Chanderi fort: A fabric of royal enchantment
Nestled between the Malwa and Bundelkhand plateaus, and perched atop a hill overlooking the town, the grounds of the fort teem with history.
The word Chanderi conjures up visions of translucent gossamer drape, once a favourite of royalty and now patronised by fashion labels for its understated sheen. In spite of its Geographical Index tag, there is a Chanderi beyond the weave.
The time-warped mofussil town in Madhya Pradesh played a tragic part in history as the site of Jauhar—mass self-immolation by about 1,500 women and children who chose to die than being taken hostage by the armies of Babur in 1527.
Their story is inscribed on the premises of the Chanderi Fort, where the tragedy took place. Babur had heard of the prosperity of Chanderi and wanted to seize it from its Rajput ruler, King Medina Rai. The Jauhar Smarak, a tall stone monument inside the fort, stands like a lonesome sentinel.
After the battle, Hathi Darwaza—the entrance for kings on elephants—was renamed Khooni Dawarza, because soldiers were thrown down from the battlements, their blood soaking the ground.
Nestled between the Malwa and Bundelkhand plateaus, and perched atop a hill overlooking the town,
the grounds of the fort teem with history—gateways, palaces, memorials and a mosque—all built by different rulers fighting for Chanderi’s dominance. Pratihara King Kirti Pal built the fort in the 11th century and it was once called Kirti Durg.
Chanderi was a thriving trade and transit centre between Gujarat, Mewar and the Deccan, which survived the ravages of time and the many invasions from the Gurjar-Parihars, Khiljis, Bundela Rajputs, Mughals, Sher Shah Suri, and finally the British.
Located on the banks of the Betwa River, the citadel’s domes and minarets stand in stark contrast against the sky. Navigating the din of the town, walk up the narrow road that runs uphill with serpentine twists to reach the fort. A little further ahead of the Khooni Darwaza are the ruins of Naukhanda Mahal, a three-storeyed palace built by Durjan Singh, a Bundela Rajput in the 16th century.
It has typical Bundela architectural references, with a central fountain and a water tank in the courtyard. The corridor is supported by ornate pillars and there are chhatris on the rooftops. An elevated stone platform encircling a precipice is the perfect spot for an eagle's eye view of the town below.
Not too far from the palace, the Khilji Dynasty has left behind its mark—a mosque named after Emperor Allaudin Khilji. The mihrab is carved in floral patterns and bears Quranic verses.
The Durg is a confluence of royal architectural styles—the Kila Kothi was a cosy royal residence built by the Scindhia State on the ramparts of the fort. It’s now a boutique six-room heritage hotel run by the Madhya Pradesh Tourism department.
Mahabharata fans can request Srikant Mishra, a local employee, to perform dramatised versions of stories concerning Draupadi and Krishna. While here, it’s a good idea to enjoy the region’s cuisine; the Bundeli tikkarh (thick flatbread) with the panchmel dal, (made of five lentils) and slowly-cooked over an earthen pot.
Chanderi’s narrow alleys, too, are dotted with monuments. The old bazaars bustle with visitors as the unmistakeable noise of handlooms clacking and weaving hint at the treasure of the place. Amid the streets stand the imposing 100-ft-tall Badal Mahal Darwaza carved with floral motifs and flanked
It defines the Chanderi’s skyline in the foreground against the elevation of fort walls. Though called a palace, it was the grand entrance for Mehmood Shah Khilji’s state guests in 1450 AD. The cultural heritage of the town is housed at the Chanderi Museum.
On display are rare and exquisitely carved stone sculptures and relics excavated from Budhi Chanderi, dating back to the 10th century. Surveying them is like taking a crash course in Hindu mythology and Jainism; there are rare statues of Tirthankars, a four-armed Gaja Laxmi, an eight-armed Shiva and a gallery dedicated to Vishnu’s incarnations such as Vamana (human), and Matsya (fish).
Chanderi’s bygone affluence find mentioned in the memoirs of Emperor Akbar and traveller Ibn Batuta too. The town’s prosperity runs ended when the British bypassed it to lay railway lines for their steam locomotives. But the handlooms that produced the weaves of courtly elegance have stood the test of time to enchant for centuries and beyond.
A STITCH IN TIME
Traditionally, the Chanderi weave was intended for fine turbans and handkerchiefs for the nobility, often as gifts. But the weave caught the attention of the royal women who patronised it as sarees with zari borders in gold. The intricate motifs are inspired by nature and carvings on monuments; like hamsa (swan), asharfi (coins) and heavenly bodies.
Its texture is perfect to drape in the dry and hot Malwa weather. In those days, the fabric was dyed with flowers that gave it natural soft hues and then washed in saffron for fragrance and a subtle sheen. Interestingly, Chanderi has never produced yarn for its weaves and has always imported it, as it was a transit centre for trade for many centuries.
Even now the weavers will tell you that the silk thread comes from Varanasi or Bengaluru, the cotton from Coimbatore and zari from Surat.