narnaul: of all-powerful medieval nobles and incredible wealth

Is this really the work of human hands? That is all I could think as I gazed up at the magnificent rose-pink and dove-grey edifice towering above me. I was in the courtyard of a 12th century Sufi saint’s khanqah and the sight in front of me would not have changed much in the past five centuries. I whispered to myself, lest I break the spell with my own voice: See, how wrong you were!

I have a confession to make, Dear Reader.

When I was putting together my travel bucket list for India, I had decided to demarcate it State-wise. Next to Haryana, I wrote ‘nil’ which translated to: there was nothing to see. Almost as if to prove me wrong, and that too with a vengeance, I got to explore four of its towns in recent weeks, towns which overflowed with historicity, heritage, and charm.

The most recent was Narnaul. Over the course of the day, I traversed stunning monuments spanning a millennium: tombs, stepwells, havelis, gateways, and palaces. The sheer number, their grandeur, and remarkable state of preservation seemed to mock my ignorance.

Welcome to India’s best kept secret, Haryana, and Haryana’s best kept secret Narnaul. A story of all-powerful medieval nobles and their immense unimaginable wealth. Wealth which would put the uber-rich today, a tad bit to shame, for remnants of the former’s lavish lifestyle still stand tall.

One of them, a governor, was so important he dwarfs the rest. All because he was at the right place at the right time. His name was Shah Quli Khan, the man who revived Mughal fortunes. If it wasn’t for him, there may not have been a Mughal Empire, post an early-shaky start by Babur and Humayun, or an Akbar the Great or a Taj Mahal.

SHAH QULI KHAN, THE REASON THE MUGHAL EMPIRE SURVIVED

It was the 5th of November, 1556. Humayun had died in a freak accident earlier in the year in Delhi, leaving a disjointed and weak empire to his 13-year-old son Akbar. Chances of the Mughal Empire surviving this catastrophe were slim to say the least. To top it, the Hindu King Hemchandra Vikramaditya, popularly known as Hemu, an able administrator and brilliant military strategist, had taken over Delhi a few weeks ago.

In a defining battle at Panipat, the two factions met that day to decide the future of North India. By all accords, Hemu had the upper hand. However, just when it seemed that Mughal defeat was eminent, an arrow struck Hemu’s eye. Blinded, he fell off the horse and was instantly captured and then put to death. The rest as they say is history. The primary competitor now taken care of, Mughal rule revived itself and survived for the next 300 years.

History has conveniently forgotten the soldier who shot that defining, albeit fluke, arrow. But Akbar didn’t. He raised the gentleman to governor’s post [of Narnaul] and showered upon him titles and privileges for the next 42 years, making him the highest ranked noble in his court. The gentleman’s name was Shah Quli Khan.

With so much wealth at his disposal, Shah Quli Khan adorned Narnaul with Aram-E-Kauser, a private garden complex in which stood Jal Mahal, a palace floating amidst a lake, and tombs for himself and his family. There must have been many more such marvellous edifices, but these few have made their way through time, perhaps just to ensure his role in the big picture is not forgotten.



Jal Mahal was known as Khan Sarovar back in 1591, when it stood in the middle of a large square water tank, accessed by a 16-arched bridge. Exquisite frescoes decorate its ceilings. Shah Quli Khan would have spent many an evening under one of the chhatris on the roof, a favourite past-time of the rich in those days.



Shah Quli Khan had this tomb made for his father in 1575. After his own death some 25 years later, he was interred here as well. Top left: Detail, ceiling fresco.


Aram-E-Kauser, once Shah Quli Khan’s private garden complex, is now a stretch of farmlands. To the left is his own-cum-father’s tomb. To the right, that of his brother Islam Quli Khan. I found the tree in the tilled lands almost symbolic; a representation of the re-flowering of the Mughal Empire flanked by the man, and his family, who made it possible.


Tripolia Gate [1588] served as an entrance to Shah Quli Khan’s Tomb. Decorated with frescoes on its ceilings, steep steps lead to the upper floors and rooftop which offer stunning views of the two tombs and farmlands.

NAWAB MIRZA ALIJAN AND HIS UNUSUAL STEPWELL



Deeply atmospheric, Nawab Mirza Alijan Ki Baoli, is akin to literally stepping back in time. Say, 450 years? The grave at the site is purported to be that of the Nawab [governor] himself.

