirti Pal, a Pratihara King in the 11th century. The fort is now known as ‘Kirti Durg’, in his honour.

However, despite this formidable fort, the Chanderi was not safe from enemy attacks. Ghiyas ud din Balban, is known to have captured the city in 1251, followed by Sultan Mahmudi Khilji of Malwa in 1438 after a long siege.  In 1520 the city was once again captured, this time by Rana Sanga of Mewar, who gifted it to Medini Rai.

In the ‘Battle of Chanderi’, Mughal Emperor Babur defeated Medini Rai and had to witness the Rajput rite of Jauhar. Faced by certain defeat and to escape dishonour in the hands of the enemy, women with children in their arms, jumped into a fire pit, while priests recited vedic hymns. 

In 1540, Chanderi was captured by  Sher Shah Suri with Shujaat Khan being appointed  governor. The Bundela Rajputs came next, followed by the Marathas who transferred the city to the British in 1844. After the 1857 Mutiny, the British lost control for a year, but transferred it back to the Scindias in 1861. The Fort’s original structure was reinforced and rebuilt by rulers to suit their personal architectural styles.

Within the walls there are several buildings, including the three-storied palace complex, a Khilji period mosque and the samadi of the legendary singer Baiju Bawra.

Baiju Bawra’s final resting place, is the only reminder of the famous Dhrupad singer Baijnath Mishra, popularly known as Baiju Bawra. One of the greatest Dhrupad singers, Baiju Bawra, lived here and breathed his last on Basant Panchami in 1610.

Known as a weaver’s town, Chanderi doesn’t figure among the famed gharanas of classical music. Yet, people throng here every year on the day of Basant Panchami to hear with true reverence the compositions of Baijnath Mishra, rendered by senior Dhrupad singers.

A Bollywood musical titled Baiju Bawra made in 1952, depicted the singer as a somewhat crazy personality who sang to avenge his father’s death by defeating Tansen in a musical duel. Not much is known about this legendary disciple of Swami Haridas, whose other disciple, Tansen, was one of the nine jewels in the court of Emperor Akbar.

Another charming monument is the ‘Shehzadi Ka Rauza’,  built on a 12 feet high platform,  that stands among fields. Originally, surrounded by a pond, the whole structure had five domes, four at the four corners and a larger one in the middle. At present there is only one remaining dome.

Built in the 15th century by the then Governor of Chanderi in memory of his daughter Mehrunissa. Her story is as sad as that of Romeo and Juliet— Mehrunissa had fallen in love with the chief of the army. Her father was against the alliance and decided on drastic action when his requests went unheeded.

When the army went out to battle he hired some soldiers and asked them to make sure that the commander did not return alive from the battlefield. When Mehrunissa heard that her lover was brought back mortally wounded, she rushed to his side but by then, he was already dead. Unable to bear this sorrow, she ended her life beside him. The sad father then built this beautiful tomb on the spot where they had died. The graves of both the lovers can be seen there now, side by side. 

There are many more interesting structures to be seen in Chanderi.  Its most defining monument is the Badal Mahal Gate—a tall, slim elaborate arch built entirely of stone and set against the striking backdrop of the Fort. It was built in 1450 by Sultan Mahmud Shah Khilji. A short walk away we come across another monument with some of the most beautiful jaali screens. This houses the tombs of the family of disciples of the great Sufi Saint Khwaja Nizamuddin Aulia.  The three-domed Jama Masjid, built by Ghiyasuddin Balban in 1251 is an example of exquisite stone carving —the foundation of this large congregational area, was laid to commemorate the conquest of Chanderi, after defeating Chana Deva the Pratihara King. To the south of Chanderi is the Kati Ghati Gateway, where the hill has been cut through to make this awesome and massive gateway.

According to historians there are 55 Jain and Hindu temples in the area dating back to the 10th and 11th century.  The Jain community are the most prominent and prosperous people of Chanderi and Jain shrines such as the Shri Chaubisi Jain Temple and Shri Digambar Atishay Khandagiri, draw a large number of devotees. 

Columnist: 
Shona Adhikari