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Looms of History - Chanderi

Just before we returned for lunch we drove up to the Jain rock cut figures carved into a cliff hung with the dark hives of wild bees. The greatest of the monolithic figures stands looking contemplatively over the valley

When we unpacked our diaries this morning, an inland letter dropped out. It was from one of our regular readers whom we’ve never met. She had asked: “Why do you quest and probe so much? As Sri Krishna says, ‘Cravings torment the heart.’ Why don’t you accept all that you encounter in your travels, asking no questions, merely serving as your readers’ eyes and ears?”

Well-meaning advice. If we could take it our lives would be so much easier. We would not have been so racked with questions as we are now. But we have to quest, to find out things. Before coming here, for instance, we had leafed through our venerable Balfour’s Encyclopaedia Asiatica and found: “Chanderi, a very fine fabric made in Chanderi, on the left bank of the Betwa from the cotton of Amraoti. Great care is bestowed on the preparation of the thread. The weavers work in a dark underground room of which the walls are kept damp to prevent dust flying about.”

But we also read that Chanderi’s former prosperity depended on its strategic position as a sort of base camp for armies moving south from the time of the Sultans of Delhi.

We had built up a picture of a town rich with monuments, bristling with the almost military cadence of the descendants of warriors and clacking with looms deep underground in which troglodyte weavers lived, pale and etiolated in the dark gloom. It was a surrealistic picture and we realised that reality would blur the edges a bit and soften the shades and tints, but we were not prepared for the stark contrast of reality.

Reality now lies before us, and a little below. We had driven in this morning from Shivpuri through fertile sub-montane fields. And then up to the Rest House in the 900-year-old fort atop a spur. Chanderi spread below, across a bowl in the Aravali Hills, white houses peering out through the trees. We had freshened up hurriedly and made a beeline for the weavers in their chosen dungeons. Reality shook us again.

The weavers lived in double-storeyed, flat-roofed houses with stone slabs projecting out of the wall as the only stairway to the floor above. From these steps one moved onto a narrow line of unfenced slabs serving as the verandah of the upper floor. Far from being troglodytes the weavers were ibex-footed. We sat on a string bed, sipped the obligatory tea and learnt that in the past, Chanderi saris were cotton weft on cotton warp, but now the weavers use silk. In the old days, we were told, the cotton thread was warped on a loom and drawn through reeds brought from Varanasi. But later, these reeds were no longer available. Metal had replaced the reeds, and as fine cotton snapped when passed through such metal combs, coarser cotton had to be used. Or silk, which was much stronger. When we asked him about the damp subterranean weaving rooms mentioned by Balfour, the senior weaver seemed surprised. Then he smiled politely and said: “Times change; times change!” We took a photograph of a woman at a spinning wheel in the court below, for whom obviously times hadn’t changed much, and left by the precarious way we had come.

In the spirit of the changing times, Chanderi saris might soon be produced on humming powerlooms that are computer programmed.

Not everything in Chanderi has changed, however. The Jain temple had been pragmatically whitewashed but its multiple towers looked impressive. The Inside was filled with the cool serenity we associate with most Jain shrines. We walked around paying our respects to the 24 austere Tirthankaras and then froze as one of the idols moved slightly. But it wasn’t our imagination. Sitting in front of us was no idol but a sky-clad monk, his hands lying palms-upward on his lap, virtually immobile in meditation. Certain things never change.

The Badal Mahal Gateway, for instance. This strangely mitred portal with its twin minarets, seems to lead from nowhere to nowhere and so we asked some passersby if this was indeed the Badal Mahal Gateway. They smiled and assured us that it was. Then we asked them where the Badal Mahal, the Cloud Palace was. They just smiled and shrugged. Clearly, they had never found the need to ask the question. Similarly, the Cemetery of the Nizamuddins had some interesting carved screens among the graves. Here again no one knew who the Nizamuddins were. They seemed puzzled by our curiosity. And then we drove up to the Kati Gate cut out of a living rock. It bore the inscription:

“This gate was cut out by order of Jumah Khan, son of Sher Khan, in 1480 AD during the reign of Ghias Sultan of Malwa. It was conserved by the Gwalior Archaeological Department in 1924 during the reign of H.H. Maharaja Madhava Rao Scindia Alijah Bahadur of Gwalior.”

We were now on more certain ground.

Ghias Shah must have been the peace-loving Ghias-ud-din Khalji who was poisoned by his eldest son Nasir-ud-din in 1501. But then who was Jimah Khan and why did he order the gate cut? There is a valley beyond with the Ramnagar Mahal, an extended pavilion, overlooking a large reedy lake. And the unanswered questions are buzzing in our heads.

We went out early. The Shah Zadika Roza stands in the middle of green fields and is rather inaccessible. Above it is a white shrine atop a hillock. A farmer told us that it is the grave-shrine of one of the disciples of Hazrat Ali but that is all he knew. And then there was Koshak Mahal, much like the Hindola Mahal in Mandu and built by the same dynasty. Its cruciform shape traps the wind, regardless of the quarter from which it is blowing. The Mahal was originally conceived as a seven storied building by Mahmud Khan Khalji who had started the Khalju dynasty of Malwa in 1436. But nobody could tell us why it was not completed as Mahmud reigned for 33 years.

Just before we returned for lunch, we drove up to the Jain rock cut figures carved into a cliff hung with the dark hives of wild bees. The greatest of the monolithic figures stands looking contemplatively over the valley. It seemed to have solved the problem of pain, the dilemma of existence. No questions seemed to trouble it because it had risen above the nagging uncertainties of life. For a while, standing up there looking down into the bowl of Chanderi, we were tempted to brush aside the questions that were troubling us. What difference would it make to our lives if we knew all the answers?

But now that we have talked about it, waiting for the bearer to bring us lunch before we leave Chanderi, we’ve replied to our reader. We have told her that we’re more than the video recorders of our readers. All writers have a duty to make their readers think, to ignite their minds. And as Sri Krishna also said: “Duty well done fulfills desire.”

Or is it just sophistry on our part to justify doing what we love to do?

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