Stepwells are few and far between in Haryana, unlike in Gujarat and Rajasthan. The handful that Haryana does possess make up for this architectural wonder’s absence through sheer innovative design. Mirza Alijan Ki Baoli [stepwell] is one such case.

Mirza Alijan was a Governor of Narnaul during Mughal Emperor Akbar’s reign [1556 – 1605]. Not much remains of his building endeavours except for his stepwell, a poetic grey stone edifice distinguished by a huge arched gateway, under the dense shade of verdant trees.

High on the gateway’s roof is a takhat or throne in the form of a rectangular pillared chhatri to augment the structure’s uniqueness. It faces the three-storeyed stepwell carved deep into the earth at one end, and a well on the other which provided the stepwell its water.

The site, hidden away in the north-west corner of Narnaul, is dotted with unmarked graves, two of which sit on a platform and are believed to belong to the man, Mirza Alijan, himself. No one is really sure of it, but incense sticks are burned next to the grave for his soul’s peace.

BAL MUKUND DAS KI HAVELI, HOME OF NARNAUL’S SOLE HINDU GOVERNOR



The monumental stone ruins of Bal Mukund Das’ seven-storeyed haveli. Four floors lie above the ground, three are sub-terranean.

Narnaul’s governors were all Muslims, except for one: Bal Mukund Das. He was a Hindu and a local resident of Narnaul. He is also the only governor in Narnaul whose home still survives.

Or should I say palace. It is a gigantic building rising four storeys high above the ground, and three sub-terranean floors deep underneath, with large courtyards and pillared halls in stone and wood. The stone has ensured it still exists; the wood has collapsed, caving in the ceilings.

Designed on Mughal lines, the wonderful mix of arched and trabeated architecture was built in the 17th Century. Mukund Das used to work for Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s brother-in-law. When Shah Jahan [1628 – 58] succeeded to the throne, a glowing recommendation from his ex-boss helped Mukund Das clinch the post.

You don’t need much imagination to visualise how the haveli must have been like in its heyday. Even in its partly collapsed state, it is magnificent. Add to it, Persian carpets, damask drapes, and hundreds of fluttering lamps and scurrying servants. Here in Narnaul, the governors were ‘emperors’ of nano-empires comprising lanes, bylanes, and the surrounding farmlands.

Factoid: Google Maps calls this site Birbal Ka Chhatta. Birbal, one of Mughal Emperor Akbar’s nine navratnas, was from Narnaul. Beyond that, please note there is no connection between the haveli and Birbal. 🙂

NARNAUL’S LANDMARK: JAMAL KHAN’S TOMB AKA CHOR GUMBAD


Deceptive appearances. The two floors of verandas around the building are only on the outside. Inside, it is a soaring single chamber.

Perched on a rocky mound, welcoming the intrepid traveller to Narnaul, is the 14th Century Jamal Khan’s Tomb. Its prominent location, right at the entrance of the town, has earned it the present-day privilege of being the symbol of Narnaul.

If you wondering about its moniker Chor Gumbad, meaning Thieves Tomb, no, Jamal Khan was not the thief. In fact, very little is known about him except that he was an Afghan and a powerful noble in Narnaul during the rule of Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq [1351 – 88] of the Delhi Sultanate. And that he had elegant tastes.

The tomb is a marvellous symphony of a square, majestic structure with two floors of verandas lined with tall arches on all four sides and minarets snuggled to its corners. Inside, a single chamber, sans a grave, stands under a soaring single dome. What one sees today, though, is a much-renovated version; it was in a rather dilapidated state till quite recently.

So, to get back to the thieves. In later years, the ruins became a favourite hangout for thieves, and the new ‘living’ occupants’ profession, well, just stuck.

IBRAHIM SHAH SUR’S TOMB, A FITTING TRIBUTE BY HINDUSTAN’S RULER FOR HIS BELOVED GRANDFATHER

At the beginning of this blog post I wrote about a fantastical monument which literally took my breath away. I was referring to Ibrahim Shah Sur’s Tomb. Post my excursion and having explored Narnaul’s many treasures, if someone were to ask me again what was my favourite site in Narnaul, it would still be this one.

Ibrahim Shah Sur was the grandfather of Sher Shah Sur, the ruler of Hindustan, as the Indian sub-continent was then called, who ousted the Mughals in 1540 and never lost a battle. In his five years of rule, he left a legacy which still endures. These range from the introduction of Rupee, the Indian currency, to setting up the Indian postal system, to the extension of the Grand Trunk Road to include Chittagong in Bengal and Kabul in Afghanistan.

