Affairs with Death – The Chhatris of Bhuj

Affair with death is as old as humanity itself. Even before the humanity was born, Homo Neanderthals, a proto-human species had left no chance to respect their departed souls. There is evidence in a site at Israel’s rocky plateau that the Neanderthals were offering flowers to their departed souls. Thousands of years later in the Fertile Crescent when Jericho emerged as one of the first urbanized villages at the dawn of humanity, its inhabitants had been practicing of removing skulls from their deceased’s bodies and plastered them in order to give appearances that their deceased looked when alive. From the 3rd millennium BC, the humanity took a major shift from sedentary life to civilization. With this change, affair with death turned into architectural shape and best known examples are the pyramids of Egypt. But prior to the construction of pyramids, it was Stonehenge in Great Britain and Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, which first gave the world, architecture related to death.

In India, the tradition of rituals for death goes back to the mystery of Neolithic time and followed by the Megalithic communities. But it was Buddhists which first gave the concept of architecture over the death rituals. In the Medieval time, Islam extended the earlier Buddhist tradition. Both later influenced Hindus, especially the Rajput royal communities in Rajasthan and Gujarat to erect chattris or cenotaphs as memorials for their deceased.

These chhatris sometime offer monumental look bypassing even the splendour of the contemporary religious architecture. Often found in cluster, they speak the epitome of late medieval memorial architecture. Chhatris are unique to Rajasthan, but a few places in Gujarat are also well-known for these curious buildings. One of them is Bhuj, a frontier town in the western desert district of Kutch.

Bhuj among many cities I have seen in Gujarat has still retained its historical character. Its bustling walled city boasts an inner citadel, lake, palaces and temples overlooking by a great hill fort, but all these were badly damaged in the earthquake that had struck Kutch in 2001.

There is an interesting legend how Bhuj was named. Once upon a time, Kutch was ruled by Naga feudal chieftain. A queen named Sagai of Sheshapatnam rose up against them. But to gain a victory she had to have an alliance with someone. Sagai allied herself with Bheria Kumar to overcome Bhujaga, the last Naga chieftain. They fought, but Bhujaga won the battle killing Bheria Kumar. Sagai then committed sati. From then on the hill where he lived became known as Bhujia, and the town at its foot, Bhuj. The people worshipped his power and he was transformed into a benevolent ruler. After his death he became a god.

Though this legend has nothing to do with the chhatris that were erected by the royal families later, but it provides enough backdrops to the tradition of memorial building.

The real history of Bhuj begins with its creation by Raos of Jadeja race, beginning in 1548. Kutch was liberated from Mughal control in the reign of Rao Lakhpatji (1741-60), the visionary ruler, under whose patronage, the Aina Mahal Palace and the chhatris were built.

The chhatris of Rao Lakpathji had been designed by Ram Singh Malam, a seaman turned craftsman. Malam had also designed Aina Mahal.  Ram Singh had picked up his craft skills in Holland after being rescued from a shipwreck by a Dutch ship. The Kathiawadi man had a natural talent for using his hands. He became an expert in the tile work, glass blowing and enamel work for which Dutch artisans were famous. He also learnt clock making, building design and stone carving, after the European fashion. When he returned to his native Mandvi after 18 years in Europe, Lakpatji took him under his patronage. His first work however was the designing of beautiful Aina Mhal, which is yet another landmark of Bhuj.

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The royal chhatris of Bhuj are found in the centre of Hamirsar Lake. Built in the red sandstone some of the cenotaphs display fine carvings. However, the most outstanding is the chhatri of Rao Lakhpathji. It is also the largest and was designed by Ram Singh Malam. With Maharao’s death, fifteen of his consorts too gave in their lives in funeral pyre. This is evident in sati stones found surrounding the chhatri.

The exterior walls of chhatris bear sculptures of deities, hunting scenes, animals and couples in local costumes. Many of them are of polygonal shape and some of these especially the one of Lakpatji’s have two galleries with two entrances. Some of them also show strong Islamic influence which are seen in the use of turquoise blue in the roofs. Geometrical pattern such as jallis (screens), and the Mughal arches are other Islamic influences.

Today, the chhatris that once had raised Bhuj into a marvel of funerary architecture are in far cry. Many of them had got badly damaged in the 2001 quake. The surrounding is also mostly dry and very few visitors visit them. I strongly feel that both locals and authorities must work together to protect these structure before they go into further decay.

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