It’s monumental!

It’s monumental!

Lesser-known places of heritage stand out if you know where to look. And that's anywhere you travel across India!

 Junagadh has a wealth of monuments like the mausoleum of Vizier Bahauddinbhai Hasainbhai

We stared wide-eyed at Mahabat Maqbara. Never in our wildest dreams had we imagined stumbling upon a monument as grand as this in dusty Junagadh. Built in 1892 for Nawab Mahabat Khan II (1851-1882), the mausoleum was a unique blend of European and Indo-Islamic styles of architecture.

French windows stretched from floor to lintel, and Gothic columns shared space alongside Islamic arches and ornate flourishes. Adjacent, and similar in grandeur, stood the florid mausoleum of the Vizier Sheikh Mohamed Bahauddinbhai Hasambhai surrounded by four minarets with elaborate spiral stairways.

Mahabat Maqbara, the tomb of Mahabat Khan II, Nawab of Junagadh

The historical town in southern Gujarat had its share of monuments — from Ashokan edicts to Buddhist caves of Uperkot Fort, the sacred Girnar Hill dotted with shrines and mind-numbing murals of the Darbargadh at the old capital of Sihor. It’s hard to stand out in a country with a plethora of UNESCO World Heritage heavyweights like the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri, the monuments of Delhi, forts and palaces of Rajasthan, the temples of Khajuraho-Orchha, Buddhist caves of Ajanta-Ellora and the Kailasanatha Temple, the Sanchi Stupa, churches of Old Goa, ruins of the Vijayanagara Empire at Hampi, stunning Hoysala temples at Belur-Halebidu to Chalukyan architecture at Badami-Aihole-Pattadakal and the Great Living Chola temples of Thanjavur, Darasuram and Gangaikondacholapuram.

Yet, on our journeys through Gujarat, we came across a wealth of lesser-known treasures — from stepwells, gateways to monuments.

In vastness

UNESCO World Heritage Site Champaner-Pavagadh is a vast archaeological park near Baroda, spread over 2,500 acres with monuments stretching from Pavagadh Hill, an early Hindu citadel, extending to Champaner, the 15th-century capital of Sultan Mahmud Begda (1458-1511) of Gujarat.

Now reclaimed by bramble, the old mosques, flanked by minarets with arched entrances and jharokhas, take the breath away of any visitor. Shaher ki Masjid was built for the royal family and nobles, the Nagina, Khajuri and Kevda masjids were named after the shape of the dome, and the Jami Masjid was counted among the finest mosques in Gujarat.

A drive to the Statue of Unity from Baroda passes through Dabhoi, an ancient fortified town known for its old fort and exquisitely carved gateways. The main entrance is the intricate Hira Bhagol (Gate), extending to Gadh Bhavani Kalika Mandir. The spectacular gateway harks to the legend of its architect Hiradhar, who was buried here alive because the king feared that he would replicate a similar masterpiece for someone else. Some say Hira ran short of stones, thereby incurring the king’s wrath.

A hidden gem and one of Surat’s most important historical monuments are the European tombs of merchants and functionaries of the East India Company who worked in the factories at Surat.

The English Cemetery has the impressive grave of the Oxenden brothers, while the most majestic structure in the Dutch Cemetery is the octagonal tomb of Baron Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede. The adjacent Armenian Cemetery has no superstructure, only elaborately inscribed tombstones.

In neighbouring Rajasthan, an oft-overlooked destination is Bikaner, with its Rampuria havelis, Junagadh Fort, Laxmi Niwas Palace and Narendra Bhawan, the erstwhile residence of Bikaner’s last maharaja, which has been renovated with rooms and décor inspired by his life and times.

Stay at Bhanwar Nivas or Gaj Kesri, go on tonga rides through the Old City, or do the specially curated Merchants Trail. Mandawa in Shekhawati used to be an important stopover en route Bikaner, but the region is worthy of deeper exploration.