No surprises then that the tomb he built his grandfather was intricate in its detailing, and yet magnificent as a whole. Not many know that Narnaul was also Sher Shah Sur’s birthplace. Ibrahim Shah Sur came to Hindustan all the way from Afghanistan and made this little town in Haryana his home.




Ibrahim Shah Sur passed away in 1518. His grandson Sher Shah Sur, ruler of India from 1540 to 1545, later commissioned the finest architects to build this structure over his grave.

PIR TURKMAN: HE WHO CAME TO NARNAUL WITH JEWELS IN ONE HAND AND A SWORD IN THE OTHER

Way before the Mughals, in fact, even way before the Delhi Sultanate, a soldier and Sufi saint rolled into one, made Narnaul his home. His name was Shah Wilayat. He’d fought against the Rathore Rajputs and is said to have arrived in Narnaul with “jewels in one hand and a sword in the other”.

Shah Wilayat soon came to be known as Pir Turkman, set up his Khanqah or Sufi centre here, and when he died in 1137, an unadorned grave marked the spot.

Two hundred years later, Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq [1351 – 88], India’s first prolific conservator, decided to cover the grave with an edifice and add a madrasah to it. The Mughals and later rulers, including British, all contributed further to the structure. A mosque here, a pavilion there, in the hope to beget blessings of the saint.

An aura of peace pervades the whole complex today, with fresh flowers and chadars [coverings] on the grave, jasmine trees in the crumbling courtyard, and Ibrahim Shah Sur’s Tomb hovering over the walls. The Afghan chose this location on purpose for his burial so he could be assured a place in the heavens. Perhaps for us living, a stop at the complex will suffice.


Mughal-era mosque in Pir Turkman’s Tomb Complex. How does one date it? The scalloped arches, called Shahjahani arches, were an architectural feature developed during Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s reign.


Look who I found, nestled in the walls of Pir Turkman’s Tomb Complex!


Time at World Cities? Nope. These are offerings at Pir Turkman’s Tomb. I wonder what the devotees were praying for. And why a wall clock? Were these to help get over bad times? They are a common sight in Narnaul’s shrines, which I came across more than twice.

Sometimes there are facts and figures. Sometimes stories. And at other times, declarations of beliefs. Travel, you will always be the finest and eternal teacher. 🙂

– – –

P.S. I explored the historical city of Narnaul in Haryana on a full day excursion from Delhi with Sair E Hind. They specialize in heritage walks and tours to off-the-beaten-path historical sites in India.

NOTE:
You may also like to read my other posts on Haryana.
Travel Shorts: The Taj of Haryana
The treasures of Farrukhnagar and Jhajjar no guidebook tells you about

If you enjoyed this blog post please remember to Like, Comment, Share, Follow. Thank you so much for your support! ❤

travel shorts: the taj of haryana

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In all likelihood, you have already been to the Taj Mahal in Agra. And most probably, also made your way to Bibi ka Maqbara in Aurangabad, often referred to as the ‘Taj of the Deccan’.

What if I tell you, there is one more marble-encased Taj, and that too in the rather understated state of Haryana. But with a difference. Unlike its two other counterparts, the ‘Taj in Haryana’, as it’s often called, is not an expression of a man’s deep devotion to his wife, but instead a tomb for a saint and teacher who passed away in 1660.

Sheikh Chaheli, a name corrupted to Chilli over the years, was a Sufi saint and the spiritual advisor of Shah Jahan’s eldest and favourite son Dara Shikoh. To top this exalted position, Shah Jahan also made him the Faujdar [military commander with judicial and land revenue duties] of Sirhind. With such powerful backing, the tomb’s grandeur is no surprise. It is monumental. Surrounded by towering fortified walls.

Inside the complex, dainty carvings and elegant lines form chambers to contain the saint and his wife’s cenotaphs, a madrasah, and an expansive charbagh Mughal garden. Pather Masjid, an intricately-carved red sandstone mosque, completes the ensemble which stands in the midst of green meadows.

There are no long queues here or crowds. Just you, the Taj of Haryana, and a Sufi saint much revered by his student, and his student’s waalid [father].

P.S. I explored Sheikh Chilli’s tomb in Thanesar, Haryana, as part of a weekend heritage trip to Sirhind [in Punjab] from Delhi with Sair E Hind. They specialize in heritage walks and tours to off-the-beaten-path historical sites in India.

the complete travel guide to the hidden gems of jhalawar

24 blog posts. 5 weeks of travel. A road trip of a lifetime.

What better way to end my Rajasthan series than with a travel guide on Jhalawar. Off the tourist radar, choc-o-bloc with hidden rarely-visited gems, and a laid-back vibe. It is screaming out to be explored. But since there is so little known or publicized about it, it ends up, unfortunately, getting sidelined, and fortunately [for the traveller] offers an opportunity to explore Rajasthan in a time-warped state. The way it used to be.

Here’s Jhalawar’s story and sights, written with valuable inputs from Mahijit Singh, the direct descendant of its Rajput rulers, who still lives in Jhalawar, in Virendra Bhawan. And guess what, his home is a homestay! But more of that later in the post.

Here’s wishing you happy travels in Jhalawar. 🙂 Continue reading

chittorgarh: stories of valour, jauhar, and gods

“I long not to visit Ganga Sagar, Rameshwar or Kashi. It is only for Chittor that my eyes are always thirsty.”

Rajasthan’s folklore and ballads are filled with mention of Chittorgarh. Take this one as well for instance:

“If there is a fort to be reckoned with, it is Chittorgarh. The rest are mere fortresses.”

It was not just the bastions, masonry, and structures these lines referred to, which were of course mighty, but also its men and women and their unshakable grit.

Considered one of Rajasthan’s most formidable forts, Chittorgarh was famous for its sophisticated military architecture, wealth, and heroic rulers. It served as Mewar’s capital from the dynasty’s founding in the 8th Century to 1553 when Udaipur was established, and continued to be used until Mewar became part of independent India.

Despite three sieges over 1,300 years, Mewar’s rulers always managed to regain control of it. Whilst most other Rajput kingdoms surrendered to the Mughals, Mewar and Chittorgarh stood firm. When it did go into an alliance it was, more often than not, on its own terms.

The fort complex, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, comprises seven city gates, 65 historical buildings, four palaces, 19 large temples and 20 water bodies [there were 84 back in its heyday to meet the needs of its 50,000-strong army for up to four years] spread over 700 acres, 590 feet above the ground. A village is enclosed within its walls since medieval times.

Let me take you on a virtual journey through Chittorgarh, filled with stories of valour, jauhar, and gods. 🙂 Continue reading

36 hours in alwar, the road less travelled

Have a long weekend coming up?

Alwar comes with the distinction of being one of India’s oldest cities, as well as the capital of one of Rajasthan’s newest Rajput kingdoms. Part of Delhi’s National Capital Region [NCR], it scores high on Delhiites’ weekend destination lists. For those travelling deep and wide in Rajasthan [as in my case], the town perched on Rajasthan’s eastern border offers a welcome, albeit last taste of the wonders the State is famed for.

Back in 1500 BC, Alwar was part of the Kingdom of Matsyadesh. According to the Hindu epic Mahabharata, this is where the Pandavas spent the last year of their 13-year exile incognito. As a Rajput kingdom, it was formed in 1770 by the Kachhwaha Rajput Pratap Singh.

Unlike Rajasthan’s other treasures, Alwar can appear somewhat bland at the outset. But, behind this front is a rich mix of travel experiences just waiting to be enjoyed.

So, I repeat my question. Got a long weekend coming up? Here’s how to make the most of it in Alwar, with one day devoted to its popular sights and unknown secrets, and one day for an excursion back in time. Happy travels. ❤ Continue reading

travel diaries: in search of the bengal tiger at ranthambore

It was pitch dark outside. I fumbled for my phone to switch off the alarm. My heart was heady with excitement at the day that lay ahead of me.

I was at Ranthambore National Park, and had an early morning game drive to catch in an hour. Shucks. There went my heart, dancing all over the place again.

Seeing wildlife is a hit-and-miss affair, I rationalised to my heart. There were no guarantees. I should know, having spent a large chunk of my life in Botswana and South Africa where visits to game parks were a quintessential part of one’s existence. But not in India. I had made a long drive from Jhalawar last night, just for this.

Whenever I enter game parks, it always strikes me that these lands are both, ruled and belong, to the animal kingdom. We, humans, are the outsiders here. It is their laws that govern its inhabitants. It is another world and we have no place in it.