In 15th century, Rao Shekhaji (1433-88), scion of the Shekhawat clan of the Kachhwaha dynasty, conquered a vast area north of Amber. Over time, his descendants set up smaller thikanas (fiefdoms), raising new villages, forts and palaces, which attracted Marwari traders. Using riches amassed through trade, the merchants built flamboyant painted havelis, often vying to outdo the other. Located at the junction of Churu, Sikar and Jhunjhunu, the 13,784-sq-km area called Shekhawati is thus described as ‘the largest open-air gallery in Rajasthan’.

Nawalgarh, founded by Thakur Nawal Singh, has stunning mansions like the late-18th century Morarka Haveli and Dr Ramnath A Podar Haveli Museum. The Narain Niwas Castle in Mahansar was built in 1768 by Nawal Singh ji for his second son Thakur Nahar Singh. Nearby is one of the best-painted havelis in Shekhawati — Sone Chandi ki Dukan or Golden Room built in 1846 inside a Podar haveli. Ramgarh holds the largest number of frescoes in Shekhawati with the biggest mansion being Sawalka Haveli. The Khandelwal family renovated the century-old Khemka Haveli into the Ramgarh Fresco Hotel, and it now organises walking tours around the painted town.

Of altitude

In Himachal, we found another heritage town called Garli. It is said that the 52 clans of the Sood community were driven out of Rajasthan by marauding Mughals and came to the Kangra Valley. Here, they became treasurers of the Kangra royals , and as contractors, helped the British build Shimla. Settled around the hamlets of Garli and its twin town Pragpur, four km away, they used their riches to set up palatial homes showcasing jaw-dropping architectural styles.

Many are crumbling, but few like Chateau Garli and Naurang Yatri Nivas have been painstakingly restored and thrown open to visitors. A heritage walk through the cobbled meandering alleys is the best way to explore the town. The Spiti Left Bank Trek takes you to high-altitude villages like Komic, the highest in Asia, with a stunning old monastery, and Dhankar, the site of a crumbling gompa that was the first to be built in Spiti and as per legend will be the last to fall.

Another relatively undiscovered architectural treasure is Burhanpur in Central India. Between 1600 and 1720, it served as a secondary Mughal capital and finishing centre where princes and princesses were groomed. Akbar, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb, Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana all served as governors for over three decades each. Burhanpur has a staggering 126 monuments — the most after Delhi — including 35 key sights. Here Sanskrit shared space alongside Arabic in Adil Shah’s two mosques: Jama Masjid in Burhanpur and the lofty citadel of Asirgarh.

The riverside palace complex Shahi Kila was expanded into Mughalbagh by the Mughals who overthrew the Farookis. Here, Shah Jahan built for Mumtaz Mahal a grand hamam suffused with paintings and inlaid with precious stones to reflect the lamp light.

The entire ceiling is redolent with intricate paintings and a closer look reveals how some of the iconic motifs seem to be inspired by royal turbans and accessories worn by Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Begum. Not many know that Mumtaz died in Burhanpur while giving birth to her 14th child and was laid to rest at her beloved Ahukhana, a hunting ground-turned-rose garden. Jehangir built a dar-ul-shifa (hospital) and a mardana (underground Turkish bath) where 125 men could bathe at a time; it lay hidden under a mound of earth until excavated 25 years ago.

There’s no dearth of architectural wonders in Burhanpur. The Black Taj Mahal is the tomb of warrior Shah Nawaz Khan, Khan-i-Khana’s son murdered by Aurangzeb. Begum Shah Shuja ka Makbara (tomb of Bilkis Jahan), wife of Shah Jahan’s fourth son Shah Shuja, is a simple yet marvellous monument with exquisite murals kept under lock-and-key to prevent vandalism. The caretaker will happily open it for visitors who wish to see the interior wall niches that are studded with jewel-like paintings, intact in portions.