I felt exactly the same way as we crossed the gates of Zone 2 into a world of dense forests and hiding eyes. There was silence everywhere except for the occasional shriek of a chital or monkey. A warning that the Kings of this Kingdom, the Royal Bengal Tigers, were out in search of prey.

Deep in the Park’s depths an hour later, we were straining for a sound, any sound, that would give a hint on the exact whereabouts of its grandest residents. Scouring the earth for some lead. Waiting patiently, with bated breath, our eyes darting in all directions. Continue reading

a self-guided temple and craft trail from udaipur

To the north of Udaipur are a group of small towns and villages famed for their temples and centuries-old handicrafts. They make for a delightful leisurely excursion filled with opportunities galore of experiencing colourful local religious practices and interacting with artists and artisans, away from touristy sights.

The trail starts from Udaipur with stops at Sahasra Bahu Temple, Eklingji Temple, Nathdwara Temple, the Pichwai painters’ neighbourhood in Nathdwara, and the small-scale terracotta workshops in Molela Village, and finally back to Udaipur.

It is easily doable on one’s own. All you would need to do is hire a cab for the 116-kilometre-long journey which amounts to some three hours of driving time.

Here is a visual [where photography is allowed] guide on what to see and do along the trail, an introduction to some of the artisans and artists, together with some tips to make the most of the day trip. Happy travels!

Continue reading

the treasures of farrukhnagar and jhajjar no guidebook tells you about

Farrukhnagar. Jhajjar.

The inevitable response should one mention these two places is, “where are they?”

As for the few who do know about their whereabouts [near Delhi’s satellite city Gurgaon in the neighbouring State of Haryana] the rejoinder is, “is there really anything to see there?”

Oh, yes, plenty! But despite having some of the loveliest monuments in Delhi’s vicinity, both towns lie in complete oblivion. There is no mention of them in guidebooks. Zilch. They are not even included in Delhi’s countless regular heritage tours. It is as if they simply did not exist.

Imagine my joy when I got a chance to explore the two. Not that I had ever heard of them before. I belonged to the first category. Then after some digging around, I was smitten. Completely. Continue reading

the glories of mewar: impregnable kumbhalgarh and exquisite ranakpur

There was an invincible grandeur associated with the Kingdom of Mewar in Rajasthan, of which Udaipur was the capital. Traits which reflected in not just the larger-than-life personas of its rulers but its impregnable forts and exquisite places of faith too.

Deep in the wooded Aravalli Hills are two such places: Kumbhalgarh and Ranakpur. Whilst one is a fort of a king remembered to this day for his valour and indomitable spirit, the other is a temple carved out of marble to give shape to a divine dream, with the blessings of the same king.

The route leading to them is treacherous in parts, cutting through the dark, unlit, uninhabited jungle in the form of a rather worn-out pot-holed narrow road. At others, it rises and falls in tune with the hills, passing tiny hamlets and endless herds of livestock. But the rewards for this journey are priceless.

Come, let me show you Maharana Kumbha’s Mewar. ❤ Continue reading

11 reasons udaipur needs to be on every travel bucket list

Udaipur. The very name is evocative of ethereal clear lakes and romantic palaces, encircled by a ring of lush hills.

Known by various monikers such as City of Lakes, White City, and Venice of the East—all equally valid—it is unlike any other city in the State, or even the country. It is also Rajasthan’s most popular tourist destination so be prepared for the crowds.

Udaipur was founded in 1553 by Maharana Udai Singh II, ruler of the Mewar Kingdom, who named it Udayapura. Chittorgarh, the old capital had been laid siege to by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. A new capital was needed. What better place than the hilly banks of a medieval freshwater lake in the midst of a fertile valley, separated from the Thar Desert by the Aravalli Range.

To protect his city, Udai Singh II built a six-kilometre-long wall punctuated with seven gates around it. Within were palaces, temples, havelis and courtyards, which still stand, largely intact. The precinct today is called the Old City.

Mewar has always stood apart from other Rajput States with its insistence to not bow down before the Mughals or for that matter any other kingdom. The few times treaties were signed, it was always on Mewar’s terms. Stories of its heroes’ bravery and sacrifices echo throughout the city. Maharana Kumbha, Maharana Sanga, and Maharana Pratap are household legends. But more of them in later posts.

For now, let me share with you the wonders of Rajasthan’s jewel. Have you been to Udaipur? If not, here are 11 reasons why it should be on every travel bucket list. ❤ Continue reading