The Black Taj Mahal, Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh. 
Photos by authors 

Some sites remain imprinted in our minds because of the sheer impact, be it the massive rock-cut Jain statues on Gopachal Parvat while climbing up to Gwalior Fort or the gigantic Buddhist figurines of Kanheri caves in Borivali, Mumbai. From the blue and gold motifs of Raja Man Singh’s fort in Gwalior to the sight of the tomb of Bahmani sultans at Ashtur struck by lightning or the soaring madrasa of Mahmud Gawan in Kalaburagi, the glazed finesse of the pillars and carvings at the Madhukeshwara temple in Banavasi, the old capital of the Kadambas or the symmetry of the twin temples of Mosale near Hassan; we tried to go beyond the known to the lesser known.

If the terracotta temples of Bishnupur and West Bengal are overdone, try the terracotta temple complex of Maluti in Jharkhand.

In Chhattisgarh, the ruins at Tala on the banks of River Maniari is a fascinating site. Built out of red sandstone by two Sarabhpuriya queens in the 6th century, the twin Shiva shrines of Devrani (young sister-in-law) — Jethani (elder sister-in-law). Exquisite carvings lie strewn like a jigsaw puzzle — remains of an elephant-drawn chariot, majestic pillars with four lion heads and outré bharvahak ganas (weight-bearing gargoyles).

Beside an ornate doorway, the 8.8-ft tall sculpture of Rudra Shiva glared in stony silence from a grilled enclosure, with the goat-headed figure of Daksha bowed in reverence. The statue of Mahakal Rudra weighs nine tonnes, and is believed to represent the signs of the zodiac — coiled snakes for matted locks, two fish instead of a moustache, round chin shaped like a crab, stomach in the form of a kumbh (pot) etc. In the past, Tala was a prominent seat of Tantric worship.

Down south 

There are many places in India that bear traces of colonial trade. While Puducherry is known for its French heritage, Chandannagar further up the East Coast, 37 km from Kolkata, is a relatively undiscovered French outpost.

Taking the Grand Trunk Road to the Liberty Gate emblazoned with the French motto, you are drawn into an old world of French colonialism and Bengali aristocracy – mansions like Nundy-bari, Kanhai Seth’er Bari, Nritya Gopal Smriti Mandir, Patal Bari and Sri Nandadulal temple coexist alongside St Joseph’s Convent, the 1878 Hotel de Paris (now Sub-divisional court), 1887 Thai Shola hotel (Chandannagar college) and erstwhile residence of Governor Francois Dupleix, now the Institut de Chandernagore museum.
Trankebar on the Coromandel Coast was the only Danish outpost in India. The Danes leased the coastal village of Tharangambadi (literally, Land of the Dancing Waves) from the Maharaja of Thanjavur, fortified it, and after 250 years of trade, sold it to the British.

The arched Landsporten or Town Gate beckons you in like a portal as you walk down Kongensgade or King’s Street lined by stately buildings — Zion Church, the oldest Protestant Church in India, consecrated in 1701; New Jerusalem Church of 1718, a fusion of Indo-German architecture; the Governor’s Bungalow, now a museum; Commander’s House and Neemrana’s Bungalow on the Beach. It’s like a walk through time as you reach Dansborg Fort, a rare specimen of Scandinavian defense architecture in India.

While in Tamil Nadu, a state weighed down by enviable temples and the architectural treasure of Chettinad, lesser- known sights still startle you.

Narthamalai is a cluster of nine hills with the longest edicts and the oldest rock-cut cave temples in South India.

At the hillock of Melamalai, we were drawn by the spire of the Vijayalayacholeswaran Temple. Built by Vijayalaya Chola, it served as a prototype for the Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur. Thirumerkoil, a cave temple on a platform decorated with elephants, makaras and yalis, held a dozen bas-relief sculptures of Vishnu standing on lotus pedestals. In the adjacent cave shrine of Pazhiyileeswaram, a nandi and dwarapalas (gatekeepers) guarded a massive linga.

At the quiet hillock of Kadambarmalai, rainwater had collected in natural stone cavities and the 1,400-year-old temple hewn into the hillock had inscriptions of Rajaraja I and Rajendra II etched on the hillside. There was not a soul in sight as we watched wild birds hop around, sipping and bathing in the natural tank.

No matter how far or offbeat we ventured into this vast country of ours, we were humbly reminded how we were only scratching the surface.